Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Nordic Fantasy

That body of Fantasy which draws its heart from the Mythology of the Scandinavian and Teutonic races and incorporates the stories retold in the Sagas. The Nordic Legends formed the religion of the Saxons and Vikings who settled much of Western Europe in the 5th to 11th centuries. Along with Greek and Celtic mythology, the Nordic legends incorporate the biggest body of folk-memory in Western tradition. Their origins are later than Greek, Celtic or Hebrew mythology, probably dating to the early years of the first millennium AD. The Nordic myths suggest vast movements of peoples, as races settled in the northern latitudes. At their core are the adventures of the Aesir, led by Odin, and the Vanir, who invade the Northlands and battle against the Giants or Jotunn, who live in Jottunheim. The Aesir befriend the Dwarfs, who live in Alfheim. The Aesir eventually triumph as the more powerful race and settle in their city of Asgard. The Aesir, who became regarded as the Gods of the Nordic races, were eventually to be destroyed in Ragnarok. The story of the Aesir is told in the Icelandic Eddas, of which the two most important are the Elder Edda (?1090), attributed to the Icelandic historian Saemund (11th century), but probably edited by him from other sources – the manuscript was rediscovered by Brynjulf Sveinsson, an Icelandic bishop, in 1643 – and the Younger Edda or Prose Edda (?1220) by Snorri Sturlason (1179-1241), another Icelandic historian. The latter, the more important of the two, was not rediscovered until 1625. It is from these Eddas that the Volsunga Saga (final form 13th century) is derived, early variants of which in turn structured the final version of the German Nibelungenlied (final shape 1210, but in embryonic form as early as AD960). Both lays feature the same Heroes, though with some slight changes of name – e.g., Sigurd in the Volsunga Saga becomes Siegfried, Gudrun becomes Kriemhild.

Because the Norsemen were strong on ancestor-worship, the early part of the Saga is almost like a Dynastic Fantasy, but the main part of the story centres on the grandchildren of Volsung – the great-grandson of Odin – and in particular on Sigurd. After avenging the death of his father, Sigurd sets out with his tutor Regin, a Wizard, to fight Fafnir (Regin's brother transformed into a Dragon because he had murdered his father to gain his father's treasure). Sigurd defeats Fafnir and learns of the treachery of Regin, whom he also kills. He encounters Brynhild in an ensorcelled sleep in a castle guarded by flame (> Sleeping Beauty); he wakes her and the two are betrothed. Later, though, Sigurd is given a potion of forgetfulness, and instead marries Gudrun, daughter of Queen Grimhild. Distraught, Brynhild seeks Sigurd's death, then kills herself. Sigurd's treasure is buried and lost. Gudrun places herself in exile but later also takes the potion of forgetfulness to rid herself of her memories. She later marries King Atli, the brother of Brynhild, who desires Sigurd's treasure. He summons help to his court but this comes in the shape of Gudrun's brothers, who are ill received. The battle that ensues kills most of the cast. The saga ends in the death of all the main players.

The Nordic and Teutonic myths were readily adopted by the German Romantics, particularly Baron de la Motte Fouqué, who used elements in most of his stories, including the trilogy Der Held des Nordens ["The Hero of the North"] (omni 1810), which inspired Richard Wagner to write the Ring Cycle of Operas and Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863) his dramatic trilogy Die Nibelungen (1862).

William Morris was totally smitten by "the Nordic thing", and studied Icelandic with Eiríkr Magnússon in order to translate the Sagas, travelling to Iceland in 1871 and 1873 to absorb the atmosphere. Although his early prose works, particularly The Roots of the Mountains (1889), use Nordic settings and characters, they do not draw heavily on the Nordic myths, and Morris moved further away in his later writings. The same is true of S Baring-Gould, who produced Grettir the Outlaw (1889) but did not explore the stories further. To this same period belongs Eric Brighteyes (1891) by H Rider Haggard, but this is ostensibly a heroic adventure and not a fantasy.

The world of the Aesir, just before Ragnarok, was lightheartedly explored by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt in "The Roaring Trumpet" (1940 Unknown), later incorporated into The Incomplete Enchanter (fixup 1941), introducing a strain of humour that has since been followed by Tom Holt in Expecting Someone Taller (1987). A more serious treatment of the Norse gods was made by Harry Harrison (1925-2012) and Katherine MacLean (1925-    ) in the novella "Web of the Worlds" (1953 Fantasy Fiction; rev vt "Web of the Norns" 1958 Science Fantasy), in which the Norse Fates argue over the life of a young man. Poul Anderson has often returned to the Nordic legends – utilizing them in The Broken Sword (1954; rev 1971), Hrolf Kraki's Saga (1973) and the Last Viking sequence.

Other examples of fantasies derived from the Eddas and Sagas are: Votan (1966) by John James; the Odan series by Kenneth Bulmer (as Manning Norvil); the Vidar sequence by Michael Jan Friedman; the Bifrost Guardians series by Mickey Zucker Reichert; and the Song sequence by Thorarinn Gunnarsson. A thorough treatment of the whole Nibelungenlied is Rhinegold (1994) by Stephan Grundy, which faithfully follows the legend but seeks to set it within a meaningful historic framework. Diana Paxson has worked along similar lines with her Wodan's Children trilogy.

The Eddas and their offspring are not the only well known Nordic legends. Possibly better known in English-speaking countries is Beowulf. Although of unknown authorship, the tale almost certainly originated in Denmark before the Saxon invasions of Britain, when it was further embellished, reaching its present form around the 8th century (the one extant manuscript dates from circa 1000). Three fantasy novels based on the tale are Beowulf (1961) by Rosemary Sutcliff, Grendel (1971) by John Gardner and The Tower of Beowulf (1995) by Parke Godwin.

The other main series of Teutonic legends revolve around the exploits of Dietrich of Bern, a hero based on the historical figure of Theodoric (?454-526), king of the Ostrogoths. Like Arthur and Sigurd, Dietrich has become larger-than-life, capable of superhuman feats, and doing battle against ogres, giants and dwarfs. Dietrich's adventures appear as early as the 7th-century Hildebrandslied ["Song of Hildebrand"] and he also figures in the Nibelungenlied, but his main Story-Cycle is that brought together in Das Heldenbuch ["The Book of Heroes"] (1472) by Kaspar von der Roen. Because Dietrich is expelled from his homeland by Ermenrich at the start of the story, and remains in exile for 30 years, he may be regarded as an early example of the Accursed Wanderer. His adventures were cast into Folktale form in the Norwegian Thidreksaga ["Theodoric's Saga"] (?1250). Dietrich's exploits have not been the subject of Revisionist Fantasy as often as Sigurd's, but his story was admirably retold in Epics and Romances of the Middle Ages (trans 1883) by Wilhelm Wägner. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.