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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.
‘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.