Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sigurd And Gudrun - J.R.R. Tolkien

Sigurd And Gudrún
J.R.R. Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release Date: May 5, 2009
978-0547273426

According to the Amazon.com page:
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is a previously unpublished work by J.R.R. Tolkien, written while Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford during the 1920s and ‘30s, before he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It makes available for the first time Tolkien’s extensive retelling in English narrative verse of the epic Norse tales of Sigurd the Völsung and The Fall of the Niflungs. It includes an introduction by J.R.R. Tolkien, drawn from one of his own lectures on Norse literature, with commentary and notes on the poems by Christopher Tolkien.


This is a definite departure from Tolkien's more familiar Middle-Earth books. I was expecting it to be, but still didn't quite expect what I got. Sigurd And Gudrun starts with the placing of the two poems included within Tolkien's life, and goes on to an introduction to Norse poetry forms and its history.

Christopher Tolkien has included quite a bit of material from his father's lecture notes on Norse and Old English poetry as well in the Introduction, and explains the format used in the poetry, including stresses, very clearly.

There are two main poems that Tolkien wrote on the subject contained in this book: The New Lay Of The Volsungs, which is the first poem in Sigurd And Gudrun, and the second is The New Lay of Gudrun. Tolkien had actually titled both poems in Norse, but the titles given here are the translated titles, also included in the book. Each of the two poems comes with a substantial commentary, which explains some of the archaic words, the Norse customs and history, along with the history of the original source material and Tolkien's opinions on it. There are also some sections of Old English included near the end of the book, with an examination of references to the story as found in Beowulf and other English sources.

The poems are somewhat alliterative with short lines, and you'd think the book would be a quick read because of it, but that's not the case in the slightest. I found Sigurd and Gudrun to be a book that I couldn't read for more than a half hour at a time, although I enjoyed every page of it. I found the commentary and background material to be especially interesting, which is something I've seen other reviewers say as well.

Being more familiar with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and his other Middle-Earth material, I found myself comparing the poetry to that of the Lord of the Rings. Time and again the poems reminded me of the Rohirric poetry from The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Some of the lines echo between the two books as well, especially
...Fealty kept he;
oaths he had taken, all fulfilled them.
(The Return Of The King. The Muster Of Rohan)
That line and pacing is repeated several times in Sigurd and Gudrun.

Honestly, I liked this book, and I'm now planning to read more of the Norse sagas, as I came to Sigurd And Gudrun with no background knowledge on the subject at all. Although, in the commentary to this book, Christopher Tolkien has done a very good job of explaining the characters and the references that assume reader knowledge in the poetry, so the background knowledge isn't exactly needed.

Still, I don't know when I'll reread the book, and I will admit that I think the audience will be smaller for this than for many of Tolkien's other books.

Other Tolkien-related books I've reviewed:
Mr Bliss - J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien And The Great War - John Garth
The Road To Middle-Earth - Tom Shippey
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