Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún

When The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún first came out, I was in two minds whether to buy it or not — after all I have the Eddas and the Sagas in Danish as well as other books on Norse Mythology that recounts the same saga both in prose and poetic forms (one of them with comments), so I thought I was fairly well covered. In the end I decided that, being on a limited Tolkien budget, my money was better spent elsewhere.

Then I was so incredibly lucky that I won a copy of the Houghton Mifflin paperback edition from the Tolkien Collector's Guide, for which I am immensely grateful.

Though the book arrived fairly quickly, I did not have time to start reading it until well into this year, and so I finished it on the train when I was going to camp1 the day before Palm Sunday. (I don't know why I haven't published this earlier — but for a few corrections, it's been done for a while.)

First let me say that I certainly did enjoy the book very much, and the well-informed commentary by Christopher Tolkien taught me much, that had previously been unknown to me about both the fornyrðislag and the complex tradition of this whole cycle of legends.  I recently saw the Danish edition in a bookshop and leafed through it — but I was horrified to see that the Danish verses did not even follow the strict rules of the fornyrðislag even when the English original did (the one redeeming feature was that they had printed the English and the Danish versions of the lays side by side) — knowing myself, I hurried to replace the book on the shelf before I got upset by such … I don't know what is worst, but it must be either sheer stupidity or gross incompetence.

I do not feel competent enough to comment on the wisdom of J.R.R. Tolkien's choices when composing these poems; Christopher Tolkien's comments offer a valuable insight into these choices along with educated guesses about his father's reasoning, but I was confirmed in my opinion that J.R. R. Tolkien was a true master of the old alliterative verse-forms, and I was confirmed in my own pleasure in that type of poetic form.


If it has seemed a little difficult to fully appreciate what Tom Shippey is speaking of when he describes Tolkien's sub-creative work as the creation of asterisk-legends 2, I think it will be easier now that we have an example where the relation between the preserved material and the asterisk-legend is much closer. For that is essentially what this book is all about: it is the two asterisk-lays that tell the whole story of the Völsungs and the Niflungs such as Tolkien thought they might have been. But this is not all that he does — in his long review-come-commentary in Tolkien Studies vol. 7, Prof. Shippey comments on the task that Tolkien set himself, saying that
finding a clear and satisfying line through all these contradictions and narrative inadequacies cannot have been easy. Yet his training as a comparative philologist assured him that, in narrative as in linguistics or mythology, there must have been a sensible explanation in the beginning, and this must furthermore be recoverable.
In this we see hints both of the philologist's desire to recover or recreate the lost forms, the lost work, but there is also something else: a desire to organise, to create a coherent whole of the disparate and diverging (and re-merging) forms that is so intimately familiar to any Tolkien enthusiast who has tried to dig into the treasure trove of Unfinished Tales and in particular the History of Middle-earth material.

It is of course both interesting and amusing to see Tolkien himself engage in this almost ‘fannish’ activity of ‘ret-conning’ the Völsunga and Niflunga sagas, though one should of course not forget that there was also a far more serious side to his interest, which Christopher Tolkien does something to uncover in the excellent notes and commentary that follows Tolkien senior's lays. Tolkien never lost sight of the underlying reality of varying forms and thought of the whole Völsunga-Niflung cycle as it stands as the result of the merging of two or more, originally unrelated, historical and mythical traditions. Tolkien, I believe, was never in doubt as to which approach was the more serious attempt to understand the story of the Völsungs, the Niflungs and the Burgundians.

^1 For the scouts among you, I did my wood-badge training this Easter — in Denmark this involves a one-week camp training followed by a half-year project and a final weekend. Back

^2This refers to the philological practice of prefixing an asterisk to hypothesized earlier word-forms such as Primitive Germanic *manniz (men), a word that has never been recorded, but which is inferred through the rules of philology. Back

1 comment:

  1. In this we see hints both of the philologist's desire to recover or recreate the lost forms, the lost work, but there is also something else: a desire to organise, to create a coherent whole of the disparate and diverging (and re-merging) forms that is so intimately familiar to any Tolkien enthusiast who has tried to dig into the treasure trove of Unfinished Tales and in particular the History of Middle-earth material.

    At that Bilbo opened an eye, almost as if he had heard. Then he roused himself. ‘You see, I am getting so sleepy,’ he said. ‘And when I have time to write, I only really like writing poetry. I wonder, Frodo my dear fellow, if you would very much mind tidying things up a bit before you go? Collect all my notes and papers, and my diary too, and take them with you, if you will. You see, I haven’t much time for the selection and the arrangement and all that. Get Sam to help, and when you’ve knocked things into shape, come back, and I’ll run over it. I won’t be too critical.’

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