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Reviewed by:
  • The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
  • Tom Shippey
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, by J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 2009. [color frontispiece], [vi], 377 pp. £18.99 (trade hardcover) ISBN 9780007317233; £60.00 (deluxe slip-cased hardcover) ISBN 9780007317257. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. [color frontispiece], [vi], 377 pp. $26.00 ISBN 9780547273426; $75.00 (deluxe, slip-cased hardcover) ISBN 9780547296289.

Before beginning this discussion (which considerably exceeds the boundaries of a review), I should report that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, edited by Christopher Tolkien, contains ten elements, five (mostly or entirely) by Tolkien senior, and five (mostly or entirely) by his son. They are as follows:

  1. 1. a short "Foreword" by Christopher (1-10);

  2. 2. a longer "Introduction" by Christopher (13-55), which however contains:

  3. 3. the text of a lecture by his father on the "Elder Edda" (16-32), and some brief notes also by his father (51-4);

  4. 4. an original poem by J.R.R. Tolkien of 339 mostly eight-line stanzas, in English but following the rules of Old Norse alliterative meter, and called "The Lay of the Völsungs" on the page-headers, but see further below (57–180);

  5. 5. an extensive "Commentary" on the poem by Christopher (181-249);

  6. 6. a second poem by J.R.R.T. in the same meter called "The Lay of Gudrún," this one 166 stanzas (251–308);

  7. 7. a further "Commentary" by Christopher (309–334);

  8. 8. "Appendix A," a short essay by Christopher on "Origins of the Legend," which incorporates comments and lecture notes made by his father (337–363);

  9. 9. a poem by J.R.R.T. in six-line rhymed stanzas based on the Eddic poem Völuspá, or "The Prophecy of the Sibyl" (364–367);

  10. 10. a translation by J.R.R.T. of two sections of the Old Norse poem Atlakviða into Old English alliterative meter, with further translation into modern English by Christopher (368–377).

The two long poems, items 4 and 6 above, form the core of the volume, the rest functioning, very valuably, as explanation, background or comparison. The whole demonstrates one of Tolkien's most enduring interests, of which till now we have had only hints: the great epic of the [End Page 291] North, that is to say, the legend of the Völsungs and the Nibelungs.1

The Saga of the Völsungs and the Codex Regius

Tolkien's interest in the Völsungs, like most of his interests, began early. On February 17th 1911 he read a paper to his school Literary Society on the Norse sagas. The three-paragraph summary of it printed in the King Edward's School Chronicle for March 1911, 20-21,2 reports him as having said that:

One of the best [of the sagas] (and it is distinct from all the rest) is the Völsunga Saga, a strange and glorious tale. It tells of the oldest of treasure hunts: the quest of the red gold of Andvari, the dwarf. It tells of the brave Sigurd Fafnirsbane, who was cursed by the possession of this gold, who, in spite of his greatness, had no happiness from his love for Brynhild. The Saga tells of this and many another strange and thrilling thing. It shows us the highest epic genius struggling out of savagery into complete and conscious humanity. Though inferior to Homer in most respects, though as a whole the Northern epic has not the charm and delight of the Southern, yet in a certain bare veracity it excels it, and also in the story of the Volsungs in the handling of the love interest. There is no scene in Homer like the final tragedy of Sigurd and Brynhild.

Tolkien had in fact known a version of the saga even earlier, in childhood, in the form of "The Story of Sigurd," the condensed and censored version created by Andrew Lang from William Morris's 1870 translation, and printed by him in his collection The Red Fairy Book (1890). Tolkien comments in one version of his essay "On Fairy Stories" that this...