In Review: Languages, Myths And History

Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction by Elizabeth Solopova is a fascinating little book and a quick read (a rare and sometimes welcome occurrence for me).  However, it is exactly what it is stated to be, an introduction.  At little more than eighty pages, it is barely able to scratch the surface of the topic of Tolkien’s linguistic and mythical sources of inspiration.  The other potential problem I found is that it appears to be written under the assumption that the reader already is greatly familiar with Tolkien’s education, life and work in the subject.  This did not cause any problems for me, but would be an issue for someone newer to Tolkien scholarship/analysis outside his own writings.

Solopova introduces the topic with a discussion largely pulled from ‘On Faerie Stories,’ ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,’ and ‘A Secret Vice,’ all off which reveal the great importance language and myth and their symbiotic relationship had in Tolkien’s professional and literary work.  The book is an overview of both the languages and myths that Tolkien would have been familiar with, as well as works he studied and possibly drew from.  Languages include: Old Norse, Old English, Finnish and Gothic.

Overall the book is a solid introduction, and makes me eager to get my hands on a copy of Solopova and Stuart Lee’s book The Keys of Middle-Earth: Discovering Medieval Literature through the Fiction of JRR Tolkien.

As I have been discussing the nature of language, myth, and names quite a bit lately, Solopova’s sub-chapter on Stories and Names, in the Old Norse chapter, particularly struck me.  Both in Old Norse sagas, and subsequently Tolkien’s works, there are a proliferation of names are used, which do not always serve any practical purpose.

“[The] use of place names in sagas reflects their borderline position between fiction, which involves conscious invention and the use of names as a literary device, and a historical narrative.” (Solopova 22)

Both in Old Norse and Old English literature, elements of real historical places and people were mentioned or listed, giving the piece(s) a sense of a true history and scope.  This is why there is some confusion, as stated by Tolkien in his lecture “Beowulf,” about how to approach these works.  They are not quite fiction, and not quite historical chronicle.  They are somewhere in between.

This layering of information, even if not evidently part of the plot, is what helps to lend depth to these tales.  It is a method Tolkien would use often in LotR, in a system Tom Shippey calls “interlacement.”  Brief mentions of tales from the Silmarillion, or cities on the map of Middle Earth, all help build a concrete conception of Middle-Earth.  It becomes a living breathing place, set in a deep and rich history.

Solopova makes another observation of note with regards to the nature of names.  They can be considered their own “lexical group.” (Solopova 22)  Names today have little meaning in everyday use, but at one point they were carefully crafted and quite descriptive of the named person, object or place.  Take for example the common surnames linked with professions such as Cooper or names based on patrimony as in Johnson.  Very little of this quality of names remains in today’s culture.

Tolkien developed his names with great care, following this archaic pattern, and creating his own “language of names” so to speak.  Solopova lists a few:

“River Running, Mysty Mountains…Legolas (‘Green Leaves’ in Sinadarin), Théoden (‘Lord’ in Old English)…Aragorn (‘Royal Tree’)…also known as Elessar (‘Elfstone), Strider, Isildur’s Heir, Longshanks and Wing-foot.” (Solopova 21)

Another possible reason for naming also drawn from Old Norse is the poetic list of names known as a ‘thulur,’ which may have had “a mnemonic function, helping poets and audiences to remember” the tales associated with them. (Solopova 23)  Again, this lends itself to the argument of interlacement.  However, in some cases it is believed the name listing is nothing more than a poetic device, as in the example Solopova gives in Widsith.

I think ultimately the argument could go either way for Tolkien’s works.  The names of the primary characters serve a secondary purpose.  To borrow from opera terminology, they function as a sort of leitmotiv, layering further information unseen or untold.  Yet at the same time, they also function as an aesthetic device: an “art-lang” of a different form by which Tolkien can create a phonetic aesthetic for Middle-Earth.

All in all, Languages, Myths and History makes for a quick and stimulating read, with plenty of ideas and source material to whet your appetite for such things.  The main criticism I have is that it is solely an introduction, so that most of the arguments are only named and not fully developed.  I guess that just means I’ll have to go find her other book!

Meeting Tolkien

Happy Hobbit Day!  Today we celebrate the birthdays of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  And yesterday we also had the “birthday” of sorts of The Hobbit itself.  I recently read another post of other people’s memory of their first exposure to Tolkien and his lasting effects on their lives, which got me to thinking.

And so I discovered that after all these years, I have misplaced when I first “met” Tolkien.  In sixth grade we had to read selections from various classics: The Odyssey, Beowulf, Robin Hood, and ultimately The Hobbit.  At the time we only read “Riddles in the Dark,” and afterwards I largely forgot about Hobbits and Middle Earth.

One of my sisters read The Hobbit, but she did not like it.  She was confused by it, and fell prey to what I describe in “The Problem with Fantasy.”   And so, for many years, I avoided the book.  I read a lot, and was always looking for more, but I was guilty of the same fears (though second hand) and so I always put off reading The Hobbit, saying I’d get to it later.  In a sense, reading The Hobbit for the first time became a reluctant goal of mine.  If only I had remembered the first taste of “Riddles in the Dark” maybe I’d have started my “adventure” sooner.

I first read The Hobbit in full for my ninth grade English class; we had to do monthly reports, but were allowed to choose from a list what we wanted to read.  TH was on that list, and so I took the plunge and never looked back.

I’ll be honest; the “love affair” didn’t start immediately.  For much of the first two thirds of the book, I just felt it was okay, with brief moments of greatness.  But then I reached “Flies and Spiders” and I was caught fast.  I couldn’t finish the book fast enough.  And afterwards, I couldn’t wait until I’d read it again.

I have my English teacher at the time to thank for my further “enslavement.”  After reading my paper, seeing what I had read, she mentioned off hand that there was a sequel, and that I’d probably like that as well.  Before this point in my life, I never really bought books; I always took them out from the library.  The Lord of the Rings was the first major book purchase I ever made: a one volume, paperback edition that was worth a whole month’s allowance at the time.  And so I began my adventure anew.  I had reached the Old Forest with Frodo and Co. when I came down with pneumonia…I was sick as a dog…and I remember trying to trudge through LotR.

When I finally had some functioning brain cells, but still was too sick to return to school, then I flew.  In the first year after reading TH and LotR, I read TH twice and LotR three more times.  Throughout high school, I would read LotR another two times, until it got to the point that my poor paperback copy had to be glued back together practically every time I opened it.  During this time I was also introduced to the Silmarillion, which as a lover of history, I also loved.

These three books, along with a few others, became like close friends to me (and still are) and each re-read was a new visit, a new adventure.  Unbeknownst to me, I was harvesting the fruit of applicability.

After high school, I continued to re-read TH, LotR and S, but I began to branch out to read Tolkien’s other work; mainly Unfinished Tales, Leaf by Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wooton Major.  I was hooked, and I wanted everything Tolkien I could get my hands on.  This, of course, also meant that I was once a fan of the movies, seeing them all multiple times in theaters and on DVD.  As time went on, and the newness and excitement of the movies wore off, I began to see what I had not before:  the movies are nothing but a pale shadow of the master work which inspired them and lack the core of the written work: its implicit applicability.

And so my desire to discuss and interpret both movies and the books began.  I had no friends who had read the book, but they still suffered through many of my rants and “great” applications.  One day it just clicked, and Wandering Paths was born.  I’ve been writing about Tolkien’s work ever since, searching for new and interesting applications and insights and hopefully inspiring others to actively read and re-read Tolkien.

I’d like to believe, through it all, that I’ve been following the directive of Tolkien in his lecture “The Monsters and the Critics.”  I try to approach his work as a complete entity, like a piece of history or as stipulated by Tolkien, a written record of past adventures.  It is the tower described in Tolkien’s allegory, and it is my wish to discover and reveal the manifold vistas from that tower.  Part of the wonder of reading Tolkien, particularly re-reading Tolkien, and reading critical analyses is the new perspective it brings to his work, it is constantly made new.

 

The Curious Case of Wagner’s Ring

Over the past week, PBS has been showing the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.  While there is much controversy about this particular production, let alone the operas and the composer himself, that is not what I’d like to discuss.

Recently I reviewed Tolkien’s Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, which is both a translation and reworking of Norse and Icelandic legend.  Ultimately, Wagner’s Ring was derived from the same sources, though also drawing from the High German Nibelungenlied.  Yet, even though drawn from basically the same source material, and telling derivations of the same story, the two are of drastically different character.

Whereas the Eddas, and Tolkien’s poem enthrall the reader with little effort, Wagner’s Ring largely lacks this easy accessibility.  There are passages of music which are truly thrilling, and yet the shear length and style of the tetrology can be very daunting.  There is reason that to many new opera, the Ring Cycle is something of a musical Mount Everest. it is nearly 16 hours of music after all.

Using Tolkien’s analysis of Norse versus Old English literature, the approach and reaction to the Ring is largely that of the latter.  In place of an immediate hook, the opera-goer finds themselves slowly drawn across a learning curve.  In place of sudden delight and lasting study, the operas lend themselves more to study, then delight in discovery.  The brilliance of Wagner’s work reveals itself gradually as the listener becomes more familiar with the work, its themes and his methods.

And yet, with the introduction of translated subtitles, something curious happens.  We are told the story which so enthralls in the Edda or The Legend.  Here we get the double whammy of Wagner’s tremendous music and the “demonic energy” of the Edda as Tolkien puts it.  And so are opera-goers doubly hooked!  To be enslaved to the retelling of a great piece of mythology and to be drawn to study and revelation in the music.  It is a curious case, for in this synergy, the qualities Tolkien ascribes to Icelandic and Old English works are combined.

The Arrogance of Evil

One of the striking details of the early Tale of Tinúviel is the depiction of evil and the method by which evil is defeated or, more accurately, circumvented.  The nature of evil is explored to some extent through the protagonists’ direct interactions with both Melko and Tevildo.  In the three primary confrontations, Beren and Tinúviel deal with their adversaries in very similar manner.

First, Beren is captured and brought before Melko.  Melko is at first incensed that a Gnome, one of his thralls, had left his domain to mingle with Men.  Beren responds first with flattery, calling Melko “Lord of the World” and extolling his great “splendor and glory,” while also declaring his utmost contempt for the race of Men.  Following this praise, Beren begs Melko to permit him to serve as a hunter or trapper.  Melko accepts, but there is some confusion in the narrative concerning precisely why.  Was Beren’s speech in some manner inspired by the Valar, or blessed by Gwendeling (Melian)?

“Flattery savoured ever sweet in the nostrils of that Ainu, and for all his unfathomed wisdom many a lie of those whom he despised deceived him, were they clothed sweetly in words of praise.” (TBoLT II p13)

The question implied in the narrative is answered, I believe, by the common bond between arrogance and evil.  Melko was not always evil, even in the earliest Tales.  He began as one of, if not the, most powerful and wise of the Ainur.  His fall, as with Lucifer, stems from his overbearing pride.  He believes he is superior to all others, even Ilúvatar as evidenced by his contrary themes.  He believes he is the greatest of the Valar, and therefore rightfully the overlord of Arda.  Every piece of flattery and praise heaped on him by Beren is held as his rightful due, so firmly believed by himself, and so cruelly denied by the other Valar.  And so evil is deceived through its own pride and overweening sense of self-worth.  As Melko believes the Truth of each of Beren’s appellations, he cannot conceive the thought that the speaker could be only giving lip service.

When Tinúviel confronts Tevildo, the strategy is similar yet subtly different.  Upon gaining entry to his stronghold through flattery of one of his thanes, Tinúviel exploits the extreme hatred between cats and hounds.  She spins a tale of the near presence of Huan, and his apparent infirmity.

“Now all this that Tinúviel spake was a great lie in whose devising Huan had guided her, and maidens of the Eldar are not wont to fashion lies…Tevildo however, himself a great and skilled liar, was so deeply versed in the lies and subtleties of all the beasts and creatures he seldom knew whether to believe what was said to him or not, and was wont to disbelieve all things save those he wished to believe true, and so was he often deceived by the more honest.” (TBoLT II p24)

Tevildo is in some ways craftier than Melko, in that he does not immediately succumb to flattery.  Instead, he waits for the information Tinúviel has come to give.  Being basically distrustful, Tevildo is none the less intrigued and inclined to believe the tale of Huan’s illness or, minimally, eager to test it and so not miss a prime opportunity.  Presumably, given the great enmity between Huan and Tevildo, Huan has some knowledge of this character flaw, and so exploits it.  Like Melko before him, Tevildo exhibits a similar attitude towards all who approach him: that the awe and fear of their presence guarantees truth.

In the third episode, Beren and Tinúviel come disguised before Melko in Angamandi, he in the skin of Oikeroi (one of Tevildo’s thanes) and she in her woven robe.  Melko spots Tinúviel, and demands to know who she is and how she entered his halls.  She responds, again first with flattery, then subtle manipulations of truth:

“’…Knowest thou not that I am Tinúviel daughter of Tinwelint the outlaw, and he hath driven me from his halls, for he is an overbearing Elf and I give not my love at his command.’” (TBoLT II p31)

Now at first Melko doubts the words of Tinúviel, and suspects some scheme, so he asks her why she has come and warns her not to expect any love or soft words.  She responds with a statement of rebellion against her father, followed by an offer of dance in return for a place in his halls.  Melko responds:

“’Nay…such things are little to my mind; but as thou has come thus far to dance, dance, and after we will see,’ and with that he leered horribly, for his dark mind pondered some evil.” (TBoLT II p32)

Thus in similar manner is Melko evaded again.  He takes Tinúviel’s rebellion against her father at face value, and finds here an easy way to strike at the heart of Tinwelint and his people.  Yes, there is some hesitation, even in his acquiescence to Tinúviel’s offered dance, but rather than suspect any danger to himself or the Silmarils (which given his mindset, why should he?) he moves on to contemplate future evils made possible by this encounter.  And so, lost in these musings, he succumbs to Tinúviel’s magic and falls asleep.

In each of these encounters, which comprise major battles of wills in the final tale, the antagonists are not necessarily defeated, but sidestepped.  They are tricked by their own pride and their apparent inability to even contemplate such deceptions by figures of so much lower stature.

There is an element to each solution which evokes more the sense of the child’s fairytale than the epic love story which was to develop.  And yet hints are there, in the confrontations with Carcharoth, which predominantly mirror the final conception.  The question this raises, then, is what is different about Carcharoth, which leads to a more confrontational and combative rather than scheming approach?  I think the primary difference is that Caracharoth is a beast, devoid of any real thought but unending hunger.  His actions are driven by a sense of duty, driven into him by the ministrations of Melko.  He is the guard dog, a most vicious one, but little more.  So ultimately, as I asked of the orcs, is Carcharoth evil?

What is Love?

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-9)

The Bible gives the quintessential definition of love, as quoted above.  No doubt Tolkien would have been very familiar with this passage, particularly in writing his great parable of love: The Tale of Tinúviel or as it came to be told The Tale of Beren and Lúthien.

If there was ever a moment of allegory in Tolkien’s work, this tale is it; for it is the reflection of his life-long love affair with his wife, Edith Bratt.  Tolkien met his future wife when he was sixteen, and she nineteen.  At the time, he and his brother were under the care of Father Francis, who demanded that the romance stop.  Tolkien himself was to say later, “Probably nothing else would have hardened the will enough to give such an affair (however genuine a case of true love) permanence.” (Carpenter p52)

Even from the earliest tale, the forced separation of Beren and Tinúviel is present.  Following Tinwelint’s (Thingol’s) challenge to gain a Silmaril and the beginning of Beren’s quest, Tinúviel learns of Beren’s plight, in this case as a prisoner of Tevildo prince of Cats.  She immediately wishes to go to his aid.  Tinwelint refuses, and seeing the desperation in her, contrives to keep her caged in a house up Hirilorn.  Thus, like the forced separation of Tolkien and Bratt, is the love of Beren and Tinúviel cemented.

Another scenario reflects the value of love.  Upon Beren’s declaration of love for Tinúviel to her father, Tinwelint laughs and gives a Silmaril as the bride price in jest.  But for Beren, love is no jest.  He responds:

“Nay, but ‘tis too small a gift to the father of so sweet a bride.  Strange nonetheless seem to me the customs of the woodland Elves, like to the rude laws of the folk of Men, that thou shouldst name the gift unoffered, yet lo!  I Beren, a huntsman of the Noldoli, will fulfill thy small desire.” (TBoLT II p11)

Now Tinwelint gives this challenge, knowing that in all likelihood such a quest’s success would be nigh on impossible.  And so he laughs.  Beren’s rejoinder is the wake-up call to him, and all of the true worth of love.  In love are all things possible, all dangers surmountable and all pain bearable.  Nothing shows this sense of love more than the Biblical sense of the word “suffer,” which not only implies pain, but acceptance and allowance or the welcoming of that pain for others.

Through all of their adventures, whether in the Tale or the Lay or the chapter in the Silmarillion, Beren and Lúthien succeed through love.  When they fend for themselves, alone, both fail.  When they work together, joining their talents in love, they succeed.

On Beren’s first foray, he is captured by Melko, and given over to thralldom under Tevildo.  So too in the later tale, devoid of love, he and Finrod are captured and tortured by Sauron.  And Lúthien, in the later tale, is captured by Celegorm and Curufin and held in Nargothrond.  Yet working together, they penetrate Angband, steal the Silmaril and escape.  In the escape, Carcharoth bites off Beren’s hand which holds the Silmaril and…

“Tinúviel wept over the maimed arm of Beren kissing it often, so that behold it bled not, and pain left it, and was healed by the tender healing of her love.” (TBoLT II p33)

As the development of the Tale progressed, this notion of love as healing would grow and morph into “medicinal” care and less blatantly a cure through the magic of love.  And yet, though diffused in the nature of tender care, later by action is this sense of the healing power of love shown.

Upon their return to Tinwelint’s halls, Tinúviel’s father remarks in amazement regarding the valor of his daughter.

“He marveled at the love that had awakened in the heart of Tinúviel so that she had done greater deeds and more daring than any of the warriors of his folk.”  (TBoLT II p.37)

In some ways, contemplating this quote, the nature of love is akin to the nature of courage.  It is not a quality or characteristic of a person, so much as it is an ability to rise above any adversity.  In love there can be no bounds, no limits.  Love takes the skills already present and allows them to flourish and reach their full potential.

In one of my previous posts regarding the nature of Time, I describe how in the early conception of Arda, all are bound to the world by the constraints of Time, and only Men are permitted to escape beyond in death.  In the Tale, both Beren and Tinúviel are elves, subject to this bond.  When Beren dies, Tinúviel follows him to Mandos and pleas for their release.  The power of her love for Beren grants them new life, but Mandos says to them:

“Lo, O Elves, it is not to any life of perfect joy that I dismiss you, for such may no longer be found in all the world where sits Melko of the evil heart – and know ye that ye will become mortal even as Men, and when ye fare hither again it will be for ever…” (TBoLT p39)

Granted at this point in the Tale, the notion of Men leaving the confines of the world has not yet been expressed, but the implications of this later development combined with the notion of Time as bond and the revelation of Mandos here lead to very interesting conclusions regarding the nature of love.

In death and love, Beren and Lúthien are freed from the trappings of Time.  Their love is timeless and stronger even than these bonds that even the Valar cannot break.  So is the power of love, to transcend all and conquer all.

In Review: The Book of Lost Tales, Part II

The book of Lost Tales, Part II includes further tales of the First Age of Middle Earth including: The Tale of Tinuviel (Beren and Luthien), the tale of Turambar (the children of Hurin), the fall of Gondolin, the Nauglafring, sketches of the tale of Earendel and further development of the framing device (ie. Eriol versus Ælfwine of England).

As with the Music of the Ainur in the first volume, what struck me most about this volume was not necessarily where the tales diverged, but how close they were to their ultimate form. Some tales, specifically The Tale of the Fall of Gondolin, were never fully rewritten, only compressed. There are some odd differences, but in these choices we the reader have full hindsight and can begin to place the progression of the final tales. It is this process in reading that I found most fascinating.

For myself, the clear standouts of this volume are the Tale of Tinuviel and the Tale of the Fall of Gondolin. The Tale of Tinuviel is primarily of interest for its differences, most strikingly with regards to Beren. For much of the early composition in the Tale and later the Lay of Leithian, Beren is not a Man but an Elf! The implicit difficulties in this scheme are evident to anyone who has read the published Silmarillion. Here, in the Tales, the first union of man and elf is not Beren and Luthien, but that of Tuor and Idril in Gondolin. This makes some sense, given the importance Tolkien gave to their son Earendil.

Instead of using his mortality as reason for enmity and to deny Beren’s worthiness of Luthien’s hand, Thingol and the elves of Doriath are repulsed by the fact that Beren is one of the Noldoli, possibly a thrall of Morgoth and therefore not to be trusted or harbored.

The idea of the thralldom of the Noldoli is pervasive in the Tales. Based on my memory of the Silmarillion, it was never fully abrogated, but it is only hinted at and never given as strong a character as seen here in the tales. In the Tales, Morgoth enslaves the vast majority (so it seems) of the Noldoli, and lays over them all a fog of despair and dread. Some elves he would release, but due to pall of fear he has set in their hearts, they unwittingly go on to do his will or act as his inadvertent spies.

Also of interest in the Tale of Tinuviel is Tevildo Prince of Cats, who in the narrative is the precursor of Sauron. In the Tale, Beren goes on to Angband and is captured by Morgoth. He persuades Morgoth of his loyalty and wish to serve and skills as a hunter. So Morgoth gives Beren into Tevildo’s keeping to work in his kitchens. This part of the tale only works because here Beren is an Elf, and believed to be in Morgoth’s thrall. As shown in this episode, the confrontations in the Tale tend to focus more on outwitting the opponent rather than contests of will. This strategy is used again to lure Tevildo out to fight Huan. And later to wrest control of the island from him.

One of my favorite parts of the Silmarillion is the story of the Fall of Gondolin. Here, in the Lost Tales, the story is greatly expanded and beautifully conceived. This tale, of all of them, is sure to take your breath away. The level of detail is extraordinary and while some elements of the plot are different, the main elements are already in place and the most striking (and pleasant) difference is the length. To my mind, this is the tale to read, even if you cannot bring yourself to read any other!

The tale of Turambar and the Nauglafring is interesting in its differences to The Children of Hurin, The Narn (Unfinished Tales) and the Silmarillion, but as this work is well published, I didn’t find it as enthralling. However, I did find the close mirroring of the Eddas/Vulsunga saga/Nibelungied fascinating, particularly for how closely at times the Tale follows it thematically and in plot at times. What is most interesting here is how this was woven into the tale more tightly and with increasing subtlety as the story of Turin developed towards its final form.

Christopher Tolkien’s commentary is very good, and really brings to light Tolkien’s struggles with the Tales as well as casting a light on his circumstances at the time of the composition. The commentary also attempts to explain the progression of the tales through their various drafts, which at times is confusing, but often very interesting to see how Tolkien’s thought developed.

The book of Lost Tales is definitely worth a try for anyone wishing to immerse themselves fully in Middle Earth.

In Review: The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun

I received a copy of the Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun shortly after it was released.  I did not read it immediately, and it actually sat on my “Tolkien shelf” for almost a year before I decided to read it on a whim.

The inherent challenge and interest in this book is the fact that it is a peek into Tolkien’s professional work as a philologist.  It is also an opportunity to see firsthand the truly vast knowledge of the English language he had and the great level of craft he was able to achieve in writing.  One of the reasons I love Tolkien is for his word-craft, the beauty of his prose, and the care with which he crafts each phrase.  What more would you expect from a philologist you might ask?

In The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, Tolkien does something altogether masterful.  He takes ancient Scandinavian and Icelandic myth and translates it to English.  Not only that, but he reproduces the tone and rhythms of the original alliterative verse.  There is much here to please purely from a narrative standpoint, but the level of skill shown in Tolkien’s use of the English language is nothing short of breath-taking.  If you have the opportunity, or can brave the strange looks, read as much of The Legend out loud as possible and you will hear it really shine.

I had never fully been exposed to the Elder Edda or Poetic Edda, the sources used by Tolkien, before reading this book.  Yes I had heard of Valkyries and the Norse gods, possibly even Fafnir, and who hasn’t been exposed to Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries?  Yet I had never heard the full story.

Christopher Tolkien begins the book with JRR Tolkien’s lecture “Introduction to the ‘Elder Edda.’”  He describes how the reader may react to the tale in great detail, and I could not state it better.

“There remains too the impact of the first hearing of these things after the preliminary struggle with Old Norse is over and one first reads an Eddaic poem getting enough of the sense to go on with.  Few who have been through this process can have missed the sudden recognition that they had unawares met something of tremendous force, something that in parts…is still endowed with an almost demonic energy, in spite of the ruin of its form.  The feeling of this impact is one of the greatest gifts that reading of the Elder Edda gives.  If not felt early in the process it is unlikely to be captured by years of scholarly thralldom; once felt it can never be buried by mountains or molehills of research, and sustains long and weary labor.

This is unlike Old English, whose surviving fragments (Beowulf especially)…only reveal their mastery and excellence slowly and long after the first labour with the tongue and the first acquaintance with the verse are over. “ (S&G p. 17)

And in the foreword, Christopher Tolkien also quotes similar statements by his father:

“’In Old English breadth, fullness, reflection, elegiac effect, were aimed at.  Old Norse poetry aims at seizing a situation, striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning – and tends to concision, weighty packing of the language in sense and form…’” (S&G p.7)

Essentially, this work will both demand your attention and hold you in thrall from the first moment your eyes touch the page, or you will have no taste for it.  While it will hold up to scrutiny and study, it does not require such for enjoyment.

One of the wonderful aspects of this work is that in writing these New Lays, he worked to combine the original sources and work out their narrative inconsistencies.  So here we see the tale of Sigurd and Gudrun as Tolkien interpreted it.

Anyone interested in fantasy should be instantly hooked by the story within these pages.  And anyone with even a passing interest in Tolkien’s interests and possible sources will delight in this book.  It is easy to see why earlier translations of the Eddas, mainly by William Morris, had such a strong and lasting effect on Tolkien even from a young age.

The story of the Volsungs has such staying power, like a burning ember caught in the heart and mind.  In many ways it comes to hold you in thrall; an irresistible itch that has to be scratched until the tale is through.  It is a tale that invites scholarship, study and imitation…Tolkien’s life is proof of such.  Reading the early legendarium, mainly the Tale of Turin and the Nauglafring in the Book of Lost Tales, the parallels are clear.  In writing his mythology, Tolkien’s stated goal was to create a mythology for Britain.  The burning power of that idea probably began with these tales.