- The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise
The volume reviewed here is HarperCollins’s print-on-demand fiftieth-anniversary reissue of the edition of The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise, produced by Christopher Tolkien in 1960 for Thomas Nelson & Sons’ series of facing-page text-and-translation works in Old Norse. The reissue is very welcome both to those interested in the works of Tolkien sr. and to those who would like to know more about literature in Old Norse—copies of the first edition are still selling for upwards of $360. But the re-appearance does provoke a few melancholy thoughts about the “long defeat” of philology, the Tolkiens’ favorite discipline, in the intervening half-century. The Nelson series, which produced editions of The Saga of the Volsungs, The Saga of the Jomsvikings, and The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue, was supposed, like the parallel series of student texts produced by the Viking Society, to stimulate and enable Old Norse studies in British and American universities. Fifty years later, it has long been defunct, and though the Viking Society has made all its publications and many others (including the one reviewed here) available online—see www.vsnrweb-publications.org.uk—Old Norse/Icelandic studies are now confined to a small number of university locations, mostly with just one faculty [End Page 136] enthusiast still teaching. Yet popular interest in Vikings and their literature has never been greater. The discrepancy may well be caused by the modern academics’ habit of writing only for each other. If more of them had cultivated Christopher Tolkien’s style, at once clear and rigorous, at once scholarly and imaginative, even dashing, the subject would have had more support from students, deans and faculty committees.
The 1960 volume was Christopher’s fourth work dealing with the same text (I refer to him by first name to save continuous disambiguation from his father). An edition of it formed the basis of his Oxford B. Litt. thesis: the old Oxford B. Litt. was, in spite of its name, a two-year postgraduate degree. Presumably as a result of the thesis, he was invited by Gabriel Turville-Petre, the Oxford Professor of Ancient Icelandic Literature and Antiquities (a position no longer extant), to write the “Introduction” to Turville-Petre’s 1956 edition of the saga for the Viking Society. Turville-Petre added notes and a glossary to his edition, so that it could be used as a student text, and titled it Hervarar Saga ok Heiðreks, that is, “The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek.” At about the same time Christopher published a long article in Saga-Book of the Viking Society 14 (1953–7): 141–163, on “The Battle of the Goths and Huns.” This considered only one part of the saga, the poem incorporated into its later chapters and titled in English “The Battle of the Goths and Huns,” and in Norse, Hlöðskviða, or “The Lay of Hlöd.” It also considered only one question, though an extremely fascinating one: if “elements of [the poem] do indeed descend from [remote antiquity], do they derive from any actual event under the sun, recorded in any book that may still be read today?” (141). Many scholars had previously considered the question, and Christopher gives a scrupulous, if in the end rather damning account of them, before coming to a negative but by no means discouraging conclusion. Finally, in 1960, we have the work reviewed here, with a long “Introduction,” facing-page text-and-translation, and several “Appendices” containing related texts, including verses found in Örvar-Odds saga, “The Saga of Arrow-Odd,” or in manuscripts of Heiðreks saga different from the one chosen as base-text for Christopher’s edition.
What makes “The Saga of King Heidrek” so fascinating? It is one of the fornaldarsögur,” the “sagas of old times,” of which the most famous is “The Saga of the Volsungs,” which was a major inspiration for...