A Story From: Norway
Read Time: ["20+mins"]
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs., 12 to 14yrs.
The Epic of Siegfried-Short Story for Kids
Part One – The Hoard of the Glittering Heath
YOUNG PRINCE SIEGFRIED, who hailed from the south where the Rhine River pours into the great North Sea, rode with grand anticipation into the broad mid-world upon his fine horse Greyfell. The sun shone bright above him, the air was soft and pure, the earth seemed very lovely and life a gladsome thing. His heart was big as he thought of the days to come, deeds of love and daring, of the righting of many wrongs, the people’s praise, and the glory of a life well lived.
After many days he reached the woodland dwelling of Regin, the wonder blacksmith to whom his father, the king, had sent him as a boy to learn the skill of smithing. “All work is noble,” the king had told his son. “Even a prince of the noble Volsung race, as you are, should know how to earn a livelihood by the labor of his hands.” Remembering those years Siegfried now thought, “Regin, my old master who taught me the art of blacksmithing, is very wise. He knows of deeds that were done when the world was young and my kin were the mightiest of men. I’ll go to him and hear what grievous evil it is that should be righted in the world.”
Regin, when he saw the lad and his steed Greyfell standing like a vision of light at his door, welcomed them most gladly. He led Siegfried into an inner room where they sat down together.
“Truly,” said the master, “the days of my long waiting are drawing to a close, and at last the deed shall be done.” A look of longing came into his eyes. His pinched face seemed darker and more wrinkled than before and his thin lips trembled with emotion as he spoke.
“What is that deed of which you speak?” asked Siegfried.
“It is the righting of a grievous wrong,” answered Regin, “and the winning of treasures untold. Lo, I remember when under my care you fashioned the flawless sword Balmung – I daresay the finest sword an apprentice has ever wrought and one I could not match myself – I wondered if you were the one. And now my heart tells me the hero so long hoped for is here, and the wisdom and the wealth of the world shall be mine.”
“But what is the wrong to be righted?” asked Siegfried. “And what is the treasure you speak of as your own?”
“Alas!” answered Regin. “Listen awhile to a tale of the early days.”
And then he told Siegfried this story –
When the earth was still very young, when men were feeble and few and the Dwarfs many and strong, the great Odin, along with his two companions – faithful Hoenir and the mischievous Loki – would sometimes leave the towering halls of Asgaard behind so they could visit the newly-formed mid-world and see what the short-lived sons of men were up to. On one such visit they became fully human and amused themselves in wandering through the woods. Many were the everyday yet fascinating sights, and among them was an otter fishing for a salmon; on an impulse Loki hurled a stone at the otter, killing it. Later that night the three of them, seeking shelter at a farmhouse, learned that Loki had mistakenly killed that very farmer’s son, who for mere pastime had taken the form of a furry otter. “Murderers!” cried the farmer. Quickly his two sons Fafnir and Regin, sturdy and valiant kin of the dwarf-folk, bound the three strangers hand and foot. Having taken upon themselves the forms of men, the great men of Asgaard had no more than the human strength and could not resist.
The three prisoners could only ask what sort of ransom would win their release. The farmer, not knowing whom he had bound, called his sons and bade them to strip the skin from the otter’s body. When this was done, they brought the furry hide and spread it upon the ground. Said the farmer, “Bring enough gold and precious stones to cover every part of this otter skin. When you have paid that much ransom, you shall have your freedom. If you cannot, we will do with your lives as we please.”
Lots being cast, it fell to Loki to fetch the treasure. When he was loosened from the cords, he donned his magic shoes that had carried him over land and sea from the farthest bounds of the mid-world, and hastened away. He knew that his only chance was to capture from Andvari, the cunning dwarf king, the legendary treasure in his possession known as the Glittering Hoard. Yet this he could do only with the help of a magic net owned by the covetous queen of the ocean deep, Queen Ran.
Loki’s magi shoes carried him over the water in search of the ocean-queen. He had not gone far when his sharp eyes spied her, lurking near a rocky shore against which the breakers dashed with frightful fury. Queen Ran had met Loki once before when he was a guest in her husband’s gold-lit halls. When he asked the queen, however, to borrow her magic net for a special purpose, she flatly refused. “Should I do so,” said she, “I might lose the richest prize that has ever come into my husband’s kingdom. For three days now, a gold-rigged ship, bearing a princely crew with rich armor and abundant wealth, has been sailing carelessly over these seas. Tomorrow I shall send my daughters and the bewitching mermaids to decoy the vessel among the rocks. And into my net the ship, and the brave warriors, and all their armor and gold, shall fall. A rich prize it shall be. No, I cannot part with my net, even for a single hour.”
But Loki knew the power of flattering words.
“Beautiful queen,” said he, “there is no one on earth, nor even in Asgaard, who can equal you in wisdom and foresight. Yet I promise you that if you will but lend me your net until the morning dawns, the ship and the crew of which you speak shall be yours, and all their golden treasures shall deck your azure halls in the deep sea.”
Then Queen Ran carefully folded the net and gave it to Loki.
“Remember your promise,” was all that she said.
“We of Asgaard never forget,” said he.
He turned his face toward the Rhineland and the magic shoes bore him aloft to the place where he knew Andvari lived with the elves who guarded the greatest hoard of treasure known in the mid-world. He scanned with careful eyes the mountainside, the deep rocky caves, and the dark gorge through which the River Rhine rushed, at its very start no wider than a meadow brook. But in the dim moonlight not a living being could he see, save one lazy salmon swimming in the quiet eddies of the stream. Anyone but Loki would have lost all hope of finding the dwarf king Andvari there, at least before the dawn of day, but his wits were quick and his eyes were very sharp.
“One salmon brought us into this trouble, and another shall help us out of it!” he cried. He unfolded the magic net and cast it into the stream. The cunning fish tried hard to avoid being caught in its meshes, but dart every which way, the skillfully woven cords drew themselves around him and held him fast. Loki pulled the net up out of the water and grasped the helpless fish in his right hand. Lo! as he held the struggling creature high in the air it was no longer a fish, but indeed, the sly dwarf-king Andvari.
“King of the Elves,” cried Loki, “your cunning has not saved you. On your life, tell me where your hidden treasure lies!”
The wise dwarf knew whom it was that held him as in a vise and he answered frankly, for it was his only hope of escape. “Turn over the stone upon which you stand. Beneath it, you’ll find the treasure you seek.”
Loki put his shoulder to the rock and pushed with all his might. Suddenly it turned over as if by magic. Underneath was a wondrous chamber of walls that shone brighter than the sun, and on the floor lay a treasure of gold and glittering gemstones such as no man had ever seen. Loki, in great haste, seized upon the hoard and placed it in the magic net he had borrowed from the Ocean-queen. Then he came out of the chamber, put his shoulder to the rock that lay at the entrance, and it noiselessly swung back to its place.
“What is that upon your finger?” suddenly cried Loki. “Would you keep back part of the treasure? Give me that ring!”
But the dwarf king Andvari shook his head. “I have given you all the riches the elves of the mountain have gathered since the world began,” he said. “This ring I cannot give, for without its help we will never be able to gather any more treasure.”
Loki grew angry at these words and seized the ring, tearing it by force from Andvari’s fingers. Shaped like a serpent, the ring coiled around with its tail in its mouth; its scaly sides glittered with tiny diamonds and its ruby eyes shone with an evil light. When the dwarf king knew that Loki really meant to rob him of the ring, Andvari cursed it and all who should ever possess it, saying – “May the ill-gotten treasure that you seized tonight be your bane, and the bane of all to whom it may come, whether by fair means or by foul! And the ring, which you have torn from my hand, may it entail upon the one who wears it sorrow and untold ills, the loss of friends, and violent death! The Norns – the witches who rule the fates – have spoken and thus it must be.”
These dire curses did nothing to darken the black heart of Loki. If the fate of others would be cursed, what was it to him? He threw the magic net, heavy with treasure, over his shoulders and sprang into the air. Just before dawn, he alighted at farmhouse door where Odin and Hoenir still lay bound, guarded by Fafnir and Regin.
The farmer brought the otter’s skin and spread it upon the ground. Lo! it grew and spread out on all sides until it covered an acre of ground. The farmer cried out, “Fulfill your promise! Cover every hair of this hide with gold or with precious stones. If you fail to do this, then your lives, by your own agreement, will be forfeit and we shall do with you as we choose.”
Odin took the magic net from Loki’s shoulder. Opening it, he poured the treasures of the mountain-elves upon the otter skin. Loki and Hoenir spread the golden pieces carefully and evenly over every part of the furry hide. But after every piece had been laid in its place, the farmer saw near the otter’s mouth a single hair remained uncovered and he declared that unless this hair, too, were covered, the bargain would be unfulfilled, and the treasures and lives of his prisoners would be forfeited. The three looked at each other in dismay, for not another piece of gold, and not another previous stone, could they find in the net, although they searched with the greatest care. At last Odin took from his vestcoat the ring which Loki had stolen from the dwarf, for he had been so highly pleased with its form and workmanship that he had hidden it, hoping it would not be needed to complete the payment of the ransom. And they laid the ring upon the uncovered hair. Now no portion of the otter’s skin could be seen. Fafnir and Regin, the ransom being paid, loosened the shackles of Odin and Hoenir and bade the three huntsmen to go on their way.
Odin and Hoenir at once shook off their human disguises. Taking their own forms again, they hastened with all speed back to Asgaard. But Loki tarried a little and said to the farmer and his sons, “By your greediness and falsehood you have won for yourselves the Curse of the Earth, which lies before you. It shall be your bane. It shall kindle strife between father and son, between brother and brother. It shall make you mean, selfish, beastly. It shall transform you into monsters. The noblest shall feel its curse. Such is gold, and such it shall ever be to its worshippers. The ring itself shall impart to its possessor its own nature. Grasping, snaky, cold, unfeeling, shall he live, and death through treachery shall be his doom.”
Then he turned away, delighted that he had thus left the curse of Andvari with the farmer and his sons. He hastened northward toward the sea, for he wished to return the magic net and fulfill his promise to Queen Ran.
No sooner were the strange huntsmen well out of sight than Fafnir and Regin began to ask their father to divide the Glittering Hoard with them.
“By our strength and through our advice,” said they, “this great store has come into your hands. Let us place it in three equal heaps, and then let each take his share and go his way.”
At this the farmer waxed very angry. He loudly declared he would keep all the treasure for himself, and that his sons should not have any portion of it whatever. So Fafnir and Regin, nursing their disappointment, went to the fields to watch their sheep, but their father sat down to guard his new-gotten treasure. He took in his hand the glittering serpent ring and gazed into its cold ruby eyes. As he gazed, all his thoughts were fixed upon his gold and there was no room in his heart for anything else. As he continued to look at the snaky ring, a dreadful change came over him. The warm red blood, which until that time had leaped through his veins, and given him life and strength and human feelings, became purple and cold and sluggish. Selfishness, like serpent’s poison, took hold of his heart. As he kept gazing at the hoard that lay before him, his body lengthened into many scaly folds and he coiled himself around his loved treasures – the very likeness of the ring upon which he had gazed so longingly.
When the day drew near its close, Fafnir came back from the fields with his herd of sheep, thinking to find his father guarding the treasure as he had left him in the morning. Instead, he saw a glittering snake, fast asleep, encircling the Glittering Hoard like a huge scaly ring of gold.
His first thought was that the monster had devoured his father. Hastily drawing his sword, with one blow he severed the serpent’s head from its body. While the creature writhed in his death-agony, the son gathered up the Hoard and fled with it. On the seventh day, he came to a barren heath far from the homes of men. There he placed the treasures in one glittering heap, and he clothed himself in a wondrous mail-coat of gold that was found among them, and he put on the Helmet of Dread, which had once been the terror of the mid-world, and the like of which no man had ever seen. Then he gazed with greedy eyes upon the fateful ring until he, too, was changed into a cold and slimy reptile – a giant snake-monster. And he coiled himself about the Hoard. With his restless snake eyes forever open, he gloated day after day upon his beloved gold and watched with ceaseless care that no one should come near. This was ages and ages ago, and still he wallows among his treasures on the heath, and guards as of yore the wealth of the dwarf king Andvari.
When I, Regin, the younger brother, came back in the late evening to my father’s dwelling, I saw that the treasure had been carried away. When I beheld the dead serpent lying in its place, I knew that a part of Andvari’s curse had been fulfilled. A strange fear came over me. I left everything behind and fled from that dwelling, never more to return. Then I came to the land of the Volsungs, where your father’s fathers dwelt – the noblest king-folk that the world has ever seen. But a longing for the gold and the treasure, a hungry yearning that would never be satisfied, filled my soul.
For a time I sought to forget this craving. I spent my days in the getting of knowledge and in the teaching of men the ancient lore of my kin, the Dwarfs. I taught them how to plant and sow, and how to reap the yellow grain. I showed them where the precious metals of the earth lie hidden, and how to smelt iron from its ores, and from the molten ore how to shape a ploughshare, a spade, a spear and a battle-axe. I taught them how to tame the wild horses of the meadows, how to train the yoke beasts to the plow, how to build lordly dwellings and mighty strongholds, and how to sail in ships across the sea. But the humans gave me no thanks for what I had done. As the years went by, they forgot who had been their teacher. They said that it was others who had given them this knowledge and skill. I tried to keep feelings of spite from welling up from inside me. And so I turned my mind to other matters and taught young maidens how to spin and weave, and the men how to fashion the tales of old into rich melodious songs, and I taught the young and in love how to compose their feelings into poetry, but they all say now that others had delivered them these gifts. At last my heart grew bitter because of the neglect and ingratitude of men. The old longing for Andvari’s hoard came back to me. But I lived on and on, and generations of short-lived men arose and passed, and still the hoard was not mine, for none was strong enough to help me.
Then I sought the wisdom of the Norns, the three witches of the Past, the Present and the Future, who weave the threads of our fates. “How long,” asked I, “must I hope and wait in weary expectation of that day when the wealth of the world and the wisdom of the ages shall be mine?”
The Norns answered, “When a prince of the Volsung race shall come who shall excel thee in the craft of blacksmithing, and to whom shall ride a shining helper, then the days of your weary watching shall cease.”
Here Regin ended his story, and both he and Siegfried sat for a long time silent and thoughtful.
“I know what you wish,” said Siegfried at last. “You think that I am the prince of whom the witch sisters spoke; and you would have me slay the snake monster Fafnir and win for you the hoard of Andvari.”
“It is so,” answered Regin.
“But the Glittering Hoard is accursed,” said the lad.
“Let the curse be upon me!” was the answer. “Is not the wisdom of the ages mine? And do you think I cannot escape the curse? Is there anything that can prevail against he who has all knowledge and the wealth of the world at his call?”
“Nothing but the word of the Norns,” answered Siegfried.
“But will you help me?” asked Regin, almost wild with earnestness. “Will you help me to win that which is rightfully mine, and to rid the world of a horrible evil?”
“Why is the hoard of Andvari more yours than Fafnir’s?”
“He is a monster and a snake, and he keeps the treasure but to gloat upon its glittering riches. I will use it to make myself a name upon the earth. I will not hoard it away. But I am weak, and he is strong and terrible. Will you help me?”
“Tomorrow,” said Siegfried, “be ready to go with me to Fafnir’s heath. The treasure shall be yours, and also the curse.”
“And also the curse,” echoed Regin.
So early the next morning, Siegfried mounted Greyfell and rode out toward the desert land that lay beyond the forest and the barren mountain range. Regin, his eyes flashing with desire and his feet never tiring, trudged by his side.
On the eighth day, they came to the open country. The land was hilly, covered with black boulders and broken by yawning chasms. No living thing was seen there, not even an insect nor a blade of grass, and the silence of the grave was over all. The earth was dry and parched and there was neither shade nor water anywhere. But Siegfried rode on and faltered not, although he grew faint with thirst and with the overpowering heat. Toward the evening of the next day they came to a dark mountain that stretched far out on either side and rose high above them, so steep that it seemed to forbid them going farther.
“This is the wall!” cried Regin. “Beyond this mountain is Fafnir’s heath and the goal of all my hopes.”
The little old man ran forward and scaled the rough side of the mountain and reached its summit, while Siegfried and Greyfell toiled among the rocks at its foot. Slowly and painfully they climbed the steep ascent, sometimes following a narrow path that wound along the edge of a precipice, sometimes leaping from rock to rock or over a deep gorge, and sometimes picking their way among the crags and cliffs.
The sun went down and one by one the stars came out and the moon rose, round and red, by the time Siegfried and Greyfell stood by Regin’s side and gazed from the mountaintop down upon Fafnir’s heath which lay beyond. And a strange, weird scene it was that met his sight. At the foot of the mountain was a river – white and cold and still in the pale moonlight – and beyond it was a smooth and barren plain, lying silent and lonely. But in the distance was a circle of flickering flames, ever changing. As Siegfried gazed upon the scene, he saw the dim outline of a hideous snake monster sliding hither and thither, and seeming all the more terrible in the uncertain light.
“It is he!” whispered Regin. His lips were ashy pale and his knees trembled beneath him. “It is Fafnir, and he wears the Helmet of Terror!”
Siegfried dashed down the eastern slope of the mountain, leaving Greyfell and the trembling Regin behind. Soon he stood on the banks of the white river that lay between the mountain and the heath. The stream was deep and sluggish and the channel was very wide and so he paused, wondering how he should cross. The air seemed heavy with deadly vapors and the water was thick and cold. While he stood in thought, a boat came silently out of the mists and drew near. The boatman stood up and called to him. “What man are you who dares come into this land of loneliness and fear?”
“I am Siegfried,” answered the laid, “and I have come to slay Fafnir, the Terror.”
“Sit in my boat,” said the boatman, “and I will carry you across the white river.”
Siegfried sat by the boatman’s side. Without the use of an oar and without a breath of air to drive it forward, the little vessel turned and moved silently towards the farther shore.
“In what way will you fight the snake monster?” asked the boatman.
“With my trusty sword Balmung I shall slay him,” answered Siegfried.
“But he wears the Helmet of Terror. He breathes deathly poisons, and his eyes dart forth lightning. No man can withstand his strength.”
“I will find some way to overcome him.”
“Then be wise and listen to me,” said the boatman. “As you go up from the river you will find a road, worn deep and smooth, starting from the water’s edge, and winding over the moor. It is the trail that Fafnir follows at dawn each day to slake his thirst at the river. Dig a pit in this roadway that is narrow and deep, and hide yourself within it. In the morning, when Fafnir passes over it, let him feel the edge of Balmung.”
As the man ceased speaking, the boat touched the shore and Siegfried leaped out. He looked back to thank his unknown friend, but neither boat nor boatman was to be seen.
He went forward along the riverbank until he came to Fafnir’s trail – a deep, wide furrow in the earth, just as the boatman had described. At a point not far from the river, Siegfried, with his trusty sword Balmung, scooped out a deep and narrow pit as he had been directed. When the gray dawn began to appear in the east, he hid himself within the trench and waited for the coming of the snake-monster. He had not long to wait, for no sooner had the sky begun to redden in the light of the coming sun than the hissing of the serpent-tongued monster threatened in the distance. It came closer and closer, winding its way along the path like a whirlwind in the forest. Then a black, inky mass rolled above him and all was dark. This was the moment to strike. The bright edge of Balmung gleamed in the darkness one moment, then it smote the heart of Fafnir as he passed. The monster stopped short, for sudden death had overtaken him. His horrid head fell lifeless upon the ground, the Helmet of Terror tumbled off, and streams of thick black blood flowed from his wound and filled the trench in which Siegfried was hidden. Had he not quickly leapt from his hiding place, he would have been drowned in the slime.
The Terror was dead. As the lad leaned upon his sword and thought of the deed he had done, behold! his shining steed Greyfell stood by his side. And Regin, his face grown wondrous cold, came trudging over the meadows. When his old master drew near to look upon the slain monster, Siegfried kindly approached him but he seemed not to notice. A snaky glitter lurked in his eyes and his mouth was set and dry, and he seemed as one walking in a dream.
“It is mine now,” he murmured, “all mine – the Hoard of the elf-folk, the garnered wisdom of the ages. The strength of the world is mine.”
His eyes fell upon Siegfried and his cheeks grew dark with wrath. He cried out, “Why are you in my way? I am the lord of the Glittering Hoard! I am its master and you are my thrall.”
Siegfried wondered at the change that had taken place in his old master, but he only smiled at his strange words and made no answer.
“You have slain my brother!” Regin cried. His face grew fearfully black and his mouth foamed with rage.
“It was my deed and yours,” calmly answered Siegfried. “I have rid the world of a Terror. I have righted a grievous wrong.”
“You have slain my brother,” said Regin, “and a murderer’s ransom you shall pay!”
“Take the Hoard for your ransom, and let us each wend his way,” said the lad.
“The Hoard is mine by rights,” answered Regin still more wrathfully. “I am the master, and you are my thrall. Why do you stand in my way?”
Blind with madness, he rushed at Siegfried as if to strike him down, but his foot slipped in a puddle of gore and he pitched headlong against the sharp edge of Balmung. So sudden was this movement, and so unlooked for, that the sword was twitched out of Siegfried’s hand. Regin, slain by his own rashness, fell with a dull splash into the blood-filled pit before him. Full of horror, Siegfried turned away and mounted Greyfell.
“This is a place of blood,” said he, “and the way to glory leads not through it. Let the Glittering Hoard stay on the heath. I will go my way and the world shall know me for better deeds than this.” He turned and left his sword Balmung behind, thinking perhaps because it had been fashioned under the care of the twisted Regin, it may not be the proper companion for him on his right-minded adventures.
Siegfried turned his back on the fearful scene and rode away. So swiftly did Greyfell carry him over the desert and the mountains that by nightfall they reached the shore of the great North Sea. There he stayed and at daybreak, when Siegfried gazed towards the west, a white ship with sails all set came speeding over the waters toward him. It came nearer and nearer and the sailors rested upon their oars as it glided into the quiet harbor. The vessel touched the sands and the crew leapt upon the beach.
“Hail, Siegfried the Golden!” cried the harper. “Whither do you fare this summer day?”
“I have come from a land of horror and dread,” answered the lad. “I wish now to venture to a brighter place.”
“Then go with me,” said the harper. He touched the strings of his harp and strains of the softest music arose in the still morning air. Siegfried stood entranced, for never before had he heard such music.
“Tell me who you are,” he cried, “and I will go to the ends of the earth with you.”
“I am Bragi,” answered the harper, smiling. He was as fair of speech as he was skillful in song. Right gladly did Siegfried agree to sail with Bragi over the sea, for he sensed that the bright and wise musician would be a very different guide from the cunning, evil-eyed Regin. So he went onboard with Bragi, with the gleaming Greyfell behind, and the sailors sat at their oars. Bragi stood in the prow and touched the strings of his harp. As the music arose, the white sails leaped up the masts and a warm south breeze began to blow. The little vessel sped gladly away over the sea.
Part Two – The Original Sleeping Beauty
THE SHIP of the gentle musician Bragi glided silently over an unknown sea until at last it reached a sandy beach. The sailors moored the ship to shore, and Siegfried and the harper sat together in the ship, staring in silence at the land. For silence brooded in the very air – there was no sound, no bird nor any moving, living thing. There was a castle in the distance but it seemed to be wrapped in slumber; its sentinels stood like statues of stone upon the ramparts.
Seigfried looked in vain for any movement or sign of wakeful life. Not a breath of air was stirring. The leaves of the trees hung motionless as if they, too, were asleep. The great green banner on the tower’s top clung around the flagstaff as if it had never fluttered to the breeze. No song of birds, nor hum of insects, came to their ears. There was no sound or motion anywhere.
“What is the meaning of this, good Bragi?” said Siegfried.
Bragi told this story. It was about one of the Valkyries, handmaidens to Odin, whose job it was to deliver the slain heroes on the battlefield to the great hall in Asgaard. There they’d feast and cavort until the day when they would be called to fight for Odin in the final great battle at the end of the world. However one of the Valkyries, Brynhild, was willful and sometimes snatched the doomed from death or even helped her chosen friends to victory. Odin became angry with her and condemned her to live the life of a mortal woman in the remote land of Isenland (Iceland). As Brynhild wandered among the world of humans, weary and alone over the earth, the good old King of Isenland saw her beauty and her distress, and pity and love moved his heart. As he had no children of his own, he took her for his daughter and made her his heir. Not long afterward he died, and the matchless Brynhild became queen of all the fair lands of Isenland. When Odin heard of this he was angrier still. He caused the maiden to be stung with the thorn of Sleep. He said: “She shall sleep until one shall come who is brave enough to ride through a circle of fiery flames and battle a dragon to awaken her.”
All of Isenland slept too, because Brynhild, the Maiden of Spring, lay wounded with the Sleepful thorn.
When Siegfried heard this story, he knew that the land that lay before them was Isenland, and that it was Brynhild who slept in the distant castle.
“To awaken such a sleeper,” said Bragi, “a hero strong and brave must ride through the flames and defeat a dragon that protects the palace door. It is for this that I brought you here. You may take this sword. Now I will leave you while I sail onwards to brighten other lands with my music.”
Siegfried’s heart leapt with gladness for he thought that here, at last, was a worthy deed for him to do. He bade his friend Bragi good-by and stepped ashore and his horse Greyfell followed him. Bragi sat at the prow of the ship and played his harp again, the sailors plied their oars, and the little vessel moved swiftly out of the bay and was seen no more. Siegfried stood alone on the silent, sandy beach. The full moon rose white and its light fell on the quiet water, the sloping meadows and the green turrets of the castle. He decided that on the morrow he would at all hazards perform the perilous feat.
As soon as the gray dawn appeared the next morning, Siegfried began to ready himself for his difficult undertaking. But when he gazed at the red flames he began to hesitate. The distant roar of the dragon signaled that even from such a distance, the monster sensed danger approaching and was readying itself for battle. While our hero stood thus in doubt, his eyes were dazzled by a sudden flash of light. Greyfell, his loyal horse, came dashing across the sands and from his long mane a thousand sunbeams gleamed and sparkled in the morning light. Siegfried had never seen the wondrous creature so radiant. As the steed stood by him in all his strength and beauty he felt new hope and courage. He hesitated no longer but mounted the noble steed. Greyfell bore him swiftly over the plain and did not pause until he had reached the brink of the burning moat.
Now, indeed, Siegfried’s heart would have failed him if he hadn’t been cheered by the sunbeam presence of Greyfell. For filling the wide, deep ditch, were angry, hissing flames that twisted and writhed like fiery snakes with a mind of their own. And within the snapping flames loomed a dragon whose own breaths of fire shot out and felt about here and there for whatever it might devour. Siegfried boldly dashed upon his horse into the fiery lake.
As the youth approached, the hideous dragon bounded toward him with bloodshot eyes, gaping mouth and flaming nostrils. His sharp, curved claws dug deep into the soft earth and his bat-like wings flapped in the air, propelled a rush of hot wind that nearly blinded Siegfried. Yet he crouched upon Greyfell, holding tight his sword. On came the hastening feet and the flapping wings. Then the battle – Siegfried’s glancing blow against the creature’s side only enraged the beast, and the dragon knocked our hero off his horse and sent him rolling to the ground. The beast rushed in for the kill, its red flaming nostrils seeming to engulf its prey. Then Siegfried kicked a small boulder aside, and as the creature turned away to see what had made the sudden noise, with all his might Siegfried thrust his sword clear through the dragon’s neck. The beast heaved and swirled in heavy dizziness till finally it collapsed in a heap. Then with a final, gruesome shudder, the creature fell silent.
The vile flames encircling the castle licked around their protector. Realizing their master had fallen, the flames sizzled in dismay and fled in shame. Unscorched and unscathed, Siegfried rode through the moat, through the wide-open gate, and into the castle yard.
The gatekeeper sat fast asleep in his lodge while the chains and heavy keys lay rusted at his feet. Neither he nor the sentinels on the ramparts above stirred or awoke at the sound of Greyfell’s clattering hoofs. As Siegfried passed from one part of the castle to another, many strange sights met his eyes. In the stables, the horses slumbered in their stalls and the grooms lay snoring by their sides. The watchdogs with fast-closed eyes lay stretched at full length before the open doors. In the garden, the fountain waters no longer played, the bees had gone to sleep among the blossoms of the apple trees, and the flowers themselves had forgotten to open their petals to the sun. In the kitchen, the cook was dozing over the half-baked meats in front in front of the smoldering fire. In the pantry, the dairymaid was quietly napping among the milk pans, the butler was snoring, and even the houseflies had gone to sleep over the crumbs of sugar on the shelves. In the great banquet room a thousand knights, overcome with slumber, sat silent. Their chief, sitting on the dais, also slept with his half-emptied goblet at his lips.
Siegfriend passed hurriedly from room to room and from hall to hall and cast but one hasty glance at the strange sights that met him at every turn. For he knew that none of the drowsy ones in that spacious castle could be awakened until he had aroused the princess Brynhild. In the grandest hall of the palace he found her. The exquisite maiden, most richly adorned, reclined upon a couch beneath a gold-hung canopy, and her attendants, the ladies of the court, sat near and around her. Her breathing was so gentle that, but for the blush upon her cheeks, Siegfried would have thought her dead. For long, long years had her head thus lightly rested on that gold-fringed pillow, and in all that time neither her youth had faded nor her wondrous beauty had waned.
Siegfried stood beside her. Gently he touched his lips to the matchless lips and softly he spoke her name – “Brynhild!”
The charm was broken. Up rose the peerless princess in all her queen-like beauty, and up rose the courtly ladies round her. All over the castle, from cellar to belfry tower, from the stable to the banquet-hall, there was a sudden awakening – a noise of hurrying feet and mingled voices, and sounds which had long been strangers to the palace halls. The watchmen on the tower yawned and would not believe they had been asleep. The porter picked up his keys and hastened to lock the long-forgotten gates. The horses neighed in their stalls; the watchdogs barked at the sudden hubbub; the birds, ashamed at having allowed the sun to find them napping, hastened to seek their food in the meadows. The servants hurried here and there, intent upon their duties. The warriors in the banquet hall clattered their knives and plates and began again their feast, and their chief dropped his goblet and rubbed his eyes, wondering how sleep could have overtaken him in the midst of such a meal.
Siegfried, standing at an upper window, looked out over the castle walls. He saw that flames no longer raged in the moat. Instead, it was filled with clear sparkling water. The south wind blew gently from the sea and the breezes whispered among the trees. The flowers opened their petals to the sun, and birds and insects made the air melodious with their glad voices. Brynhild, radiant with smiles, stood by the hero’s side, and welcomed him kindly to Isenland and to her green-towered castle.
Part Three – Siegfried in the Land of Nibelungen
FOR SIX MONTHS Siegfried tarried in the enchanted world of Isenland in one long round of merrymaking and gay enjoyment. Then he grew tired of his life of idleness and ease and wished that he might go out again into the busy world of adventure and worthy deeds. Day by day this feeling grew stronger and filled him with unrest.
One morning, he sat along by the seashore and watched the lazy tide come creeping up the sands. Suddenly a flash of light came from behind him. He turned and the beaming Greyfell, his long mane sparkling like a thousand sunbeams, dashed up the beach and stood beside him. As his noble steed in all his strength and beauty stood before the youth, Siegfried felt fresh courage. He looked toward the sea again and saw in the blue distance a white-sailed ship drawing swiftly near, its golden dragon-stem plowing through the waves like some great bird of the deep.
The ship drew near shore and the sailors rested on their oars. Siegfried and Greyfell sprang upon the deck. At that, the sailors silently bent again to their rowing. The flapping sails were filled and tightened by the strong west wind and the light vessel leapt from wave to wave like a thing of life until the tall towers of the palace of Isenland faded from sight in the mist.
Siegfried and his noble steed seemed to be the only living beings on board, as the sailors who plied the oars were so silent and phantom-like that they appeared to be nothing but the ghosts of summer sea breezes.
When the day had passed and evening twilight had come, Siegfried saw that the ship was nearing land, but it was a strange land. Like a fleecy cloud, it appeared to rest above the waves midway between the earth and the sky. A dark mist hung upon it and it seemed a land of dreams and shadows. The ship drew nearer and nearer to the mysterious shore. As it touched the beach, the sailors rested from their rowing. Siegfried and the horse Greyfell leaped ashore but when they looked back, the fair vessel that had carried them was nowhere to be seen. The thick mists and the darkness of night closed over and around both hero and horse, They dared not stir, but stood long hours in the silent gloom, waiting for the coming of the dawn.
At length morning came, but the light was not strong enough to scatter the fogs and thick vapors that rested upon the land. Siegfried mounted Greyfell, and as the sunbeams began to flash from the horse’s mane and from the hero’s glittering suit of armor, the hazy clouds fled upward and away.
Elves and fairies hid in every leafy tree and behind every blade of grass, and cunning dwarfs lurked under every rock and in every crevice. But Siegfried rode straightforward until he came to the steep side of a shadowy mountain. There at the mouth of a cavern, a strange sight met his eyes. Two young men, dressed in princes’ clothing, sat upon the ground. Their features were all haggard and gaunt and pinched with hunger, and their eyes wild with wakefulness and fear. All around them were heaps of gold and precious stones – more than what a hundred wagons could carry. And neither of the two princes would leave the shining hoard for food or close his eyes in sleep, lest the other might seize and hide some part of the treasure. Thus they had watched and hungered through many long days and sleepless nights, each hoping that the other would die, and that the whole inheritance might be entirely his.
When they saw Siegfried riding near, they called out to him. “Noble stranger, stop a moment! Come and help us divide this treasure.”
“Who are you?” asked Siegfried, “and what treasure is it that lies there?”
“We are the sons of King Nibelung, who until lately was king of this Mist Land, known as Nibelungen,” faintly answered the princes. “Our names are Gunnlaug and Schilburng.”
“What are you doing here with this gold and these glittering stones?”
“This is the great Hoard of Nibelungen, which our father, King Niblung, not long ago brought from the Southland. It’s not clear just how he obtained it. Nor does it matter, as our father is now dead. We brought the hoard out of the cavern where he had hidden it so we could share it between us equally. But we cannot agree and we beg you to help us divide it.”
Siegfried dismounted from his horse Greyfell and approached the two princes.
“I will gladly do as you ask,” said he, “but first I must know more about your father – who he was and how did he come upon this treasure?”
Gunnlaug answered as well as his feeble voice would allow, “From the earliest times, our father was the ruler of this land, and the lord of the fog and the mist. Many strongholds and noble halls he had in this land, and ten thousand brave warriors were ever ready to do his bidding. The trolls, the elves of the mountains and the giants of the cloudy peaks were his vassals. But he did more than rule over the Nibelungen Land. Twice every year he crossed the sea and rambled through faraway lands, and now and then he brought rich trophies back to his island home. The last time, he brought this treasure with him but, as we have said, it is not clear how he obtained it. We have heard men say that is was the Hoard of Andvari, and that when Fafnir, the dragon who watched it, was slain, the hero who slew him left it to be taken again by the swarthy elves, but because of a curse which Andvari had placed upon it, no one would touch it, until some man would assume its ownership, and take upon himself the risk of incurring the curse. This thing, it is said, our father did. We heard that the dwarf Alberich undertook to keep it for our father; and he, with the help of ten thousand elves who live in these caverns, and the twelve giants whom you see standing on the mountain peaks around, guarded it faithfully so long as our father lived. But when the king died, we and our thralls fetched it forth from the cavern and spread it here on the ground. Lo! for many days we have watched and tried to divide it equally. But we cannot agree.”
“What pay will you give me if I divide it for you?” asked Siegfried.
“Name what you will have,” answered the princes.
“Give me the sword that lies between you on the glittering heap.”
Then Gunnlaug handed him the sword and said, “Right gladly will we give it. It is a worthless blade that our father brought from the Southland. They say that he found it also on the Glittering Heath in the trench where Fafnir was slain. And some will have it that it was forged by Regin, Fafnir’s own brother. But how that is, I do not know. At any rate, it is of no use to us; for it turns against us whenever we try to use it.”
Siegfried took the sword. It was -no doubt – his own lost Balmung that he had fashioned so painstakingly in his youth under the guidance of Regin, the wonder blacksmith. It was the very sword he had left behind after accomplishing Regin’s dark mission of slaying his own brother Fafnir. Now, if he should earn back Balmung by helping these two princes, surely the stain would be cleansed and the magnificent sword would be wholly his own again.
So Siegfried began the task of dividing the treasure. The two brothers, so faint from hunger and want of sleep that they could scarcely lift their heads, watched him with anxious, greedy eyes. First he placed a piece of gold by Gunnlaug’s side, and then a piece of like value he gave to Schilbung. This he did again and again, until no more gold was left. In the same manner he divided the precious gemstones until none remained. The brothers were much pleased. They hugged their glittering reassures and thanked Siegfried for his kindness and for the fairness with which he had given to each his own.
But one thing was left which had not fallen to the lot of either brother. It was a ring of curious workmanship – a serpent coiled, with its tail in its mouth, and with ruby eyes glistening and cold.
“What shall I do with this ring?” asked Siegfried.
“Give it to me!” cried Gunnlaug.
“Give it to me!” cried Schilbung.
But the effort was too great for them. Their feet slipped beneath them, their arms fell helpless at their sides, their limbs failed. They sank fainting, each upon his pile of treasures. Gunnlaug, calling up the last spark of life left in his famished body, cried out to Siegfried, “Give me the ring! – the ring, I say!” He pressed his pale lips to the cold and senseless metal, whispering “My dear, dear gold!” Then he died.
“Now you are mine – all mine!” Schilbung laughed as only madmen laugh. He kissed the hard stones and tried to grip them in his arms. But suddenly his hands trembled and failed. He shrieked, then fell lifeless upon his hoard of sparkling gems.
A strange, sad sight it was – boundless wealth and miserable death – two piles of yellow gold and sunbright diamonds, and two thin, starved corpses stretched upon them.
“O gold, gold!” cried the hero sorrowfully, “truly thou art the mid-world’s curse – the bane of man.”
But Siegfried had little time for thought and speech. A strange sound was heard upon the mountainside. The twelve great giants who had stood as watchmen upon the peaks above were rushing down to avenge their fallen masters and to drive the intruder out of Nibelungen Land. Siegfried mounted Greyfell and with the sword Balmung firmly in hand, he rode forth to meet his foes. With fearful threats and hideous roars, the giants strode toward him. Sunbeams flashed from Greyfell’s mane and dazzled the dull eyes of the giants, unused as they were to the full light of day. Suddenly full of doubt, the giants paused and then again came forward. But they mistook every tree in their way for an enemy and every rock they thought a foe, and in their fear they fancied a great host to be before them. They dropped their heavy clubs and stood ashamed and trembling, not knowing what to do. Siegfried made each one swear to serve him faithfully and then he sent them back to the snow-covered mountain peaks to stand again as watchmen at their posts.
Now another danger appeared. The dwarf Alberich, the master of the elves who had guarded the Nibelungen Hoard, came out from his cavern, saw the two princes lying dead beside their treasures, and thought that Siegfried had murdered them. When he beheld the giants driven back to the mountaintops, he lifted a little silver horn to his lips and blew a shrill bugle call. The little brown elves came trooping forth by the thousands – from under every rock, from the nooks and crannies and crevices in the mountainside, from the deep cavern and narrow gorge, they responded to the call of their chief. At Alberich’s word, they formed battle lines around the Glittering Hoard and the bodies of their late masters. Siegfried was pleased and surprised at the sight of them, for never before had he viewed such a host of pygmy warriors.
The elves became suddenly silent and Siegfried noticed that Alberich no longer commanded the front lines but had strangely vanished from sight.
“Ah, cunning Alberich!” cried the hero, mounting his horse, the noble Greyfell. “I know your tricks. No doubt you have donned the cloak of darkness, which hides you from sight and makes you as strong as twelve common men. But come on!”
Scarcely had he spoken when he felt a shock that almost sent him reeling from his saddle, and made Greyfell plunge about with fright. Quickly, Siegfried dismounted. With every sense alert, he waited for the second blow of the unseen dwarf. It was plain that Alberich wished to strike him unawares, for many minutes passed in utter silence. Then a brisk breath of wind passed by Siegfried’s face and he felt another blow, but by a quick downward movement of his hand, he caught the plucky elf-king and tore off the magic cloak. With firm grasp, he held the dwarf king, struggling in vain to get free.
“Ah Alberich!” he cried, “I know your cunning. But the cloak I must have for my own. What will you give for your freedom?”
“Worthy prince,” answered Alberich humbly, “you overcame me fairly in fight and made me your prisoner. I and all of mine, as well as the treasure, rightfully belong to you. We are yours and you we shall obey.”
“Swear it!” said Siegfried. “Swear it and you shall live and be the keeper of my treasures.”
Alkberich made a sign to his elfin cavalry and every spear was turned point downwards, every tiny shield was thrown to the ground, and the ten thousand little warriors kneeled and acknowledged Siegfried to be their rightful master and the lord of Nibelungen Land, and the owner of the Hoard of the Glittering Heath.
By Alberich’s orders, the elves carried the Hoard back into the cavern, and there kept faithful watch and ward over it. And they buried the starved bodies of the two princes on the top of the mist-veiled mountain. Heralds were sent to all the strongholds in Nibelungen Land, proclaiming that Siegfried, though his wisdom and might, had become the true lord and king of the land. Afterwards the prince, riding on the beaming Greyfell, went from place to place, scattering sunshine and smiles where shadows and frowns had been before. And the Nibelungen folk welcomed him everywhere with glad shouts and music and dancing. Thousands of warriors and many noble earls came to meet him and pledged their loyalty to him. The pure brightness of his hero-soul and the gleaming sunbeams from Greyfell’s mane lifted the curtain of mists and fogs that had so long darkened the land, and let in the glorious glad light of day.
If You Like This Story You Will Love:
Based on The Story of Siegfried by James Baldwin, published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1882. The above version was retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2007. All rights reserved.
Siegfried, also called Sigurd, was a legendary hero of Norse mythology. The above retelling by Elaine Lindy is based on a version James Baldwin published in 1913, and Baldwin's rendering, in turn, was based on several medieval sources. One, the Völsunga Saga, is a 13th century Icelandic prose rendition of the origin and decline of the Volsung clan (including the stories of Siegfried and Brynhild). Scholars believe the Völsunga Saga was based on real events in Central Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries. Another original source is Nibelungenlied, a Middle High German epic poem.
Several details of note:
- In the Völsunga Saga, when Siegfried kills Fafnir (depicted as a dragon), he bathes in the dragon's blood and this forms a protective shield. However a leaf sticks against his shoulder and that area remains vulnerable. Later, Siegfried dies by a blow to this spot, a plot device harkening to the ancient story of Achilles.
- In the story of awakening the sleeping Brynhild, unlike the "happily ever after" ending in the classic fairytale Sleeping Beauty, Siegfried doesn't marry Brynhild. Though he gives her the (accursed) ring as a token of betrothal, he is driven by wanderlust and leaves Isenland and Brynhild behind. Venturing to Burgundy, he befriends its king, King Gunther. When Gunther hears that a faraway queen named Brynhild, in search of her lost betrothed, is calling for a contest and the victor will win her hand, he insists on going. Siegfried, aided by the invisibility cloak he had snatched from the dwarf Alberich, helps Gunther to prevail. Knowing Gunther is a lesser man, Brynhild suspects a trick but cannot prove it and must marry him. Meanwhile, Siegfried, after drinking a potion of memory loss served to him by King Gunther's mother, falls in love with Gunther's sister, the lovely Gudrun, and the two of them marry. Later, the two queens, Brynhild and Gudrun, quarrel when Gudrun taunts Brynhild for having secured the better husband. Thus Brynhild discovers it was Siegfried, not King Gunther, who had been responsible for Gunther's winning the contest and that she had been tricked after all. Furious that her "life was wrecked," she plots revenge and convinces her husband, King Gunther, that Siegfried is plotting to kill him. Gunther (or in some versions, Gunther's brother Hagen) kills Siegfried by a blow to the vulnerable spot in his back. Brynhild throws herself upon the funeral fire. Gudrun avenges her husband's death in a gruesome manner and later marries a secession of other kings, following their murders, etc., including one who was believed to be Atilla the Hun.
- The trials caused by the cursed ring may have been the inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien's "One Ring" in the latter's fantasy book, The Lord of the Rings.