In ‘Legend’ poems, Tolkien the storyteller
J.R.R. Tolkien is best known as the author of fantasy tales like “The Hobbit’’ and “The Lord of the Rings.’’ But some may not know that he was an academic first and writer second. The reclusive British scholar, lexicographer, and Oxford don was, in a way, the original geek. He specialized in the rather arcane field of philology (the history of languages), and pored over Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse texts. To Tolkien (1892-1973), Icelandic sagas and 1,000-year-old poems like “Beowulf’’ were the finest stuff ever written. He didn’t even read contemporary fiction.
Tolkien hung out with other medievalists in Oxford pubs, where they drank ale, smoked pipes, and made up stories by firelight. While most authors of the early 20th century were busy smashing Victorian conventions and reassembling the pieces into irony-laden modernism, Tolkien was penning stories and poems about domineering dragons and world-weary wizards.
Since he was more inclined to tinker rather than finish many of his projects, reams of uncompleted drafts remain, like treasures to unearth. Gradually, his son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, has been deciding which are worthy of publication. So it comes as no surprise that the son has discovered another of his father’s old works.
Written in the early 1930s, some years before “The Hobbit’’ and “Rings,’’ “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún’’ almost vanished. The elder Tolkien lamented in a 1967 letter to W.H. Auden that he wanted to “lay my hands on it (I hope it isn’t lost), a thing I did many years ago’’; it appears he never revised the poems since those early days. Christopher, now 84, edited the manuscript.
The two poems that make up “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún’’ are Tolkien’s version of the Old Norse Völsung and Nibelung legends, an attempt to unify and organize the material dealing with Sigurd, Brynhild, Gunnar, and other characters, using the same source materials that Richard Wagner drew upon for his opera series “The Ring.’’
Tolkien’s task was to fit modern English to the Old Norse meter: eight-line stanzas, each short line only four to six syllables and containing two to three stresses each. The poems were an exercise, he said, in “trying to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry.’’ He also wanted to capture the essence of Old Norse poetry, with its “demonic energy and force,’’ the lines chiseled to seize a situation and strike a blow.
The poems do deliver the desired blows. In the dense yet spare lines, we are told of Odin, Thor and Loki; dark forests and doors to caverns; giants and a monstrous wolf Fenrir. Abysses yawn; brothers murder fathers and “men sing of serpents / ceaselessly guarding / gold and silver / greedy-hearted.’’ Wise words are uttered, like these from Sigurd: “Stout heart is better / than strongest sword.’’ And yes, there are dungeons and dragons. In short, all the raw materials for 100 epics.
In “Sigurd and Gudrún,’’ one feels Tolkien warming up his own storytelling muscles and voice, recasting an old song in a new language so he, soon, could take the reins to tell his own original tales. And one also senses the sweetness of the son, Christopher, uncovering his father’s many “small slips of paper’’ and putting them in order, bent on making certain his father’s legend grows, too, along with the many tales he told.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org His book “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms’’ has just been released.