Title: The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun
Authors: J. R. R. Tolkien
Editor/Commentator: Christopher Tolkien
Genre: Narrative Poetry (plus tedious commentary)
Rating: 4.5 of 5
J. R. R. Tolkien’s description of Norse poetry is that it “aims at seizing a situation, striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning…” In this retelling of the tragic Volsung/Rhinegold legends Tolkien’s terse, alliterative poetry does just that. He interweaves strands from The Poetic Edda, The Prose Edda, The Volsung Saga, and The Nibelungenlied, smoothing out discrepancies while adding a few elements of his own invention.
Tolkien’s most interesting innovation is providing Sigurd the dragon-slayer with a “special function.” For all of Tolkien’s insistence that he prefers the pagan, pre-Christian version of the story, he gives Sigurd some elements of a Messianic/Christ character that are not present in the original:
If in the day of Doom
one deathless stand
who death hath tasted
and dies no more
seed of Odin
then all shall not end
nor earth perish.
(cf. “And I will put enmity between thee [the serpent/Satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) and “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8b) and “I [Jesus] am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” (Revelation 1:18))
The copious explanatory notes by Christopher Tolkien are an oddly organized jumble that cover plot, vocabulary, use and alteration of sources, and possible historical origins of the legends. If you are already acquainted with the Volsung stories these notes can be a bit tedious and repetitive, but they contain some interesting elements and may be of help to someone new to the Volsung legends.
Despite Christopher’s rambling notes, this is one of my favorite books. This tragic tale of heroism, greed, and betrayal illuminated by the flashing lightning of Tolkien’s poetry takes the reader on an intense journey back to the heroic age.