Uniformly at Random

Tolkien’s Lays of Sigurd and Gudrun

with 2 comments

I spent the day reading Tolkien’s recently published The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (rather than working or doing something else productive).  The book consists of two “lays” written in the style of the Norse Eddaic poems.  The first is the “Lay of the Volsungs” and tells the legend of Sigurd; the second is the “Lay of Gudrun” and tells the legend of the downfall of the Niflungs.  Each poem is an attempt to organize the material of the Eddaic lays concerning Sigurd and the Niflungs respectively into a single coherent narrative.

Since Tolkien is trying to compile material from several complete works into a single poem (or rather, two poems), the narrative in his version is necessarily extremely terse and compressed.  E. V. Gordon notes in his Introduction to Old Norse with regards to the compilation of the prose Volsungasaga that “each of the poems that [the saga author] used was a complete tragedy, and the result of joining them is accumulated horror”—a remark that could potentially apply to Tolkien’s compilation as well.

Due to the extreme compression of the narrative in Tolkien’s poems, the work can be somewhat difficult to follow.  Christopher Tolkien notes in the introduction that “it must also be said that his poems are not at all points easy to follow, and this arises especially from the nature of the old poems that were his models.”  I would imagine that Tolkien’s poems may be near incomprehensible to folks not already familiar with the Sigurd legend from the principal Norse sources (poetic Edda, Snorra Edda, and Volsungasaga).  However, Christopher Tolkien provides a very helpful commentary, which mostly serves to place Tolkien’s narrative choices within the context of his sources.  Even with the commentary, I’d say it’s still a tough read.

For my part though, I found the work fascinating, and I thought that the poetry was excellent.  Here is one stanza from the “Lay of the Volsungs” (II.24):

Through and through them
thrice went Sigmund;
as grass in Gautland
grimly mowed them.
His shield he shed:
with shining sword
smoking redly
slew two-handed.

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Written by uncudh

May 13, 2009 at 1:13 am

Posted in literature

Tagged with , , , , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. A nice sum-up. I’m just finishing my first reading of the book as well and would echo much of what you’ve said here. I expect to be putting together some more coherent responses on my own blog, within a day or two. The quotation from Gordon was particularly well-chosen. I may steal that from you — with a proper hat-tip, of course! 🙂

    Jason Fisher

    May 13, 2009 at 2:31 pm

  2. Thanks, Jason! I look forward to reading your impressions of the book as well.

    uncudh

    May 13, 2009 at 2:40 pm


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