- The Best Kept Secret:Ransom, Wealth, and Power in Völsunga saga
Northrop Frye writes that “treasure means wealth, which in mythopoeic romance often means wealth in its ideal forms, power and wisdom” (Frye 1957, 193). Are power and wisdom connected to treasure? This paper challenges Frye’s statement by exploring the action of Völsunga saga, a thirteenth-century Icelandic “mythopoeic romance” (what we may consider legendary or heroic literature), to determine if the characters who come into contact with great wealth—as many in the saga do—also attain increased wisdom and power. Not all of the characters do become more wise or powerful from their acquisition of treasure, and the implications that this may have for the literary culture that composed this saga are explored below.
To tackle the issue of how to understand medieval Icelandic culture and look into the past through a narrative text, whether literary or historical, it is important to recognize the worldview of the culture from which the text or document originates, even if such recognition does not lead to complete comprehension. Discussing the medieval view of wealth and labor, Aron Gurevich writes: “If we are to understand the way the ancient Germans and Scandinavians treated precious metals, we cannot approach this problem from a narrowly economic standpoint; we have to see it in the wider context of the spiritual life of peoples making the transition from barbarism to civilisation” (Gurevich 1985, 218).1 In [End Page 365] other words, when looking at a medieval text such as Völsunga saga, it is important to understand the transitory nature of the culture from which the text originated. At the time Völsunga saga is conjectured to have been composed, ca. 1270 (Finch 1965, xxxviii),2 Icelandic society was at the tail end of its transition period to Christianity but fully in the midst of its transition from an autonomous commonwealth to a constituent part of the Norwegian monarchy. This means that during the centuries preceding the appearance of the saga in manuscript form, Icelandic society would have been adjusting its pre-Christian culture to the conventions of Christianity and at the same time becoming part of a kingdom, which, while taking away its independence, completed the transition of Iceland to Christianity by bringing it under the rule of a Christian monarch. Gurevich goes on to state that:
According to concepts still current among them [medieval Scandinavians], the treasures a man owned incorporated in some way his own personal qualities and were intimately bound up with his fortune and happiness. To be deprived of them was equivalent to perishing, to losing one’s most important qualities and one’s prowess as a warrior.(Gurevich 1985, 218)
It is no wonder, then, that the characters of Völsunga saga are willing to go to such great lengths to obtain and maintain their hold on wealth, for it was important to their sense of identity, not merely their economic status; many of them sacrifice their lives in the pursuit of wealth. The fact that at the time of composition of Völsunga saga the Norwegian kingdom was imposing control over economic and political life in Iceland can also account for why the saga represents the struggle for wealth and power in terms of legendary kings fighting one another for control of large amounts of gold. Not only were medieval Icelanders concerned with individual wealth, as will be shown below, but also with how wealth intersected with the monarchy; the interest in the struggle of legendary kings for power reflects the continual negotiations Icelanders had with the Norwegian monarchy throughout the medieval period. [End Page 366]
In medieval Icelandic literature, there are several stories of intentionally hidden hoards of treasure. Völsunga saga concludes with the permanent concealment of the Niflung gold, a mass of wealth that travels through much of the saga and ultimately belongs to no one in the end, for all those who know of its secret location end up dead. Gurevich claims that “gold, as the ancient Germans and Scandinavians saw it, was a materialisation of its owner’s good fortune. Guided by this idea, the Norsemen tried to conceal...