The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by JRR Tolkien

Since the death of JRR Tolkien in 1973, his son Christopher has been working through his father’s papers, publishing a steady stream of posthumous editions of the Great Man’s writings. Largest has been the twelve volume set The Histories of Middle Earth in which Christopher compiled all the unfinished, abandoned and alternative versions Tolkien drafted for the epic mythology of which ‘Lord of the Rings’ is only an episode.

Tolkien earned his living, of course, as a Professor of English at Oxford, specialising in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse poetry. He routinely delivered lectures about both subjects and marked students’ translations of verse from both traditions.

Still, it came as a surprise to both fans and experts in the field when Christopher Tolkien announced he was publishing two long poems by Tolkien, written in English but obeying the rules of the eight-line fornyrðislag metre found in Icelandic Eddaic poetry. Not only is the form Icelandic but the subject matter is an ambitious attempt to retell the entire tale of Sigurd and Gudrún – a central legend of the north European Dark Ages, the subject of a third of the poems in the Poetic Edda, the entire subject of the Icelandic Völsunga saga, of the German epic poem the Nibelungenlied, of the long poem The Story of Sigurd the Volsung by William Morris and, most famously, the basis of Richard Wagner’s vast four-opera cycle, the Ring of the Nibelung.

Contents

The challenge Tolkien set himself to overcome is that the three main sources for the story – the Elder Edda, the prose Edda and the Völsunga saga – contradict each other in the outline of the story, in many details, even in the names. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún aims to cut through the scholarly pernicketiness and hesitancy about manuscript variants and textual ambiguities etc, in order to tell one clear consistent story. It succeeds brilliantly!

The New Lay of the Völsungs is the first and longest of the two poems, nearly 130 pages long and divided into 10 sections. It starts with the creation of the world, a short retelling of the famous Völuspá poem from the Poetic Edda:

Of old was an age
when Odin walked
by wide waters
in the world’s beginning;
lightfooted Loki
at his left was running,
at his right Hœnir
roamed beside him.

That’s the fornyrðislag metre: four lines divided in two halves (or eight short lines, as here), two syllables emphasised in each half line, each emphasised syllable in the first half line alliterating with the first emphasised syllable in the second half line.

Birds sang blithely (two alliterating beat words)
o’er board and hearth, (one alliterating beat word, one not)
bold men and brave (two alliterating beat words)
on benches sitting.  (one alliterating beat word, one not)
Mailclad, mighty  (two alliterating beat words)
his message spake there  (one alliterating beat word, one not)
a Gautish lord (one alliterating beat word, one not – irregular)
gleaming-harnessed.  (one alliterating beat word, one not)

The tale moves briskly on through the successful career of king Völsung, his son Sigmund, and his son, Sigurd, through Sigurd’s famous killing of the dragon Fafnir, his betrothal to the Valkyrie Brynhild, his drugging by king Gjúki’s wicked wife Grimhild, so that he forgets Brynhild and marries Gudrún; in this state of amnesia he swaps bodily shape with his brother-in-law Gunnar to help Gunnar woo and wed Brynhild – but the day after the marriage Brynhild realises Gunnar is not the hero she thought and the oblivion potion wears off a distraught Sigurd, and both lovers are left married to other partners. The infuriated Brynhild tells Gunnar Sigurd has seduced her and Gunnar gets his idiot brother, Gotthorm, to murder Sigurd in his bed. They build a funeral pyre for Sigurd and the deranged Brynhild kills herself and is burned along with the hero whose death she caused.

Commentary on The New Lay of the Völsungs Christopher Tolkien gives a detailed account of the manuscripts JRR left behind along with useful clarifications of where JRR departed from, or chose between, the various sources.

The New Lay of Gudrún is shorter at 56 pages and follows the career of the widow Gudrún as she is married off to Atli, the infamous Attila, king of the Huns (!), who invites her brothers, Gunnar and Högni  to visit and promptly tortures them to extract the gold treasure Sigurd brought with him from killing the dragon Fafnir.  Högni  has his heart cut out and Gunnar refuses to talk so Atli throws him into a snakepit where Gudrún sends him a harp which he plays and magically prevents the snakes biting him. Until one does. At her brother’s funeral Gudrún serves Atli the bodies of his own sons, cooked, and then burns Atli’s stronghold to the ground. She summarises the long tragic events, all the dead princes the curse of Andvari’s gold has killed, before drowning herself in the sea.

Commentary on The New Lay of Gudrún shorter set of notes on the poem and the story of Gudrún.

Appendix A – A short account of the origins of the Legend Christopher seeks to  establish, via Tolkien’s lectures, notes, remarks and scattered pieces of paper, where his father stood on the various theories about the origin of the Sigurd and Fafnir legend (dragon, gold, hero) and how it came to be combined with the obviously different legend about the Niflungs. Complex stuff.

Appendix B – The Prophecy of the Sibyl Tolkien essayed a translation of part of the famous Völuspá poem from the Poetic Edda into 12 6-line stanzas of traditional English rhyming verse. It is interesting how bad this is:

Then darkened shall the sunlight be
and Earth shall founder under sea,
and from the cloven heavens all
the gleaming stars shall flee and fall;
the steam shall rise in roaring spires
and heaven’s roof be licked with fires.

It doesn’t have the compression and power of the long fornyrðislag poems, showing that the eddaic poems live or die by their concision and power. Also shows what a very traditional poet Tolkien is, using outdated poeticisms to fill in the metre of the longer English line.

Appendix C – Two fragments of a heroic poem of Attila in Old English one is 40 lines long, the second 28 lines long, two translations of sections of the Norse eddaic poem Atlakviða into Old English (Anglo-Saxon). One for the specialists.

Changes

The two commentaries detail the changes Tolkien made to his source material in order to create one unified coherent story. Along with the introduction and appendices they dwell at length on the confused state of the old texts, how they appear to be trying to reconcile different traditions, different stories, about different sets of heroes. Christopher Tolkien admirably recounts his father’s theories as expressed in lectures, notes and random scraps of paper. If you have the mental capacity, Christopher supplies the evidence you need to assess Tolkien’s theories about the origins and authorship of all the various Dark Age sources.

But there is one MASSIVE change Tolkien makes in his version of the poems, which is entirely gratuitous, entirely his own addition to this ancient tangle of narratives. He makes Sigurd not just any old warrior, but THE warrior, the Chosen One of Odin who, it is explained in the opening section, will be the last best hope of the gods when the time comes for their Last Battle with the giants, at the Ragnarök.

This is hugely unlike the Norse originals, a complete and surprising transformation. One reason the Völsunga saga is so confusing is because, as so many of the other sagas, one damn thing happens after another. There is no sense of foregrounding individuals or important scenes. Plenty of other lives and stories occur before we get to Sigurd in either the Völsungasaga or the Poetic Edda, and the story carries right on after his death without a blip.

One of the challenges of reading the sagas is this complete lack of all the devices we know from novels and plays and films and TV which make crystal clear who the hero and heroine are, prepare the ground for them, and then focus in on dramatic moments in their story. In the sagas one person with a complex family tree follows another in puzzling profusion – leaving the reader struggling to figure out who among the scores of Helgis and Hognis is the actual “hero”.

In sharp contrast Tolkien makes Sigurd a hero of world-shattering importance, not just another Helgi but THE man who will come to Valhalla to help the gods fight against the giants.

Thy womb shall wax
with the World’s Chosen,
serpent-slayer,
seed of Odin.
Till ages end
all shall name him
chief of chieftains,
changeless glory.

It transplants the entire story into a different worldview. Very tempting to remember Tolkien was a Roman Catholic and has here imposed a Christian-shaped importance to the hero. If not that personal a shift, it at the least gives the narrative a priority and importance which the Norse original lacks.

This big shift is just one way in which Tolkien makes his poems much more modern, comprehensible and meaningful than the original Norse. The story is smoothed out into a comprehensible linear narrative. Characters get lots of dialogue to explain their motives. Scenes are properly set and the way prepared for the protagonists to say what’s on their minds. You understand what’s happening and why.

This couldn’t be more unlike the clipped, laconic, obscure and often impenetrable poems of the Poetic Edda. The obscurity and garbled brokenness of the originals is of a piece with the compressed power of the originals. Tolkien can’t match or replace that. But this paperback might make a good transition for readers who like modern fantasy and want to tentatively explore the sources of Tolkien’s imagination before diving  straight in to the challenging Poetic or Prose Eddas.

Photo of the woodcarving of Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir, wood carving from Hylestad stave church in Norway

Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir, wood carving from Hylestad stave church in Norway

Sagas

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