Thoughts on J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún”

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sigurd Gudrun imageThis is the kind of book that most people will likely not enjoy unless they have a prior investment in it - and a love for Tolkien’s popular works will not necessarily be enough.
It does not continue the saga of his own Middle Earth mythology, nor delve into the background and writing process of that saga. The ‘essay’ that is found within it is not exactly ‘cutting edge’ criticism (which the editor, Christopher Tolkien, seems at times in the introduction to bend ov
er backwards to emphasize), and the poetry itself may lack the certain 'sparks’ that modern poetry readers are used to being engaged by. But it definitely has enough ‘sparks’ of its own, and, as Tolkien suggests,  “To hit you  in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet” (18).

But what will draw readers to appreciate and enjoy this publication? What drew me? Firstly, the introductory essay, or more accurately put, lecture (for it is based on notes from a lecture delivered by Tolkien on the Norse texts) is interesting to read quite simply because it represents Tolkien’s thoughts, criticism and even teaching style at a particular moment, now passed. Christopher Tolkien does a good job of including as much of Tolkien’s own writings as he can, even if they were quickly scrawled notes in pencil.

Secondly, the poetry itself is engaging, even if you are unfamiliar with the Norse and Southern Germanic mythologies and histories underlying it, as I largely am. Its sharp immediacy draws you into the action (and emotion) of the moment, and its strife-ridden characters demand empathy even as they incite both frustration and at times, awe. In addition to Tolkien's apparent desire to create a unified version of the legends (which have varying and contradictory accounts in the manuscript record), one of the other motives behind his own verse is also to explore and imitate the poetic structures, particularly in meter and rhythm, of this branch of Norse poetry. And for this reason, the poetry itself is to me engaging, in that it taught me to read in a different way, be guided by a different style, see a story through a different textual lens, so to speak – it felt a little choppy at first, but after about the first twenty stanzas came to feel natural, and rather than having the style be a barrier to enjoyment, it came to be one of the contributors. One other thing I found interesting was the gesturing towards Christian hope which was Tolkien’s own addition, of course. Tying the whole tragedy together is this repeated identification of Sigurd as “Odin’s hope,” the one who “deathless stands, who death hath tasted and dies no more, the serpent-slayer, seed of Odin” (63). This is purely Tolkien's invention since it isn't in the sources. It doesn’t seem to interfere with the mythology and factors more into the frame (although it is repeated in the text), and is subtle, in much the same way as Tolkien’s own Middle Earth mythology gestures in places towards a hope for mankind, but never names the Christ, exploring instead the tragedy and beauty of a world populated by gods and powers both strong and terrible, and, in the end, simultaneously subject to futility and persistent in hope.

For the reader of Tolkien’s other works, it is fascinating to see the connections between the Sigurd and Gudrún legends, and his own creative writings and the mythology he developed, to see the accidental growth of a story like the Hobbit (which really does draw on this Norse world), and to see the themes that Tolkien was clearly interested and developed further in the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings. Anyone who has read The Cihldren of Hurin or knows the tale of Turin will see definite threads tying Tolkien’s creativity with the Norse legends. Thus, this book fills out my understanding of the world of the Silmarillion, even as engages my interest in the writing process undergone in creating his mythology.

Finally, the cover is enticing (and for me, a good cover is, well, a good thing) with its wood-carvings. And each section of the text is preceding with an imprint from a series of wood-carvings detailing the Sigurd legend, from a twelfth century door from Hylestad, Norway.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book from cover to cover, including introductions, a lengthy commentary on the poems (sometimes needed to make sense of the plot!), the poetry itself, and a couple of appendices covering the origins of the legends historically and two supplementary poems written by Tolkien. Of course, I was predisposed to enjoy it.

Now that the book is done and back up on my shelf however, I must warn: it was sad.


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