The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun
by J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
384 pp., $26
Nearly every parent, at one time or another, has had the experience of seeing a son or daughter eagerly unwrap a new toy, only to find that the child greatly prefers the box to the gift itself. This new poetry collection by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (J.R.R. on book jackets, Ronald to his friends) is a lot like the disappointing toy in the great box. To put it simply: The poetry is pretty bad, but the explanatory material that surrounds it--written by Ronald himself and his son Christopher--is good.
Unlike the low-rent fiction published under the names of such long-dead authors as Ian Fleming and V.C. Andrews, there's no doubt about the provenance of the poems in the collection. But by Christopher Tolkien's own account, there's no evidence that the elder Tolkien ever intended to have this work published, either.
The heart of the book consists of two long poems inspired by the Saga of the Volsungs, the Nibelung legends (particularly the famous 13th-century Middle High German poem the Nibelungenlied) and stories from Prose Edda. The Prose Edda is a compilation of the Icelandic tradition edited by the chieftain Snorri Sturluson, while the Volsung Saga is an ancient Norse saga that's the major source for Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle. The two title poems here tell related but, in Tolkien's version, separate stories. "The New Lay of the Volsungs" tell the story of the heroic dragon slayer Sigurd, his romance with the Valkyrie Brynhild, their arrival at a "court of great princes" called the Niflugs, Sigurd's betrayal (the original "stab in the back"), and Brynhild's suicide. The related "New Lay of Gudrun" tells the story of the Princess Gudrun (a Niflung), her forced marriage to Atli (based on Attila the Hun), her husband's murder of her family, and her decision to murder Atli's sons and serve them to her husband in a feast.
Well, at least that's what the notes, introductions, and commentaries say the story is about. I've read substantially all of Tolkien's source material--some of it in the original languages--and still had to reread several times just to follow the plot. At more than one point, Christopher Tolkien's notes have to clarify who is taking a particular action and what is going on. Without them, the poems are almost impossible to decode. And sometimes it's pretty clear that the elder Tolkien simply left certain parts to finish later.
For example, one of the first poem's better sections involves Sigurd being prepared to fight the dragon, his acquisition of the magical sword Gram and the horse Grani, and his battle with the Fafnir. But for all the good buildup, there's no real scene of combat between Sigurd and the Dragon: The hero just stabs him. The elder Tolkien knew how to tell a story--Lord of the Rings proves it--but what he's drafted here just doesn't work as a narrative.
Complaining about a text's difficulty isn't all that becoming when the text has rewards that equal the cost of reading it. But despite a few good lines here and there--the great Gods then / began their toil, / a wondrous world / well they builded--this effort largely falls flat.
One problem may be the way Tolkien chose to write. His poems take the form of the Lay (or Lai), a rather free-form type of Northern European verse written for musical accompaniment that was most popular in France and Germany. But the poems are written in modern English, take the form of eight-line verses, and the poetic style--alliteration--is one that predominated in 14th-century English poetry.
In other words, Tolkien is using a Northern European form, a style from 14th-century England, and writing with words (more or less) that people use today. (Great philologist that he was, Tolkien avoids many English words of French/Latin origin.)
Take this passage describing Sigurd's capture of the magical horse Grani:
They drove the horses
Into deep currents;
To the bank they backed
From the bitter water.
But grey Grani
Gladly swam there:
Sigurd Chose him,
Swift and flawless.
Like a lot of the poem, this is straightforward narrative with no condensation of emotion or particular music to it. It sounds nice, but that's about it. The alliteration doesn't help here, either: While the action (the capture of a wild horse) is pretty dramatic, it isn't conveyed in the slow, throaty language that Tolkien uses to convey it. In short, it doesn't quite work.
With enough time and effort, maybe the elder Tolkien could have pulled this enterprise off. But for whatever reason, he set aside the poems.
So Tolkien's poems present an insight into the mind of an artist searching for his muse: They are evidently an early, abandoned experiment with bringing the spirit of the ancient tales he loved to modern readers. This is a task he succeeded at brilliantly in Lord of the Rings. And even here are some intriguing gems for Rings fans: Not only are there magical rings, but the poems also contain references to a "lidless eye"--the embodiment and symbol of Rings arch-villain Sauron--which may be the first time that Tolkien used the phrase in his own creative writing.
And the notes, describing the stories, Tolkien's allusions, and the like, are all first rate. Even when it seems that Christopher Tolkien may be padding the material a little to make it book length, what he says is pretty interesting. Ronald's lecture notes and Christopher's commentary provide a good overview of the nature of the tradition where the elder man was trying to write, the poetic styles, and the numerous obscure allusions.
Tolkien scholars and ardent Lord of the Rings fans may gain some insights into his fiction from reading these poems. The notes provide a very good introduction to the tradition that the elder Tolkien wrote in and, in any case, they're long enough to probably justify a look at the book. But the poems, while somewhat promising, are still in rough draft.
Eli Lehrer is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.