The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by JRR Tolkien

The first of the revived round of Weekly Poems was the beginning of The New Lay of the Volsungs, one of the poems that comprises the heart of this book.  Read that first, then continue with this post.

I do not tend to read the newly-edited remains that Christopher Tolkien has put out.  I believe in the format of the novel, which compresses events and characters and produces something we call “PLOT”, and it doesn’t seem that the History of Middle Earth maintains that concept.  However, when I saw The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, I was nevertheless curious.  My curiosity was rewarded when I discovered that, unlike many of the recent Tolkien publications, this is an original composition based on Viking mythology not Middle Earth.

So, loving both Tolkien and Vikings, I bought it.

First, then, the non-poetic aspects of the book.  This book has over 50 pages of introduction; being something of a philologist-in-training, interested in Vikings, and interested in Tolkien, I enjoyed these introductory features.  You may not.  You may want to get straight into the poetry, and for this I commend you.  If you wish to learn a thing or two about the remains of Norse literature, read the introductory lecture notes by Tolkien on the Elder Edda.  If not, the most useful introductory notes for you are pp. 40-50 which tell of the origins of the poems you are about to read as well as giving an introduction to the versification.

The other non-poetic aspects are commentary and one appendix.  The commentary for the first poem, The New Lay of the Volsungs, is quite extensive.  Unless you read it while you read the poem, you won’t know what on earth is going on.  And it is my opinion that reading the commentary at the same time of the poem would be a difficult, cumbersome endeavour.  Since the second poem, The Lay of Gudrun, is much shorter, you can read the commentary following the poem and still know what’s going on.  The appendix on the origins of the legend is very interesting, especially for those interested in the barbarian migrations of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

Enough of that, though.  What you really want from this book is the poetry.

There are two poems central to the whole book which everything else — introduction, commentary, appendices — is meant to help with the interpretation and reading of.  The first is The New Lay of the Volsungs, the second The Lay of Gudrun.

They are written in modern English but with Old English versification.  This only serves to increase their awesomeness.  This means that the words flow with a fairly natural rhythm, although there are times and stanzas of awkwardness that remind the reader that Tolkien did not write these poems for publication.  I find that this Old English verse-style possesses a power and a rhythm and a strength that the Greek meters lack when they have been adapted to the English language.  Part of its power comes from the alliterative scheme, for alliteration is a device that helps binds words more closely to one another.

In deep hollow
on the dark hillside
long there lurked he;
the land trembled.
Forth came Fafnir,
fire his breathing;
down the mountain rushed
mists of poison.

The fire and fume
over fearless head
rushed by roaring,
rocks were groaning.
The black belly
bent and coiling,
over hidden hollow
hung and glided.

I feel that in these verses we sense the grim world about a dragon’s lair, and I don’t know that iambic pentameter could catch it as well.

The story is one familiar to students of Norse mythology, readers of the Nibelungenlied, and fans of Wagner.  After a dramatic account of the origins of the cosmos, it begins with the gold of Andvari and Odin.  Then it tells of Odin’s descendants among mortals, including one Volsung and his kin — especially Signy (Sieglinde) and Sigmund.  The lay takes us from Sigmund to Sinfjotli to Sigmund’s second son Sigurd (Siegfried, who is not Signy/Sieglinde’s son in this telling).  Sigurd goes on to perform great and wondrous things, and we see the rest of the tale of Fafnir, Brynhild, and the family of Gudrun (I don’t know her German name) to the final betrayal.

The Lay of Gudrun picks up where The New Lay of the Volsungs ends, telling of Gudrun’s life and the doings of the wolf Atli (Attila the Hun).  Events familiar to readers of the Nibelungenlied ensue.  There is violence, battle, death, murder, torture, lyres, and snakes.  These two lays are everything you want from Germanic mythology.

I am impressed with the offerings here.  Tolkien has taken the various narrative strands from throughout the Prose Edda, the Elder Edda, the Volsunga Saga, the Nibelungenlied, and elsewhere, and made a coherent whole from them.  He has produced a pair of narrative poems that tell a united story, woven from beginning to end in the powerful force of his verse.  It is a brilliant display of scholarship, poetic skill, and narrative craft.

Appendix B includes a poem in English called “The Prophecy of the Sibyl” that reflects some of the themes of the introductory “Upphaf” in The New Lay of the Volsungs.  It is written in rhyming couplets.  Appendix C is an Old English poem Tolkien wrote that reworks some bits of the Norse tellings of Atli.  This, thankfully, has a translation into Modern English.

This book was excellent and I am glad to own it.  I recommend it to all fans of Tolkien, Vikings, Norse Mythology, and the early Germanic world.  What I would like to see Christopher publish next are Tolkien’s unpublished papers and lecture notes, as unedited as possible, so we can catch another side of this brilliant philologist who did so much for the imagination of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


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