The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, the “new” book by J.R.R. Tolkien put together by his son Christopher, is a translation-slash-“unifying” of the great Norse story of Sigurd the dragon-slayer and what happens to his wife and his murderers after his death. The story is told in verse form, two “lays” surrounded by commentary that Christopher Tolkien has taken from his father’s notes and lectures dealing with the Norse legend. Christopher also adds some of his own commentary, placing the translations into some context with regard to his father’s writing as well as adding some historical and literary/critical context, often dealing with the source material Tolkien used.
The fact that the story is in verse will, I’m sure, be off-putting to many fantasy readers. Even more of an obstacle, though, is that the form isn’t simply verse but an attempt to be faithful to Norse epic verse, complete with its (to English ears and eyes) strange half-lines, heavy alliteration and stress pattern, and extreme concision. The faith to form makes it difficult reading at times. For instance, the need for alliteration and the requirement of meter means Tolkien sticks to a lot of archaic “ithms” and the like, and also means there is a lot of word/syntax inversion which can require some hard thinking at times to figure out just what is being said (and by whom and/or to whom). Meanwhile, the focus on the Norse love of concision (what J.R. R. Tolkien refers to as a desire to “strike a blow” like a “flash of lightning”) leads to some sudden leaps of “plot” or dialogue/monologue or some just plain confusing “now why did she do that” sort of narrative. The interspersed scholarly commentary can also be tough sledding, with its sometimes arcane references to variant names, for instance.
But The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is surprisingly rewarding. One could summarize the “plot” in a few sentences (or in several long nights of opera per Wagner) and many elements will be familiar to fans of fantasy and mythology — though lost manuscripts, variant versions, idiosyncratic retellings (Wagner again) all mean that chances are good one doesn’t know all the details as presented by Tolkien in his own personal version. But one doesn’t read poetry for “plot” and the same holds true here. What Tolkien aimed at here (and one should note he never saw these as published works) was to capture the force, the energy, of the Norse epic form and the tale itself and he mostly succeeds. Despite the obscure moments of narrative (what just happened in that stanza?) or character (who is talking here? Why is she so upset?) the poems do tend to drive the reader forward and many a scene, such as the battle between Gudrun’s brothers and Attila the Hun, are quite exciting, something that may surprise people who view poetry as only the stuff of drawing rooms and small moments of nature. There’s blood and dragons and drum beating and swords, gods and demons and giants, betrayal and incest and if it isn’t all crystal clear, it’s all still self-evidently there. And while the commentary can at times be a bit dense or far-flung, it’s mostly a welcome addition, adding much appreciated clarity and context.
Beyond the enjoyment of pace, rhythm, energy and story, Tolkien fans will revel in those moments of recognition, flashes of linkage to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, or his other Middle-Earth works, such as when we encounter Mirkwood the first time. More than just linguistics, though, it will be clear that Tolkien was working in just this sort of mythic vein when he devised his themes, characters, and basic narratives (the hanging of the sun and moon, for instance, can’t help but recall images of the young world of the Silmarillion).
I picked up The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun as a Tolkien fan wanting to see just those links. And also as a fan of myth (I’ve read prose versions of this story several times). But I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed the poems themselves in their own right. I can’t say I’m going to stock my library with Norse Eddic poetry, but I found myself several times utterly captivated and catapulted by some of Tolkien’s stanzas. As for recommendation, I’m more willing than I would have predicted to tell folks to give it a shot even if they aren’t diehard Tolkien fans — you may be equally surprised.