The story, in other words, is an actual Norse or Germanic legend, rather than the mythopoeic Tolkienian imaginings of Middle Earth. Fans of the latter might be disappointed by this fact; and might, moreover, find the dense, allusive verse in which Tolkien has rendered his tale pretty indigestible compared to the expansive flowing prose of The Lord of the Rings. But that's not to say they shouldn't give it a go.
Now we all know that the typical Strange Horizons reader is a highly cultured individual. She will, therefore, of course be familiar with the story of the Volsungs and the Niblungs; perhaps from the original Sagas, or Snorri Sturlson's medieval Prose Edda—or perhaps in one or other modern retelling. The most celebrated of these are both later nineteenth-century: Englishman William Morris's The Story of Sigurd the Volsung (1876, available online)—once a fairly famous poem, and one Tolkien certainly knew; and, most famously of all, Wagner's operatic recasting of the legends, Das Ring der Nibelungen (1869-74). But it's a complicated legend that involves a whole chunk of story, and before I discuss the merits of Tolkien's version I'm going to summarize it here. Those familiar with its ins-and-outs can skip ahead to section 2 of this review. But since it isn't really possible to talk about the poem without reference to the legend Tolkien is retelling, and since these legends perhaps aren't as well known as they might be, I hope you'll bear with me.
The story starts, as the best ones do, with an enormous pile of treasure. The Norse god Odin has been imprisoned by a chap called Hreidmar—no ordinary fellow, this; he and his sons can take the form of animals, if they choose—because Odin killed Hreidmar's son Otr (in the form of an otter). To get free again, Odin ransoms himself with a horde of treasure that he, in turn, takes from the dwarf Andvari. Now the dwarf is unhappy about having to relinquish his gold, and begs Odin's middleman (Loki) to be allowed to keep one ring. Denied this, he curses the whole horde, and the ring especially ("My ring I will curse/with ruth and woe!"). Hreidmar gets his gold, though, and Odin goes free.
That, in effect, is the backstory. Tolkien's focus is not so much on these supernatural beings as the mortal dynasty of the Volsungs; but it's worth touching on what happens to this gold in the meantime. Hreidmar's remaining sons, Regin and Fafnir, desire it, and kill their father to get it. Regin demands his share, but Fafnir wants to keep it all to himself, so he pops on a "Helm of Terror" to scare his brother away. Fafnir then takes the form of a terrible dragon, and curls up on his pile of gold in a lair, which is, as we all know, how dragons like to enjoy their wealth. We'll come back to the treasure in a bit.
Enter Odin's grandson, Volsung, and his eleven children; most especially his son and daughter Sigmund and Signy. Signy marries a neighbouring king, Siggeir of the Gauts. But Siggeir is a bad sort; he betrays the alliance and chains up all ten sons of Volsung in the forest to be eaten by wolves. Only Sigmund survives, and he takes his vengeance on nasty Siggeir with the help of a son conceived upon his sister Signy, wife of his enemy and Queen of the Gauts. The Gauts are slaughtered, but Signy chooses to die with her husband, which, since she hates him, is a rather puzzling decision.
Sigmund returns to his land and rules as king, and here (a) his incestuously conceived son is killed, and (b) he marries again and fathers Sigurd. Since Sigmund dies in battle before his son is born, and since his mother also dies, Sigurd is raised in the forest by Regin (from the backstory). Now we get onto more familiar, Wagnerian ground. Sigurd grows up to be the greatest warrior in the world. Regin decides to use him to get his hands on the treasure hoarded by his dragon-brother, sending him to do what Regin is too weak or cowardly to do himself: to kill Fafnir. Regin plans, after the deed, to eat the dragon's heart—thus gaining supernatural wisdom—and afterwards dispose of Sigurd. And indeed Sigurd kills the dragon, and on Regin's instruction cuts out and cooks the heart for him. But the fat spits and burns Sigurd's hand. When he instinctively puts this wound to his mouth Sigurd tastes the dragon and acquires the ability to understand the birds. They tell him of Regin's evil plan and Sigurd doesn't muck about. To quote Tolkien's version:
Round turned Sigurd
and Regin saw he
in the heath crawling
with hate gleaming.
Black spilled the blood
as blade clove him
the head hewing
of Hreidmar's son. (p. 114)
The treasure is now Sigurd's. What next? Well, some birds tell Sigurd that the most beautiful woman in the world, the celebrated Brynhild, is lying on a mountaintop, surrounded by a wall of fire, waiting for the mightiest warrior in the world to brave the flames and claim her. So off Sigurd goes, leaps the fire and wakes Brynhild with a kiss. The two fall in love, and swear oaths of fidelity to one another. This takes us up to the end of Wagner's opera Siegfried (Siegfried being the German form of Sigurd's name).
Now Gudrún enters the tale. She is the daughter of king Gjúki and his sorceress-queen Grímhild. When Sigurd comes to stay (now we're into the story of Wagner's Götterdämmerung) Grímhild decides he'd make a good husband for her daughter. That he is in love with, and sworn to, Brynhild is clearly an obstacle, but Grímhild gets around this by giving him a memory-erasing magic potion. I say memory-erasing, although presumably the only portion of Sigurd's memory that gets erased is the bit about having met and fallen in love with Brynhild. Anyway, under the influence of this potion Sigurd agrees to marry Gudrún. Since this makes Brynhild once again marriageable material, Grímhild decides that her son, Gudrún's brother Gunnar, can marry her. The problem here is that Gunnar isn't the mightiest warrior in the world (that's Sigurd) and so can't broach the wall of fire to get to her. But by means of another handy magic potion, Grímhild gives Sigurd the outward appearance of Gunnar. He then—obligingly—rides off and claims Brynhild on Gunnar's behalf. Brynhild is, as you might expect, a bit confused by this, but goes along with it; and Sigurd-in-the-likeness-of-Gunnar seals the deal by giving Brynhild the cursed ring from Andvari's horde.
Brynhild, coming to the court of Gjúki as Gunnar's betrothed, is understandably narked to find Sigurd already there, pledged to Gudrún. Things get, narratively, a little confused at this point. You might think Gunnar would be grateful to Sigurd for taking on his form and braving the wall of fire to win him the world's most beautiful woman. But instead he decides he's going to kill him, and although he's too squeamish, or scared, to do so directly, he persuades his half-brother Gotthorn to stab Sigurd in his sleep. (According to the legend the dying Sigurd chucks his sword at Gotthorn and cuts him in half.) When grief-stricken Brynhild goes off to throw herself onto Sigurd's funeral pyre, everyone seems happy to see her go, which again seems odd given the trouble they all went to get her in the first place: "Crooked came she forth/from cursed womb/to man's evil/and our mighty woe" (pp. 176-7)—surely a little harsh in the circumstances.
That's the end of Sigurd and Brynhild. The remainder is Gudrún's story. Griefstruck at this turn of events, she is nevertheless married off to "Atli" (Atilla the Hun, no less) in a dynastic treaty-style wedding. But Atli has heard of the huge horde of gold. He wants it; and when he invites Gudrún's brothers Gunnar and Högni—the two men in the world who know where the treasure is—to a mighty feast, he is actually planning to torture them into revealing its location. Gunnar and Högni come with their war band, and there's a major rumble at Atli's court, with a good deal of hewing, smiting and slaying. Eventually the Huns capture both brothers. Gunnar promises to tell Atli where the treasure is, provided he brings him his brother Högni's heart, cut out of his breast. Atli cuts out a slave's heart and tries to pass it off as Högni's (although why he should wish to spare Högni is far from clear); but the heart trembles with fear when its presented to Gunnar, so he knows it can't be Högni's. So finally Atli chops out Högni's actual heart. It doesn't tremble, so Gunnar knows his brother really is dead. Then he refuses to tell Atli what he wants to know (even though he promised to); and, wrathful, Atli throws him in a pit of snakes.
Naturally upset by the deaths of her brothers, Gudrún decides on revenge. She and Atli are parents to two children, the rather sweetly-named Erp and Eitill. (Don't you think that 'Erp and Eitill' sound like two glove puppets hosting a CBeebies show?) Sweetness isn't their fate though: Gudrún kills them, makes their skulls into cups, makes smoothies out of their flesh and feeds them to her husband. After Atli has supped she tells him what she has just done; the horrified man takes to his bed (not even pausing to punish Gudrún for her crime) and Gudrún creeps in later that night and knifes him to death. Then she burns the palace down, wanders in the woods for a while forlorn, and finally drowns herself in the ocean. That's the end.
This is the story Tolkien decided, probably in the early 1930s, to retell in verse. He did so, in Christopher Tolkien's opinion, in part to come up with solutions to the various problems, narrative chicanes and oddities of motivation the original presents the reader, amongst which are: why does Sigurd bugger off after winning Brynhild the first time? Why not marry her straight away? Why, since she is already betrothed to Sigurd, does Brynhild agree to marry Gunnar? Sure, he breaches the wall of fire (it was actually Sigurd in his likeness, though Brynhild doesn't know that) but not only does she not want to marry him, she's already sworn herself to somebody else. After he wins Brynhild why does Gunnar decide to kill Sigurd? And having done so, why does he let Brynhild immolate herself? And finally, after traveling together to Atli's court, and fighting side by side against Hunnish treachery, why does Gunnar demand the heart of his beloved brother Högni?
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún offers answers to most of these questions, although sometimes a little obscurely. And although Tolkien's meditations on Eddaic and heroic poetry are interesting, and although reading this book will certainly bring you closer to a number of interesting topics (the Volsung saga and the transmission of Old English and Old Norse poetry in particular)—it isn't in its own right a very effective piece of writing.
In part this is a function of the poem's extreme terseness. Events are compressed, elided or even omitted altogether, such that going through Sigurd and Gudrún feels like reading the epitome of a longer poem. The result is overly sketchy, clotted with unfamiliar names and wrongfooting zeugma:
Signý comes not,
Siggeir calls her.
Where I lay unwilling
I now lay me glad;
I lived in loathing,
Now lief I die. (p. 86)
There's too much of this who-did-the-what-now? and hang-on, which one was he again? stuff in the poem to make it a smooth read. It's a challenge to get your Högnis straight from your Hjallis, sorting the Gautars from the Gunnars, Grams, Gjukis and Grimhilds, and distinguishing between all the many Sigs (Sigmund, Signy, Siggeir, Sigurd and Sigrdrif, to name only five of them). I knew the story already—knew, that is, Morris's and Wagner's versions, though not the original Sagas—but nevertheless I could only pick my way through by leaning heavily on Christopher Tolkien's commentary. I suppose the poem is in this respect like the original Sagas to a modern audience (although presumably not like the originals to their original audience). Which is to say, it reads as a series of condensed textual and interpretive puzzles to be solved. And though the commentary enables the attentive reader to do precisely this, the process entirely congeals the necessary motion and fluidity required by the heroic narrative. This in turn robs the poem of tragic momentum. Never mind that the characters are ciphers, and their motivations often cloudy; everything happens in an airless, rather claustrophobic narrative space.
I don't want to be too negative: there are various moments of genuine poetic impact in Sigurd and Gudrún. The thing is that these tend to be touches of epiphanic intensity that remove themselves from the sweep of the whole, rather than focusing the integrity of the Eddaic narrative. For example, I liked this Ted Hughes avant-la-lettre moment right at the beginning:
The falls of Andvari
frothed and murmured
with fish teeming
in foaming pools.
As pike there plunged
his prey hunting
From his dark cavern.
There hunted hungry
the silver salmon
sweet he thought them.
Otr in otter's form
there ate blinking
on the bank brooding
of black waters. (p. 67)
That's vivid and suggestive verse, right there. But turn to the commentary to discover the identity of Andvari, Hreidmar and Otr—to pin down their place in the tale, how the Sagas treat them, what Tolkien takes and what changes from his sources—and much of the magic evaporates. Then again, at the other end of the poem some of the battle scenes escape this problem, and retain a vehement vividness:
'Wake now, wake now!
War is kindled.
Now helm to head,
to hand the sword.
Wake now, warriors,
To wide Valhöll [Valhalla]
ways lie open.'
At the dark doorways
they dinned and hammered;
there was clang of swords
and crash of axes.
The smiths of battle
smote the anvils;
sparked and splintered
spears and helmets.
In they hacked them,
out they hurled them
Stones and stairways
streamed and darkened;
day came dimly—
the doors were held. (p. 286)
One reason this works, I think, is that the troping of the fighting men as "smiths of battle" connects with the smithlike bang!-bang! double pulse of each line of verse. Tolkien's contemporary Robert Graves talked about two European poetic traditions: the epic metres of Homer and Vergil which, he thought, rhythmically embody "the slow pull and push of the oar", and Celtic traditions that "match the rhythms of the smiths' hammer." There's certainly a distinct feel of the hammer and anvil in this poem.
The whole thing, "The New Lay of the Völsungs" together with "The New Lay of Gudrún," adds up to 4030 lines of verse. That isn't a very long poem, as long poems go (Morris's version runs to 13,000 lines). And actually it's not 4030 lines. Christopher Tolkien has decided to print the poetry in a stanzas of short two-stress lines, rather than (as is more conventional when printing Anglo Saxon alliterative verse) in longer lines with a caesura in the middle. There may be some scholarly justification for printing each half-line separately and in effect of doubling the length of the poem, but there are certainly practical ones. On p. 42 the editor notes that Tolkien's manuscript is written mostly in long-line form, although he also scribbled a marginal note to the effect that the "short line . . . looks better." This is how the first stanza of part 1 is laid out:
Of old was an age
when Ódin walked
by wide waters
in the world's beginning;
at his left was running,
at his right Hœnir
roamed beside him. (p. 66)
As to whether this really looks better than—
Of old was an age when Ódin walked
by wide waters in the world's beginning;
lightfooted Loki at his left was running,
at his right Hœnir roamed beside him.
—I suppose is merely a matter of personal taste. I prefer the latter, particularly for reading at length; although that's partly because I'm more familiar with it. If that format had been adopted, of course, it would have meant HarperCollins publishing a 2000-line poem. A comparison: the first 2000 lines of Tolkien's verse version of The Children of Húrin—only one of the several long poems in 1985's The History of Middle Earth III: The Lays of Beleriand—takes up 70 pages, commentary included. Printed as compactly, Sigurd and Gudrún would have been a pamphlet. Not so viable, commercially speaking, clearly.
The more important point is that 2000 lines are, frankly, too few to cover the whole long, involved multi-generational saga I summarised above; and getting through everything forces on Tolkien a too-packed and oblique style. Reading the result is a laborious process, and though it is rewarding, it's made harder than it need be by Tolkien's unabashed antiquity of idiom; for instance with respect to subject and object. In an inflected language it's possible to identify subject and object by word endings; but modern English is not such a language, and in our tongue—the one Tolkien is using, after all—"a wall saw Sigurd" (p. 119) does not mean the same thing as "Sigurd saw a wall." "Gand rode Regin/and Grani Sigurd" (p. 108) is liable to confuse; and even when you've worked out which names refer to horses and which (the second and fourth) to men, the image is still liable to ludicrous haunting by the thought of a saddled Sigurd bearing a stallion on his back. The poem is oblique enough as it is without giving the reader knots of signification to untie of this "Grim was Gunnar/on Goti riding/under haughty Högni/Hölkvir strode" (p. 134) sort.
There are few Professors of Anglo-Saxon who could expect to see their dabblings in poetic pastiche published at all, let alone handsomely produced by a major publishing house and intruding into bestseller lists. That Sigurd and Gudrún has been thus presented for our reading pleasure, in 2009, has everything to do with Middle Earth and nothing with Snorri Sturlson. But although there will be interest (naturally enough) in the elements Tolkien "adapted" from the Volsung saga for The Lord of the Rings, these two poems actually have very little bearing on the more famous book. Tolkien himself repudiated suggestions that Sauron's ring was a version of the Nibelung ring ("both rings were round and there the resemblance cease," he snapped in a letter to Allen & Unwin in 1961: "the 'Nibelung' . . . has nothing whatsoever to do with The Lord of the Rings" (Letters, pp. 306-7).
In one sense it is, I admit, impertinent of me to criticize this poem for its pastiche archaisms. Such archaism is deliberate, not inadvertent; because Tolkien wrote the poem to test out interpretive solutions for an ancient mythic narrative, not to create something new. But, even bearing that in mind—and indeed specifically with regard to those Tolkienian solutions—I'd say this is a text that falls down in crucial ways. I'm going to conclude this review by looking at a couple of Tolkien's solutions to the narrative "problems" of the Volsung saga, and by saying why I think these are less than satisfactory. I should warn you now that this involves bringing Shakespeare into the mix. Brace yourselves.
The main lacuna in the Volsung story is accidental. The earliest version of the tale is today preserved in a document called the Codex Regius, now kept in Copenhagen. It's in two parts, because "after leaf 32 a gathering, probably of eight pages, has been lost." (p. 28) Tolkien thought these eight pages, containing a significant chunk of "the Long Lay of Sigurd" had been deliberately stolen. Without it we have two separate stories. Story A takes the conventional, satisfying form of the hero overcoming the monster and getting the girl: Sigurd slays Fafnir, and wins the beautiful Brynhild. That looks like a very serviceable Happily Every After, don't you think? But wait, here's Story B: Brynhild will only marry the bravest warrior in the world. She loves Sigurd, who fits that bill. But Sigurd is betrothed to Gudrún; and Brynhild is won instead by Gunnar. The braided wires of these four lovers' destinies go into the black box of the story and come out the other side with Sigurd murdered in his sleep, a grieving Brynhild throwing herself on his funeral pyre, and Gudrún heartbroken.
Now, the big question (the missing chunk of Codex Regius) is how we get from Story A to Story B. But the black box portion of Story B is a problem too. As far as that goes, Tolkien jotted down "notes . . . on his interpretation of the tangled and contradictory narratives that constitute the tragedy of Sigurd and Brynhild, Gunnar and Gudrún," reproduced here by his son (written, apparently, "very rapidly in soft pencil, and difficult to read"). Tolkien's sequence of events, rather clearer in his notes than in his actual poem, is: Brynhild finds out about the deception (that it wasn't Gunnar, but Sigmund-in-the-likeness-of-Gunnar, that won her) and is "mortally wounded" in her pride; so wounded, indeed, that she decides not only to kill Sigurd, but to "avenge herself upon Gunnar" for his part in the deception. Accordingly she "lies terribly against Sigurd and herself", and tells Gunnar that when Sigurd—in Gunnar's form—rode through the flames, he had sex with her. This, not being part of the deal, outrages Gunnar, who has Sigurd killed; but once this is accomplished Brynhild comes out with the truth, so revealing that Gunnar has unjustly slain his sword-brother and widowed his sister.
It all makes sense, although according to a rather stiffly limitedly consecutive logic of human motivation. But it doesn't address the bigger problem of how Brynhild is still behind the wall of flame waiting to be claimed after Sigurd has already ridden the wall of flame and claimed her in his own name. How, in other words, do we get from Story A to Story B?
How can Sigurd, having once sworn himself to Brynhild, then go on to swear himself to Gudrún? There are two possible answers to this question. One of them is simple and psychologically interesting. The other is implausible, awkward and much less interesting, psychologically speaking; but because it preserves a sense of Sigurd's 'noble heroism' it is the one Morris, Wagner and Tolkien follow. This second explanation has already been mentioned: Sigurd unwittingly drinks a magic potion that makes him forget his first love—a device as cheesy as the use of temporary amnesia to paper over plot-cracks in the first season of 24. But it doesn't have to be that way. There's a much simpler and more satisfying explanation available to us. Why does Sigurd act this way? Because especially where matters of love and sexual desire are concerned, men's oaths are not necessarily to be trusted. This has the advantage not only of being, you know, true; it also turns Sigurd from a type into a character. It stops him being an improbable epitome of manly virtue, and presents him instead as genuine, resonant and three-dimensional—shifts him from being a static icon from myth. Turns him, in other words, from an antique statue into a modern individual.
Actually, I know of no version of the story that spins things this way. Our investment in Sigurd's dull Heroic Nobleness and absolutely unimpeachable honour is, perhaps, too profound. And something of the same marionette-like logic rusts Tolkien's Brynhild too: her only motivation her own wounded pride, her method dependent upon an assumption of absolute truthfulness.
It puts me in mind of Hamlet. Bear with me a moment.
The story that Shakespeare worked into his celebrated play is an ancient one, and found in many cultures. In the sources that Shakespeare used it is fairly straightforward: Hamlet is the king's son; his father is killed by his uncle in a palace putsch. There's nothing secret about this—it's an open coup d'état; and to consolidate his power the usurper executes key figures of the old guard. Hamlet, as the old king's son and heir, is evidently at danger of death, and to avoid this he lights on a clever plan. He pretends to be mad, in effect saying to his uncle "you don't need to bother yourself executing me, your highness—I'm mad as a helmetful of frogs, me. Harmless!" The ruse works, and Hamlet is able, under the disguise of madness, to kill his father's murderer.
Now what's crucial here is the way Shakespeare adapts this story. In his version Hamlet is still the son of a royal father killed by his uncle in a palace putsch. But the coup d'état is secret; Claudius murders Old Hamlet in his garden and everyone thinks the old king died in his sleep. One of the first things Claudius does in Shakespeare's play is announce to the whole court that young Hamlet is next in line to the throne, effectively adopting him as his son. So rather than facing his imminent death, Hamlet finds himself royal heir and a prince of the realm. He has no need to protect his life by pretending to be mad.
But he pretends to be mad anyway. Why? In Shakespeare's play it's hard to say exactly; or more to the point it's hard to say why in the terms of the play's sources, because those sources treat characters as logical and rational agents. If characters in those sorts of stories do something, there must be a straightforward reason why. Shakespeare's Hamlet is a much more profound piece of characterisation. The play precisely requires us to try and puzzle out why Hamlet acts the way he does. To what extent is his madness play-acting, and to what extent has grief forced an actual irrationality to the surface in his behaviour? Shakespeare understood what Freud, centuries later, was to build a career elaborating: that often our motives are hidden even from ourselves; that our subjectivity is made up as much of the irrational as the rational (of the unconscious as the conscious). That, moreover, this is particularly true with respect to traumatic events like bereavement, or to repressed and taboo desires. Even Hamlet doesn't really understand why he gets so very very furious with his mother in her bedroom. He rationalizes his rage as a commitment to public chastity, especially for the over-forties; but that's not the real reason he gets so murderously het-up. Where sex is concerned it can be hard for us to untangle our motives.
Shakespeare turns Hamlet from a canny 2D character into an immensely complex, nuanced 3D individual. He is one of the first properly modern figures in world literature. This, indeed, is a large part of the titanic reputation of this text. Medieval literature has its fair share of colourful and engaging characters (and much more than a fair share of blank ciphers and cardboard heroes); but there's no-one in it like Hamlet; and we are much more like Hamlet than we are like Chaucer's knight.
And how does this relate to Tolkien? Well, Sigurd and Gudrún is an exercise in conscious archaism not just in subject matter, and not just in poetic form and idiom. It treats its characters in flat, archaic ways. It didn't have to do so. What makes The Lord of the Rings much more than an exercise in reheating old mythology under an invented nomenclature and geography is the way its main conceit parses a much more interesting and much more contemporary dilemma. Of course some of Tolkien's players are as brightly-coloured and as stiffly static as any from the Edda—Aragorn, say; or Elrond. But at the heart of the narrative are three figures that are as modern, in their way, as Hamlet: Frodo, Sam, and above all, Gollum. In other words, what makes The Lord of the Rings particularly valuable as fantasy is the way it bridges old Anglo-Saxon fascinations with heroism, doom and catastrophe with modern fascinations with guilt, desire, power, compromise, and the hidden springs of psychological life. There's nothing so nuanced, or complex in Sigurd and Gudrún. No bridge, but an embalmed limb of the dead past.