Recommendation: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún

By

To those who have enjoyed and understood the late Professor Tolkien’s most famous literary creation for what it is, as opposed to what pop-culture has made it in the decades following its publication, this book is a rare and precious treasure. Outside of these readers, and some scholars of medieval literature, it is likely to find only a very limited audience—but a lack of popularity will be no deterrent to those who are most likely to enjoy it in the first place.

sigurd‘The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún’ is a newly published, but previously unknown work by J.R.R. Tolkien, written more than seventy years ago, but (astonishingly!) never quoted in any other publication released since that time. It retells in verse form the epic Norse legends of Sigurd the dragon-slayer, the revenge of his wife Gudrún, and the fall of the Nibelungs, and, as Tolkien himself said once of ‘Beowulf,’ “there is not much poetry in the world like this.” That’s certainly all the more true of original poems composed in modern English! A few come to mind as bearing a similar quality of brisk, rugged, Northern masculinity—Longfellow’s ‘Saga of King Olaf,’ Chesterton’s ‘Ballad of the White Horse,’ and Morris’s ‘Story of Sigurd the Volsung’ all fit the bill pretty nicely, but they, like this work, were all anachronistic oddities even in their authors’ own time.

Tolkien’s mastery of the Old Norse alliterative verse form, and skillful employment of it in modern English, is a shining testament to his tremendous aptitude for linguistic endeavours (as if we needed further!), and, while it is so sparsely worded as to demand unusual focus in reading, the resulting poetry is a thing to be richly savoured. What he has created here is far from a translation of its disparate sources, but neither is it an updated, bowdlerized modernization—it is, rather, a thing which can stand very comfortably alongside those sources, hewn as it is from the very same substance. And that, in itself, is extraordinary.

The stories and characters of the two closely related poems comprising the main portion of this new book are largely drawn from two 13th century Icelandic texts—the Poetic Edda and the Völsunga Saga—which, although compiled and committed to writing long after the Christianization of Iceland, form the main primary sources of Old Norse mythology. It can be heady stuff for non-scholars, but a basic familiarity with those legends, gods, heroes, and villains is almost essential to the enjoyment of these new poems. Thankfully, Tolkien’s son and editor, Christopher, has provided readers with typically meticulous and thorough notes—but it can be handy to have a couple of other references available as well.

Some critics have suggested that Christopher Tolkien is attempting to “cash in” on his father’s unpublished work, and this is really a point which deserves answering. As Dr. Michael Drout (a noted Tolkien scholar from Wheaton College in Illinois) said after the publication of the elder Tolkien’s last posthumous work, ‘The Children of Húrin,’ “Christopher Tolkien has more money than God, and he’s 82 years old. He simply wants the textual record and the reputation of his father to be as complete as possible.” And for that continued service, I, for one, am grateful.


10 Comments

  1. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Sam,

    Reminds me of a young girl in her summer job as a tour guide for the Carter House in Franklin, TN. She said, “The Battle of Franklin is, like, my favorite battle of the Civil War. It was, like, the neatest battle of the war and stuff.” I thought at the moment that that particular battle was the furthest thing from “neat” possible.

    Like I’m all, bye.

    AP: Plagiarist.

  2. Alex Taylor

    @alextaylor

    Hahaha, don’t worry about the mix-up. And I don’t know about several hundred times. That’s like, a whole lot of times, after all. And stuff.

  3. Benjamin Wolaver

    Professor Taylor scores again! I really need to pick this up from the dusty shelf and read it.

  4. Robert Treskillard

    Thanks for the review, Alex. I agree that Christopher Tolkien isn’t “cashing in” … we’re all begging for this stuff, so he’s really being a good chap to keep working on his father’s writings and getting them published.

  5. Jeff Taylor

    Great article. You may actually have coerced your old Dad to sneak into your room at night and steal your book and Puppy… Or at least look up the word “bowdlerized” in my iPod dictionary…

  6. Kevin

    I received this book in the mail today and had just enough time to read the first seven stanzas. Alex is right when he says it demands unusual focus in reading. Twice within seven stanzas I found myself skimming rather than comprehending the words before me because I allowed the noise and activity around me to become a distraction. This book will definitely stay by my nightstand so that I can engross myself in its terse yet potent imagery in the times when the world has quieted down.

If you have a Rabbit Room account, log in here to comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *