Dragons, giants, and dwarves: Didrik saga translated into English

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CUMBRIA, England — For Didrik of Bern, battling a queen who shape-shifts into a dragon, dueling with giants who wield iron bars, fighting alongside the son of Weland the smith, and hanging out with Attila the Hun were all in a day’s work.

The exploits of King Didrik, a legendary, heroic, but not always victorious warrior, were told in the Middle Ages in Germanic regions and Scandinavia. The saga of Didrik (also called Dietrich in German or Thidrek in Old Norse) was written down in Norway in the 13th century, and a Swedish version was written around 1500.

For years the only English version was a 1988 translation of the Old Norse text by E. R. Haymes, titled The Saga of Thidrek of Bern. That book is out of print, and copies on Amazon run from $369 to $2,034.

English readers can now follow the adventures of Didrik thanks to Ian Cumpstey, a British editor, translator and former chemist who has translated the Swedish text and a related tale into The Saga of Didrik of Bern, with the Dwarf King Laurin (Northern Displayers, Skadi Press, August 2017, 338 p.)

Cover of the new English translation of The Saga of Didrik of Bern [courtesy].

Cumpstey earned a degree in chemistry in his native England and taught eight years at universities in Sweden, where he learned the language even though he wasn’t required to do so. He was “struck by the amount of singing that goes on” in Swedish public life, and he would join in on guitar and sing in Swedish, Cumpstey said in an email interview from his home in Cumbria in northwest England.

He soon “discovered this huge number and rich variety of surviving Scandinavian ballads,” he said. “I have always been interested in myths and legends, and I found it fascinating that some of the Scandinavian ballads told versions of old legends that survived in other forms. There is only one ballad that tells a story about the Norse gods — The Hammer Hunt — but there are others that tell stories of human heroes and trolls that also appear in the Poetic Edda (an Icelandic medieval manuscript that scholars consider the most important source on Norse mythology and Germanic heroic legends).

“Some of the ballads are about Didrik of Bern, and so I wanted to read more about this legendary figure. I read the old Swedish text, and I thought about doing a translation so that others would be able to read these legends as well.”

Scholars speculate that the Didrik tales may have been based on the historical Gothic King Theoderic the Great, but there is no conclusive evidence of that, Cumpstey said.

No gods or goddesses are named in the saga of Didrik, but the warrior king does live in a magical universe inhabited by giants, dwarfs, dragons, and other mythical creatures who can shape-shift, fly and pull of other amazing feats. A translation of The Dwarf King Laurin is included because it contains a Didrik tale.

In the following interview, Cumpstey (who is not Pagan) talks about rescuing Didrik for the English-speaking world, and relates some of his favorite tales of the warrior.

The Wild Hunt: You write that you wanted to make the Saga of Didrik “more widely accessible.” How well-known and-or well-read is his saga today in Scandinavia? Is a book of his adventures readily available in bookstores there, like Beowulf is in the U.S. and Britain? Are there Scandinavian movie or TV versions?

Ian Cumpstey: It’s a good question. I will give a roundabout answer. As well as the Scandinavian saga and ballads, which were probably based on the saga, the Didrik legend is the basis for a number of old German poems. These don’t tell a whole life story of Didrik as the Scandinavian saga does, but each one tells about a single adventure. Some of these episodes correspond to parts of the saga, and some do not.

It is usually believed that the Didrik Saga, or Thidrek Saga, was composed in Norway around the 13th century based on such German legends. There does seem to be some knowledge of the legend in Scandinavia before this, though, as he is mentioned very briefly in the Poetic Edda in a context that is entirely consistent with the Didrik saga.

I think the legend of Didrik is probably best known in Germany, where he is known as Dietrich von Bern. There are certainly several 20th- and 21st-century retellings and novelizations of parts of the legend in German. In modern Scandinavia, Didrik is probably better known than in the English-speaking world, but nevertheless I think quite obscure.

TWH: You believe the saga of Didrik deserves an English audience. Why? Its historical value? Is it just a “rousing good tale?”

IC: I think both! I do think it is a good story, and it can also be pretty funny in places.

Legends about Didrik were popular in Scandinavia and Germany in the Middle Ages and beyond. You can see the popularity of the Didrik legends in Germany by the fact that they made it into print a lot earlier than the now more popular Nibelungen legend.

From the point of view of historical value to those interested in English history, there are legendary figures who are mentioned briefly in Anglo-Saxon sources who are given a lot of context by this saga. Weland, Eygil, and Wade are perhaps some of the better known of these, but Wideke and Heym are major players in the Didrik saga, and without the saga their names would mean little.

TWH: What are some of the mythical and magical creatures in the saga?

IC: There are a few different dragons in the story. They are always portrayed as vicious, terrible beasts that are not good to meet. In one episode, Didrik and his companion have to rescue a warrior from out of a dragon’s mouth. Sometimes the dragons are actually humans who have taken on dragon form. For example, a queen who was particularly skilled in magic summoned an army of dragons and bears to help her husband in one battle. She herself took the form of a dragon and flew above the battlefield. Unfortunately for her she was quite worn out by her own magic, and died shortly afterwards.

There are several giants in the saga. Four of them are brothers, and they appear throughout the story. One of the brothers is so wild that he has to be kept in chains at all times, and is only unleashed for battle. The giants tend to fight with iron bars rather than swords, and unfortunately for them they seem to be quite inaccurate in how they swing their bars!

The giants are not all wild though. Wade is a giant who was born of a mermaid and a Swedish king, and he wanted a quiet life for himself and his son Weland.

Ian Cumpstey [courtesy].

TWH: I was surprised that Weland (also Wayland) the smith appears in the Didrik saga – I had thought he was an old English mythological figure only. The tale also says Didrik was exiled at the court of Attila, King of the Huns?! What can you tell us about how Weland and especially Attila show up in old German, Norse and Swedish tales?

IC: From what we know, there is a lot of overlap in the old legends of the Anglo-Saxons with those of the Norse and continental Germanic peoples. . . . the Norse myths are by far the best-preserved of these, partly due to a late Christianization, and partly due to the work of some individuals in writing them down.

Weland the smith is one of those characters who appears in the Poetic Edda and the Didrik Saga. His predicament is mentioned in the Old English poem Deor, and he appears on Anglo-Saxon carvings such as the Franks casket. In England, his name is also associated with the Neolithic site Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire.

The version of the Weland story that is told in the Poetic Edda in “Volundarkvida” is probably one that many people are familiar with nowadays, wherever they are in the world: it ends with Weland taking revenge on King Nidud for hamstringing him, and then escaping by flying through the air. The Didrik saga tells a rather fuller version of this legend. It explains how Weland became a smith in the first place — his father was a peaceful giant who felt that it was important for his son to learn a trade, so he apprenticed him with two dwarfs under a mountain.

It tells of how Weland came to be at King Nidung’s court, how he forged an unbeatable sword with the help of some geese as part of a bet with another smith, and how he got into the situation where King Nidung felt the need to hamstring him in the first place. Weland is portrayed quite well in this version of the story!

Weland’s son, by Nidung’s daughter, was called Wideke, and he went on to become one of Didrik’s best warriors.

Some of the old Germanic legends seem to be based, at least in part, or loosely, on events that happened to the Germanic/Gothic peoples around the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire. The legendary figure of Didrik is usually taken to be based on the historical ruler of the Goths known as Theoderic the Great, and Bern is usually interpreted as Verona, in modern-day Italy, which was called Bern in Old German. Attila the Hun also appears in these legends, though the real Attila did not overlap in time with Theoderic.

The legend of Sigurd and the Nyfflings is one of those that survives in different versions. There is the Norse Volsungasaga, along with some poems from the Poetic Edda, the German Nibelungenlied, and then the version in the Didrik saga. Attila (also known as Atli or Etzel) is a key player in this legend. He marries Sigurd’s widow Crimilla, also known as Gudrun or Kriemhild, and then invites her brothers to visit as part of a scheme to get Sigurd’s golden hoard.

Didrik spends much of the second half of the saga in exile at the court of Attila, and this episode is one of the things that happens while he is there.

When asked to relate some of his favorite Didrik episodes, Cumpstey cited these three:

Didrik fights wth Eckia

“There is an episode where the young Didrik has just suffered a humiliating defeat in a duel at home, and he runs away to try to do some great deeds to save his reputation, [b]ut he has to pass a certain forest where he knows there is a certain knight who likes to fight — his name is Eckia —  and Didrik is not quite ready to do his great deeds yet. . . .

He waits until nightfall, and tries to pass through the forest unseen. Unfortunately, he meets the knight in the dark. The two of them then have a long conversation. Eckia tries harder and harder to persuade Didrik to fight with him, telling him about all the good things Didrik could get if he won the fight. Didrik resists for a long time, all the time becoming more and more annoyed, but eventually he agrees to fight.

The two of them can barely see each other — this was the main excuse that Didrik had been giving Eckia for not wanting to fight — so they have to strike the stones on the ground with their swords to make sparks that they can see by. The fight is not going well for Didrik, and he is in big trouble until his horse comes to the rescue and he is able to beat Eckia. . . . that is how Didrik won his sword Eckiasax.”

Didrik’s reunion with Heym

“Near the end of the saga, Didrik is reflecting on his glory days and thinking about what has become of all of those who were once part of his band of warriors. He knows where some of them are, and others are dead, [b]ut he does not know about Heym, who was one of his closest friends and allies.

“Now Heym had joined a monastery in an attempt to atone for some of his previous bad behavior. . . . . the monastery had been threatened by a giant, and Heym had come out of retirement, rescued all his war gear and his horse, which had all been looked after very badly by the abbot of the monastery, and slain the giant. . . . Didrik heard the rumors that had been going around about the monk that had killed a giant, and he came to investigate.

“I find it quite a moving scene as Didrik meets Heym in his monk’s clothing, and Heym refuses to recognize him. Didrik tells Heym some of his own memories of their times together in the old days. ‘Don’t you remember?’ he asks, again and again. Finally, Heym acknowledges Didrik, and he leaves the monastery, returning only to demand tax and burn it down a little later”.

Eygil the archer

“This is a story about Eygil, who is the brother of Weland the smith. While Weland was with King Nidung (after he had been hamstrung), he sent for his brother, Eygil. Eygil arrived, and Nidung immediately insisted that he should shoot an apple off his son’s head. Eygil shot the arrow and hit the apple. The king asked Eygil why he had drawn two arrows from his quiver. Eygil answered that if he had hit his son, the second arrow would have been for the king. King Nidung liked this answer, and the two of them got on well after that.”

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More information about the saga, including where to obtain a copy, can be found at the publisher’s page.