Brynhildr and Guðrún by the Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860 – 1920)
In this scene from the Völsunga Saga, Brynhildr and her sister-in-law Guðrún are bathing in the river. Brynhildr – who is married to King Gunnar -- tells Guðrún, “My husband rode through fire to claim me. Your Sigurðr is nothing beside that. Go, wash downstream. I’m too good to use your rinse water for my bath.”
She was picking a fight.
Long before he met her, Guðrún’s husband Sigurðr killed a dragon, listened to the advice of a couple of birds and rode through a ring of fire to claim the Valkyrie Brynhildr. He woke her with a kiss and together they pledged eternal love. But Sigurðr needed more than a single dragon-killing on his resume, so off he went to make a name for himself. As he travelled, he fell in with Gunnar and his brother Hogni. The three young men pledged eternal blood-brotherhood and the two Burgundians took Sigurðr home.
Gunnar’s mother immediately plotted to add Sigurðr – and the dragon’s treasure – to her family. She brewed and served an ale that made him not only forget Brynhildr but fall madly in love with her own daughter, Guðrún. After the wedding, the scheming old queen decided that her son Gunnar should marry Brynhildr. But Brynhildr had returned to her ring of fire to wait for the brave man who had ridden his brave horse through the flames.
Her son was not the right man and his horse was not the right horse. At his mother’s urging Gunnar tried riding Sigurðr’s horse. The beast would have none of him. The old queen cast many spells and managed a shape-change between Sigurðr and Gunnar. The horse thought he was carrying Sigurðr through the flames. Brynhildr, when she woke, saw Gunnar and thought he was the right man.
After Gunnar married Brynhildr the two couples lived together in the same Hall. The magic had blurred her memory but Brynhildr suspected that something was not quite right. She kept picking fights with Guðrún.
Finally she goaded her sister-in-law into telling the truth – all of it. During the subsequent eruption, Sigurðr tried to bring peace to the Hall by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Brynhildr threatened to return to her family if Gunnar did not kill Sigurðr. Gunnar caved and had Sigurðr murdered in his bed. Brynhildr then killed herself and the two lovers rode to Óðinn’s Valhalla on the flames of their funeral pyre.
What a story. It’s like an opera. Wait – it has been turned into an opera! It’s also a story that with historical roots that reach back to the fifth and sixth centuries CE.
The chronicles of that time speak of a pair of sisters-in-law, one named Brunhild. The historical Brunhild and her nemesis Fredegnde each fought to protect her own son’s inheritance in Merovingian Gaul (which is approximately today’s France). Brunhild lost big-time. Fredegunde’s followers killed her in an especially gruesome fashion. They tied her to four wild horses and let the beasts run wild. The results were bloody, to say the least.
The story of the historical Brunhild is only one of the many bits of shiny information I gathered as I worked on my thesis. I was an academic pack rat. Finally, after reading reams of my prose, my advisor asked, “Why are you telling me this?” Clearly it was time to get organized.
So I procrastinated by binge-watching not only the “Lord of the Rings” but the making of the “Lord of the Rings. It turned out this was not actually procrastination but a vital step in understanding what I was trying to do. I had always known that storytelling is more than words. What matters is the movie inside my head. As I watched all the enthusiastic artists designing and building the world of “Lord of the Rings” I realized that I didn’t need external designers to help me build my story world. It was all in my dragon’s trove of random information.
Brynhildr lives on in popular culture. Googling her name produces pictures of substantial opera stars and scantily clad young ladies, all wearing horned helmets. None of these ladies have anything to do with my story world but something about the tale of the doomed historical Brunhild, who ruled as regent for both her son and her grandson and fought so fiercely to maintain her power, had entered the repertoire of the wandering storytellers of the era. They made changes, but the theme of battling sisters-in-law remained. My understanding of the doomed historical Brunhild helped me build the Brynhildr of my story world.
Research is fun! Procrastination is useful!
I grew up in a family of compulsive readers. My mother allowed my brother and me to read anything and everything we could get our little hands on. (I didn’t discover the high cupboard where she stashed the really good stuff until I was about twelve.)
This is not to say that there weren’t any rules associated with reading. My early interest in the New Yorker magazine gave rise to: “If you have to ask, you are too young to understand (so don’t ask)!” Reading instead of doing homework or chores was Very Bad and resulted in Confiscation of Books. And reading while unloading the dishwasher, setting the table or folding laundry was Inefficient and resulted in Shouting about Books.
Sometimes my mother, my brother, and I all tried to read the same book at the same time. In that case, the book in question could not be squirrelled away out of reach of the other readers.
When I was about eleven, Mom had to yell: “Harriet, do you have Euripides in your bedroom?”
I did. Not Euripides in the flesh (dude’s been dead for a long time), but in the form of the third volume of The Complete Greek Tragedies. This gorgeous set of four books arrived at our house courtesy of a book club (the Amazon of the 1950’s). Aeschylus was bound in light orange, Sophocles in a slightly darker shade of orange, and the two volumes of Euripides were in dark and darkest orange. Mom started with Aeschylus and I started with Euripides. Since she didn’t have to waste any reading time going to school, she caught up with me.
By then I had met my first murdering mother. I refused to return Volume III of The Complete Greek Tragedies until I had finished reading Medea.
(Even if Medea was the one who ended up crowded into the edge of the scene on the ceramics.)
Medea helped Jason steal the Golden Fleece from her father. She encouraged him to steal her, as well. She did her best to get rid of the man who had usurped the throne that should have been Jason’s. And then, in Corinth, she gave him sons.
She did everything she could for the man she loved and he dumped her to marry a princess. He also had the gall to reminder her that she was a “barbarian” and that his new marriage would benefit her children. As far as I was concerned, Medea had every right to kill that princess and her father (with a poisoned dress and crown no less). She also had the right to make Jason suffer.
She unleashed one bad-ass revenge on that husband of hers. Even though it grieved her, even though she did not want to kill her sons, she had no choice. Not only did she kill her sons, she refused to let Jason have their bodies.
We all look at stories through the lenses we craft from our own stories – those we have lived and those we have heard. At eleven, I had only the lens of my growing understanding that the world is not always fair to women to apply to Medea.
Now I see Medea through a whole set of lenses. The world was not fair to her, and her own actions and the expectations her culture backed her into a corner where all her decisions were impossible. She was a victim. She was a monster. She was a bereaved mother all at the same time.
I am beginning to suspect that these lenses, built from story and experience are a vital part of the process of working with the stories that are difficult to craft and distressing to tell. Understanding the lenses helps me understand the story.