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Fafnir is one of the most famous dragons in Nordic myths and legends, so much so that he’s the inspiration of the dragons in Tolkien’s work and through them – most dragons in fantasy literature and pop-culture today. While he started life as a dwarf, he ends it as a poison-spewing dragon, whose greed brings him down. Here’s a closer look.
Who Is Fafnir?
Fafnir, also spelled Fáfnir or Frænir, was a dwarf and the son of the dwarf king Hreidmar and brother of the dwarves Regin, Ótr, Lyngheiðr, and Lofnheiðr. Several events occur before Fafnir comes into the story.
The Unfortunate Otter
According to the Icelandic Volsunga Saga, the Æsir gods Odin, Loki, and Hœnir were traveling when they stumbled upon Fafnir’s brother, Ótr. Unfortunately for Ótr, he used to take the likeness of an otter during the day so the gods mistook him for a simple animal and killed him.
They then skinned the otter and went on their way, eventually arriving at the dwarf king Hreidmar’s dwelling. There, the gods showed off with the otter’s skin in front of Hreidmar who recognized his dead son.
Gods Taken Hostage
Angry, the dwarven king took Odin and Hœnir hostage and tasked Loki with finding a ransom for the other two gods. The trickster god had to find enough gold to stuff the otter’s skin full of gold and then cover it with red gold.
Loki eventually found the gold of Andvari and the golden ring Andvaranaut. However, both the ring and the gold were cursed to bring death to whoever owned them, so Loki hurried to give them to Hreidmar. Unaware of the curse, the king accepted the ransom and let the gods go.
This is where Fafnir comes into the story as he grew envious of his father’s treasure and killed him, taking both the gold of Andvari and the ring for himself.
Overcome with greed, Fafnir then turned into a huge dragon and started spewing venom over the nearby lands to keep people away.
Sigurd Scheme’s to Kill Fafnir
As the gold’s curse was still active, Fafnir’s death was soon to follow. Angry with his brother for killing their father, the dwarven blacksmith Regin tasked his own foster-son Sigurd (or Siegfried in most Germanic versions) to kill Fafnir and retrieve the gold.
Regin wisely instructed Sigurd not to face Fafnir face-to-face but to dig a pit on the road Fafnir took to a nearby stream and to strike at the dragon’s heart from below.
Sigurd started digging and received further advice from Odin himself, disguised as an old man. The All-Father god counseled Sigurd to dig more trenches in the pit so that he wouldn’t drown in Fafnir’s blood once he slayed him.
Once the pit was ready, Fafnir came down the road and walked over it. Sigurd struck with his trusty sword, Gram, and fatally wounded the dragon. As he was dying, the dragon warned his nephew not to take the treasure as it was cursed and would bring his death. Yet, Sigurd told Fafnir that “all men die” and he’d rather die rich.
After Fafnir died, Sigurd took not only the cursed ring and gold but also Fafnir’s heart. He then met with Regin who planned to kill his foster-son but first asked Sigurd to cook him Fafnir’s heart, as eating a dragon’s heart was said to give great knowledge.
Sigurd Finds out Regin’s Plan
As Sigurd was cooking, he accidentally burnt his thumb on the hot heart and put it in his mouth. This counted as him eating a bite from the heart, however, and he received the ability to understand birds’ speech. He then heard two Oðinnic birds (birds of Odin, likely ravens) who were discussing between themselves how Regin planned to kill Sigurd.
Armed with this knowledge and with his sword Gram, Sigurd killed Regin and kept both the treasure and Fafnir’s heart for himself.
Fafnir’s Meaning and Symbolism
Fafnir’s tragic tale includes plenty of murder, most of it between relatives. This is meant to symbolize the power of greed and how it can drive even the closest people and family members to do unspeakable things to one another.
Of course, as with most Nordic sagas, it starts with Loki doing some mischief but that doesn’t take away from the dwarves’ many mistakes.
Of all the murderers in the Volsunga Saga, however, Fafnir stands out as his greed not only drove him to do the first and most heinous crime but to also transform himself into a poison-spewing dragon. Sigurd, while also driven of greed, is the hero of the saga and seems resistant to the gold’s curse as he doesn’t die at the end of the tale.
Fafnir and Tolkien
Everyone who’s read J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, his Silmarillion, or even just The Lord of the Rings books will immediately notice many similarities between them and Fafnir’s tale. These similarities are not accidental as Tolkien admits he took a lot of inspiration from Northern European mythologies.
There is one clear parallel between Fafnir and the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit.
- Both are giant and greedy dragons who stole their gold from dwarves and who terrorize the nearby lands and protect their coveted treasures.
- Both are slain by brave halfling (hobbit, in Bilbo’s case) heroes.
- Even the speech Smaug gives to Bilbo before Bilbo kills him is very reminiscent of the conversation between Fafnir and Sigurd.
Another of Tolkien’s famous dragons, Glaurung from The Book of Lost Tales in the Silmarilion is also described as a poison-breathing giant dragon who is killed by the hero Turin from below, much like how Sigurd killed Fafnir.
With both Glaurung and Smaug serving as the templates for most dragons in modern fantasy, it’s safe to say that Fafnir has inspired the last hundred years of fantasy literature.
Probably the most important parallel between the Volsunga Saga and Tolkien’s work, however, is the theme of “corrupting greed” and a golden treasure that attracts people and then leads them to their doom. This is the cornerstone theme of The Lord of the Rings where a cursed golden ring leads to countless deaths and tragedies because of the greed it invokes in people’s hearts.
Today, while Fafnir himself isn’t very well-known by most people, his influence can be seen in many prominent literary works and thus he has great cultural significance.