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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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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

Galadriel and Shelob

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In Perilous Realms, Marjorie Burns makes an interesting point concerning the Galadriel/Shelob pairing.  She first notes that Tolkien’s characters often come in contrasting pairs: Gandalf/Saruman, Theoden/Denethor, Frodo/Gollum, etc.  She suggests that Galadriel/Shelob represents another such pairing.  Furthermore, Frodo’s confrontation with Shelob can be viewed as actually being a confrontation between Galadriel and Shelob, with Galadriel’s phial being in some sense her proxy.  Furthermore, since the light of the phial comes originally from one of the Silmarils, a connection is made to the earlier tale of the theft of the Silmarils by Morgoth and Ungoliant, the spider ancestress of Shelob.

It is not until The Lord of The Rings that Tolkien allows his lady-and-the-spider drama to unfold, and even then he fulfils the drama only symbolically. In this, however, Tolkien’s instincts are correct. For one, by replacing Galadriel with a symbol of her power, Tolkien greatly increases the significance of the confrontation with Shelob. Galadriel’s phial, in the words of Christopher Tolkien, is a ‘huge power, a veritable star in the darkness’ (IX, 13), and its history extends well beyond the boundaries of Middle-earth and well beyond the time period or characters we meet in The Lord of The Rings. The phial that holds Shelob at bay contains the light of the Silmaril that adorned Eärendil’s ship before Elbereth placed it in the sky as a star; and the light that came from this remaining Silmaril came first from the Two Trees of Valinor, the trees that Ungoliant destroyed by drinking up their light.  The story of Galadriel’s phial thus stretches from the days of creation to the end of the Third Age, adding not only far greater meaning to the confrontation with Shelob but bringing together forces from the highest level of Valinor to the hobbits of Middle-earth.

Written by uncudh

December 20, 2008 at 8:51 pm

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Aldarion and Erendis

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One of my favourite works by Tolkien is the tale of “Aldarion and Erendis” from Unfinished Tales.  It is notable for several reasons.  It is the only story (i.e., not counting annals and other such records) of Numenor to survive the downfall.  It is also quite unique in content among Tolkien’s writings.  It is not a story of a difficult quest to destroy a great evil, nor is it a tale of heroes slaying monsters, or of spectacular battles between huge armies, but it is instead the tragic story of the failure of a marriage.

Aldarion, heir to throne of Numenor, had been drawn to the sea from an early age.  Seafaring was his passion, and he sailed forth on long and frequent sea voyages between Numenor to Middle-earth, to the great displeasure of his father.  He meets Erendis, a woman of high birth, and the two fall in love.  After some time, Aldarion courts her in earnest and the two are betrothed.  During the long course of their betrothal, and subsequently during their marriage, Aldarion continued to set out to sea, often leading to absences of many years.  This leads to the increasing estrangement of the couple.  Eventually, Erendis leaves their home, taking her daughter Ancalime with her.  When Aldarion returns from sea and seeks out his wife and daughter, they have a rather unpleasant exchange:

Later he would summon Erendis to bring his daughter to Armenelos, and not have dealings with her upon her own ground.  But as he went out towards the doors Erendis came forward.  She had not lain in bed that night, and she stood before him on the threshold.

‘You leave more promptly than you came, my lord,’ she said.  ‘I hope that (being a mariner) you have not found this house of women irksome already, to go thus before your business is done.  Indeed what business brought you hither?  May I learn it before you leave?’

‘I was told in Armenelos that my wife was here, and had removed my daughter hither,’ he answered.  ‘As to the wife I am mistaken, it seems, but have I not a daughter?’

‘You had one some years ago,’ she said.  ‘But my daughter has not yet risen.’

‘Then let her rise, while I go for my horse,’ said Aldarion.

The tale is unfortunately incomplete; the latter portion consists of scattered notes mostly concerning Aldarion’s daughter Ancalime, who would become, as his only child, his heir, and eventually Queen of Numenor.

Written by uncudh

December 10, 2008 at 6:58 pm

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