June 4, 2009


Tolkien out-Wagners Wagner: The most unexpected of Tolkien’s posthumous publications is his poetic response to the gap in the Nibelung legend (Tom Shippey, 6/04/09, Times Literary Supplement)

Many years ago William Morris declared that the legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, the Völsungs and the Nibelungs, deserved to become the Northern Homer, and he was right. It has everything: the dragon Fáfnir and the valkyrie Brynhild, werewolves and dwarves, mysterious interventions by a one-eyed deity, a sword broken and reforged, a fabulous treasure-hoard and, above all, a magic ring with a curse on it. It also has – and this may have prevented it from realizing its potential, at least in Morris’s long verse retelling of 1876 – many lurking embarrassments: incest, child-murder, human sacrifice, what looks very like ceremonial female suicide or suttee. Yet even more alluring and provoking than what is in the legend, is what might have been there once but is there no more.

The relationship between the various forms of the Nibelung legend was recognized in the nineteenth century as the Königsproblem of Germanic philology, which has never been solved. We still possess four main ancient sources, two Norse (the Völsunga saga and a brief epitome in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda), one in German (the Nibelungenlied), and one in Norse but derived from German, in the legendary compendium of the Þiðrekssaga. There is a fifth, for the legend gave rise to over half (fifteen out of twenty-nine) of the poems contained in the main manuscript of Eddic poetry surviving, the Codex Regius. However, some of those poems concern later additions to the cycle, several deal only with the complaints of Gudrún after all is over, and where the heart of the story should be, there is a gap. Before the manuscript was rediscovered in Iceland, some medieval vandal tore out the eight pages dealing (probably) with the centre of the tragedy. Both Snorri and the author of Völsunga saga seem to have known the poem(s) we have lost, but in crucial matters their reports do not agree. None of our extant ancient sources gives a completely credible narrative.

The gap has been a standing temptation for writers, like Morris and Wagner, as also a puzzle for scholars, best restated by Theodore Andersson’s The Legend of Brynhild (1980). Scholars of an older generation furthermore made no bones about reconstructing works they knew were lost. Axel Olrik wrote his long Danish version of the lost Old Norse Bjarkamál, based on the two surviving stanzas and a paraphrase in Latin by Saxo Grammaticus, and not many years later J. R. R. Tolkien followed suit, writing the two poems in the volume reviewed here, in English but in the original Old Norse metre, sometime (his son Christopher believes) in the early 1930s. They are sure of a wider readership than Morris ever received. Can they match Wagner – whom, let it be said at once, Tolkien regarded as at best a gifted amateur, and whose libretti, Christopher Tolkien says firmly, “In spirit and purpose . . . bear no relation” to his father’s poems?

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 4, 2009 5:23 AM
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