How Norse Mythology Continues to Influence the Entertainment World Today


Names as George R.R. Martin, author of the Game of Thrones novels and J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings are commonly known today and share much more similarities than one would think: They both drink deep from the Volsunga Saga.

George R.R. Martin brilliantly integrates material as diverse as the history of the War of the Roses (particularly as Shakespeare interpreted them), legends of the Mongols, and the history of Byzantium. But his secret is Viking stories. That's the key ingredient. Over the course of two centuries, the results have never really varied. Almost nobody reads it today, but if you want to make a mega-hit, you steal from the Volsunga Saga.

You may never have heard of it, but if you consume popular culture of any kind, you've heard stories from the Volsunga Saga. At its heart is the story of Sigmund and his son Sigurd, descendants of the the king of the Volsungs and, slightly further back, Odin. The saga is a story of terrible violence and passion. After Sigmund's father is killed, Sigmund and his brothers are locked into stocks in the forest. Every night a wolf comes and eats one of the brothers. The way Sigmund survives is by putting honey on his mouth, so that when the she-wolf comes to lick it off, he catches her tongue in his mouth and bites it off. I know. Good stuff, right? Other stories will be more familiar: Sigurd fights a dragon who guards an enormous hoard of gold belonging to dwarves. Sigurd promises to marry Brynhild, after rescuing her from a ring of fire.

 

Any story with magic swords, gold hoards, proud warrior women, strong-armed dwarves, evil dragons — all of them owe a debt to the original legends contained in the Volsunga Saga. They are as durable as Bible stories, and have aged much better than Greek or Roman legends. Despite their terrible violence and inherent paganism, the stories have a tendency to fuse easily with Christianity, an early example being the Nibelungenlied, from the thirteenth century, which fused stories of Old Norse legends with those of Christian knights, and was wildly popular.

The ancient stories have an odd way of turning up at essential moments of modernity. The Nibelungenlied was the subject of The Ring of the Nibelungen by Richard Wagner, widely considered the greatest achievement of modern opera. The Nazis, who reinvented mass culture through their politics, took on its aesthetic and managed to turn its ethos of power and horror into mass spectacle. But the greatest modern interpeter of the Norse material — and a man who incidentally refused to permit a German edition of his works during the Nazi period — was J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings, if you count the series as one big novel, is the second most popular novel in history, with worldwide printings of about 150 million copies. Tolkien, besides being a novelist, was also one of the major philologists of his time. He fused stories gathered from a host of Nordic sources, but the Volsunga Saga, and its related work the Elder Edda, were by far the most important. Tolkien could read in Old Norse. He even took some important names straight from the Volsunga Saga.

 

From Tolkien, the influence of the Volsunga Saga has spread everywhere. And not just in fantasy fiction. The world's biggest MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), World of Warcraft, has over seven million subscribers and its world of dwarves and elves and constant battles would have been instantly recognizable to Germanic people a millennium ago. The persistence of the stories from the Volsunga Saga is even more incredible when you consider that the groups of fans who follow one strain don't necessarily follow the others. The people who watch Game of Thrones are not at all the same people who are going to see Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen, even though both are elaborations of the legends originally found in the same source material.

The norse legends and sagas speak to a primal part of the human soul, a part that will never have enough of mighty warriors fighting evil monsters.


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