The tale of Sigurd the Volsung is one of the most important central narratives of pagan Germanic literature and continues to strongly influence the fantasy genre to this day, but translations are often gross oversimplifications or written in difficult and inaccessible language. Here, our hero presents a summary in her own words that she hopes will be both entertaining and informative.
This video is Part One in a two-part series; stay tuned for Part Two, which will be a critical essay explaining the story’s greater historical and mythological context and exploring some of its key points.
Many long years ago, in ancient days when Rome was still a great power in the West, three of the gods–Odin, Loki, and Hoenir–were travelling the earth in the guise of men, walking through Germania along the banks of the Rhine. As it was getting late in the day, and they began to think about finding an evening meal and a place to sleep, they came to a waterfall and, at the top of it, an enormous otter eating a fat salmon. Loki took up a stone and threw it, striking the otter in the head, killing it. He boasted on how he’d done one thing and provided two kinds of food, and they gathered up the otter and the salmon and went on their way. Soon after, they came to a small house in the forest, and found dwelling there three dwarves: Hreidmar and his two sons, Regin and Fafnir. Hreidmar agreed to let the three travelers stay the night, as was custom, and they told him not to worry about providing dinner as they’d brought enough food for themselves. When Hreidmar saw the otter and salmon, he grew horrified and told his sons to lay the travelers in bonds. Dwarves, he explained, were experts at shapeshifting magic, and he had a third son whom he called Otr because he would often take the form of an otter when he went fishing. Though Otr’s murder had been an accident and without malice, the gods seeing only an animal, Hreidmar was still deprived of a son and demanded vengeance.
After some discussion, they came to an agreement: Hreidmar would hold all forgiven if the travelers would skin Otr, fashion the skin into a sack, and then fill that sack with gold and likewise cover the outside with gold. Loki, who is the canniest of the gods, had heard that nearby lived another dwarf, named Andvari, who it was said had a great horde of gold hidden in the Rhine, and he would visit his horde in the shape of a great pike. So Loki traveled swiftly to Vanaheim, one of the realms where gods dwell, and he spoke to Ran, a sea goddess who watches over sailors. Ran, it’s said, has a special net which she casts into the ocean to draw up the souls of those who’ve drowned. Loki borrowed Ran’s net, and he cast it into the Rhine and drew up Andvari and demanded all of the dwarf’s gold in exchange for his life. The cornered and terrified Andvari complied, though he attempted to withhold a single gold ring. Loki demanded the ring as well, and Andvari surrendered it, though he declared that it was cursed and would be the death of whoever tried to keep it; Loki laughed, saying that that wouldn’t be a problem for him.
When Loki returned to Hreidmar’s house, it took every bit of the treasure he’d stolen to fill and cover Otr’s hide, except for the cursed ring; Odin could sense that the ring had great magical power about it, and he wanted to keep it so that he could uncover its secrets; however, when Hreidmar examined the payment, he saw a single hair exposed and demanded that it be covered, so Odin gave up the ring. Only as the gods were leaving, after Hreidmar had verbally accepted the fine and agreed that their feud was ended, did Loki tell anyone about the curse.
On an earlier trip to the land of men, Odin had gone alone to Denmark and seduced a mortal woman, who bore him a son whom she named Rerir, and Rerir had a son who was named Volsung, and Odin declared then that Rerir’s House was favored by him, and he sent a Valkyrie–one of the women who serve him in overseeing war and stealing the souls of the slain–to be Volsung’s wife; she bore him eleven children, ten sons and one daughter, and the eldest were twins, the girl Signy and boy Sigmund. In time, Volsung became a great king, winning many wars and taking much treasure, and in his homeland he built a great feasting-hall as a sign of his power. In the center of the hall was a gnarled old apple tree, serving as its central support.
In his old age, Volsung–having attained worldwide fame as a great king–sought to make peace with his old enemies, the Swedes, and when King Siggeir of Sweden sent messengers of peace to his court, he well received them and ended up promising to send Signy to be Siggeir’s wife. Signy, who had powers of foresight, claimed that this would end in sorrow for her and death for her family, but Siggeir and his messengers made every sign of their good will, and she was ignored. They held a great betrothal feast to honor the uniting of their Houses, but in the midst of the festival a storm kicked up and a stranger walked into the hall. The stranger was tall, and old, wizened and twisted with age, with a great grey beard, a tall wide hat, and only one eye; he carried a spear in one hand and a sword in the other. All men knew who this was, but they didn’t dare speak his name; this was Odin, god of war and death and madness. The sword he carried was a fine one, more beautifully wrought than any sword the men had seen before. He plunged it into the trunk of the apple tree and declared that it had been forged and crafted specifically for the hand of one man, and that a great destiny awaited whoever was able to free it. All men tried, but only Sigmund was able to pull it from the tree. Siggeir desired the sword and offered all the gold he had for it, but Sigmund declared that it had been set aside for him alone and he wouldn’t sell it for any price. Siggeir made to depart in haste; Signy warned her father once again that things were going to end badly, and this time Volsung agreed, though he insisted that Signy go along lest they be named oathbreakers.
When ships from Sweden returned later, this time girded for war, Signy came ashore first, ostensibly to bargain for Volsung’s surrender on her husband’s behalf, but she remained true to her father and told him that Siggeir’s true intentions were murder. A great battle was joined, and it cost the Swedes dearly, but in the end Volsung was slain and his ten sons captured alive and born back to Sweden. Signy begged for the lives of her brothers, and Siggeir swore that he wouldn’t kill them, but in actuality he had them all chained to a single tree deep in the forest and left to die. Some weeks later, Signy learned of this and sent one of her servants to see if any still lived. The servant reported that she’d found nine dead men chained to the tree, and one dead she-wolf next to a pair of broken fetters. Being foresighted, Signy knew that Sigmund, her twin, still lived, and she searched for him.
She found him living in the forest in the guise of a dwarf, and he told her that each night a she-wolf had come to the tree and ripped out the throat of one brother, until on the tenth night she’d come for him and he bit her first; she pulled him out of his fetters before bleeding to death herself.
Brother and sister began to plot vengeance. Signy had had several sons with Siggeir, and she sent them one-by-one to Sigmund’s cottage, ostensibly to learn smithcraft under a dwarf’s fosterage, but each one was declared unworthy. Eventually Signy decided that only a true Volsung would be worthy of the task. She went to a witch who was skilled in shape-changing magic and paid the witch to switch their faces for one night, and Signy–in the witch’s guise–went to Sigmund and seduced him. A son was born of that union, named Sinfjotli, and when he came of age he was sent into the forest as his half-brothers had been. Sigmund and Sinfjotli took well to each other and decided to do what they could to hurt Siggeir while Signy plotted their next move; they took the pelts of two wolves and enchanted them so that they appeared to be wolves when wearing them, and they roamed the forest, murdering all of Siggeir’s men they happened upon. At long last Signy came to them, bearing Sigmund’s sword, and she helped them sneak up to Siggeir’s feasting-hall, where they barred all entrances but the front door and set fire to the building, killing the Swedes as they escaped. When all were dead, they made to leave and head back to the Volsung lands, but Signy declared that she would stay; the sons she’d borne to Siggeir had been in the hall, and she couldn’t keep living with their deaths on her conscience. She strode into the still-burning hall, and died, and her brother and their son returned home.
Sigmund was quick to restore his father’s kingdom and bring it back to its former glory, and he and Sinfjotli won great victories in war. Sigmund took a noble lady for his wife. She, however, had before been the wife of a man Sinfjotli had killed in war, and naturally plotted vengeance. At feast one day she brought Sinfjotli a drinking-horn of poisoned wine and offered it to him, heaping honors upon him. Sigmund saw her intentions written on her face and took the horn himself; being the son of Volsung, great-grandson of Odin, he was fated to die violently and thus couldn’t be otherwise hurt. This happened two more times. The fourth time, he lost his patience and openly declared that his wife was trying to poison his son. The queen admitted it, but, turning to Sinfjotli, declared that he wouldn’t fear poison if he was truly of the House of Volsung. Sinfjotli, shamed and challenged, drank the poisoned wine and died. Sigmund, weeping, took up the corpse and carried it himself out to the beach, where his people were wont to bury their noble dead. There he found a raft moored to the land, and a single boatman, old, one-eyed, carrying a spear and wearing a tall, wide hat. Sigmund surrendered his son to Odin, who drove his raft out into the fog and disappeared.
Years passed, and Sigmund–seeking a new wife–met a beautiful woman, Sigrlinn, the daughter of Svafnir, and they fell deep in love. Sigrlinn was being courted by seven princes, but she spurned them all, declaring that she would rather marry an old man of proven worth than any one of the seven untested young men. This caused strife; being mutually insulted, the seven princes set aside their differences, gathered together all their strength, and made war upon the Volsung lands. The Volsung host met them as their ships made landfall, and at first Sigmund’s men seemed to have the mastery, easily repulsing all the invaders’ attacks, until a strange warrior appeared: A tall, old, one-eyed man, wearing a tall, wide hat and carrying a spear. All the Volsung host fled before him in sudden terror, and were cut down in their disorder, save Sigmund himself, who made to strike down the meddlesome god. Odin blocked the strike with the shaft of his spear, and the sword he’d once gifted to Sigmund broke asunder, sending Sigmund sprawling to the ground sorely wounded.
Sigrlinn ran to his side and started to dress his wounds, but he rebuffed her, declaring that this must be the destiny Odin had spoken of and that he was thus beyond help. He told her that the war was lost, that she should flee while she was still able; and he prophesied, telling her that she was pregnant with a son who would grow up to be the greatest warrior the world would ever know. She took up the shards of the broken sword and fled into the lands of Sigmund’s friend, King Hjalprek. He took her in gladly, holding her in high honor. In time her son was born, and she named him Sigurd, and when he was a boy he was sent away to be the foster-son of the king’s finest blacksmith, a dwarf named Regin, son of Hreidmar.
Sigurd learned smithcraft at Regin’s forge and wisdom at his feet, and he grew up intelligent and strong. One day, he went to visit his mother, and Sigrlinn, deciding he was old enough, told him the truth of his lineage. He returned to Regin, related the tale, and declared that a great prince should have a great sword. He asked his master, whose skill was greater, to forge him one. Regin forged a fine sword, and Sigurd tested its sharpness by sticking it upright in a stream and floating bits of wool onto its edge; the wool was shorn clean through. Remembering the story of his father’s death, he decided to test its strength; he swung it against Regin’s anvil with all of his strength. The sword shattered. They did this two more times, and Regin declared that no sword could possibly survive such treatment, so Sigurd returned to his mother, acquired the shards of his father’s sword, and begged Regin to reforge it. Regin did, and this sword, when Sigurd tested it, sliced the dwarf’s anvil in two and sank into the ground up to its hilt.
Regin then had an idea. Declaring that a great prince with a great sword should accomplish a great deed, he told Sigurd how his father, Hreidmar, had been very rich, but his brother, Fafnir, desiring all the gold for himself, killed their father and hid the gold in a cave not far from where they now stood. Regin couldn’t seek vengeance for himself because Fafnir had found amongst the gold an enchanted helmet, the aegishjalmr, Helm of Terror, which put fear into the hearts of all who saw it, and, putting it on, used his magic to transform himself into a massive, lumbering dragon. Regin told Sigurd that if he were to kill the dragon, he could keep the gold and glory for himself, and the dwarf would be content with having seen vengeance satisfied.
They journeyed to Fafnir’s cave, and Regin commented that they should’ve brought along horses to help carry off all the gold. No sooner did he say that than they came round a bend in the path and saw a man tending a small herd by a river. The horse-minder was a tall, old man in a tall, wide hat and had only one eye. He gladly offered to sell two horses, inviting the man and dwarf to pick the two they wanted, and when Sigurd chose his–a great, grey-maned stallion–the old man said that this was a fine choice because that horse was the son of Odin’s own horse, Sleipnir, who was himself the son of Loki. He then leaned in close to Sigurd and whispered, “When you stab the dragon, make sure to mind the blood.”
They came to a cliff overlooking the Rhine, and from the top of the cliff a slope ran up to a dark cave. From the cave to the cliff, the grass was flattened in a long, wide, snaking path, like an animal’s trail, and Sigurd began to come up with a plan. He and Regin hid amongst the trees and watched, and, as evening came, a great beast like a gigantic snake slithered out of the cave down the path and hung its head over the cliff to drink from the river. When the dragon had sated its thirst and returned to the cave, Sigurd dug a pit in the middle of the path big enough for him to crouch in and covered it over with turf. Remembering the old man’s words, he also dug a few furrows to drain the pit. When the next evening came, he hid in the pit and waited. The dragon slithered over him, and, when it stopped, he thrust his sword into its belly and cut as roughly as he could. The dragon’s blood flooded the pit, and it burned Sigurd’s skin like fire, and he nearly drowned; he swallowed several mouthfuls of blood before finally crawling out.
He emerged to find Fafnir staring him dead in the face. The dragon declared that he was dying and asked to know the name of the man who’d killed him. Sigurd tried to say that he was an outlaw without a family, but Fafnir knew it for a lie, so Sigurd named himself. Fafnir guessed taht this had been Regin’s idea, and he warned Sigurd that Regin couldn’t be trusted and that a curse lay upon the gold, and then he died.
Regin came out of hiding to congratulate Sigurd on his great deed, then declared that, because Fafnir had been his brother, Sigurd owed him recompense; and he had forged the sword that had done the killing, ergo he was owed a share of the gold. They argued back and forth for a while, then Regin asked to pause the argument while he did something. He went up to Fafnir’s corpse and drank deeply of his brother’s blood. The dragon-blood made Regin drunk, and he told Sigurd that he’d hold their quarrel resolved if Sigurd would do one thing for him: Cut out Fafnir’s heart and roast it for him to eat. Sigurd areed, lit a fire, cut out the heart, and started to cook it while Regin went to sleep off his drunkenness. Sigurd burned his finger and brought it up to his mouth, at which he heard a voice behind him suggest that he murder Regin and eat the heart himself.
He turned around and saw a bird, and the bird spoke with human words, explaining that dragon-blood and dragon-meat gave strange powers to those who consumed it, and Sigurd could now understand the speech of birds. The bird went on that Regin had privately declared he planned to murder Sigurd, and even if he hadn’t, only a fool would leave someone alive after murdering their brother. Sigurd turned around again and saw Regin, and murder was written in the dwarf’s eyes, and Sigurd slew him where he stood. He then ate Fafnir’s heart, loaded the dragon’s gold onto his horse, and headed away. He realized then that he was a murderer, had killed his king’s blacksmith, and he’d surely be exiled if he returned home; he wondered where he might go. Then a raven lighted upon a branch and told him that in a place called Hindarfell a great queen slept, fated to be awakened by a prince whom she’d marry. Another bird came then and told him that, if he traveled south along the Rhine, he would found the kingdom of Burgundia, ruled over by the House of Niflung, and that their mighty king, a man named Gjuki, sought a foster-son. Sigurd resolved to seek both of these fortunes if he could, and he went on his way.
After some journeying, Sigurd came at last to a great stronghold atop a high mountain. The walls of the stronghold were lined with shields, and banners flew from its towers, but it was deserted, and Sigurd knew that this must be Hindarfell. Going into its central hall, he saw a man kitted out for war in a fine coat of mail and a crested helmet lying asleep on a table with a thorn piercing his chest. Sigurd removed the helmet and found that the warrior was not a man at all, but a beautiful woman. He pulled the thorn from her chest and her eyes opened; she took in a deep breath, sat up, and announced her awakening by chanting a series of arcane staves. She explained that she was Brynhild, and she had once been a great queen and a Valkyrie, but that she had disobeyed Odin and granted victory in battle to a king he’d wanted to topple, so he’d cursed her to leave his service and to marry. She had responded with a vow of her own, that she would only marry a man who had made himself as a king and proven his worth as the world’s greatest warrior.
The two of them got on like a house on fire, but when Sigurd suggested that they marry, Brynhild declared her deep and abiding love for him but added that marrying him now would break her oath; being the son of a great man does not make a man great, nor does doing just one great deed. She bade him go out into the world and make a name for himself, and vowed that when he returned, he would find her waiting eagerly. Before he left, she gave him a series of warnings–don’t be too quick to seek vengeance, hold people to their oaths, don’t linger too long in a witch’s house, and beware the love of princesses–and prophesied that he would die young and violently.
King Gjuki of the House Niflung, king of the Borgund people, had as sons Gunnar, Hogni, and his stepson Gotthorm, and a daughter, Gudrun, and a wife, Grimhild, who was a mighty witch. Gudrun awoke one morning and told her mother that she’d had a terrible dream: She and her brothers had been hunting, tracking a beautiful stag with golden antlers, and she herself had caught the stag alive, but a troll-woman riding through the air shot it and it died horribly; her parents attempted to comfort her with the gift of a young dog, but the dog turned out to be a wolf, growing quickly to adulthood and devouring her brothers.
Grimhild dismissed her fears, telling her that bad dreams were often omens of good fortune and vice versa, and bade her look out the door of their feasting-hall and see how fair the day was. She did, and she saw Sigurd coming up the road toward them. At news of a man in such fine kit coming into their lands, King Gjuki himself came out to greet the stranger, who named himself Sigurd, son of Sigmund, last scion of the House Volsung; he told Gjuki that the fame of Burgundia had spread far and wide, and that he wished for friendship and fellowship between their Houses.
Gjuki invited Sigurd to join them in a feast, and Gunnar–who was an accomplished singer–took up a harp and chanted staves about the wars between Goths and Huns in the eastern forests, and of the defeat of Budli, Attila’s father, by the warriors of the House Niflung. Sigurd took up the harp and chanted staves about his own exploits, about the slaying of Fafnir and the awakening of Brynhild. Grimhild thought about Sigurd’s hoarded gold and secretly schemed, but the rest were well pleased and accepted Sigurd’s offer of fellowship.
Sigurd accompanied Gjuki’s warriors on their campaigns against the Huns, comporting himself with bravery and skill surpassing even Gjuki’s sons, who became his foster-brothers. His position assured, Sigurd asked his foster-father to let him lead men to avenge Sigmund and reclaim his birthright; Gjuki gladly agreed. The campaign into the old Volsung lands was fast and terrible, and they drove all before them and broke them, until at last Sigurd stood alone before the old feasting-hall of his fathers. It was a ruin, merely four standing walls around the rotted trunk of the old apple tree.
Next to the dead tree stood a tall, old, one-eyed man wearing a tall, wide hat.
Odin greeted Sigurd with great honors, and told him that his destiny did not lie in the lands of his fathers, that it was time for him to return to Hindarfell and marry Brynhild. Sigurd gathered his forces and left.
At Sigurd’s return, the Niflungs held a great feast in his honor, and Grimhild whispered to Gjuki how fine it would be if Sigurd were to marry Gudrun, their daughter. Gjuki agreed that it would be good for them, if only Sigurd weren’t already betrothed to Brynhild.
Grimhild took a drinking-horn filled with wine and mixed her own blood into it, weaving it about with spells, and, returning to Sigurd, she offered it to him with great honors, calling it a token of her love, and declared her acceptance of him as her son. He took it, drained it, and for the rest of the night he sat without smiling or speaking, only able to stare dumbly at Gudrun. When he awoke the next morning, he remembered nothing of Brynhild.
At Hindarfell, Brynhild was troubled, for word had spread of her awakening and she was constantly bothered by suitors; she refused them all, for even if she hadn’t sworn herself to Sigurd, still none of them could’ve matched him in stature. After a while of this, Odin appeared to her, telling her that the scheme he’d started was approaching completion and warning her that she must marry within two years or meet with a terrible fate. Before leaving, he quipped that since she had refused to choose the slain, she must choose the living; this caused her to misread the warning as a threat, and, to spite Odin, she cast powerful spells and surrounded Hindarfell with a wall of fire. She swore a sacred oath that she would wed the man who was brave enough to cross that fire, sure that that man could only be Sigurd.
In the Niflung lands, Sigurd and Gudrun grew close and proclaimed their love, and King Gjuki declared it to his liking that the Houses of Niflung and Volsung should be joined. They were married in fine fashion, to the joy of all. The day after their bridal, Gunnar reaffirmed that his sister was a fine woman and Sigurd a fine man; he expressed his own desire to find a wife, lamenting that his foster-brother had surpassed him in this as in all other things. Grimhild and Gjuki agreed that their son ought to go out and find his own name and fortune; Sigurd reaffirmed his love for Gunnar, stating that they were brothers now in law as well as in oath and friendship, that they should be equals and share everything in common, and he promised Gunnar whatever help he might be able to give. By now rumors of the battle-maiden on Hindarfell had reached Burgundia, and they decided to journey there and try their luck.
Sigurd and Gunnar made their journey and stood upon the mount of Hindarfell, before the wall of flame, and faced a problem. Gunnar was the equal of Sigurd in courage and would’ve faced the flames, but his horse would not; and Sigurd’s horse, being the son of Sleipnir, Odin’s horse, would not bear any rider but Sigurd. Gunnar had a plan; he had acquired a bit of his mother’s witchcraft, and he used his knowledge to change Sigurd’s appearance to his own. Sigurd lept his horse over the fire and he saw Brynhild afresh; he fell in love with her all over again, but he could not betray his foster-brother and so didn’t break the charade. Brynhild sensed Odin’s warning coming to fruition and knew that only sorrow would come from this; but she had sworn a sacred oath to marry the man who crossed the fire, so rather than become an oath-breaker she forsook Sigurd and declared for Gunnar. They held a marriage ceremony, and they swore their oaths over the ring Sigurd always carried, the ring from Fafnir’s hoard, Andvari’s ring. They crossed the fire together, and Sigurd slipped away, leaving her to Gunnar.
They returned in glory to Gjuki’s hall and Brynhild was welcomed as a queen with honor and love. The Niflungs held a great feast, but when Sigurd strode in and sat at Gudrun’s side, she knew that something terrible had happened. Sigurd saw her, and a shadow lept up in his heart; he knew that something was terribly wrong, but he didn’t know what. After the feast, Sigurd went to ease his troubles by hunting in the forest while Gudrun and Brynhild went to go bathe in the Rhine. When they’d undressed, Brynhild quipped that, of the two of them, she was far more beautiful; Gudrun retorted that she had won the better husband. Brynhild recounted Gunnar’s bravery in crossing the fire. Gudrun, who knew of the deception, told her that the ring on her finger could not be Gunnar’s ring, and walked away. Brynhild, suspecting what had happened, went to her bower to brood upon it. Knowing now Sigurd’s fate, she didn’t want to live without him, but the oaths of friendship and marriage could not be broken. Gunnar came to talk to her, declaring that he loved her; she rebuked him for a coward, revealed that she knew about the deception, and affirmed that she loved only Sigurd. Gunnar summoned his foster-brother when he’d returned from hunting, begging him to talk to Brynhild; she rebuked Sigurd as a liar and an oath-breaker, telling him that nothing would ease her pain more than his death. Sigurd’s memories returned then and he declared that he would forsake all his oaths if only she’d forgive him and accept his renewed love. Brynhild turned away, telling him that she was Gunnar’s wife now, for good or ill, and that she’d rather lose all joy and die than live as an oathbreaker.
Gunnar returned to her, begging her to let him make things right between them. She told him that their deception had made her an object of ridicule, and that he was ridiculed by extension, that once word got out he would be reviled as a coward, subservient to Sigurd. She urged him to murder his foster-brother.
Gunnar took council with his brothers, and Gotthorm agreed to take on the role of oathbreaker and carry out the deed. He mixed wine, snake-flesh, and wolf-flesh into a potion of madness, which he tricked Sigurd into consuming. Sigurd fled senseless into the wilderness, and Gotthorm followed him and attacked him. They fought, and Gotthorm died, and at the end Sigurd reclaimed his senses and fled back to Gudrun, telling her all and lamenting his treatment by her family before dying from his wounds.
Brynhild, hearing of this, declared hatred for Gunnar and Gudrun, but lamented that Sigurd’s death had to be the instrument of her causing them pain and declared herself responsible. She asked that she and Sigurd be burned together on a single funeral pyre, and she took her own life, and she and Sigurd were laid to rest as she’d asked, and Gunnar and Gudrun–who had truly loved their ill-gotten spouses–held each other and wept.
Gudrun’s grief became too much for her to live with, and for a time she dwelt alone in the forest. East of the Niflung lands, the Huns had rebuilt their former strength, and their king, Attila, son of Budli, was leading raids against the Goths. In his heart he remembered the slaying of his father by Gjuki, and he’d heard the rumors of the Niflungs’ hoarded gold, Andvari’s gold, stolen from Sigurd. After some years had passed, word reached Attila that Gjuki had died of old age and Gunnar, a son young and little-tested, ruled the House of Niflung; he mustered his horsemen and rode for Burgundia.
At the news, Gunnar noted that the horsemen of the Huns were numerous and strong, that it would be a hard-fought affair, and he mused if they shouldn’t pay the Huns a ransom to avoid war. Hogni, his brother, insisted that they not give up any of their treasure, insisting that the House of Niflung was strong enough to match even the horsemen of Hunland, though he lamented the loss of Sigurd and admitted that many of their men would die. Grimhild thought on the problem a while and gave a suggestion that cost neither lives nor treasure: They should promise Gudrun’s hand in marriage to Attila, staving off war and increasing the prestige of their own House.
The brothers went off to collect their sister and found her in a little cottage deep in the forest. She’d spent her convalescence practicing her weaving, and the walls of her cottage were hung with a beautiful tapestry. The pictures on that storied web told the tale of her grief; she’d depicted Otr’s ransom and Andvari’s gold; the rise of the House of Volsung, Odin’s gift of the sword to Sigmund, the wars and the fall of the House of Volsung; the birth of Sigurd, the slaying of Fafnir; the awakening of Brynhild; Sigurd’s coming to the House of Niflung; the series of betrayals; Sigurd’s murder, Brynhild’s suicide; and, lastly, their funeral together.
Grimhild came and tried to cajole her daughter into accepting the arrangement. She spoke of the danger they faced and encouraged Gudrun to do her duty; she spoke of the unimaginable wealth in Attila’s vast empire and encouraged Gudrun to claim her part of it. Gudrun retorted by repeating her account of the dream she’d had the night before Sigurd’s coming, noting that Sigurd was obviously the golden stag taken from her by the troll-woman, and that obviously Attila–whom all knew to be cunning and treacherous–must be wolf that would devour her brothers. Grimhild admitted that her daughter was probably right, but added that fate is inescapable and those who seek a good end can only rise up to meet it. Gudrun, having already lost all joy in life, relented.
Attila accepted the arrangement gladly and ranked Gudrun highest amongst his many wives, and there was peace between Huns and Niflungs for many years, but in his heart he always lusted for Andvari’s gold. At last his hunger for treasure overcame his love of Gudrun and his desire to maintain his honor, and he plotted how to provoke the Niflungs into war.
Vingi, the herald of Attila, journeyed to Burgundia with a message for Gunnar and Hogni: The great Attila, he said, thought it improper for brothers and sister to be so long estranged, and the Niflungs were invited to travel to Hunland and see Gudrun. Attila would hold a great feast in their honor and give them gifts of treasures from the far corners of his vast empire. Gunnar smelled a trap and counselled that they were rich enough with Andvari’s gold and didn’t need gifts from Hunland. Hogni noted that the herald had brought conflicting messages from Gudrun herself: A gold ring wound about with a wolf’s hair, a sign of strife and deceit, and a staff carved with healing spells, a sign of the herald’s good intentions. Gunnar gave the staff to Grimhild to examine, and she determined that the healing runes were carved over the top of another message, and though it was now obscured, the original message appeared to be either a warning or a curse. They resolved not to go.
Vingi taunted them, saying that no king had risen to the Niflung throne after Gjuki’s death, that Grimhild ruled alone with her sons as vassals, and added that Attila was now very old but that Gudrun had borne him two sons, and Attila’s greatest wish had been to negotiate their fostership in their uncles’ court. Vingi swore on his life that he spoke honestly, and the brothers resolved to go for the sake of their sister, though they smelled treachery and went with a large, armed host.
They came at long last to Attila’s stronghold far in the east and found the gates barred, the walls manned by fierce warriors. Vingi appeared above the gate, declaring that they had indeed walked into a trap. The Niflung host forced the gates and managed to fight their way to the very doors of Attila’s feasting-hall, though at great cost.
Attila himself stepped forth, greeting the Niflungs as vassals in revolt, telling them that they were surrounded, their force much reduced, and he would only allow them to live if they bought their lives with Andvari’s gold. Gunnar stepped forth, affirming that Attila had no right to their gold and that they planned to die rather than surrender. Attila brought up the murder of Sigurd and demanded their gold as payment for his retroactive son-in-law; the Niflungs rebuked that demand as ridiculous and made to force the doors of the hall. Within that hall, Gudrun heard all and cursed the day she’d been born. She went to the kings in Attila’s vassalage and declared that any who loved their queen should rise up against their honorless overlord. Word travelled swiftly, and the armies of the Goths–whom Attila had subjugated by force and brutality–came to the Niflungs’ aid. The strength of the Huns was still great, however, and soon all were trapped before the doors of Attila’s hall. Accepting their deaths as inevitable, they grew calm, and Gunnar began to chant songs he’d learned of the bravery of the Goths and their many victories against Huns and Romans. This got Hogni’s blood up, and he lept singly into the hall’s open door. His shield was shattered and he was sorely wounded, but he took up a sword in his left hand and fought on; Gunnar joined him, and together they forced their way to Attila’s very chambers. The king of Hunland was fled, but Gudrun was there. The siblings met with mingled warmth and sorrow, with Gunnar lamenting that it seemed his destiny to marry off his sister and then make her a widow over and over again.
Having captured the hall, the Goths and Niflungs found themselves besieged. They surrendered Gudrun back into Attila’s keeping, for the sake of her sons, and then settled in to die. The Huns tried again and again to take the hall, and were again and again repulsed, so in desperation Attila had his men bar all doors save the front and set the hall on fire. Those inside rushed out fighting hard but were at last slain, save for Gunnar and Hogni, whom the Huns captured alive. Attila lamented his fate–his empire in turmoil, his finest warriors slain, his feasting-hall burning–but took solace in the thought that he could now extract a mighty vengeance for the death of Budli. Gudrun begged for the lives of her brothers, and Attila came to Gunnar and offered again to sell him his life back in return for Andvari’s gold. Gunnar told him that he held only a half portion of the hoard and the rest was Hogni’s to give away; knowing that the wound Hogni had received was mortal and wanting to end his brother’s pain and spare him any torture, Gunnar suggested that they kill Hogni to simplify negotiations. When the Huns reported that Hogni was dead, Gunnar laughed, declaring that they’d hidden all their wealth at the bottom of the Rhine, that no-one but him would ever be able to find it again, and that Attila had lost much to gain nothing. In his rage, Attila had Gunnar cast into a pit of venomous snakes.
Gudrun heard all, though Attila didn’t know it, and she plotted vengeance. At the funeral feast for the fallen Huns, she bore two beautiful golden cups of wine to him, hailed him as her husband, and toasted his health. After he’d finished the wine, she told him that he’d just consumed two measures of poison out of the gilded skulls of their two sons; she declared this a fitting vengeance for her brothers and left him to die.
Attila’s death ripped his empire to pieces, and his great stronghold was besieged and in flames within days. Gudrun thought on all she’d gained and lost, all she’d suffered, and on the horrible things she’d done to claim vengeance upon Attila. She found herself too bereaved to seek a new fortune, and, desiring death, strode into one of the burning buildings, and there she died.
The House of Niflung perished with its last king, and the land of Burgundia was sundered in the wars that followed. Legend says that the Niflung gold still rests beneath the Rhine, though the curse of Gunnar lies on it with the curse of Andvari, and it will never be recovered again.