- The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
Thanks to the remarkable editorial efforts of Christopher Tolkien, the arrival of J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumous publications has continued unabated for the three and a half decades since his death, leaving us now roughly as many books as years since he left this Middle-Earth. Though most of these posthumous publications were aimed at narrow audiences, three recent issues have been mass-marketed: Roverandum (1998), The Children of Húrin (2007), and now The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009). For the first two the matter justified the choice, for they are nothing like the twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth, which is a confounding patchwork of fragments and editorial apparatus. Like the earlier Silmarillion (1974), which became a surprise best-seller, these books offer coherent stories with minimal editorial intrusion. Children of Húrin in particular is a remarkable editorial feat, for in it Tolkien fils brings fragments of a half dozen drafts written in almost as many modes and composed across several [End Page 149] decades into a single book-length tale that is not only stylistically coherent, but also dramatically compelling and even at times haunting.
Very different from these streamlined productions is the newest release, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. While the book’s core comprises two poems of 176 pages, these polished texts are sandwiched among 200 pages of editorial apparatus and appended materials. Thus, Sigurd and Gudrún marks the first attempt by the Tolkien franchise to market an essentially scholarly publication to the public at large. It also marks the first serious attempt to produce a best-seller from material grounded not in Tolkien’s invented legendarium, but rather in the real legends that were his life’s study.
The poems, translated as The Lay of the Völsungs and The Lay of Gudrún, track the rise and fall of the Völsung and Niflung peoples. Unlike Richard Wagner who brought the stories their modern fame, Tolkien eschews the ‘aristocratic’ threads of the German Nibelungenlied, preferring the rougher threads of the Icelandic Eddas and Völsung Saga. Into this Old Norse web, he weaves the occasional line or passage from relevant Old English texts, reworking all into the tightly-compressed, ‘strophic’ or fornyrsðlag stanzas of the Poetic Edda. Those recalling that Tolkien lectured when W. H. Auden attended Oxford will not be surprised by the similarities between their respective versifications of ‘Ediac’ material, yet Tolkien is more strict, and though his stanzas occasionally want Auden’s euphony and ease, they tend toward greater metrical balance and force. Here for example is Tolkien’s rendition of a scene from the Völsunga Saga in which the disguised Ódin drives the sword, Gram, into the Barnstock tree, from which it is drawn easily by the foredoomed Sigmund, to the great envy of the watching Siggeir:
A sword he sweeps from the swathing cloak, into standing stem stabs it swiftly: ‘Who dares to draw, doom unfearing, the gift of Grímnir gleaming deadly?’
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
Sigmund latest seized it lightly, the blade from bole brandished flaming. Siggeir yearning on that sword gazing red gold offered, ransom kingly.(Völsungs § II.13, 15) [End Page 150]
In passages of extended dialogue, the ascetic form can feel wooden, though such exchanges often turn out to be more translation than invention. Elsewhere the narrative compression is so extreme that only a mythographer can follow along without leaning heavily on the notes (see especially Völsungs § II.28–32, in which Sigmund escapes from Siggeir).
Of most interest to medieval scholars may be the passages most closely approaching translation from primary medieval texts. Of most interest to Tolkien scholars may be the invented material that draws a parallel between the Norse Miðgarðr and his own Middle-earth. More than simply bringing metrical, narrative and lexical continuity to the various narratives, Tolkien has introduced a novel element to the story. Weaving a prophesy...