Episode three: The one with the most badass shield-maiden
As usual, this story starts with some dude who is the son of some other dude. They have a bunch of other sons and all of that is boring. I’ll skip to the good stuff shortly, but here is what you need to know: There is one guy named Völsungur, which is where the story gets its name, but of course he dies. There is a bunch of a marriage, someone offends someone, there are a heaps of revenge killings, a dash of incest (or “twincest” if we want to get technical), some children are killed because they’re too wussy to commit more revenge killings, a super old, creepy guy marries a super young babe, and then eventually Sigurður is the son of somebody. There is also a prophecy about how he’s gonna fuck up everything for everyone resulting in his own bloody murder (which somehow doesn’t change the course of events). See how easy that was?
Now I can’t deny this part is important but it’s honestly not very interesting. If you’re a normal human in 2015, you’ve probably seen ‘Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ (both of which were obviously ripped off from whichever poor, anonymous Icelander[s] wrote the poems on which this Saga is based), so you know how this shit goes. (And if you’re German, you’re probably thinking, “Nuh-uh, those were totally ripped off the German epic Niebelungenlied.” But A) No, the Eddic poems probably came first and B) Seriously just shut up and keep reading.)
Basically, someone tells Sigurður to slay the dragon because he has a bunch of gold, which includes a ring of dubious magical properties. (Real original, eh, Tolkien?) Surprise, surprise, he kills the dragon. When he eats its heart and drinks its blood, he is magically able to hear the birds gossiping about how the guy that asked him to kill the dragon is going to betray him. So he kills that dude too.
As he rides triumphantly into the sunset, rich as fuck and tripping balls on dragon’s blood, he sees light shining from a mountain. When he goes there, he sees this badass warrior maiden sleeping—so naturally, he rips her sexy armor off and wakes her up. Instead of being like, “Hey asshole, I was sleeping,” and murdering him on the spot like any sensible warrior maiden would do, Brynhildur is super turned on by his blood-crusted manliness. He thinks she’s hella smart and is like, “Teach me your sexy ways and also about runes.” She’s like, “Sure,” and they vow to marry.
Then they meet at her dad’s castle. He’s all in love with her, but she says never to trust a woman because they can’t keep promises. (Internalized patriarchy, much?) Like the smooth player that he is, he says he can’t wait “to enjoy each other” (actual translation, not my shitty paraphrase). But she’s like, “Listen up, dumbass, I’m a shield-maiden. I’ll never be your wife because I have battles to fight, plus you’re gonna marry that dumb bitch Guðrún.” He swears he won’t, gives her the magic ring, and they vow again to get married. Talk about mixed signals from both sides. What even just happened?
Gunnar needs to grow a pair
Sigurður shows up at the castle of some guy named Gjúki, who has three stupid sons named Gunnar, Högni, and Guttormur. More importantly, his wife is a malicious shitbag named Grímhildur and she ruins everything for everybody. She also happens to be a witch and she slips Sigurður a medieval roofie (or “potion of forgetfulness”) so he forgets his betrothal to Brynhildur. Sigurður enters into bromance with Gunnar and Högni, (or “blood brotherhood”) and everybody successfully bullies him into marrying Guðrún. Then Grímhildur insists that Gunnar try to woo Brynhildur and says Sigurður will help because Gunnar is too much of a dumbass to do it himself.
They go to Brynhildur’s dads (father and foster-father, technically, but it’s funnier to say “dads” because it makes them sound gay) to ask their permission. Both are chill with the marriage but warn that Brynhildur, like Beyoncé and Malala Yousafzai and J.K. Rowling and basically every woman ever, is a beautiful, powerful, independent woman capable of making her own decisions¬—including whom to marry. Also she has a sky-high wall of flames encircling her tower to keep men away and she’ll only marry someone who can get through that. Just like annoying men at the bar these days, they’re like, “Challenge accepted!”
When they get there, Gunnar can’t get his horse or even Sigurður’s even fancier horse to jump through the flames. This is because horses are always fucking shit up in the Sagas. So they transform into each other in a Polyjuice-like fashion as Grímhildur apparently taught them to do, and Sigurður rides through pretending to be wussy Gunnar to propose to Brynhildur. She says, “Don’t bother unless you’re the hottest man in the world and will murder everyone else who wants to marry me” (paraphrase), adding that her “weapons have been stained with the blood of men and this I still desire” (literal translation).
She marries him anyway and he lays his sword between them when they sleep, saying he swore an oath to avoid boning his wife in this way. He takes the magic ring he gave her and gives her another as “Gunnar.” She then dumps her daughter she apparently had with Sigurður (when the fuck that happened is never explained) with one of her dads and moves into Gjúki’s hall with everyone like some weird medieval reality TV.
The Real Housewives of the Rhine
This is where shit gets real. And confusing. Real confusing. One day, the queens are bathing in the Rhine river (okay, fine, Germans, you get this one). Brynhildur wades further out, which is medieval body language for, “Guðrún, you’re a basic bitch and your husband is weak and probably gay, unlike my dads.” Guðrún retorts, “Whatever, slut, you married him first,” and shoves the magic ring in Brynhildur’s face to make her jealous.
It works. Brynhildur realizes she’s been cheated out of the hottest of husbands and this sends her into a downward spiral of suicidal depression and homicidal rage. (Both urges will be satisfied.) While it obviously doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, this scene is notable as one of very few Saga scenes with two main female characters, both in positions of power, having any kind of discussion.
Brynhildur locks herself away in grief and everyone takes turns trying to chill her out but she’s not having it. This sequence results in a conversation between Brynhildur and Sigurður where they do something that’s unheard of with lovers in medieval heroic literature: talk about their feelings. Considering people can’t even do this today, I think that’s commendable. But despite Sigurður’s manly confessions of love, Brynhildur has been betrayed and she wants blood. Also they’ve both seen the future, which you’d think would have helped them steer clear of this whole clusterfuck, but nope. Hell nope.
1. Treat women with respect.
2. Let them make their own decisions.
3. Don’t deceive them into sleeping with you.
4. If you do, they might crave your blood and when they get it, no one will pity you because you were a sexist asshole
Sigurður Bloody Sigurður
So Brynhildur comes up with the sensible solution of telling Gunnar that she boned Sigurður when he was pretending to be Gunnar. I guess this was not part of the deal between the dudes, but Gunnar can’t kill Sigurður himself because of the bonds of bromance. So he gets his littlest brother Guttormur (who wasn’t part of the bromance) to stab Sigurður in his sleep. But as Guttormur is leaving the room, Sigurður throws his sword at him, which slices him in half at the waist so his torso falls into the hallway and his legs back into the bedroom.
Guðrún awakens in the blood of her dying husband to find half a corpse on her doorstep. (Although someone must be pretty fucking hungover to sleep through a murderfest like that, amirite?) She lets out a horrific scream that Brynhildur can hear from across the castle and she laughs. How badass is that? But then she starts crying and after much more elegantly written articulations of her grief and betrayal, she stabs herself and requests that she and Sigurður lay together in a funeral pyre. This is granted to her, and they are finally able to lay together in some hella morbid but still touching conclusion to their romance.
The Saga drags on to describe how Guðrún is basically sold off to Brynhildur’s brother, who happens to be Attila the Hun (Atli in Icelandic). She’ll never be Brynhildur, but in her defence, she does stab Atli to death for killing her brothers and then burn his whole castle down. And nobody lived happily ever after because everyone was dead. Everyone loves a good love story.