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Sigurd and Gudrún is classic Tolkien, but not business as usual

One might be forgiven for imagining that there is nothing new about an edition of unpublished work by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Since his father’s death in 1973, Christopher Tolkien has released The Silmarillion (1977), Unfinished Tales (1980), twelve volumes and an index of The History of Middle-Earth (1984-2002), and 2007’s The Children of Húrin, to name but a few. Unlike these other works, however, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is neither an edited collection of fragments nor part of Tolkien’s invented mythology. It is a series of verse compositions written while Tolkien was teaching in Old Icelandic at Oxford, which tell a story that was old in Chaucer’s day. The setting is not Beleriand or Gondor, but Midgard; and the characters are legendary figures from the poems of the Elder Edda: Sigurd Fáfnir’s Bane; Brynhild the Valkyrie cursed to marry; the tragic children of the Gjúking house, Gudrún, Gunnar and Högni; and although there are cursed rings, dragons and famous swords, they are called by Norse names.

ⓒ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ⓒ HarperCollins

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is divided into five sections, with an editor’s introduction and appendices. The introduction is drawn from materials used by Tolkien for courses that he taught at Oxford, augmented by further notes on the text and its sources by the editor. These are followed by Völsungakviða en Nýja (The New Lay of the Volsungs) and Guðrúnarkviða en Nýja (The New Lay of Gudrún), each with notes and commentary.

The appendices provide further illustration: a short description of the legend’s origins; a poetic reworking by J.R.R. Tolkien of Völuspá (The Seeress’ Prophecy) from the Poetic Edda; and his fragmentary Old-English alliterative poem of Attila with translations. At its core are the two alliterative lays in the Norse fornyrðislag (‘old lore metre’). The Lay of Sigurd tells the story of the Volsungs, Sigurd’s killing of the dragon Fáfnir and acquisition of the dragon’s hoard; his courtship of Brynhild, and his eventual marriage to Gudrún, which brings about Brynhild’s terrible revenge and his death. The Lay of Gudrún tells the story of Attila’s lust for the Niflung hoard, how Gudrún is given in marriage to him to stave off his assaults on her brothers’ kingdom, and of Attila’s treacherous invitation to his halls, leading to the fall of Gunnar, Högni and their attendants and Gudrún’s dire retribution.

The close connection of the material with Tolkien’s professional interests should not deceive the reader into taking these poems as editions or translations from Old Norse sources. He may have used the same metre, but there is artistic purpose behind each selection from the medieval texts, and he adds themes that are present in none of them. Several times he refers to Sigurd as ‘hope of Odin’, introducing a special purpose for the Völsung hero not attested in medieval literature: in Tolkien’s version, Sigurd is destined at Ragnarök to kill the Miðgarðsormr, the great Midgard Serpent, which in Völuspá is slain by Thor.

In his commentary, Christopher Tolkien notes the similarity to early versions of the story of Túrin, in which it is he who will strike Morgoth’s death blow with the black sword Gurthang. Again, in the medieval texts, a magic potion brewed by Gudrún’s mother, Grimhild, is used both to make Sigurd forget his promise to marry Brynhild, and later to drown Gudrún’s memories of Sigurd, so that she will agree to a political marriage with Attila. There are textual problems with the latter episode as it has come down to us in Guðrúnarkviða en forna (The Old Lay of Gudrún), since in that work Gudrún continues to argue with her mother about the proposed marriage, showing a surprising memory of her former husband after forgetfulness has supposedly taken her, which suggests that this section is out of sequence. Tolkien dropped the second use of the potion for artistic reasons: he thought a second use of the same mechanism “deplorable,” saying “…these drinks of Grimhild are too powerful or too powerless: why not give one to Atli [Attila] too, and make him forget the hoard!” (p.316)

Tolkien is not, then, simply repeating what had already been written, but composing new works, much as a medieval poet would have done. In fact, his initial purpose was to fill a lacuna in the sources by recreating a lost greater lay of Sigurd, the existence of which is well attested. In the introduction to his poems, he says: “To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet,” (p.18) and this is certainly the effect that he achieves in his own compositions. In the following stanza, for example, Sigurd has been attacked while asleep by Gudrún’s half-brother, Gotthorm, and has died of his wounds.

In sweet embrace

to sleep she went,

to grief unending

Gudrún wakened,

to her bliss drowning

in blood flowing.

in flowing blood

of fairest lord.

In a stanza from Guðrúnarkviða en Nyja, Gudrún watches her brothers’ failing struggle in her husband’s halls.

‘Little I love them,

long I hated!

A wolf they gave me

for woe’s comfort.

Yet the wolf rends them,

and woe is me!

Woe worth the hour

that of womb I came!’

There is power to these episodes. Each stanza is packed with compressed meaning, and this is the enduring quality of Eddaic poetry: economy of expression, in a haunting alliterative rhythm that memorably evokes each episode in terse, controlled strokes. It is striking how completely Tolkien had internalised the style of the old poetry, which he wrote with a confidence born of long study; and he achieves at times the “demonic energy” that he saw in Old Norse poetry. Here, for example, is a famous extract from Atlakviða, in which Gunnarr is presented with his brother’s heart on a plate. At this point he knows that he has achieved his purpose: to deny Attila any opportunity of obtaining the Niflung hoard for himself.

Merr qvaþ þat Gunnarr


«Her hefi ec hiarta

Hagna ins frocna,

olict hiarta

Hialla ins blaþa,

er lítt bifaz,

er a bioþi liggr,

bifþiz svagi mioc,

þa er i briosti la.

Quoth great Gunnar,


“Here have I the heart

of Högni the brave,

unlike the heart of Hjalli the cowardly;

It trembles little

as it lies on the plate,

still less it trembled

when in breast it lay.

This is Tolkien’s version of the same episode.

‘I haughty see here

heart undaunted

Högni held it,

heart untrembling.

Unshaken lies it,

So shook it seldom

beating in boldest

I noticed that Professor Tom Shippey has has anticipated several of my points and examples in his Times review. I can only add that on a first reading I was simply carried away by the terrible beauty of this story. In my opinion, Tolkien’s verse breathes new life into a grand and compelling legend from the ancient North.

As he so often strove to do in his translations, Tolkien presents to a modern English-speaking audience as much as is possible of the spirit and tone of the Germanic literature that he knew and loved. It is tempting to wonder how his reputation would have fared had these poems been published nearer to the time of their composition, and only time will tell what they will do for it now. I shall confine myself to recommending this book to anyone with an interest in Norse mythology, epic verse or poetry in general outside the modern norm. Admirers of Tolkien as an academic or writer of fiction will, of course, need no encouragement to buy a copy; and there is nothing here to disappoint and much to delight them.

David King has been reading Tolkien since he was eight and still hasn’t finished. He took his M.A. in Viking and Anglo-Saxon Studies in 2005, and now lives and works in East Devon.

J. R. R. Tolkien
Edited by Christopher Tolkien
377pp. HarperCollins. £18.99.

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