You have probably heard of the Old Norse gods Odin, Loki, and Thor, albeit often in ‘Hollywood-ized’ versions. But have you heard of Gudrun, daughter of Gjuki, wife of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, and badass woman of the seven-hundred-year-old Poetic Edda? Be introduced to her by Katie Harling-Lee.
The Poetic Edda, also known as The Elder Edda, is a collection of Old Norse poems, contained in a manuscript known as the Codex Regius, and divided into two parts: the mythic poems and the heroic poems. The first part concerns the gods and their various antics, with Loki causing a bit of trouble and Odin enjoying riddles. The second part focuses on the heroic legends of humans, in an ancient world where dragons, valkyries, and magic potions can be found, along with Gudrun, my favourite character in this treasure trove of Germanic myths and legends.
Why is she my favourite? Because Gudrun is one of those rare women in Old Norse literature whose character develops within the narrative of the poems. For those who don’t know her tale, Gudrun’s first love and husband, Sigurd, is killed by her brothers, Gunnar and Hogni. After a time of grieving, her family marries her off to a second husband, Atli (a.k.a. Attila the Hun). This husband, however, kills Gunnar and Hogni in a failed attempt to claim their treasure. To avenge her brothers, Gudrun takes action: she kills their two sons and feeds them to Atli, unbeknownst to him, before killing Atli, and burning down his hall with all his men inside.
Yet this is not the end of Gudrun or her story, as she then attempts to commit suicide by wading into the sea, only to be thwarted by the Fates (or Norns) as she is washed ashore somewhere else, where she marries again. Her final act, as depicted in the poems, is to incite her sons from her third husband to avenge the death of their half-sister Svanhild, who the king Jormunrek had trampled to death by horses. It is a doomed mission, as all perish and Gudrun is left alone with her grief.
If hers was a standard tragic romance, Gudrun would have died from her grief over losing Sigurd at the end of the first poem which concerns her. Instead, she carries on. And in doing so, she appears to take charge of her situation, committing actions that inspire debate around the key issue of her character: is she a figure of awe, or monstrosity?
Such parallel readings stem from a number of difficulties: Gudrun’s dramatically complex, mythic narrative; the distance between the ancient Old Norse context and our own; the differences in translations; and, of course, her identity as a woman. The representation of women through time is a hot topic of debate. We are currently on the hunt for strong, fierce, ‘badass’ women of history, whether they be fictional or real, who have not, until now, been given their due. Part of this search has led to the creation of ‘origin’ stories for the evil women of our own myths and fairy tales, such as Wicked or Maleficent, giving these women emotions and motivations in an attempt to excuse or explain their actions.
So what of Gudrun’s own ‘origin’ story? Is she an evil monster, or a badass woman? The tale above is only an abridged summary of Gudrun’s life, and I urge you to read The Poetic Edda to get the full story. But it gives you an idea of the difficulties of her life – and how difficult it is for us to respond to her actions.
Want to read more?
There are various translations of the Poetic Edda. For the most accessible options, but still close to the original, Katie recommends Andy Orchard’s The Elder Edda or Carolyne Larrington’s The Poetic Edda. If you are looking for more poetic renderings, with more obscure archaisms, you can try older translations, such as those by Lee M. Hollander or Henry Bellows.
Unlike the Disney ‘origin’ stories, we must make our own interpretation, because while the poems tell us about Gudrun’s actions, they say little about her inner thoughts and emotions – part of the style of Old Norse literature. Gudrun’s extremely violent actions towards her sons, Atli, and the burning of his hall, have led some to consider her a monster. Others, however, see her taking charge of the situation – a situation already made extremely violent by Atli’s murder of Gudrun’s two brothers. In the Old Norse world, Gudrun would have been obligated to avenge her brothers’ murder, despite her marital status.
Gudrun’s actions are shocking, and I certainly would not want to mess with her. But she is put between a rock and a hard place, and her actions maintain her family’s heroic honour in a way that is rare for female characters in the literature. Gudrun is a woman with strong resolve, who, in my reading, learns to control her emotions to an incredible degree, finding a way to display her badass heroic strength, even in the male-dominated society of Old Norse myth and legend. But then again, that’s my interpretation – you’ll have to read the poems to decide for yourself.
Katie Harling-Lee’s longer article on Gudrun and how she is portrayed in various English translations is published in the most recent issue of our Postgraduate English journal. Katie blogs regularly on the world of Objects, and Tweets as @KatieOsha.