The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún review

Legend of Sigurd & GudrunThe Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is an eminent addition to J.R.R. Tolkien’s preeminent body of work. Here we have two marvelous tales from Norse mythology, the Lay of the Völsungs and the Lay of Gudrún, retold by a renowned philologist. These are no mere translations; indeed translation is not possible when the extant sources are piecemeal variants and prose summaries. Tolkien painstakingly recreated these tremendous poems much like Regin reforged Gram, the sword Sigurd used to slay the dragon Fáfnir. Written in the old eight-line fornyrðislag stanza, these lays are illuminating. A hero who was more highly anticipated for his prowess in the after-life than in mortal life, Sigurd is thus descried by a sibyl:

“On his head shall be helm,

in his hand lightning,

afire his spirit,

in his face splendor.

The Serpent shall shiver

and Surt waver,

the Wolf be vanquished

and the world rescued.”

Reading Tolkien’s poetry is like reading him for the first time again. His son and faithful editor Christopher Tolkien once again provides foreword, midword, and afterword. Yet unlike the insightful commentary he provided for The Children of Húrin (see review posted 02/08), here his notes are overly thorough and clutter up the work. These may be the very challenges that his father overcame in writing the lays, but he performed that feat in order to spare others from the ordeal. The exhaustive notes point more to a need to add length to the book than they do to an understanding of the story being told. I read them all and gleaned some gold from the dross, but I wouldn’t do it again. I would gladly read the lays many times over and I’d be a better storyteller for it.

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