‘The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun,’ by J.R.R. Tolkien

When I wrote yesterday that my life was “full of Viking stuff again,” I neglected to tell the whole of the tale. I was also finishing up my reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.

I find it difficult to get enough objective distance on this book to make any guess as to how the public at large will receive it. For me, and some of my friends, this book is a gift. All our lives we’ve heard of the young scholars Tolkien and Lewis sitting in their rooms at Oxford, reading Eddaic poems to each other in the original Icelandic (this was how the famous Inklings began). Yet in their published work, both men have surprisingly little to say on the matter. Tolkien gives us echoes in The Lord of the Rings, although those elements are generally as much Anglo-Saxon as Norse. And Lewis seems to have shed his passion for Northernness along with his atheism, as if he’d put aside childish things.

But here we have a genuinely Norse work from Tolkien himself. It’s not a translation. It’s an original poem, drawing on varied sources. The original poem he’s trying to refashion, found in the Codex Regius manuscript in Iceland (where she shares honors with the Flatey Book I mentioned yesterday), is interrupted in the middle by the loss of a whole signature of pages. There are other versions of the story extant, both prose and poetry, but they vary widely in quality and consistency. Tolkien determined to do his own version, in which he’d try to work out contradictions between the traditions.

The result was very pleasing to me. Tolkien has definite views about Old Norse Eddaic poetry, and in his view it’s a very different thing from the Anglo-Saxon kind he translated in Beowulf.

There remains too the impact of the first hearing of these things after the preliminary struggle with the 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 (for it has various parts) is still endowed with an almost demonic energy, in spite of the ruin of its form…. Old English verse has an attraction in places that is immediate. But Old English verse does not attempt to hit you in the eye. To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet.

The result is very vigorous. I was surprised at how well the poetry worked in its convoluted, stylized form (the scholar Lee Hollander, a fine saga translator, is much less successful with his verse translations, in my opinion). What Tolkien seems to be doing here is more than a scholarly exercise, a way to improve his personal grasp of an artistic form. He seems to be attempting to enter into the skaldic tradition, to become himself, in a sense, the man in the hall with the harp, singing the glories of tribal ancestors.

And he adds one element that’s distinctively Tolkien – a mythopoeic attempt to do pre-evangelism through foreshadowing the gospel in myth. His conception of the hero Sigurd is one no one has suggested before – Sigurd as the reborn god, who dies and rises again.

If in day of Doom
one deathless stands,
who death has tasted
and dies no more,
the serpent-slayer,
seed of Odin,
then all shall not end,
nor Earth perish.

Probably it won’t mean to you what it means to me. But The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is right up there among my personal favorites among Tolkien’s works. The extensive commentary from his son Christopher is also helpful and illuminating. I’ll admit I learned stuff I didn’t know before.

3 thoughts on “‘The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun,’ by J.R.R. Tolkien”

  1. I agree, it is well done. Before this I had only the two volume Corpus poeticum Boreale by Vigfusson & Powell, which has a nice reconstruction, and some interesting, if antiquated, discussion of themes, &c.

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