A confession; I have never cared for the music of Wagner. When I was younger, it stirred no emotion in me and I thought it over-wrought and melodramatic. Tolkien however, was a different matter. I found his works beautiful, sweeping and emotional, as well as much more grounded in the forest and the mountains he describes. When in time I experienced the literature of the Northern World for myself, I encountered the material that inspired both Tolkien and Wagner. Like the proverbial adventurer who holds the flaming torch to an ancient tomb, my contact with the fierce tales of revenge and love and dragon’s gold heightened my appreciation for what Tolkien achieved. I came to love Tolkien’s interpretation of that material in both The Lord of the Rings, and his translation and academic work.
This brings me to The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún, published in 2009 by HarperCollins. It takes the form of two poems, interspersed with Christopher Tolkien’s commentaries and annotations. The first is Völsungakviđa en nỳja (The New Lay of the Völsungs), which recounts the mythic origins of the Volsung family, the hero Sigmund and his dragon-slayer son Sigurd, and Sigurd’s love for two women, the Valkyrie Brynhild and the beautiful Gudrún. The second tale is the Guđrúnarkviđa en nỳja (The new Lay of Gudrún), which forms an approximate sequel to the events of the first tale, telling of Gudrún’s life after her time with Sigurd. It entranced me the first time I read it, and the effect has only deepened with subsequent readings. Though a strange book to review, I will attempt to explore its context and appeal.
A Seer Long Silent, Her Song Upraised: Ancient Tales
It must be recognised that Tolkien was dealing with very old material. Various manuscripts exist, but they were only written down five to seven centuries after the tales emerged. As far as philologists and historians can deduce, the stories belong to the Migration Period. These are the years between the collapse of Rome and the settlement of various tribes, which would in time form the nucleus of England, France, Germany, Norway, Denmark and many others. However, in terms of national identity, it belongs to no-one and everyone. Like Beowulf, it is a tale that people took with them as they moved. The Huns, Danes, Saxons, Ostrogoths, Visigoths and many other tribes come in and out of the narrative, but over time two broad traditions of the Volsung legend developed, which could be called Germanic and Scandinavian.
In the Germanic tradition, the materials coalesced into the Nibelunglied, written down in the 13th century, in the High Medieval period. It was meant for recitation and performance at the court of the Holy Roman Empire, and the courtly, chivalric flavour is reflected in the educated, cultured tastes of the scribe and the intended audience. This work in turn was a key source for Wagner’s music, who emphasized the Germanic nature of it, and used it to construct a heroic mythology for a very young nation. The differences are apparent even in the names; Sigmund is Siegmund, Brynhild is Brunhild, Sigurd is Siegfried, Gunnar is Gunther.
The Scandinavian tradition was transcribed at an earlier date in distant Iceland, as part of a body of work aimed at preserving the mythology and stories of the Scandinavian explorers and raiders who had settled in the North Atlantic islands. These tales lack the polish and grace of the German tradition, but I would argue that they are all the better for it. They are forceful stories, of revenge, love, gold-hoards and survival. These are not proto-knights in plate armour, with pennant-striped lances couched for a courtly joust, following all the rules of engagements; the scenes of the Volsunga legends are much darker; mail-clad warriors with axe and round shield swarm from dark forests to reek bloody vengeance in wooden fortresses. The serpentine dragon Fafnir hoards his cursed gold on a barren heath, ten brothers are bound in a forest to be eaten one by one by a monstrous wolf. A widow mad with grief exacts a terrible revenge on her brothers’ killer. A wall of flame guards a battle-maiden of Odin, fated to wed the warrior who will brave the flames. A condemned man speaks his last defiant words after being cast into a pit of writhing snakes.
It is these tales that inspired Tolkien’s work. Like many of the oral narratives of the Northern World, there are multiple competing versions with various additions and contradictions. The two main sources are The Volsunga Saga, and the The Elder Edda. The Edda contains much of the narrative material as the Saga, being a compilation of wisdom, myth, legends and heroic material from the Scandinavian world, though the Saga provides much more detail. Tolkien had a thorough knowledge of the competing versions, and his fluency with Old Norse, Old English and Old Icelandic means that his weaving together of so many disparate threads is nothing short of masterful.
Runes Must You Find: The Style of Eddaic Verse
Tolkien tells the story of Sigurd and Gudrún through poetry, using the rules of the Old Norse verse-forms, often referred to as Eddaic verse. His skill makes it is easy to forget that this is not a translation of an ancient text. The terse, beautiful stanzas are shocking in their ability to convey dense word-pictures with surprising brevity. Consider the following exert, which are two stanzas from the last battle of the story, and describe the defence of a hall by Gudrún’s brothers:
At the dark doorways, They dinned and hammered;
There was clang of swords, 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
In the course of 54 words (a third fewer than my previous introductory paragraph) an evocative picture of the battle is created in simple language. By this, I mean that the words are all reasonably common ones, albeit in an archaic mode. This is the same power that lies behind the text of The Lord of the Rings, where he displays ‘Not only the language of poetry, but the poetry of language’, to quote CS Lewis. Tolkien’s aim was to create powerful language that was close to the earth. In the official language of the teaching profession, the words are all tier one and tier two words, with some specialist language, used sparingly. Eddaic poetry differs from Anglo-Saxon verse, whose beauty lies in complex rhythmic stanzas. Tolkien describes the difference well; ‘[Eddaic poetry] is unlike Old English, whose surviving fragments […] only reveal their mastery and excellence slowly and long after the first labour with the tongue and the first acquaintance with the verse are over’. He acknowledges that this is a generalization, ‘But Old English verse does not attempt to hit you in the eye. To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intent of the Norse poet’. This effect is immediate and prominent.
The perspective flies through a story in a way that is almost cinematic, as though we see the action through the eyes of a sea-bird. Years can pass in the course of a few stanzas, and then the camera swoops in to focus on a battle, conversation or scene. The style requires close attention, for much can happen by inference. In the mode of the Icelandic sagas, the reader is usually not given the internal motivations and thoughts of the characters, but is rewarded by paying close attention to how characters speak and act. A good example is Tolkien’s re-telling of an episode called ‘The Argument of the Queens’. Gudrún and Brynhild have gone down to the river to bathe, and begin boasting of the status of their respective husbands, Sigurd and Gunnar:
To the Rhine-river, To running water,
Queens went comely, With combs of gold […]
Brynhild: ‘The water that hath washed, Thy wan tresses
Shall not flow unfitting, Over fairer brow!’
Gudrún: ‘More queenly I, More kingly wed! –
Fame all surpasses, He that Fafnir slew!”
Brynhild: ‘Worth all surpasses, Who my wavering fire,
Flaming lightning, Fearless vanquished!’
The next words trigger a violent series of events, but the key is in decryption. Other versions and sources cast either woman as the aggressor in this verbal contest, but Tolkien’s is less clear, and more human. Is Gudrún’s outburst a justifiable retort to unbearable boasting, that she knows to be founded on a lie, or is she acting in jealous spite? No authorial comment is offered, and we are given no insight into the motivation of the two queens. This is the genius of Tolkien’s storytelling, as a supreme example of the ‘show-don’t-tell’ principle. There is a tendency, in modern screenwriting particularly, to construct a very apparent moral framework for the story, but Tolkien does not take this easy road. Each character acts in ways that are both heroic and reprehensible, and the overall message of the legend is left very much to the reader to decode. Like the wisdom of The Hávamál (a collection of Norse proverbs contained in The Elder Edda), the legend shows sophisticated engagement with a complex world.
Forth Sprang the Wolf: The Story Itself
The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún is an emotionally forceful and savagely beautiful tragedy. It lies on a strange junction between myth and history. It features much that is fantastical, as the narrative ranges over gods and valkyries, magic spells, and a dragon dwelling on his curséd treasure, while intersecting with real history, such as the movement of Goths across Europe, and the predations of Attila the Hun. Real towns, rivers and rulers are often named, although like many tales in the saga tradition, telling a chronological history is not the point. The Rhine is only relevant as the site of the Queens’ contest; Attila is less the conquering warlord, than a key antagonist for Gudrún.
While Tolkien did not invent the story, he nevertheless displayed great skill in navigating through the differing sources to create a coherent narrative. He freely admits that he creates the story he would have wanted to read, matching his desire expressed in other fictional works, such as making King Théoden a kind of redeemed Byrhtnoth. He straightens out those moments that to him made no sense, and does his best to discover and display the motivations of characters whose motives are obscure. Readers of Tolkien’s work owe Christopher Tolkien a debt of gratitude, for his faithful presentation and painstaking analysis of his father’s work, which was often a confusing mass of drafts, versions and alterations. Tolkien was infamous for the sheer amount of corrections and annotations he would lavish on his creative projects, always seeking the perfect expression of language. Ordinarily, I find explanatory material a cluttering hindrance to enjoyment, but in this case the commentaries and introduction are invaluable guides that enrich the experience. JRR Tolkien’s own introduction is included as well, which provides a rare and unique insight into his thoughts on Eddaic poetry, and his attempts to bring it to life.
In short, The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún is a gripping story told by a master storyteller. Find a quiet spot, and let the verses take you somewhere else.
- The Volsunga Saga is available in many different translations, but one of the best is Jesse L Byock’s version, published by Penguin Classics.
- An excellent translation of The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore has been done by Andy Orchard, which contains extra material that helps frame the context of the myths and legends in the work.
- The Nibelunglied translation I refer to is published by Penguin Classics, and translated by A.T. Hatto. This is a useful prose work, which portrays the more classically medieval and chivalric flavour of the Germanic version of the story.