Tolkien: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún

May 13, 2010

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollins; 2009)
377 p.  First reading.

The nature of my education was such that I learned of Tolkien’s Ring before I learned of Wagner’s.  Once I knew of both, I naturally wondered about the relationship between them.  There are obvious similarities, but to what extent was Tolkien’s idea of the “ring of power” indebted to the older tradition?  I remembered reading that C.S. Lewis had, in his youth, been enamored of Wagner’s music-dramas, and I thought it possible that Tolkien, who was about the same age, had been similarly influenced.  Only later did I realize that Wagner’s story was rooted in an immense medieval legendary tradition.  Tolkien being the man he was — a man for whom literature was all downhill after Chaucer — those older sources were a much more likely inspiration for Middle Earth, if indeed there was any connection at all.  But was there?

I still don’t know that I can answer the question decisively, but reading The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún has inclined me strongly toward answering in the affirmative.  This book demonstrates, at least, that Tolkien knew the medieval sources thoroughly, and admired them enough to expend time and effort writing his own versions of the stories, for that is precisely what we have here: English-language poetic renderings of two of the central legends in that medieval tradition.  The principal source for this material is the thirteenth-century Icelandic and Norse Edda (and not, as one might have expected, the Nibelungenlied).

The first poem, called by Tolkien Völsungakviða en nýja (“The New Lay of the Völsungs“), covers much the same ground as Wagner’s Ring cycle.  Apart from variations in names (“Sigurd” = Wagner’s “Siegfried”) and some differences in the details of how the plot unfolds, there is a recognizably close kinship between the two.  Tolkien’s version, more faithful (I would think) to the ethos of the medieval originals, has none of the modernist philosophical weight that Wagner larded onto his version.  Indeed, in his very extensive notes that accompany these poems Christopher Tolkien mentions Wagner only briefly, and that simply to note that “in spirit and purpose” Wagner’s dramas “bear little relation” to his father’s work.  Tolkien’s poem is not a translation, in any straightforward sense, of a particular medieval source, but rather an original composition that draws on several strands found in the medieval sources.

The second poem, Guðrúnarkviða en nýja (“The New Lay of Gudrún“, continues where the previous poem left off.  The Gjúking family (called the Gibichungs by Wagner) are threatened by the advancing armies of Atli (the historical Attila the Hun, of happy memory) and they offer their sister, Gudrún, as a bridal peace offering.  She is accepted and there is peace for a time, but, as you can imagine, things do not end well.  Gudrún becomes the central figure in a devastating tragedy that brings everyone to ruin.  Of the two poems, this was my favourite: it has a clearer line of development, greater atmosphere, more pathos, and larger snakes.

Tolkien’s poetry for these stories is quite different from that he wrote in, for instance, The Lays of Beleriand.  There are similar insofar as medieval poetic forms are clear inspirations, but the details are different.  Here Tolkien has used an Old Norse form called fornyrðislag, consisting of a concise eight-line stanza, each line being limited to just a few words, and he has taken pains to observe the rules of stress and alliteration found in his models.  There is no rhyming.  Together, these characteristics give the poems a concise, rough-hewn musicality.  I give an example below.

The book is nearly 400 pages long, but only roughly half of that is Tolkien’s poetry (with sparse typesetting to boot).  Christopher Tolkien has written extensive notes commenting on the relationship between his father’s poems and the medieval sources; I did not read this material in depth.  The poems are prefaced by a fairly long introduction that includes an interesting transcribed lecture that Tolkien once prepared on the subject of Eddaic literature.

I enjoyed reading these poems, although they are certainly peripheral to Tolkien’s oeuvre.  We don’t have much poetry in English that tries to emulate medieval models in this way, and seeing it done — and done pretty well, all things considered — is, I would think, the chief attraction here.


Here is an excerpt from “The New Lay of Gudrún”.  Gudrún’s brother Gunnar, come to rescue her from Atli, has been thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes:

There gleaming-eyed
Gudrún waited;
the heart within her
hardened darkly.
Grim mood took her,
Grímhild’s daughter,
ruthless hatred,
wrath consuming.

There grimly waited
Gunnar naked;
snakes were creeping
silent round him.
Teeth were poisoned,
tongues were darting;
in lidless eyes
light was shining.

A harp she sent him;
his hands seized it,
strong he smote it;
strings were ringing.
Wondering heard men
words of triumph,
song up-soaring
from the serpents’ pit.

There coldly creeping
coiling serpents
as stones were staring
stilled, enchanted.
There slowly swayed they,
slumber whelmed them,
as Gunnar sang
of Gunnar’s pride.

As voice in Valhöll
valiant ringing
the golden Gods
he glorious named;
of Ódin sang he,
Ódin’s chosen,
of Earth’s most mighty,
of ancient kings.

A huge adder
hideous gleaming
from stony hiding
was stealing slow.
Huns still heard him
his harp thrilling,
and doom of Hunland
dreadly chanting.

An ancient adder
to breast it bent
and bitter stung him.
Loud cried Gunnar
life forsaking;
harp fell silent,
and heart was still.
(stanzas 133-9)

7 Responses to “Tolkien: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún”

  1. Ben Says:

    Fascinating. I think your point that Tolkien tries here to emulate medieval Northern poetry, and is unique in that attempt (apart from maybe William Morris) is important.

    It is also interesting to note that Tolkien merely tried to emulate. Unlike many of his peers, he did not attempt to use ancient sources to generate more ‘modern’ aesthetic experiences. He sought to reinvigorate the older genre, treating it as valuable in and of itself; even relevant for modern times

  2. cburrell Says:

    Very true, and that’s a good point. Tolkien seems himself to have been able to imaginatively inhabit the old world, and he tried, here and elsewhere, to re-vivify the aesthetic experiences of those times. The effort was a bit quixotic, perhaps, but that’s part of why we love him.

  3. Quin Says:

    Definitely, positively affirmitive. Likewise for Lewis, whose Allegory of Love and Discarded Image demonstrate this … conclusively, I’d say.

    And if it is re-vivified aesthetic experiences that you’re looking for, read ‘Til We Have Faces (if you haven’t already). It’s ancient, medieval, and science fictiion all rolled up in great big sprawling version of Cupid and Psyche.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Yes, ‘Til we Have Faces is my favourite of Lewis’ fiction. It is a beautiful book. I think he too considered it his best.

    I wrote about The Discarded Image some time ago, and perhaps it’s time to dig that up and post it here. It’s funny, but I think of that book probably at least once a week. Just a few days ago I was telling someone that I think it is one of the two or three best books I have read about the medieval period. I’m glad to hear that you like it too.

  5. Tolkien Says:

    That was a great read. I look forward to reading more of your stuff in future.

  6. Janet Says:

    Nice to see that people in heaven read your blog.


  7. cburrell Says:

    It is heartening for me as well. And such a distinguished person too!

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