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90 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ian Myles Slater on: An Outstanding Rendering
Jesse L. Byock's translation of the Old Icelandic "Volsunga Saga" -- a prose version of older stories, some surviving in Old Norse poems, including events going back at least to the fall of the Roman Empire -- is the most readily available English-language version, and in my opinion is one of the best -- arguably, the best, period.

"Volsunga Saga," the story of...
Published on January 9, 2005 by Ian M. Slater

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49 of 63 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars better choice available
My original review still stands. I am amending it in the following manner:
There are better translations and better introduction volumes. I would recommend Kaaren Grimstad's translation from the Icelandic text. It has benefit of being a duo language volume with the old Norse and English translation side by side and the introduction is WAY better than Byock's...
Published on February 1, 2001 by Jadepearl


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90 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ian Myles Slater on: An Outstanding Rendering, January 9, 2005
By 
Ian M. Slater "aylchanan" (Los Angeles, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Saga of the Volsungs (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Jesse L. Byock's translation of the Old Icelandic "Volsunga Saga" -- a prose version of older stories, some surviving in Old Norse poems, including events going back at least to the fall of the Roman Empire -- is the most readily available English-language version, and in my opinion is one of the best -- arguably, the best, period.

"Volsunga Saga," the story of the ancestors and deeds of Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, his murder, and the following vengeance, has been translated into English a number of times; a reflection in part of its own qualities as a story, in part of the celebrity of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, portions of which are, rather loosely, based upon it, as well as other Norse and German versions, and Wagner's own notions of what Germanic myths should have been. (The relations between versions of the tales, which seem to have been popular over a wide area for many centuries, are complex. I have discussed some examples in a review of another translation, as "Volsung Saga.")

The Saga differs from the "Nibelungenlied" in more than details, and in being in Old Icelandic prose rather than Middle High German verse; the Icelandic narrative is rich in a sense of personal honor offended, and legal precepts followed or ignored, in places where the German account is very much concerned with the outer signs of rank and feudal hierarchy. Both are equally reflective of reality; but different realities.

William Morris worked up a fine-sounding English version with the assistance of the Icelandic scholar Eirikr Magnusson, first published in 1870; it had a long-lasting paperback edition from Collier Books, beginning in 1962 (also published in a British edition as a Collier-Mac). That version had a good introduction by Robert W. Gutman, but lacked the corrections supplied by Magnusson, and incorporated in May Morris' edition of her father's "Collected Works" in 1911. Morris and Magnusson had the happy thought of including older versions of the story from the "Poetic Edda' (or "Elder Edda"), not then readily available in English translation; particularly those old poems barely summarized in the prose account, or omitted. Unfortunately, as "The Story of the Volungs and the Niblungs; With Certain Songs from the Elder Edda," with or without "Volsunga Saga," as the main or subtitle, it tends to be confused with Morris' own epic poem, "The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs."

Morris was not happy with Wagner's treatment of the story (or with the way it overshadowed his epic); but his translation has been linked to it in edition after edition. I love this version, and wouldn't give up my copy. But the language of the translation, although often beautiful, is rather alien to modern readers. Between Morris' actual mistakes, improvement in text editions, and advances in Icelandic studies, it hardly meets modern standards of reliability. And Morris' archaizing style in his saga translations suggests that the sagas' language is highly wrought and romantically lush, when, by all accounts, the style is notably sparse, and even severe. (I have discussed the style at greater length in a review of a Kessinger digital edition of the translation, the previously-mentioned "Volsung Saga" edition.)

In 1930, the American-Scandinavian Foundation published a new translation by Margaret Schlauch, which instead of Eddic poems included "Ragnar Lodbrok's Saga" and the poem "Krakumal," which follow "Volsunga" in the unique parchment manuscript, and were clearly designed to be part of the same story. (A practice which should have been followed by others, in my view.) It was simpler in style, although not really idiomatic. This was followed in 1965 by R.G. Finch's edition of the Icelandic text with facing translation, and then by George K. Anderson's translation with other supplementary material in 1982 (which I have examined, but not read with care). There were also translations of excerpts, some very appealing, including those by Jacqueline Simpson in "Beowulf and Its Analogues" (1971). Finally, in 2000, there was another bilingual edition for serious students, edited and translated by Kaaren Grimstad (published in Germany; not seen).

Of those older translations that I have seen, I think that Finch's was the most readable, although perhaps a little flat after Morris. There was certain clutter of notes and variant readings on the pages, but the English was clear. Schlauch's should have been easier reading than Morris' version, but slightly eccentric page layout often made it hard to figure out who was speaking to whom at first glance. Unfortunately, the Schlauch, Finch, Anderson, and Grimstad translations all have something else in common: they are out of print.

So, for most purposes, is the venerable Morris; there *is* a premium-priced edition available on Amazon.co.uk (which doesn't seem aimed at the curious reader!), and an on-demand text from Kessinger. The various digital editions being offered also may *all* be this well-out-of-copyright translation; the Kessinger e-book edition follows an 1888 printing, with a long-obsolete introduction, for example (and I assume is, with its misprints, identical to their 'hard copy' version).

But Jesse L. Byock's "The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer" is in print. Fortunately, it *is* a very readable translation, with extremely useful notes, and, having compared it to Morris & Magnusson, Schlauch, and Finch, I am inclined to trust Byock's work, as well as enjoy it. I have found it, in fact, the most easy to follow, while Byock's notes seem reflect a concern for precision in language.

Originally published by the University of California Press in 1990, it was soon issued in paperback with a cover based on an eleventh-century Swedish rune stone depicting the slaying of the dragon Fafnir (on eye-catching red). It was later picked up in Penguin Classics, with a cover showing a detail of a twelfth-century woodcarving of Sigurd and the dwarf Regin reforging the sword Gram. The Penguin edition of 1999 is a little smaller in format, but the two are otherwise identical. (Years ago I used the wider margins of my 1990 copy for notes, and cross-references to other translations; which proved handy in preparing this review.) The UC Press edition has more recently (2002) been reissued, with a rather nineteenth-century romantic version of Vikings at sea; an attractive cover, but not as relevant to the contents. (Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.ca also offer a 1992 Hisarlik Press edition, which appears to have a migration-age shield on the cover.)

The new cover of the UC Press edition also mentions Tolkien and "Lord of the Rings," along with Wagner (and why did they need to wait for Peter Jackson?). Tolkien's parallels to "Volsunga Saga" are clear, although mingled with other sources, and an abundance of Tolkien's own invention. Tolkien, unlike Wagner, could read the sources in their original forms, but he created anew, instead of purporting to retell. The points of contact range from aspects of "The Silmarillion" (mainly Hurin and Turin, where they are mixed with material from the Finnish "Kalevala," but also Beren's wolf-form, and a dragon's curse / prophecy) to the (off-stage) reforging of Narsil / Anduril in "Lord of the Rings." The clearest example is Tolkien's recasting of Sigurd's conversations with Fafnir into the chats with Smaug in "The Hobbit" -- the implicit contrast between Bilbo and Sigurd adds to the comedy for those fortunate enough to know both. (And, yes there is that business of the Ring, and its Curse. As Tolkien said, they are much the same; all of the rings involved are round and shining.)
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43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't put it down--great saga, richly rendered, May 11, 2002
By 
Elliot Frye (London, England) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Saga of the Volsungs (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
It's rare to find a book that's a good read for readers of all stripes, but this is one of the them. History and saga fiends will love the maps and the way Byock's introduction ties the tale into other historical contexts. Lovers of literature will enjoy the prose and a fantastic episodic narrative that builds one story on top of another into a great epic. It helps that Byock's translation is superb--he catches the rhythm and flow of the original Old Icelandic while crafting a very readable text that isn't dry or overworked as some translations can be. The notes, too, provide a wonderful background that enriches the reader's experience of the saga.
This saga is the one to start with. It's a fun saga--with lots of action, and also one of the most important stories in western literature, a Viking Age epic of the hero Sigurd and his wild Volsung kinsmen. Along the way, the famous Attila the Hun and the Gothic horsemen of the steppes enter the story along with others of their ilk.
The Saga of the Volsungs is the core basis of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a professor of Old English and taught Old Norse. In his creative way, he mined the Volsung story for the essential elements of his trilogy. If you want to understand Tolkien as well as Scandinavian myth and legend, then this saga is the best place to get started. The sword that was reforged, the ring of power and its connection with water, the Gandalf character, the origin of the Gollum and Aragorn, elves, dwarves, the riders of Rohan and much more all step off the pages of The Saga of the Volsungs.
I heartily recommend Jesse Byock's translation of The Saga of the Volsungs for new and old readers of the sagas, and of course for the Tolkien fans out there!
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Readable rendering of seminal saga, April 2, 2006
By 
Peter Reeve (Thousand Oaks, CA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Saga of the Volsungs (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
This 13th century Icelandic saga of Sigurd the dragon slayer was rediscovered in 19th century Europe and was a prime source for Wagner's Ring cycle, especially the Siegfried part. Elements will also be found in Tolkien. Personally, I came to Norse mythology through the BBC's Adventures of Noggin the Nog (Did he ever put an end to Nogbad the Bad?).

It is a neglected tradition, as evidenced by the paucity of translations in print. We commonly talk of the Classical (Greek and Roman) and Judeo-Christian roots of our culture, but greatly underestimate the Norse and Celtic influences. The Volsung saga and the Niebelungenlied are among the best known and influential of the medieval epics and if you enjoy one you will probably enjoy the other. You might start with the Volsungs because theirs is the shorter and more coherent story, even though the more mythical and fantastic.

Byock's translation is very readable, reflecting the sparse, unadorned style of the original. His introduction is excellent, especially the notes on Wagner, in which he traces the influence of this work in the Ring.

The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok and The Lay of the Raven follow the Volsung saga in the original manuscripts and form a continuous narrative. So why, as the Volsung saga is quite short, are they not all three published together in one volume? I felt rather short changed. Even so, I heartily recommend this book.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Better then the Nibelungenlied, March 23, 2005
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This review is from: The Saga of the Volsungs (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Admittedly I'm a big fan of the Saga style, which may be why I prefer this, but still, for the general reader the Volsunga Saga is more readable and tells the legendary story far better than the more "famous" German epic. Its simple prose flows along, following the action without a lot of chivalric fluff. There's much more detail in the story and the characters are more believably defined, with motivations slightly different than in the Nibelungenlied. The Volsung Saga is still sketchy at times and contains some abrupt jumps and spots where it seems something is "missing" but overall this is a MUCH more coherent telling of the Nibelung legend. And it's the version most people expect when they turn to the medeival sources: Wagner drew more from the Volsung Saga than he did from the Nibelungenlied for his Ring Cycle of operas. It's a slim book, a very fast & easy read, and I'd recommend it for anyone who's interested in medeival literature and European folklore. The intro is interesting and provides some useful and thought-provoking information about the possible history of the saga. What were the momentous events that passed into collective memory to become the popular Nibelung legend which was known and re-told all over northern Europe? The translator suggests some possibilities which make the saga an even more tantalizing read.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, November 30, 2003
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This review is from: The Saga of the Volsungs (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
If you are looking for a plot synopsis, you won't find it in this review. I'm going to sing the praises of the translation instead and suggest why it might be worth your while to read this short but powerful work.
First off, Jesse Byock has done amazing work with his translation as well as introduction and notes. Altogether it sounds like a lot of hyperbole but he has truly made this saga accessible. So yes, if you want to know where Tolkien and Wagner got some of their inspiration, reading this saga will be a painless way to find out. At the same time, it isn't necessary to have any earlier knowledge of Old Norse society; Byock lays it all out in his introduction, and copious endnotes will help you catch parallels and allusions in the text itself.
For those who are interested in the Icelandic sagas, but who are wary of starting with the epic family sagas (Njala, Egil, and Laxdaela for example), Volsunga is a good place to start. While names may be elusive - and there is, as always, a profusion of characters, many of them minor - Volsunga is much shorter than any of the family sagas. This translation is also lively and active, and not as dry as some of the other saga translations put out by Penguin. I'm not going to say that Norse writing style wasn't terse and rarely descriptive - because that's just a fact of their prose - but Byock has rendered it in such a way that it's hardly problematic.
This is the saga that decided my college major for me - medieval history. It's that powerful!!! :-)
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A memorable favorite, July 9, 2005
This review is from: The Saga of the Volsungs (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
While I've not read other translations of this work, the story itself is excellent. It is a pure human drama with mythic undertones and a consistent sense of the "Norse spirit." It covers multiple generations of the Volsung line, centering primarily on Sigurd the Dragon-slayer, but having other memorable moments as well, such as Sigmund and Signy's revenge on Signy's husband, and the struggle between King Atli (Attila the Hun) and Gudrun's brothers for the gold that belonged to the dragon Fafnir. The war god Odin makes many appearances as well. This story was a major influence on Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, as evidenced by the ill-fated ring and the reforged sword elements in both stories.

Byock includes numerous helpful notes at the end of the book, and leaves the poem's many short verse sections in verse, instead of converting them to prose. As far as I know this is the most recent translation, but there are others as well, most notably that by William Morris.
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49 of 63 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars better choice available, February 1, 2001
My original review still stands. I am amending it in the following manner:
There are better translations and better introduction volumes. I would recommend Kaaren Grimstad's translation from the Icelandic text. It has benefit of being a duo language volume with the old Norse and English translation side by side and the introduction is WAY better than Byock's. Further, the translation seems smoother and more correct from the Norse.
It maybe a little bit difficult to acquire but Grimstad is the volume to work with for both advanced and beginning students of this saga. It includes genealogy charts and notes.
Get Byock used if you can.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An elegant translation, simple and economical, March 20, 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: The Saga of the Volsungs (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Jesse Byock's translation of the Saga of the Volsungs is a wonderful book. Elegant yet simple, Byock has taken care to tell the story as directly and concisely as possible. Many older translations of this text rely on flowery prose to bring the story of Sigurd the Dragonslayer to life. But Byock takes care to present the tale accurately, allowing the text to speak for itself. The introduction to the text, while setting the stage for the story, also provides a look at some of the contemporary adaptations of the Sigurd story, such as Richard Wagner's ring cycle. All lovers of literature will find this translation worthwhile, but readers of fantasy fiction (particularly Tolkien), and those interested in Viking literature will find this to be a must have item!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Translation, November 13, 2006
By 
Jesse Byock's translation of the Völsungasaga manages to be both faithful and readable (not as common a combination as you might think), and it strikes a nice balance in its use of only the most important footnotes (a little more than 100 over the course of the saga). These are usually etymological / onomastic in nature, which was very much to my liking. I would have preferred them to be actual footnotes rather than end notes, actually, but that's just a quibble about having to flip back and forth while reading. Not a big problem, really. The slim volume also packs a great deal of essential historical context into a small but excellent introduction. There's also a nice glossary of most of the proper nouns, and this connects the Anglicized spelling with the original Old Norse forms, which can be helpful for those readers unfamiliar with the orthography. A great edition of an Old Norse classic!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating! This is the REAL THING!, February 5, 2003
This review is from: The Saga of the Volsungs (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
The Saga of the Volsungs is the Norse epic upon which Wagner's Ring Cycle is based. Many authors have claimed The Saga of the Vulsungs as "their own" ... !Now here is your chance to read it as close to source as possible---without learning Old Norse! (World famous historian, Jesse Byock, has done all the work for you!)
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The Saga of the Volsungs (Penguin Classics)
The Saga of the Volsungs (Penguin Classics) by Jesse L. Byock (Paperback - January 1, 2000)
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