Book Review: 'The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun' by J.R.R. Tolkien

By Elizabeth Hand
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 5, 2009


By J.R.R. Tolkien

Edited by Christopher Tolkien

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 377 pp. $26

In his classic essay "On Fairy-Stories," J.R.R. Tolkien wrote of his childhood reading experiences that "best of all [was] the nameless North of Sigurd of the Völsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable. . . . The world that contained even the imagination of Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril." Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis was likewise enthralled of what he termed "pure 'Northernness' . . . a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity." This "pure Northernness" is the heart of "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun," two previously unpublished poems that now appear for the first time in a book scrupulously edited by Tolkien's son Christopher. A former lecturer in English at Oxford and editor of the many posthumously published volumes of his father's work, Christopher Tolkien brings a scholar's eye for nuance and interpretation to this dense yet fascinating volume.

The two poems, "The Lay of the Volsungs" and "The Lay of Gudrun," are modern English treatments of legends drawn from the Old Norse Poetic Edda and the Icelandic Volsunga Saga, dating roughly from the 13th century. Readers might be familiar with these tales from casual readings in Norse myth or from Wagner's "Ring" Cycle, which drew on the same source material: There are magic rings, warrior maidens, dragons, doomed lovers, betrayals and much head-cleaving.

But the poems have far less in common with "The Lord of the Rings" or "The Silmarillion" than they do with "The Lays of Beleriand," third in the 12-volume "History of Middle-earth." For many years, Tolkien was an Oxford professor of both Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, and his erudition (and Christopher's) is amply displayed in "Sigurd and Gudrun." In addition to the lays (a form of medieval verse) themselves, the book contains portions of a lecture on the Elder Edda that the elder Tolkien delivered at Oxford in the 1920s, his extensive notes on the poems, incise if sometimes abstruse commentary by his son, and appendices that contain fragments of other ancient poems translated by Tolkien.

The result, to a non-scholar, can be head-spinningly complex: declensions of Old Norse and Old English, meticulous accountings of variant names of characters and the importance of meter and alliteration, discussions of ancient Scandinavian history and the conflicting texts of medieval manuscripts. Yet, perhaps more than any other single work of Tolkien's, this one provides a direct experience of the fierce intellect and imagination that produced "the author of the century," as British scholar T.A. Shippey called him.

Tolkien believed that these ancient legends drew on a deep background familiar to their readers or listeners and that each author put an individual stamp on his own account. He wrote his lays in the spirit of the original Eddas, channeling their "almost demonic energy." "To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet. [He] aims at . . . striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning."

There are many such lightning strikes here, especially in "The Lay of Gudrun," which has passages that recall the hair-raising siege of Helm's Deep in "The Lord of the Rings."

At the dark doorways

they dinned and hammered;

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