Monday, 22 July 2013

Brynhildr - a Norse rom-com (minus the comedy... and much of the romance)

Brynhildr, depicted by Robert Engels in 1919

We've already talked about one (official) shieldmaiden, Lagertha, so I think it's time we talk about some more kickass Norse wimmins.

Interestingly enough (maybe? Is it? I dunno), there is a connection between Lagertha and the more famous shieldmaiden we are going to talk about today - Brynhildr. You may recall that Ragnar Lodbrok took Brynhildr's daughter, Aslaug, as his third wife, after divorcing Lagertha (I'm still a bit butt hurt over this). Brynhildr also has a connection to another figure, Gudrun/Kriemhild, who I want to discuss more in the future (she does pop up here quite a bit). Shit, she even has a connection to Grendel's Mother in Xena: Warrior Princess (Grinhilda)! Basically, Brynhildr gets around!

DISCLAIMER: There will be a whole lot of name repetitions - you will never want to hear the name Brynhildr again! Brynhildr Brynhildr Brynhildr!

The character of Brynhildr may be famous from Wagner's Ring Cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, but she started out as a figure in Norse mythology (and possibly even before this as Brunhilda of Austrasia, a real life Visigothic princess). Although, to be completely honest, most people will have heard the name Brynhildr/Brunhilde/blablabla etc, from things like Xena, various video games, World of Warcraft, Django Unchained, and by the looks of it, some softcore manga...what the...

Eh, anyway. Brynhildr appears in the Völsunga saga, a 13th century Icelandic text and some Eddic poems. In the Völsunga saga, she is condemned by Odin to live life as a mortal woman and imprisoned in a ring of fire until a man rescues and marries her. The lucky man to come and rescue Brynhildr was Sigurðr Sigmundson, hero of the Volsung saga, and needless to say, the two of them fall madly in love, ending with Sigurðr's offer of the ring Andvaranaut (which is likely to be an influence for the one ring in LOTR) as a proposal. Sigurðr, who needs to run off on important business, promises to return to make Brynhildr his bride. In the meantime, Gudrun comes over for a cup of tea and to ask for some help in interpreting a dream, which coincidentally enough foretells Sigurðr's betrayal of Brynhildr and his marriage to Gudrun - forget Freud, these guys really knew their dreams!

The man himself . Killing Fafnir.

So, at this stage, Sigurðr is off with Gjuki, the King of Burgundy. Gjuki's wife, Grimhild, who happens to be Gudrun's mother dearest AND a sorceress (how unlucky), prepares a magic potion so that Sigurðr will forget about Brynhildr. And alas, the potion does its job, and he marries Gudrun instead. In some strange series of events, Gjuki's wife then decides to marry her son Gunnar to Brynhildr (what a terrible mother-in-law she would have been). However, Gunnar finds that he can't get through this ring of flames, and so, Sigurðr offers to exchange shapes with him, and enters to claim her hand. So Sigurðr, disguised as Gunnar, stays with Brynhildr for three nights, putting a sword in between them so she will retain her virginity (imagine if they couldn't find a sword - close one!) and then takes the One Ring to Rule Them All from her finger to later give to Gudrun (oh no he didn't!). Sigurðr and Gunnar return to their true forms and Gunnar is married to Brynhildr.

And this is where shit gets real. Gudrun and Brynhildr start arguing about who has the better husband, where Brynhildr starts bragging about how brave her Gunnar was to ride through the flames to get her, causing Gudrun to drop the bombshell that it was actually Sigurðr. As you can imagine, Brynhildr goes ape, and Sigurðr starts to remember the truth, but fails to console her. So, Brunhildr tries to urge Gunnar to kill him, telling him that Sigurðr slept with her - Gunnar, being too scared to kill Sigurðr himself, gives his little brother a potion that enrages him, causing him to kill Sigurðr. Brynhildr then kills Sigurðr's son, and during Sigurðr's funeral, throws herself on his funeral pyre, thus entering into Hel with him - a somewhat romantic a rather messed up way.

Brünnhilde throws herself on the flames. By Arthur Rackham for Wagner's Ring Cycle

Have you died of boredom yet? There are differences in other versions of the story found in a few Eddic poems (eg Aslaug is Brynhildr's and Sigurðr's daughter), but honestly, ain't nobody got time fo' that.

The story of Brynhildr can then be found in the Nibelungenlied, a Middle High German epic poem about Siegfried (Sigurðr). There are quite a few differences regarding her tale in this version - Brunhild is the queen of Iceland, and with Siegfried's help (who is hidden under an invisibility claok that he got off Albus Dumbledore), Gunther (Gunnar) wins Brunhild in a series of rather warlike games. There doesn't appear to be any suggestion that Siegfried had proposed (or even known) Brunhild before this.

Brunhild, who is suspicious of Siegfried (as Gunther introduced him as a vassal, although he was actually royalty), denies Gunther her virginity until he tells her the truth. Gunther tries to take her by force, but Brunhild merely pushes away his advances as if he were a tiny kitten and ties him to the ceiling. 

Gunther's Wedding Night by Johann Heinrich Füssli

The next day, Gunther, being a little bit put out at not getting the ride, tells Siegfried what happened, so Siegfried enters their bed chamber that night under cover of the invisibility cloak, and holds Brunhild down until she submits to Gunther's will - a bit rapey if you ask me. In this version of the story, this is when Siegfried takes "a ring" from her finger (along with a girdle), which is later shown to her  y Kriemhild (Gudrun) during their "my husband is better than yours" argument - thus giving away the game. Hagen, Brunhild's vassal, promising to take revenge on the wrongdoer then kills Siegfried. So, as you can see, this version has a lot less romance, and a lot less sympathy for Siegfried/Sigurðr. 

Some other time I will discuss Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, because this post is about forty-two times longer than I'd intended it to be. It's time for me to go watch Wrath of the Titans and see if it's as class....I mean....crap.... as Clash of the Titans (whose tagline was "Titans will Clash" - I never tire of telling people this).

No comments:

Post a Comment