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.