"How soft your fields so green can whisper tales of gore ..."
I, frankly, don't recall how J.R.R. Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
got into my to-be-read piles, as it has been floating around there for a very
long time. I suspect that this was a dollar store find (although it's missing the marker swipe that most of those feature to signify a cut-out, as well as the register receipt that I'd typically stick in the back pages), but I can't imagine that I ordered
it on-line (it's a bit obscure in relation to most of my reading), unless it was in one of those infrequent binges I have with a B&N clearance (which do tend to spark some “oh, heck, that looks interesting” pig-in-a-poke acquisitions). Anyway, this has been trying to insert itself into my reading stream for at least a couple of years, and managed to find both a slot where I was in a Monty Python-esque “and now for something Completely Different ...”
mood, and looking for a “quick read” (which this promised to be with over half of it just being short lines of verse).
This is, of course, hardly the first Tolkien in my collection … being of the age where everybody I knew read The Hobbit
and Lord of the Rings
in grade school. I wasn't, however, notably aware that the author's “day job” was as a philologist
, who had a long career as a professor (in Anglo-Saxon and English Literature) at Oxford University.
I felt, in reading this, that the book should have been co-credited to his son, Christopher Tolkien (who has been executor of his father's literary estate), as an author
rather than as simply being tagged as having edited the book, as there is probably a higher word-count of his explanatory
copy than the actual translation/retelling of the texts by his father. He gives an on-going commentary both on his father's interaction with the material, and how it was pretty much rescued from obscurity to create the present book. This is a key part of that:
My father's erudition was by no means confined to “Anglo-Saxon”, but extended to an expert knowledge of the poems of the Elder Edda and the Old Norse language (a term that in general use is largely equivalent to Old Icelandic, since by far the greater part of Norse literature that survives is written in Icelandic). In fact, for many years after he became the professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1925 he was professor of Old Norse, though no such title existed; he gave lectures and classes on Norse language and literature in every year from 1926 until at least 1939. But despite his accomplishment in this field, which was recognized in Iceland, he never wrote anything specifically on a Norse subject for publication – except perhaps the “New Lays”, and for this, so far as I know, there is no evidence one way or the other, unless the existence of an amanuensis typescript, of unknown date and without other interest, suggests it. But there survive many pages of notes and draftings for his lectures, although these were for the most part written very rapidly and often on the brink of illegibility or beyond.
The specific material in the book are poems “treating of the Völsung and Niflung (or Nibelung) legend, using modern English fitted to the Old Norse meter”
, which, until this (2009) publication, had never been released or quoted previously. The titles are Völsungakvida en nyja
– “The New Lay of the Völsungs, and Gudrunarkvida en nyja
– “The New Lay of Gudrun” (these are approximate here, my lacking an appropriate font for several Icelandic characters). The general theme of the story is vaguely familiar, being closely related to the the narrative that runs across the four long operas of Wagner's “Ring Cycle”, although the younger Tolkien notes that the German composer had taken substantial liberties in crafting his stories, and was working from Germanic versions of the source material, which appears to have varied a good deal from the Norse. The editor further notes:
To a large extent the spirit of these poems which has been regarded as (a branch of) the common “Germanic spirit” – in which there is some truth: Brythwold at Maldon would do well enough in Edda or Saga – is really the spirit of a special time. It might be called Godlessness – reliance upon self and upon indomitable will. Not without significance is the epithet applied to actual characters living at this moment in history – the epithet godlauss, with the explanation that their creed was at trua a matt sin ok megin [“to trust in one's own might and main”].
The younger Tolkien also gets into some discussions of how the various language groups, Old Norse, Old Germanic, Old English, and assorted related forms, had noted similarities, which could be traced especially through cases where essentially the same stories (or elements of common stories) were preserved in varied linguistic contexts. In the case of the Norse materials, preservation is a major issue … as Christian influence was spreading and, by about 1,000 CE, the presence of either writers/orators or hearers with enough knowledge of the myths and the language was nearly at zero, although:
… poetry became a profitable export industry of Iceland for a while; and in Iceland alone was anything ever collected or written down. But the old knowledge swiftly decayed. The fragments, much disjointed, were again collected – but in an antiquarian and philological revival of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Perhaps it would be more true to say, not antiquarian revival, but kindly burial.
Not only did the Norse material suffer from cultural shifts, two substantial fires, one in 1728 in Copenhagen, and another in London in 1731, ended up destroying much of what had been collected, and leaving gaps in what survived. The poems that Tolkien is working from here were a later “compilation” of surviving materials, in a form that it suffers from … the editor again comments:
This author was faced with wholly divergent traditions (seen in the preserved Eddaic lays) concerning Sigurdand Brynhild: stories that cannot be combined, for they are essentially contradictory. Yet he combined them; and in doing so produced a narrative that is certainly mysterious, but (in its central point) unsatisfying: as it were a puzzle that is presented as completed but in which the looked for design is incomprehensible and at odds with itself.
This point is largely why I've gotten over 1,000 words into this review without getting to any “content” per se. There were elements that I found fascinating … such as the character of Atli
, or Attila (“the Hun”), and the Niflungs/Nibelung (somehow the same as “Burgundian” in modern English), in conflict with him, plus the Goths (in the pre-Bella Lugosi's Dead
sense of the term) in the mix as well – all this happening somewhere around 436 C.E. (although one must wonder how historical
the theft of the dragon's fortune – at the core of the story – is). Another very interesting thread here is how hard it is to be a favorite of Odin … Odin's favorites are the baddest-assed of all the bad-assed Norse warriors … and if he likes
you, he's going to conspire to make sure you're going to die
so you can be collected by the Valkyries to come be one of his warriors at Valhalla … needless to say, being “favored” this way is less than popular among most of the mortal warriors involved.
Anyway, I tagged a few bits in the poem to give a sense of how Tolkien's re-telling (in modern English, but following the Old Norse poetic format) reads. This first one is from “The Lay of Gudrun”:
At the dark doorways
they dinned and hammered;
there was a clang of swords
and crash of axes.
The smiths of battle
smote the anvils;
sparked and splintered
spears and helmets.
In they hacked them,
out they hurled them,
Stones and stairways
streamed and darkened;
day came dimly –
the doors were held.
Five days they fought
few and dauntless;
the doors were riven,
They barred them with bodies,
of Huns and Niflungs
hewn and cloven.
One of the things that made reading this somewhat challenging was that the poetic parts were commented on after
the end of the whole poem … and without markings in the poem itself to indicate where there were notes … so one had to be “reading in parallel” the notes (which referred back to specific stanzas, or groups of stanzas) and the poem to see what was being given clarification. This set of stanzas is part of a section that is noted to be “totally independent of the Norse sources”
, and appears to be related to Old English poetic fragments The Fight at Finnsburg
and Finn and Hengst
, which goes to illustrate how fragmented the materials had become and how randomly re-assembled those bits and pieces survived.
This next bit is from “The Lay of the Völsungs – part V – Regin”, which gets into he familiar Nibelung tale of the killing of the dragon Fáfnir (here referred to as “Hreidmar's son”) … the notes for this section (which are found nearly 100 pages further on in the book!) indicate that the source material from these verses was also “patched in”, derived “from a prose passage in Fáfnismál
, closely similar to that in the Saga”.
Round turned Sigurd,
and Regin saw he
in the hearth crawling
with hate gleaming.
Black spilled the blood
as blade clove him
the head hewing
of Hreidmar's son.
Dark red the drink
and dire the meat
whereon Sigurd feasted
Dark hung the doors
and dread the timbers
in the earth under
of iron builded.
Gold piled on gold
there glittering paley:
that gold was glamoured
with grim curses.
The Helm of Horror
on his head laid he:
swart fell the shadow
round Sigurd standing.
Great and grievous
was Grani's burden,
yet lightly leaped he
down the long mountain.
Ride now! ride now
road and woodland,
horse and hero,
hope of Ódin!
While the story is disjointed and somewhat hard to follow, and some of the issues in the commentary are obscure elements of history and linguistics, the over-all sense of reading The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
is of being treated to a culturally significant document which has been (to various degrees of success), wrested from the grip of oblivion. Not only (as touched on above – and more extensively in the book) did the ancient sources nearly disappear, the material by the elder Tolkien seems to have never been organized for publication by him, but was “rescued” by his son from lecture notes, letters to colleagues, and annotations of related survivals. While not being a “pristine” fifth-century literary document, this at least lets us hear the echoes (albeit in modernly readable English) of a long disappeared world.
This is still in print six years on (I'm guessing it might be in use as a text book, although its cover price is not in those inflated zones), so you might be able to find/order a copy through your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. The on-line big boys have it presently at a 37% discount, but there are “new” copies in the new/used sellers' offers that would bring the total (although there are no super-cheap listings – making me again assume it's in the textbook channel) to less than half of that figure, even with the shipping.
Obviously, this is not a “for everybody” book, as it does require a certain level of focus to get the sense of it. However, if you were an English major, or are a fan of Norse/Germanic mythology, you might find this of interest.