By Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir
Speculum, Vol. 87.4 (October 2012)
Introduction: While many readers of medieval literature are likely to be familiar with the narrative motif of the snake pit, and even associate it with the legend of Gunnarr Gjúkason, there are probably not many, apart from Old Norse specialists, who would know the rest of his story. According to the heroic poems of the Edda, and the derived Völsunga saga, Gunnarr is the brother-in-law of Sigurður Fáfnisbani and plays a large part in his saga, Völsunga saga. But as Völsunga saga is first and foremost the story of the Völsungs, including Sigurðr, Gunnarr naturally plays something of a minor role there, being overshadowed by the magnificent and renowned slayer of the dragon Fáfnir. And so, while some people may know who Gunnarr is, they do not necessarily know much about him in his own right.
My aim here is to focus attention on Gunnarr and on the fact that he was not always a minor character. On the contrary, he played a major role, if not the leading role, in the legend of the fall of the ancient kingdom of Burgundy. This story—the “Burgundian legend”—is in turn one of the legends on which works such as Þiðreks saga af Bern, Völsunga saga, and the older poems on the same subject, for example, Atlakviða, Háttalykill inn forni, and Atlamál (Atlamál in grænlensku)—and also the German Nibelungenlied—are based. In other words, this independent tradition developed into a part of a greater whole, a sort of episode (þáttr) dealing for the most part with the fates of the siblings Gunnarr, Högni, and Guðrún after the death of Sigurðr Fáfnisbani. One of the best-known events in the Burgundian legend, which in a Norse context is more familiar as Gjúkungasögnin, is without doubt the death of Gunnarr.
Let us recall the part played by Gunnarr in the Burgundian legend according to Völsunga saga and how he met his death:
After Sigurðr has killed the dragon Fáfnir and taken its gold, he visits the valkyrie Brynhildr; they fall in love and swear certain oaths to each other. He then proceeds to the court of King Gjúki, where he befriends his two sons, Gunnarr and Högni. As Queen Grímhildr sees certain advantages in keeping this young man and his treasure in the royal house, she makes him a magic potion that causes him to forget Brynhildr and fall in love with Guðrún, the king’s daughter, and he marries her. He then supports Gunnarr in wooing Brynhildr, and deceiving Brynhildr in the process. However, Grímhildr’s schemes do not lead to happiness at all, but rather to a great deal of harm; Sigurðr is eventually killed by Guðrún’s brothers, who decide to keep his treasure and give Gurðrún to Atli, King of the Huns.
Later on, Atli invites his brothers-in-law, Gunnarr and Högni, to a feast, his intention being to gain control of Fáfnir’s treasure, the hoard of gold that Sigurðr Fáfnisbani had won. When the brothers refuse to surrender the treasure or to say where it is, a fight breaks out, which ends with Gunnarr and Högni being put in chains. Atli then orders Högni’s heart to be cut from his breast, while Gunnarr is thrown into a snake pit. Guðrún has a harp sent to him, which he plays in order to lull the serpents, but is killed when a large and malignant serpent penetrates to his heart. This is the story of how Gunnarr came to his tragic end.