Helgakviða Hundingsbana II – The Second Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer

Völsungakviða in forna, Helgakviða Hundingsbana II or the Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane is an Old Norse poem found in the Poetic Edda. It constitutes one of the Helgi lays together with Helgakviða Hundingsbana I and Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar.

Henry Adams Bellows maintains in his commentaries that it is a patchwork of various poems that do not fit well together, but stanzas 28-37 and 39-50 are held to be among the finest in Old Norse poetry.

Introductory Note:

As the general nature of the Helgi tradition has been considered in the introductory note to Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar, it is necessary here to discuss only the characteristics of this particular poem. The second Helgi Hundingsbane lay is in most respects the exact opposite of the first one: it is in no sense consecutive; it is not a narrative poem, and all or most of it gives evidence of relatively early composition, its origin probably going well back into the tenth century.

It is frankly nothing but a piece of, in the main, very clumsy patchwork, made up of eight distinct fragments, pieced together awkwardly by the annotator with copious prose notes. One of these fragments (stanzas 13-16) is specifically identified as coming from “the old Volsung lay.” What was that poem, and how much more of the extant Helgi-lay compilation was taken from it, and did the annotator know more of it than he included in his patchwork? Conclusive answers to these questions have baffled scholarship, and probably always will do so. My own guess is that the annotator knew little or nothing more than he wrote down; having got the first Helgi Hundingsbane lay, which was obviously in fairly good shape, out of the way, he proceeded to assemble all the odds and ends of verse about Helgi which he could get hold of, putting them together on the basis of the narrative told in the first Helgi lay and of such stories as his knowledge of prose sagas may have yielded.

Section I (stanzas 1-4) deals with an early adventure of Helgi’s, -in which he narrowly escapes capture when he ventures into Hunding’s home in disguise. Section II (stanzas 5-12) is a dialogue between Helgi and Sigrun at their first meeting. Section III (stanzas 13-16, the “old Volsung lay” group) is another dialogue between Helgi and Sigrun when she invokes his aid to save her from Hothbrodd. Section IV (stanzas 17-20, which may well be from the same poem as Section III, is made up of speeches by Helgi and Sigrun after the battle in which Hothbrodd is killed; stanza 21, however, is certainly an interpolation from another poem, as it is in a different meter. Section V (stanzas 22-27) is the dispute between Sinfjotli and Gothmund, evidently in an older form than the one included in the first Helgi Hundingsbane lay. Section VI (stanzas 28-37) gives Dag’s speech to his sister, Sigrun, telling of Helgi’s death, her curse on her brother and her lament for her slain husband. Section VII (stanza 38) is the remnant of a dispute between Helgi and Hunding, here inserted absurdly out of place. Section VIII (stanzas 39-50) deals with the return of the dead Helgi and Sigrun’s visit to him in the burial hill.

Sijmons maintains that sections I and II are fragments of the Kara lay mentioned by the annotator in his concluding prose note, and that sections IV, VI, and VIII are from a lost Helgi-Sigrun poem, while Section III comes, of course, from the “old Volsung lay.” This seems as good a guess as any other, conclusive proof being quite out of the question.

Were it not for sections, VI and VIII the poem would be little more than a battle-ground for scholars, but those two sections are in many ways as fine as anything in Old Norse poetry. Sigrun’s curse of her brother for the slaying of Helgi and her lament for her dead husband, and the extraordinary vividness of the final scene in the burial hill, have a quality which fully offsets the baffling confusion of the rest of the poem.