The general subject of the Helgi lays is considered in the introduction to Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar, and it
is needless here to repeat the statements there made. The first lay of Helgi Hundingsbane is unquestionably one of the latest of
the Eddic poems, and was composed probably not earlier than the second quarter of the eleventh century. It presents several unusual
characteristics. For one thing, it is among the few essentially narrative poems in the whole collection, telling a consecutive story
in verse, and, except for the abusive dialogue between Sinfjotli and Gothmund, which clearly was based on another and older poem, it
does so with relatively little use of dialogue. It is, in fact, a ballad, and in the main an exceedingly vigorous one. The annotator,
who added his prose narrative notes so freely in the other Helgi poems, here found nothing to do. The available evidence indicates that
narrative verse was a relatively late development in Old Norse poetry, and it is significant that most of the poems which consist
chiefly, not of dialogue, but of narrative stanzas, such as the first Helgi Hundingsbane lay and the two Atli lays, can safely be dated,
on the basis of other evidence, after the year 1000.
The first Helgi Hundingsbane lay is again differentiated from most of the Eddic poems by the character of its language.
It is full of those verbal intricacies which were the delight of the Norse skalds, and which made Snorri's dictionary of poetic phrases an
absolute necessity. Many of these I have paraphrased in the translation; some I have simplified or wholly avoided. A single line will serve
to indicate the character of this form of complex diction (stanza 56, line 4): "And the horse of the giantess raven's-food had." This means
simply that wolves (giantesses habitually rode on wolves) ate the bodies of the dead.
Except for its intricacies of diction, and the possible loss of a stanza here and there, the poem is comparatively simple.
The story belongs in all its essentials to the Helgi tradition, with the Volsung cycle brought in only to the extent of making Helgi the son
of Sigmund, and in the introduction of Sinfjotli, son of Sigmund and his sister Signy, in a passage which has little or nothing to do with the
course of the narrative, and which looks like an expansion of a passage from some older poem, perhaps from the "old Volsung lay" to which the
annotator of the second Helgi Hundingsbane lay refers (prose after stanza 12). There are many proper names, some of which betray the confusion
caused by the blending of the two sets of traditions; for example, Helgi appears indiscriminately as an Ylfing (which presumably he was before
the Volsung story became involved) and as a Volsung. Granmar and his sons are called Hniflungs (Nibelungen) in stanza 50, though they seem to
have had no connection with this race. The place names have aroused much debate as to the localization of the action, but while some of them
probably reflect actual places, there is so much geographical confusion, and such a profusion of names which are almost certainly mythical, that
it is hard to believe that the poet had any definite locations in mind.