Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Icelandic Hogni: The Re-Imagining of a Nibelung Hero in the Eddic Tradition

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Icelandic Hogni: The Re-Imagining of a Nibelung Hero in the Eddic Tradition

Article excerpt


Much critical attention has been paid to the character of Hagen in the Nibelungenlied and much ink spilt in various attempts to reconcile the murderer of the early part of the poem with the heroic warrior of the latter aventiures, (3) Franz Bauml identified Hagen as "the archetypal 'dark figure,'" a concept he defined as

ambiguous, a combination of significant virtue with significant evil for a purpose which may itself be ambiguous, but the achievement of which demands a capacity of understanding, evaluation, knowing which exceeds that of other figures. Both, the combination of significant virtue and evil, and the superior knowledge and understanding of the figure, imply a certain demonic ingredient. (Bauml 1986, 89)

Certain analogues of the German Hagen, such as Efnysien in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, also demonstrate just such a mixture of evil and virtue. Efnysien, half-brother of Bran, king of Britain, senselessly mutilates the horses of the Irish king, Matholwch, upon learning that he is to marry his sister, Branwen, and later murders Gwern, his sister's son, yet he is redeemed in the final battle through his self-sacrifice, which destroys the Irish Cauldron of Rebirth. When seeking a northern parallel to the "dark" Hagen, however, it is not to Hogni, his nominal counterpart in the Icelandic incarnation of the Nibelung legend, that Jesse Byock turns but to Egill Skalla-Grimsson, who demonstrates all the necessary characteristics of a "dark figure" (Byock 1986, 152).

Byock's choice is entirely understandable since the Icelandic Hogni has not the requisite darkness to be considered a "dark figure." Most obviously, Hogni does not appear in the eddic accounts of Sigurdr's death as the slayer of Sigurdr. This is especially significant since it is the slaying of Siegfried that acts as the defining moment for Hagen in the Nibelungenlied, cementing his "dark" reputation in later scholarship. (4) The effect of making Hogni innocent of Sigurdr's murder in the Poetic Edda is to make him less problematic, arguably even less complex, as a character. Edward Haymes has noted that

there is some indication that the figure of Hagen may have been as much of a problem for the medieval reader as he is for us, since both the Nibelungenklage and the C version of the Lied make some attempt to clarify his status, to make him conform to an acceptable "mode of intelligibility." Both texts attempt to do this by making him more clearly a villain. (Haymes 1986a, 73)

Hogni in the Icelandic tradition posed no such problem; there is no ambiguity in him, nothing to condemn.

Even were we to accept Haymes's qualification that Hagen is a "dark figure" not so much because of his personal traits but "largely because he is a liminal figure, a hero who is at once mortal and in touch with the other world" (1986b, vi), there is still no comparison. Hogni is central to the Gjukung dynasty in the Poetic Edda. There is never any indication in any of the poems that Hogni is not the full brother of both Gunnarr and Gudrun, as opposed to the half-brother of Pioreks saga (5) (Gudni Jonsson 1951, chap. 169) or the close kinsman, yet vassal, of the Nibelungenlied. (6) Given the significance accorded to the perception of social status in the Nibelungenlied (it being Siegfried's masquerade as Gunther's vassal that causes the queens to quarrel), the import of such a social disparity between the two depictions should not be undervalued. Equally important, there is nothing supernatural about Hogni in the Poetic Edda; on the contrary, the picture in Atlamal in graenlenzku (7) of Hogni surrounded by wife, sons, and brother-in-law is unusually prosaic and domestic. He is certainly not endowed with the supernatural parentage he is accorded in Pidreks saga (chap. 169), nor does he experience any encounters with supernatural beings such as the nixies in the Nibelungenlied. Any notion of liminality as regards Hogni must be dismissed. …

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