The classical myths of southern Europe have dominated our culture for so long it’s difficult to imagine that other mythologies are equally as powerful. Now, on my morning commute, I spy a poster for Joanne M Harris’ ‘The Gospel Of Loki’. Thanks to Joss Whedon, Stan Lee and friends, the trickster god is firmly implanted in the psyche of western culture and he looks like Tom Hiddleston. There’s more to Loki than being Hulk-fodder and delivering witty put-downs. My favourite story from the ‘Prose Edda’ concerns Loki getting mounted by a mythical stallion and giving birth to a grey foal named Sleipnir, which becomes Odin’s steed. Now, hopefully you’ll never look at Tom Hiddleston the same way again. It is these myths that JRR Tolkien uses to propose his own poetic version of the story in ‘The Legend Of Sigurd And Gudrún’.
The myths of the northern countries are as doom-laden, fatalistic and fantastic as their southern counterparts and they fascinated Tolkien. You can’t fail to spot the Norse and Anglo-Saxon influences across his work. Names like ‘Gandalf’ are direct lifts from the names of dwarves in the Norse myths. Mirkwood is name lifted from the Norse dialects and anglicised meaning an area of dark and dense woodland. The myths stayed with Tolkien throughout his career, a key one was the legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.
The tale of Sigurd is known in a number of different forms, the most popular of which is undoubtedly Wagner’s masterful ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’, four operas which chart the creation of a ring that can rule the world, those who desire to possess it, the adventures of a dragon-slaying hero (Siegfried or Sigurd) and a love that destroys the gods themselves. At around 15 hours duration, the term ‘epic’ is applicable. Both Tolkien and Wagner’s versions of the story are themselves inspired by older sources. There are two ‘Viking’ sources, ‘the Poetic Edda’ or ‘Elder Edda’, author unknown and the ‘Prose Edda’, which was written by the Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson. There is also the ‘Nibelungenlied’ which is the Germanic interpretation of the myth. Tolkien was influenced primarily by the two ‘Eddas’ and his interpretation of the legend matches these more closely. It is important to note that like Tolkien, Wagner made his own interpretation and there are key differences to both works, too numerous to list here!
I approached ‘The Legend Of Sigurd And Gudrún’ with some considerable interest. I had watched ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ thanks to Sky Arts showing Robert Lepage’s excellent version (if you’re lucky enough to have Sky Arts, I thoroughly recommend it). I had also recently read a translation of the ‘Prose Edda’. This undoubtedly helped me navigate the story in ‘The Legend Of Sigurd And Gudrún’. I must also point out that Christopher Tolkien’s scholarly explanation and exploration of his father’s work is very well-handled. His commentaries on the poems contained within are detailed but easy to grasp. I recommend reading each poem through once and then again, but the second time read it with Christopher Tolkien’s explanation. I got a lot more from the poems approaching them in this way. The reason for this is the style in which the poems are written. Lines and stanzas are short and the description is sparing and this means I had to closely follow what was being said. Speech is often split across stanzas, though the character’s name is supplied when they begin to speak, rather like a play script.
It has been argued that Tolkien created atmosphere rather than emotion. Michael Moorcock’s critique of ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ compared Tolkien to AA Milne, while Brian Aldiss famously claimed there was only ‘one character’ in the books (Gollum). Reading ‘The Legend Of Sigurd And Gudrún’, though, it is easier to appreciate Tolkien’s approach. This is a saga where the emotion and purpose of characters is implied rather than overtly stated. The sparseness of the writing keeps the story moving and encourages the reader (I would argue) to ‘fill-in gaps’. These were stories to be told over and over in one lifetime and your interpretation of the actions of the characters depend equally on where your mind or life is, as well as the storyteller’s.
I therefore enjoyed ‘The Legend Of Sigurd And Gudrún’ for two reasons. One, Christopher Tolkien’s writing is informative and interesting, admitting where he has no idea what his father may have been thinking, but able to provide in-depth commentary at other points. Secondly, as a Tolkien fan, it provides moment after moment of influence. Fafnir, the dragon Sigurd slays, for example is a creature that was the archetype for Glaurung and Smaug. He even sleeps on a pile of gold. If you’re looking for a way to understand one of the most powerful myths in our culture then I, personally, would start with the slightly more accessible Wagner and then read ‘The Legend Of Sigurd And Gudrún’. If however you’re happy to brave a more scholarly challenge then dive right in. Make sure the sky is overcast, bring your sword and prepare for romance and doom.
(pub: HarperCollins. 377 page paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-00731-724-0)
check out website: www.harpercollins.com