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Posts Tagged ‘mythology

Sigurd as the “chosen one”

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We have previously made some remarks concerning Tolkien’s recently published Lays of Sigurd and Gudrun.  One thing I neglected to mention was Tolkien’s one major departure from his sources: namely, his portrayal of Sigurd as the “chosen one” of the gods, whose presence at the Last Battle will determine its outcome and the future of the world to follow.  The Norse Poetic Edda begins with the famous poem Voluspa, which describes the prophecy of the Seeress concerning the Ragnarok, or the Doom of the gods.  Tolkien begins his Lay of Sigurd with his own version of the Voluspa; however, he inserts several stanzas describing the role of Sigurd in the Last Battle:

If in day of Doom
one deathless stands,
who death hath tasted
and dies no more,
the serpent-slayer,
seed of Odin,
then all shall not end,
nor Earth perish.

This conception of Sigurd is not at all present in any of the Norse texts.  One wonders why Tolkien felt it necessary to introduce such an element into the mythology.  Christopher Tolkien points out in his commentary to the Lay the connections to his father’s own imagined mythology, in particular to the tale of Turin Turambar:

This mysterious conception […] reappeared as a prophecy in the Silmarillion texts of the 1930s: so in the Quenta Noldorinwa, ‘it shall be the black sword of Turin that deals unto Melko [Morgoth] his death and final end; and so shall the children of Hurin and all Men be avenged.’

In general, the parallels between Sigurd and Turin are of course quite clear:  Turin as the Dragon-slayer, the wearer of the Dragon-helm, etc.


Written by uncudh

October 24, 2009 at 2:38 pm

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The death of love

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Arguably the greatest long poem (mahakavya) in classical Sanskrit is Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava (or “The Birth of Kumara”), which tells the tale of how the warrior god Skanda (the “Kumara” of the title) came to be born.  Once, the gods were suffering greatly from the attacks of the demon Taraka.  Unable to defeat Taraka, the gods approached the creator-god Brahma to ask for his help.  Specifically, the gods asked for a general who could lead them to victory against Taraka.  Brahma told the gods that they must find a way to convince Shiva the Destroyer to marry Parvati, the daughter of the mountain god.  The child of Shiva and Parvati would be the general that they were looking for.  However, Shiva was deeply absorbed in meditation and would not easily be tempted into marriage.  The gods approached Kamadeva, god of love (armed, like his Greco-Roman counterpart, with bow and arrow), and requested that he use his unique abilities to make Shiva fall in love with Parvati.  Kamadeva agreed, and went to the mountaintop where the god Shiva was engaged in meditation.  Shiva, however, sensed the intrusion of the love god.  Kalidasa describes what happened next (the Clay Sanskrit Library edition 3.69-72):

Then Three-eyed Shiva,
through his self-control
powerfully suppressing
the disturbance of his senses,
wished to see the cause
of his mind’s disturbance
and sent his gaze in all directions.

He saw Self-born Love ready to attack,
his lovely bow drawn right back
to form a circle,
his fist resting
at the corner of his right eye,
shoulder hunched,
left foot arched.

Enraged by the violation of his penance,
his frown made his face
dreadful to behold,
and from his third eye
a sparkling, blazing fire
suddenly flew forth.

“Lord, hold back your anger,
hold back!”—
even as the cries of the wind-gods
crossed the sky,
that fire born from the eye of Shiva who is Being,
reduced to ashes Intoxicating Love.

His corporeal form having been disintegrated by the fire emanating from the mystical third eye of Shiva the Destroyer, Kamadeva, the god of love, is henceforth known as Ananga, the Bodiless God.

Written by uncudh

September 7, 2009 at 7:39 pm

The grief of Gudrun

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Apparently, Tennyson’s poem “Home They Brought Her Warrior Dead” was inspired by a translation of the First Lay of Gudrun from the Poetic Edda. Here is the Tennyson poem:

HOME they brought her warrior dead:
She nor swooned, nor uttered cry:
All her maidens, watching, said,
‘She must weep or she will die.’

Then they praised him, soft and low
Called him worthy to be loved,
Truest friend and noblest foe;
Yet she neither spoke nor moved.

Stole a maiden from her place,
Lightly to the warrior stepped
Took the face-cloth from the face;
Yet she neither moved nor wept.

Rose a nurse of ninety years,
Set his child upon her knee—
Like summer tempest came her tears
‘Sweet my child, I live for thee.’

The Eddaic lay begins (Hollander trans.):

Erst Gjuki’s daughter     unto death was nigh
as o’er Sigurth she sate     sorrowfully;
she whimpered not,     nor her hands she wrung,
nor wept, either,     as do women else.

Went to the widow     wise earls kindly,
the heavy heart     of her to ease;
nor yet Guthrun     her grief could weep,
in her bosom through     her heart would burst.

Curiously, in the Norse lay, it is not the placing of her child on her knee that causes Gudrun to finally express her grief, but rather it is the uncovering of Sigurd’s corpse that causes her to burst into tears.

Written by uncudh

June 8, 2009 at 11:30 pm

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Tolkien’s Lays of Sigurd and Gudrun

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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.

Written by uncudh

May 13, 2009 at 1:13 am

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The Tale of Kullervo

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The “Tale of Kullervo” from the Finnish Kalevala begins with a blood feud between Untamo and Kalervo.  Kalervo’s people are wiped out, save for one pregnant woman whom Untamo takes to be his serf.  When her child, Kullervo, is born, Untamo tries to kill him to prevent Kullervo from taking revenge on him when he grows up, but his attempts to slay the child fail.  Untamo gives up and decides to raise Kullervo as a serf.  However, Kullervo botches every task assigned to him, so Untamo sells him to the smith Ilmarinen.  After Kullervo breaks his knife on a stone baked into a piece of bread by Ilmarinen’s wife, he kills Ilmarinen’s wife and then leaves to seek revenge on Untamo for the death of his kin.  Along the way he discovers that his kin had not all been killed after all.  He seduces a young girl, only to discover afterwards that she was his sister, whom he had supposed to be dead.  His sister then kills herself, as described below (Bosley’s translation):

She just managed to say this
and to tell it once: at once
she tumbled out of the sledge
then ran into a river
into a rapid’s steep foam
into a smoking whirlpool.
There she brought about her doom
there she met her death
found refuge in Tuonela
mercy among the billows.
Kullervo, Kalervo’s son
dashed out of his sleigh
began to weep greatly, to
lament grievously:
‘Woe, luckless me, for my days
a woe, wretch, for my horrors
that I have used my sister
and spoilt her my mother bore!
Woe my father, my mother
woe, woe my honoured parents!
What did you create for me for
and why carry this mean one?
I would have been better off
had I not been born, not grown
not been brought into the world
not had to come to this earth;
doom did not deal straight
disease did not act aright
when it did not kill me, not
lose me as a two-night-old.’

After this tragic incident, Kullervo goes to war and exterminates Untamo and his people.  However, in despair over the disastrous and unlucky course his life has taken, Kullervo decides to kill himself:

Kullervo, Kalervo’s son
snatched up the sharp sword
looks at it, turns it over
asks it, questions it;
he asked his sword what it liked:
did it have a mind
to eat guilty flesh
to drink blood that was to blame?
The sword followed the man’s drift
it guessed the fellow’s chatter
and answered with this word: ‘Why
should I not eat what I like|
not eat guilty flesh
not drink blood that is to blame?
I’ll even eat guiltless flesh
I’ll even drink blameless blood.’

Kullervo, Kalervo’s son
the blue-stockinged gaffer’s child
pushed the hilt into the field
pressed the butt into the heath
turned the point towards his breast
rammed himself upon the point
and on it he brought about
his doom, met his death.
And that was the young man’s doom
the Kullervo fellow’s death—
the end for the fellow, death
for the ill-fated.

One may compare Kullervo’s death-scene with the death of Turin Turambar from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (or the death of Kullervo’s sister with that of Turin’s sister Nienor):

There he drew forth his sword, that now alone remained to him of all his possessions, and he said: ‘Hail Gurthang! No lord of loyalty dost thou know, save the hand that wieldeth thee. From no blood wilt thou shrink. Wilt thou therefore take Turin Turambar, wilt thou slay me swiftly?’

And from the blade rang a cold voice in answer: ‘Yea, I will drink thy blood gladly, that so I may forget the blood of Beleg my master, and the blood of Brandir slain unjustly. I will slay thee swiftly.’

Then Turin set the hilts upon the ground, and cast himself upon the point of Gurthang, and the black blade took his life.

Written by uncudh

April 9, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Forthcoming publications

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There are a couple of books coming out soon whose upcoming release I am awaiting with interest.  The first is Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.  The book consists of Tolkien’s verse renderings of the Norse tales concerning Sigurd the Volsung (the most notable of the Norse sources being the Volsungasaga).  We have previously made reference (here and here) to William Morris’s version of the Sigurd legend.  It will be interesting to compare Tolkien’s version.

The second is Arora and Barak’s Complexity Theory: A Modern Approach.  The standard reference in this area for a long time was Papadimitriou’s book Computational Complexity, but it is now somewhat old and  does not contain the latest research.  Arora and Barak have posted an early draft of their book online, and it looks like it could quite possibly replace Papadimitriou as the standard computational complexity text.

Written by uncudh

March 22, 2009 at 11:10 pm

Regin and Sigurd

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Here is another passage from Morris’ Sigurd the Volsung.  In this passage Regin is telling Sigurd of the gold that his brother, who has now become the dragon Fafnir, has taken from him.  After telling him the tale of how the brothers acquired the gold, Regin sends Sigurd on a mission to kill Fafnir and recover the treasure.

“And some day I shall have it all, his gold and his craft and his heart
And the gathered and garnered wisdom he guards in the mountains apart
And then when my hand is upon it, my hand shall be as the spring
To thaw his winter away and the fruitful tide to bring.
It shall grow, it shall grow into summer, and I shall be he that wrought,
And my deeds shall be remembered, and my name that once was nought;
Yea I shall be Frey, and Thor, and Freyia, and Bragi in one:
Yea the God of all that is,-and no deed in the wide world done,
But the deed that my heart would fashion: and the songs of the freed from the yoke
Shall bear to my house in the heavens the love and the longing of folk.
And there shall be no more dying, and the sea shall be as the land,
And the world for ever and ever shall be young beneath my hand.”

Written by uncudh

December 3, 2008 at 7:27 pm

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