Tolkien applied to slights against the honour of one

Tolkien says of Atlakviða that “despite
its condition, ‘we are in the presence of great poetry that can still move us
as poetry. Its style is universally and rightly praised: rapid, terse
vigorous-while maintaining within its narrow limits, characterisation. “1 The result is a grim, and
terrifying narrative that depicts the lengths people will go to gain vengeance.
In Old Norse poetry, there is a central theme of vengeance that underpins the
majority of people’s actions. However, violence was not a haphazard occurrence
in Old Norse society, but rather a part of an organised system of action based
on individuals, feuds and the corresponding method of settlement. It became a
means of preserving a person’s honour and followed a set of concrete principles.
They adopted a sort of ‘eye for an eye’ approach towards wrong doing and lack
of repayment would mean that your standing within the wider community would be
lessened. Disputes often occurred over resources, power, land and were more
often than not settled within the community. Though sometimes, if an agreement
was not settled on, the matter could be taken to the Althing and be decided by
their elders. These are minor cases though, ones that settled around easily
fixed discrepancies. Larger conflicts often snowballed into long standing feuds
between families that evoked a sort of Viking code of retribution. This code
applied to slights against the honour of one person or said person’s kin, but
due to the close nature of these affronts violence and even murder ensued,
which perpetuated a cycle of revenge.

One character is consumed by this cycle
of revenge; Guðrún. The Norse poems Atlakiða, Atlamál and Hamðismál
all centre around this character, though in this essay only the first two
listed will be focused on and analysed. She is a incredibly conflicted
character, tested by murder, parricide and treachery; she outlives two brothers, three
husbands and several children. This leads her to commit acts that are not
usually acceptable for women. Katie Exell in her essay explains that “the
extensive writing concerning Guðrún and
her relatives is extremely revealing about the separate gendered notions of
honour that existed for men and women in Norse society. “2 Whilst Guðrún is
seen as someone to take counsel from, she is referred to as “vitri”3, what she says is not
taken much notice of. In both Atlkviða and
Atlamál counsel is not taken into
account by her male relatives. She sends runes to her brothers in Atlamál as a warning but it is ignored,
the men also ignore the foresight of their wives. Kostbera, H?gni´s wife, notes
that the runes have been interfered with and even has a prophetic dream where
their bed catches fire and bears ransack their home. Atli himself even comes up
in the dream in the manner of a symbolic eagle: “dreif?i hann oss ?ll bló?i”4. His wife literally tells
H?gni that she saw Atli splash them with blood but he dismisses her, rebuking
her with the statement that “Heill er hugr Atla”5. It is ironic that the
poet made the lexical choice of “hugr” meaning ´heart´given that, once at
Atli´s court, Atli demands H?gni´s heart be cut from his chest. Therefore this
choice in lexis highlights H?gni´s misplaced trust and misguided judgment. In a
similar way Gunnarr´s wife has a prophetic dream where she witnesses her
husband being consumed by “ormar”6 a definitive premonition
for Gunnarr´s death. Again it is ignored. These are clear examples of women
prioritising their husband´s welfare over the male need to preserve their sense
of honour through strength and battle. The men here are also prime examples of
favouring their posthumous reputation over their wives’ more sensible course of
order.

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The first
descriptions we are given of the women in this poem are all very positive. As
mentioned earlier Guðrún is described as ´wise´. Her brothers wives are
described as “gálig”7 and “sviði”8 which both imply that
cleverness is an honourable characteristic pertaining namely to female
characters. We can infer from this a societal trope whereby it is honourable
and right for a woman to protect their male kin, or at least attempt to, but
men do not have to abide by their advice and to not do so is not deemed
dishonourable. This vastly contrasting code of conduct in respect to honour
prove, in this case, fatal for the husbands. A possible indication as to the
wider context of Norse Society, that this inequality is averse to the people.

Atlakviða fares differently in this respect to
this supposed code. The men are represented very differently in this poem.
H?gni, is shown as a valiant soldier, cutting through seven men to protect
himself and Gunnarr, “svá skal frœkn/ fiándom veriaz”9. Gunnarr´s decision about
visiting the court of Atli despite the warning he is given is seen “sem konungr
skyldi”10. His actions are Kingly
despite their obvious misguidance, he has been warned that agreeing to Atli´s
request is dangerous and fatal. Again, this poem shows Guðrún attempting to
save her brother´s lives; this time “þá er hon okr baug sendi/ varinn váðom heiðingia”11. But the message it
carried was mistook, both Gunnarr and H?gni were puzzled by wolf´s hair wrapped
around the ring, despite the altered message. It roused their suspicions that
the ring was wrapped in wold hair, it must signify danger if it caused them to
pause. However, they disregard it and instead infer that she means that “ylfskr
er vegr okkar”. Gunnar´s decision is seen as Kingly even so. The imperative
tone of the statement “sem konungr skyldi”12 which roughly translates
to ‘as a king should’. This tone suggests that it is Gunnarr’s duty as a leader
and King to engage with these dangerous situations.

Despite his kingly qualities, Gunnarr is
still killed at the hands of Atli and H?gni too. Atlakviða initially seems to depict a validation of heroic
behaviour. It is far more difficult to t draw any kind of conclusion about the
behaviour of heroic women. After the deaths of her brothers, Guðrún takes
revenge on Atli, whether or not this is an honourable act is up for debate. It
is not typically appropriate for a woman to exact revenge. The Russian critic
M. I. Steblin-Kamenskij comments that:

“to a modern man it might
seem that Guðrún´s vengeance is the piling up of   monstrous crimes designed to horrify the
hearers. But to interpret thus her vengeance would be, of course, to ignore the
ethics of the society where this heroic legend…Since the greater the
sacrifices a vengeance requires the more heroic it is, Guðrún´s vengeance for
her brothers no doubt seemped an unexampled heroic deed.”13

This
is an interesting statement to make as, as David Clark points out in Gender, Violence, and the Past in Edda and
Saga that the critic “makes unsupported generalisations about ‘the ethics
of the society’, assuming that it regards vengeance as heroic but providing no
corroborating evidence.”14 It is true that, without
evidence, we cannot make sweeping generalisations that Guðrun´s actions
would have been seen as definitively heroic. Guðrun was not a shieldmaiden, she
had not chosen to live a life of battle and combat despite her joining her
brothers in battle during Atlamál; she was a wife, and her place was not
necessarily to avenge her kin. Nevertheless, she does. Steblin-Kamenskij, in
his quote, also neglects the idea that these poems could actually be working
against the social ethic.

Some
critics suggest that Guðrún´s solidarity with Atli, her husband, would never
have come into question if he hadn´t made it so that a stronger solidarity came
into fruition. Elisabeth
Vestergaard puts forth the idea that Guðrún’s character is composed of two
roles: the sister and the wife. Until her role she is forced into the singular
role of avenger when her brothers are killed. Atli is married to Guðrún, this means that both she and her
kin are contractually tied to Atli´s family and it goes without saying that
this contract should ensure that both parties are safe from harm from the
other. Jesch states that these bonds are “affinal”
and as Atli laid violent hands upon his wife’s patrilineal kin, Guðrún is
within her right to act with such violence. “Guðrún’s revenge strikes the essential parts of Atli’s
relations of solidarity”15. Throughout the poems Guðrún takes many forms of revenge; she
kills one of Atli’s men, cuts the foot off of his brother and finally serves
Atli his son’s. In Atlakviða Guðrún destroys the affinal relationship
she has with Atli. The sons she kills are evidence to the fact that blood is
thicker than water and her brothers´ death call for severe retribution, her
status as a mother is put aside as it becomes obvious that her sons belong to
the most intimate part of her now enemy and therefore, in killing them, she
offends and destroys Atli as father and as a King. Vestergaard argument seems
to agree with Steblin-Kamenskij’s
argument that Guðrún’s actions are justified and even heroic,
Verstergaard even refers to these acts of violence as “logical”.

Within the poem, little is said about Guðrún killing the two boys before she
presents them to Atli, the horror of the murder is overshadowed by the explicit
detail of the surprising cannibalism. She seems to conform to the societal role
of the wife, as “út gekk þá Guðrún/ Atla
í g?gn…at reifa gi?ld r?gnis”16, to the audience nothing
seems amiss. This in itself should be cause for alarm though as it is obvious
from the start of the poem that Guðrún sought
a different outcome and that now the murderer of her kin returns to her
bedside. Even Dronke seems to agree with this idea as she states that„ outwardly,
she is an attentive hostess, proud of her hospitality, but beneath that control
is disgust and revulsion.”17 The poet seems to hint at
there be violence as the semantic field of darkness is evoked in the later
lines. “glaðr at Guðrúno/gnadda niflfarna”18, the latter loosely
translates to “young beasts gone to the shades”. The use of lexis hear rouses
suspicion that something has gone amiss in this household. Interestingly the
poet has used the term “niflfarna” which is very similar in form to “Niflunga”,
a word used as an almost surname to these people, the suffix of “arna” at the
end of this suggests something small, akin to youthfulness. The suffix is also
very similar to the word fauna and in this sense the sentence makes more sense.
But the prefix “nifl” is very similar if not exactly the same as the byname
“Niflungs” which suggests that something familial has “gone to the shades”,
into darkness, and this is what draws images of hunting and slaughter into the
minds of its readers.

In this latter part of the poem the
poet writes about Guðrún in a
very different way. She is referred to as “afkár dís”19, ´dæmonic woman´, whether
this attitude has come about through grief or anger is unclear. Though we as
readers can empathise with the character and therefore at this stage infer that
her actions are a course of guilt, the later strophe´s suggest otherwise. With
the poet calling Guðrún a
“afkár dís” it makes her seem otherworldly and despite the negative denotation
of this, it inspires awe as a powerfully intimidating figure. This could be why
it is so uncertain if the poet approves or condemns her actions. In her essay
Katie Exell highlights that “violent vengeance is traditionally connected with
male honour, yet Guðrún
subverts this…and
betray anxiety about the consequences of not having sexually divisive,
culturally constructed ideals of honour.”20 There is no clear opinion
either way as to whether the killing of the children is wrong or right.

                                                                “Sona
hefir þinna,

                                                                  sverða deilir,

                                                                  hi?rto hrædreyrog

                                                                  við hunang of tuggin.”21

This is quite a graphic strophe, it is a prime example of domesticated
violence. Battle savagery is an aspect of the public sphere and here it makes
an abrupt entrance into the private sphere of the home and the wifely realm of
the kitchen. There is a cyclical irony in the fact that Guðrún serves her
husband ” hi?rto hrædreyrog”22,
the hearts of his children, given that he took the heart from one of her
brothers it seems that it is fair repayment. Even the language used has
biblical connotations. The inclusion of honey and wine into the narrative is
decidedly religious. Jesus turned water in to wine, God promised lands of milk
and honey to the Hebrews. Yet here these miraculous elements are juxtaposed
with cannibalism and sin. This makes the violence even more harsh and
contrasted, even for a society of people as supposedly violent as the Huns.
There is a darker side to this still, does Guðrún note that they are eaten with
honey because the boys themselves were seen as sweet? If so does that
mean Guðrún feels some level of
remorse for her actions. Cooking their hearts with honey is itself a calculated
act, after killing them Guðrún would have had to take their bodies to the
kitchen and actively decide how to serve them, what to cook them with, and she
chose honey; is there a deeper meaning to this? The boys humanity is stressed in strophe 38, the
way she speaks about these boys suggests that she felt warmth and affection for
them. David Clark notes that this focus “prevents us from seeing them as mere
elements of the plot, so that we appreciate the full enormity of the deed.”23
In stressing their humanity, the poet solidifies the historical value and
validity of this form of storytelling.

Guðrún´s lack of humanity is also brought into light in this strophe as it
is that: “afkárr s?ngr virða…gréto b?rn Húna/ nema ein Guðrún/ er hon æva grét.”24
Guðrún in this moment doesn´t fit the normal behavioural spectrums. Her lack of
emotion makes her seem a monster, unnatural. But arguably her lack of tears
could be understood, she has lost everything: her sons and her brothers.
She is now utterly displaced, and has no attachment left in this court and in
her life. Yet this is a turning point in our portrayal of Guðrún. The poet seems to stray from seeing her as a
victim to displaying her an a less than honourable murder in the final
strophes. There is no detail of the children dying but there is considerable
focus on the death of her husband, Atli. Guðrún appears almost cowardly in her
killing of a defenceless man. In Atlamál the
author carefully makes it clear that Atli was not a tyrannical husband, that
infact “opt var sá leicr betri/ þá er þau lint scyldo/ optarr um faðmaz/ fyr ?ðlingom”25
Atli is shown in a positive light. This makes Guðrún betrayal of their trust
even worse. When she offers out wine and ale, which is actually blood, the men
take it despite having returned from slaughtering her kin. Their quickness
suggests a male sense of trust, an assumption that females would always act in
their best interest..

Guðrún kills an unarmed man: “Hon beð broðði/ gaf blód at drekka”26.
This would reflect poorly on a man, let alone a woman; one who is married to a
King. This is a deplorable act and the fact that her husband has ‘no guard’
against her, shows that she is breaking another level of trust here, a sacred
one between man and wife. She then destroys the only tie she has left to that
land when she burns the hall to ground, with people inside. The most notable to
the author was the shieldmaidens trapped inside. Again this highlights how
dishonoudposdirable her actions were.

In conclusion, the various depictions of Guðrún in these two poems paint a
complex character. Her actions suggest that she understands the difference
between the correct conduct of men and of women, but is willing to transgress
these boundaries when her family is taken from her. As to whether her actions
are heroic or not it is hard to determine. Her actions stem from her rightful
anger that her family was killed, but she in turn acts without honour in
killing her children. Critics such as Exell feel that her actions were entirely
logical, that Atli´s decit outweighs that of Guðrún´s. But she nevertheless
commited murder, of children and unarmed men. This is undoubtably not a heroic
act, despite its ´logical´context. 

 

1
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Legend of Sigurd
and Gudrún. HarperCollins UK, 2010.

2 Exell,
Katie. “Marriage, Oath-breaking, Vengeance, and Parody: Gendered Honour Codes
in Old Norse Literature.” Durham English
Review, vol 3.1 (2015) pg. 20.

3 Dronke, Ursula. Atlamál in The Poetic Edda: Volume I: Heroic Poems. Oxford
University Press: Oxford, 1969. This will be referenced from now on as Atlamál.

4 Atlamál,
p. 80, s. 19, l. 5.

5 Atlamál,
p. 80, s. 19, l. 5.

6 Atlamál,
p. 77, s. 3, l. 5.

7 Atlamál,
o. 78, s. 6, l. 7.

8 Dronke, Ursula. Atlakviða in The Poetic Edda: Volume I: Heroic Poems. Oxford
University Press: Oxford. 1969. This will be referenced from now on as Atlakviða.

9 Atlakviða, p. 7, s. 19, l. 5-6.

10 Atlakviða, s. 9, l. 75

11 Atlakviða
s. 8, l. 63-64

12 Atlakviða
s. 9, l. 75

13 Steblin-Kamenskij, M. I. ‘Valkyries
and Heroes’ in Arkiv f?r Nordisk Filologi. 1982 pg. 97.

14
Clark, David. Gender, Violence and the
Past in Edda and Saga. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pg. 18

15 Verstergaard,
Elisabeth. Kinship and Marriage: The Family, its Relationships and Renewal in The Scandinavians from the Vendel Period to
the Tenth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective ed. By Judith Jesch.
Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2002. Pg. 65

16 Atlakviða s. 34, l. 364-367

17 Dronke.
The Poetic Edda: Volume I: Heroic Poems.

18 Atlakviða s. 34, l. 370-371.

19 Atlakviða
s. 37, l. 380.

20 Exell, Katie.

21 Atlakviða
s. 37, l. 384-387.

22 Atlakviða s. 37, l. 386.

23 Clark, David. Pg. 29.

24 Atlakviða.
S. 39. L. 403-407

25 Atlamál.
S. 40.

26 Atlakviða. S. 42, l. 428-429.

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