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The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrunby J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien fans don't need to be told that a new, previously unpublished work by The Master is a major event. The surprise here is that Tolkien narrates Norse mythology with the same energy, wit, and excitement with which he brings hobbits to life.
Synopses & Reviews
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is a previously unpublished work by J.R.R. Tolkien, written while Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford during the 1920s and '30s, before he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
It makes available for the first time Tolkien's extensive retelling in English narrative verse of the epic Norse tales of "Sigurd the Völsung" and "The Fall of the Niflungs." It includes an introduction by J. R. R. Tolkien, drawn from one of his own lectures on Norse literature, with commentary and notes on the poems by Christopher Tolkien.
In his classic essay "On Fairy-Stories," J.R.R. Tolkien wrote of his childhood reading experiences that "best of all (was) the nameless North of Sigurd of the Volsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable. ... The world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril." Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis was likewise... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) enthralled of what he termed "pure 'Northernness' ... a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity." This "pure Northernness" is the heart of "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun," two previously unpublished poems that now appear for the first time in a book scrupulously edited by Tolkien's son Christopher. A former lecturer in English at Oxford and editor of the many posthumously published volumes of his father's work, Christopher Tolkien brings a scholar's eye for nuance and interpretation to this dense yet fascinating volume. The two poems, "The Lay of the Volsungs" and "The Lay of Gudrun," are modern English treatments of legends drawn from the Old Norse Poetic Edda and the Icelandic Volsunga Saga, dating roughly from the 13th century. Readers might be familiar with these tales from casual readings in Norse myth or from Wagner's "Ring" Cycle, which drew on the same source material: There are magic rings, warrior maidens, dragons, doomed lovers, betrayals and much head-cleaving. But the poems have far less in common with "The Lord of the Rings" or "The Silmarillion" than they do with "The Lays of Beleriand," third in the 12-volume "History of Middle-earth." For many years, Tolkien was an Oxford professor of both Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, and his erudition (and Christopher's) is amply displayed in "Sigurd and Gudrun." In addition to the lays (a form of medieval verse) themselves, the book contains portions of a lecture on the Elder Edda that the elder Tolkien delivered at Oxford in the 1920s, his extensive notes on the poems, incise if sometimes abstruse commentary by his son, and appendices that contain fragments of other ancient poems translated by Tolkien. The result, to a non-scholar, can be head-spinningly complex: declensions of Old Norse and Old English, meticulous accountings of variant names of characters and the importance of meter and alliteration, discussions of ancient Scandinavian history and the conflicting texts of medieval manuscripts. Yet, perhaps more than any other single work of Tolkien's, this one provides a direct experience of the fierce intellect and imagination that produced "the author of the century," as British scholar T.A. Shippey called him. Tolkien believed that these ancient legends drew on a deep background familiar to their readers or listeners and that each author put an individual stamp on his own account. He wrote his lays in the spirit of the original Eddas, channeling their "almost demonic energy." "To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet. (He) aims at ... striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning." There are many such lightning strikes here, especially in "The Lay of Gudrun," which has passages that recall the hair-raising siege of Helm's Deep in "The Lord of the Rings." At the dark doorways they dinned and hammered; there was clang of swords and crash of axes. The smiths of battle smote the anvils; sparked and splintered spears and helmets. In they hacked them, out they hurled them; bears assailing, boars defending. Stones and stairways streamed and darkened; day came dimly — the doors were held. Elsewhere, eerie foreshadowings of Tolkien's later work appear: the traitorous "Vingi the venom-tongued"; the brothers Otr and Andvari, who fish and "there ate blinking / on the bank brooding / of black waters"; their demon father, Hreidmar, who cries, "The wreathed rings / I will rule alone, / as long as life is / they leave me never!" Most tellingly, there is the "nameless shadow" that accompanies the Norse god Odin, which Christopher Tolkien believes is his father's own addition to the text. Tolkien did not invent all these characters, of course — but he shaped them to his own design, in his own language. Christopher suggests that it was in these early recastings of ancient myth that his father first began to think about creating his own heroes, his own legendarium. Given the global reach and phenomenal success of the Tolkien franchise, it is difficult sometimes to focus on what a strange, brilliant, obsessive writer he actually was. Millenniums hence, when our own culture has become as remote as that of the Eddas, some far-future historian or scribe struggling to make sense of the countless 20th- and 21st-century iterations of Middle-earth — in books, films and music, toys, jewelry and clothes — may well interpret them as evidence that we, too, were a world in thrall to Northernness. Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand, whose 10th novel, 'Wonderwall,' about poet Arthur Rimbaud, will be published this fall., Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"A former lecturer in English at Oxford and editor of the many posthumously published volumes of his father's work, Christopher Tolkien brings a scholar's eye for nuance and interpretation to this dense yet fascinating volume." Elizabeth Hand, The Washington Post
This previously unpublished work by Tolkien, written during the 1920s and '30s, makes available the author's extensive retelling in English narrative verse of the epic Norse tales of "Sigurd the Volsung" and "The Fall of the Niflungs."
The translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was an early work, very distinctive in its mode, completed in 1926: he returned to it later to make hasty corrections, but seems never to have considered its publication. This edition is twofold, for there exists an illuminating commentary on the text of the poem by the translator himself, in the written form of a series of lectures given at Oxford in the 1930s; and from these lectures a substantial selection has been made, to form also a commentary on the translation in this book. From his creative attention to detail in these lectures there arises a sense of the immediacy and clarity of his vision. It is as if he entered into the imagined past: standing beside Beowulf and his men shaking out their mail-shirts as they beached their ship on the coast of Denmark, listening to the rising anger of Beowulf at the taunting of Unferth, or looking up in amazement at Grendels terrible hand set under the roof of Heorot. But the commentary in this book includes also much from those lectures in which, while always anchored in the text, he expressed his wider perceptions. He looks closely at the dragon that would slay Beowulf "snuffling in baffled rage and injured greed when he discovers the theft of the cup"; but he rebuts the notion that this is "a mere treasure story", "just another dragon tale". He turns to the lines that tell of the burying of the golden things long ago, and observes that it is "the feeling for the treasure itself, this sad history" that raises it to another level. "The whole thing is sombre, tragic, sinister, curiously real. The ‘treasure is not just some lucky wealth that will enable the finder to have a good time, or marry the princess. It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination." Sellic spell, a "marvellous tale", is a story written by Tolkien suggesting what might have been the form and style of an Old English folk-tale of Beowulf, in which there was no association with the "historical legends" of the Northern kingdoms.
Many years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien composed his own version of the great legend of Northern antiquity, recounted here in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.
In the Lay of the Völsungs is told the ancestry of the great hero Sigurd, the slayer of Fáfnir, most celebrated of dragons; of his awakening of the Valkyrie Brynhild, who slept surrounded by a wall of fire, and of their betrothal; and of his coming to the court of the great princes who were named the Niflungs (or Nibelungs), with whom he entered into blood-brotherhood.
In scenes of dramatic intensity, of confusion of identity, thwarted passion, jealousy, and bitter strife, the tragedy of Sigurd and Brynhild, of Gunnar the Niflung and Gudrún his sister, mounts to its end in the murder of Sigurd, the suicide of Brynhild, and the despair of Gudrún.
The Lay of Gudrún recounts her fate after the death of Sigurd, her marriage against her will to the mighty Atli, ruler of the Huns (the Attila of history), his murder of her brothers, and her hideous revenge.
About the Author
J.R.R. Tolkien (18921973) is the creator of Middle-Earth and author of such classic and extraordinary works of fiction as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Children of Hurin. His books have been translated into more than forty languages and have sold many millions of copies worldwide.
Christopher Tolkien is the third son of J. R. R. Tolkien. Appointed by Tolkien to be his literary executor, he has devoted himself to the editing and publication of unpublished writings, notably The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The History of Middle-Earth, and The Children of Hurin.
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