The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, a new posthumously-published book by JRR Tolkien, was released by HarperCollins (UK & worldwide) and Houghton Mifflin (US) on May 5, 2009.
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is a retelling, in verse, of one of Tolkien’s favorite tales from Norse mythology.
This new book by Tolkien contains two distinct “Lays” or long poems.
The first is titled “The Lay of the Völungs”, and tells a tale stretching from the early days of the Norse gods through Sigurd’s birth, the slaying of the dragon, and his marriage to Gudrun, the daughter of a warlord.
Sigurd is the primary hero of the Völsunga Saga, one of the widest known of the Norse myths.
Sigurd is also the protagonist (under the name Siegfried) of the Germanic saga the Nibelungenlied, popularized by German composer Richard Wagner with his operatic cycle. The story of the Nibelungenlied parallels that of the Völsunga Saga.
The second “Lay”, the “Lay of Gudrun”, tells the gory tale of Gudrun and her brothers, who fall afoul of the warlord/king Atli (the historical Attila the Hun).
The lines seethe with beauty and barbarism –
- The stairs they strode
- streaming redly;
- at dark doorways
- they dinned and hammered;
- into halls of Atli
- hewed a pathway;
- rushed in roaring,
- reeking-handed. (
Sigurd & Gudrun
- , pg. 282)
Tolkien was intimately familiar with the tale of Sigurd, and the tale had an obvious impact on many of his Middle-earth tales, particularly that of Turin Turambar told in The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin.
Tolkien’s work on his own verse translation of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun dates back to the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, when he was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.
Tolkien mentioned his work on the poem in a letter to W.H. Auden in 1967:
- “Thank you for your wonderful effort in translating and reorganizing
The Song of the Sibyl
- . In return again I hope to send you, if I can lay my hands on it (I hope it isn’t lost), a thing I did many years ago when trying to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry: an attempt to unify the lays about the Völsungs from the Elder Edda, written in the old eight-line fornyrdisig stanza” (
- , No. 295)
Tolkien had a history of experimenting with archaic forms of poetry. In the early 1920’s he wrote much of “The Lay of the Children of Hurin” in alliterative verse.
His verse work (done in the late 1920’s) on “The Lay of Leithian” was done in octosyllabic couplets.
So it seems only natural that he would further experiment with verse forms, and that he chose to retell one of his favorite tales from the Norse sagas to do so.
Tolkien’s fascination with Norse mythology, and in particular the Völsunga Saga, began at an early age.
He mentioned in several interviews his fascination with dragons, a fascination which likely began with his childhood exposure to Andrew Lang’s series of color-coded “Fairy Books”, one of which contained Andrew Lang’s retelling of The Story of Sigurd.
The first official notation of his attraction to Norse mythology appears in the March 1911 Saint Edward’s School Chonicle, where it is annotated that student Ronald Tolkien read a paper to the St. Edward’s School Literary Society on the Norse sagas and stating:
- “he considers the
- one of the best of the sagas” (Hammond & Scull,
Tolkien Companion & Guide
- , pg 23)
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