The Poetic Edda and Its Transformations
AROUND THE YEAR 1270, an unknown Icelandic scribe copied an anthology of poems into a manuscript now known as the Codex Regius, or Konungsbok (the royal manuscript); this collection is usually called the Poetic Edda. Some leaves of the manuscript are missing now, but over two dozen poems are preserved in what is left of it. Of these, eleven are mythological, placed together in the first half of the manuscript. The remaining poems are based on heroic legends about the Volsungs – a dynasty including Sigmundr the Volsung, descended from the god Óðinn, and his son Sigurðr the celebrated dragon-slayer, who is betrothed to the valkyrie Brynhildr, but marries Guðrún, the sister of the Burgundian heroes Gunnarr and Hǫgni.
It is not known how, or from where, these poems were sourced by the anthologist, so we know nothing of their age, authorship or provenance, which might have been very various in each respect. But it is clear that the anthologist – or his immediate source – carefully ordered the individual poems in ‘chronological’ narrative order to produce a legendary history of the Volsungs in which key episodes such as the killing of the dragon by Sigurðr, or his murder at Brynhildr's perverse and vengeful instigation, are each represented by a vividly dramatic poem either largely or wholly made up of the speech of the protagonists, interspersed with some explanatory prose links.
Many of these episodes were evidently popular and had long been widely known throughout northern Europe in the Middle Ages. There are plenty of Viking Age stone carvings of Sigurðr killing the dragon, for instance, a good number of them in northern England. Another unknown medieval Icelandic author took the legendary material of the Codex Regius – before some of the poems were lost – and turned it into saga narrative: Vǫlsunga saga (The Story of the Volsungs). This prose account necessarily loses some of the drama and immediacy of the original poems, but offers in its place continuity, consistency and some (arguably unconvincing) explanation of character and motive (many readers have judged the saga to be a disimprovement of the material).