Tom Shippey Reviews “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun”

by May 7, 2009Books

Tom Shippey posted quite an in-depth review of Tolkien’s latest book, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.  Here’s an excerpt:

What did Tolkien aim to do? In his own words, he meant “to unify the lays about the Völsungs from the Elder Edda . . . to organise the Edda material dealing with Sigurd and Gudrún”. These are perhaps understatements. In a lecture on Eddic poetry given at Oxford and here reprinted, Tolkien said that the poems had attracted “connoisseurs of new literary sensations” and the main aspect of that sensation was “an almost demonic energy and force”. Though the Eddic poems might often share the same metre as Old English poetry, the latter was relatively relaxed, expansive. By contrast, “To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet”, and Tolkien aimed to do that too.

Vital, then, were metre and language. Tolkien argued that the Old Norse fornyrðislag or “old lore metre”, essentially the same as the Old English one, still came naturally to modern English speakers, but the point can be challenged. Because of the loss of grammatical endings, modern English uses many more filler words, articles and prepositions and auxiliary verbs. The old metre was not based on syllable-counting and could therefore incorporate a number of unstressed items, but still rules out many possibilities natural to English now. Its basis is readily imitable: a line divided into two halves, two stressed syllables in each, the third of the four always carrying alliteration, to be matched by one or both of the first two, the fourth never (or the second half-line would become identical to the first and the sense of the line itself would disappear). Tolkien wrote many such in his Old English imitations, as for instance in Éomer’s epitaph for Théoden, “Mourn not overmuch! Mighty was the fallen . . .”, but Old Norse is harder. Where Norse clashes, English tends to patter. Even Tolkien’s friend W. H. Auden had trouble in his brilliant translations of the Eddic poems, reviewed many years ago for the TLS by this reviewer (February 25, 1982). Nevertheless, Tolkien wanted to keep the metre, to reach out for the “demonic energy”.

He accordingly accepted many archaic features: the -eth ending, which alternates with -s as metrically required; the “not” negative, as in “the king came not” for “the king never came”; most commonly, word-order shifts, to break up the increasingly invariant structure of modern English. Some will find these hard to follow: it takes a moment to grasp what Sigurd is saying to the dying dragon, in reply to the threat that his treasure brings death, “Life each must leave, / on his latest day, / yet gold gladly / will grasp living” (“living”, elliptical for “any living person”, is the grammatical subject and “gold” the object). Obscurity is the price paid by Tolkien, and gladly paid by his Norse predecessors, for force.

You can see that even the review isn’t for the faint of heart…

[Via Times Online]


Submit a Comment

Found in Home 5 News 5 Books 5 Tom Shippey Reviews “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun”

You may also like…