I have a habit–whether bad or good, I don’t know–of completely reading everything I decide to read completely. That might sound like an obvious thing to do, but sometimes doing it can be less than helpful. For example, I read C.S. Lewis’s Medieval and Renaissance Literature in its entirety–including the parts of which I could make little sense, as I am not an English professor and do not speak Italian. “Imagery in the Last Eleven Cantos of Dante’s ‘Comedy'” wasn’te very helpful, particularly since the Italian parts were not translated. But I had requested the book as a gift and wanted to say I’d read all of it, even if I did not understand what I read.
I did a similar thing after being given J.R.R. Tolkien’s most recently published book (courtesy of his son Christopher)–The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. The focus of the book is Tolkien’s poetic retellings of the Norse legends about Sigurd, Brynhild, Gudrun, Gunnar, and others who interacted with them. But to thoroughly explain some of the unfamiliar details of the legends, the book includes extensive commentary sections (longer than the poems themselves). Needless to say, I read the commentaries. I doubt that I’ll read them again in their entirety, but they were certainly helpful–much more so than skimming Dante’s untranslated Italian.
Not only do the commentaries give mythological details, they also adddress how certain portions of the mythologies became part of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And even without the commentary sections, it is difficult not to hear the echoes of Middle Earth. The portion about Sigmund, who lived as a smith in the woods, and his evil son Sinfjötli brings to mind Eöl the Dark Elf and his son Maeglin in The Silmarillion. And when Gunnar, Högni and the other Niflungs are trapped while fighting the Huns, it calls up thoughts of the Mines of Moria. Sigurd & Gudrun offers a brief look into the just what myths were refashioned into the stories about Middle Earth.
The first poem of the book starts at the very beginning of Norse mythology–the creation of the world.
The Great Gods then
began their toil,
the wondrous world
they well builded.
From South the Sun
from seas rising
gleamed down on grass
green at morning.
Poems then describe Sigurd’s birth, his slaying of Fafnir the dragon, and his meeting Brynhild the Valkyrie for the first time. But soon Sigurd’s life begins to go wrong. He marries Gudrun by accident, and Brynhild, wed to Gudrun’s brother because of an unwise oath, jealously orchestrates Sigurd’s death. Gudrun’s world collapses–she is married to Atli (modeled after Attila the Hun), and she kills him and their sons after he kills her brothers. Put like that, the story sounds like a bad soap opera, but Tolkien preserves the grim tone of the original Norse myths. Tolkien elicits some pity for Gudrun, but the main emotions are anger and a harsh laughter. The story is deadly serious, not melodramatic. This is a world where women do not cry. (They prefer killing their husbands.)
The resemblance between Tolkien’s Norse world and Middle Earth is fascinating. It usually is difficult to trace the development of a story in the writer’s mind. Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis, for example, wrote in Of Other Worlds that his fiction was based largely on pictures that had appeared in his head. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe began with a picture of a faun in a snowy forest, umbrella in hand, that he had first thought of when he was sixteen. Tracing the development of Tolkien’s personal mythology, while complicated, is at least possible, while tracing the development of pictures in Lewis’s head is not. People do not generally talk or write a great deal about the pictures in their heads. But people do talk and write about mythology, especially if it is closely tied to their career, as it was to Tolkien’s.
The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun is yet another reason for me to appreciate Christopher Tolkien. Without him, these wonderful pieces would never have been published. Tolkien’s poems are fascinating in their own right, and the commentary sections, however long, are helpful. But anyone interested in Tolkien’s fantasy writings should, for their own sake, be familiar with this book. Reading Sigurd & Gudrun is a good introduction to the mythological part of Tolkien’s mind, without which there would have been no Middle Earth.