Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún cover

Poetry Spotlight: “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún,” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún coverJ.R.R. Tolkien is famously remembered as the creator of Middle Earth and the Lord of the Rings universe, but he was also an Oxford professor and scholar of Old English and Old Norse. It’s this latter language that inspired one of his lesser-known, posthumous works, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, a pair of epic alliterative poems that present a fresh interpretation of a famous myth.

The Legend is divided into two smaller works, “The New Lay of the Völsungs” (Völsungakviða en nýja) and “The New Lay of Gudrún” (Guðrunarkviða en nýja). “The Lay of the Völsungs” might seem familiar to readers who have seen Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung—it’s the story of a cursed treasure and the heroic life of Sigurd (Siegfried), his battle with the dragon Fáfnir, his ill-fated romance with the valkyrie Brynhild (Brüunhilde), and his marriage to Gudrún. “The Lay of Gudrún” chronicles Gudrún’s later life, her marriage to the fearsome Atli (Attila), and her family’s war with the Huns. However, neither of Tolkien’s poems are a recreation of Wagner’s work; they have a separate identity and treat the classic Norse/German stories in a unique way.

At the forefront of Tolkien’s work is his obvious mastery of poetry. He patterns his verse after the Old Norse eight-line fornyrðislag stanza, which uses heavy alliteration but few syllables. The result is a captivating, crisp metre that rolls across the page:

“Night lapped the world

and noiseless town;

under ashen moonlight

the owls hooted.

At guarded doorways

Gunnar and Högni

silent sat they

sleepless waiting.” (284)

Tolkien’s choice in form strikes a fine balance between pace and description, giving readers two good reasons to continue reading. They rarely get bogged down in long lines of poetry, and the short lines keep the action moving at a brisk rate, pulling readers deeper into the plot.

The descriptions are another reason the poetry stands out. Tolkien’s creative use of unusual phrases creates vivid pictures of his characters and their actions. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes haunting, the descriptive language regularly establishes a mythic feel to Tolkien’s twentieth-century work. Take, for example, the description of Fáfnir:

“Forth came Fáfnir,

fire his breathing;

down the mountain rushed

mists of poison.

 

“The fire and fume

over fearless head

rushed by roaring;

rocks were groaning.

The black belly,

bent and coiling,

over hidden hollow

hung and glided.” (108)

He doesn’t breathe fire; his breath is fire and poison. Similarly, the rocks don’t melt, they groan. Both are striking personifications that literally give life to the scenery. That sort of quality is common throughout the piece—Tolkien wastes little time with “tell,” preferring to “show” instead.

The description of the Niflungs’ battle with the Huns is equally impressive:

“At the dark doorways

they dinned and hammered;

there was clang of swords

and crashes 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.” (286)

Here, the warriors aren’t just warriors; they’re “smiths of battle” toiling in the forges of war, “bears” and “boars” locked in vicious, bestial combat. With such creative descriptions filling the poems, readers experience few moments of boredom.

Unfortunately, for all the poems’ creativity and artistic verse, they can be just as fearsome as mighty Atli and his Hun warriors. Readers who are unfamiliar with Nordic/Germanic mythology and verse might find the subject matter difficult. Although the stanzas often flow swiftly and fluidly into each other, their compact form can occasionally make the plot dense, which actually slows the reading experience.

However, difficulty isn’t a solid reason to give up reading, and readers who wish to endure are given multiple aids along with the poems. Tolkien’s son and literary executor, Christopher, offers notes to clarify the story and the mythological Earth on which it’s set. Each poem is further accompanied by a lengthy commentary that describes and explains its plot. Interested readers also get the chance to hear about the poems straight from Tolkien himself, as the book includes one of his Oxford lectures on the Old Norse poems that form the basis of his work.

The artistic merit and brilliant poetry of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún far outweigh the challenges that occasionally accompany reading it. Tolkien’s scholarship and literary genius shine throughout both of the poems included in the book, making it a fine work of modern mythology based on older myths. As a new twist on an old legend, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún takes its place alongside similar works, easily standing as Wagner’s equal and adding another facet to the literary family of Old Norse and Germanic tales.

 

The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún

By J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

377 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. $20.00

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4 thoughts on “Poetry Spotlight: “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún,” by J.R.R. Tolkien

  1. Great write-up! I think, if one wishes to get familiar with those legends of old, reading Tolkien’s interpretations is a great way to do so. His learning, scholarship and knowledge of those legends is exceptional, and both his and Christopher’s commentary clarify a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed! I think a lot of people overlook modern interpretations, but, like you said, they can be a great way to get introduced to them. I remember my dad reading me a kid’s version of *Beowulf* when I was little. It sounds funny, but it definitely helped when I read the real deal in college!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Tolkien was heavily influenced by Norse myths and legends, especially because he was a philologist who specialized in translating and teaching Icelandic epic verse, so it is interesting to see what his actual “work” looked like; not to say the Lord of the Rings wasn’t, but in comparison, it was more of a passion project. If you are interested, there is a fascinating biography by Humphrey Carpenter that goes into more of Tolkien’s background and explains why and how the Lord of the Rings and associated stories (the Hobbit, the Silmarillion) were written. Great review and analysis!

    Liked by 1 person

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