Thursday, September 15, 2011


Long after his death, we continue to receive trickles of genius from J. R. R. Tolkien. No, there will never be another Lord of the Rings, but we increasingly see more of the concerns that actually occupied Tolkien for most of his career.

The most recent addition comes with the very-posthumous publication of his Lays of Sigurd and Gudrun. To back up a bit: LotR was a novelistic adventure set within Tolkien's grand creation of Middle-earth. He was specifically inspired to create Middle-earth to remedy the lack of a truly English mythology. Tolkien had long been fascinated by the Northern mythology of the Scandinavians, which had also influenced the legendary literature of Iceland and the Germanic tribes. Now, Old English literature did have legends, but they weren't really their own - for example, the most famous ancient English story of all, Beowulf, is actually set in modern-day Denmark and Sweden. There wasn't anything that the English could uniquely claim.

So, in many ways, Tolkien's grand creation - the deities, the creation myths, the myriad tales of battles and vendettas and legacies - was his way of taking the profound emotional impact of the old Northern myths, and setting them in a wholly new context, created specifically for a new people in a new age.

His love of the literature of the North predates his creation, and this collection is a fascinating glimpse into another outlet that this love took. The main offerings in this book are verse translations that a young Tolkien made from the ancient Poetic Edda, an Old Norse collection of sagas, into modern English. Unlike other translators, Tolkien didn't simply put the story into prose, nor did he use standard English poetry. Instead, he kept the original qualities of the poem, maintaining the force and structure that it would have had on its original listeners.

Reading this made me recall my college class on Old English, a fascinating trip I took through a dead language. Old English is similar to German, and like ancient German and Latin, it featured declined nouns. In other words, the form of the noun would change based on the role it plays within a sentence. We've mostly eliminated declension in modern English, but you can still see it in pronouns - "I", "me", "my", "mine".  Anyways, since declension tended to follow standard patterns, the ending of Old English words tended to be highly regular - the ending sound of a word only reflected the part of speech it was using.

So, Old English poetry didn't "rhyme", which would have been fairly pointless. Instead, the poetry focused on alliteration - it was the beginning of words, not the end, that the poet had control over, and that repeated sound is what lends Old English poetry its strange beauty. As with all poetry, you really need to speak it out loud in order to get the full impact.

As one might expect, old Norse poetry turns out to be quite similar to old English. Both are very alliterative, and focus more on unity within the line than on bridging two lines. (Without going into details, where the typical modern English poem might have a rhyming scheme like ABABCC, old English and Norse would look more like A-A B-B C-C.) There are differences as well. Christopher Tolkien, who lightly edited the poem and added a great deal of additional commentary, often quotes his father from lecture notes and other extant sources; Tolkien notes that the Norse followed a fairly strict stanza-based format, with each stanza focused on a particular element of the story. Partly as a result of this, Norse poetry tends to be extremely forceful: it grabs your attention, powerfully tells you what it has to say, and drags you along. In contrast, Old English (as exemplified in Beowulf) has a more flowing structure, where the poet can linger over some details or rush onward. At one point he observes that one can keep re-reading Beowulf, and keep discovering new joys within it; but anyone who reads the poetic Edda will immediately encounter everything there is to know. You may love it or hate it, but subsequent readings of the Edda won't change your opinion as to its quality.

Circling back around: Tolkien wrote these poems in modern English vocabulary, using the poetic form of the original Norse poem. It's a pretty amazing achievement. Obviously, I can't compare this to the original, but I can say that it's an incredibly powerful poem, and one that resonates surprisingly strongly with other stories as well.

It might seem strange to use spoilers tags for a work that's around 1500 years old... but I'll do so, just because I was a bit surprised by what I found of the story.


Christopher Tolkien barely mentions Wagner's "Ring Cycle" at all, but in many respects, this story perfectly matches the opera's beats. In a way, this only makes sense, since Wagner was drawing on ancient German myths, which were derived from these very same Norse myths. Still, it's fascinating to see how many inconsequential things have changed, and how many important things stayed the same.

First of all, your basic mythology classes should already have prepared you for the similar-yet-distinct deities: the Norse Odin and Loki became the German Wotan and Loge. Both mythologies look forward to an apocalyptic battle that will destroy the world: Norse Ragnarok, German Gotterdammerung. Odin/Wotan knows of the impending doom, and his own vows constrain him from preventing it; but, he attempts to exploit a loophole, by allowing a mortal champion to change the course of history.

The Ring Cycle has Sigmund and Siegfried. The Lay has Sigmund and Sigurd. In both cases, Sigmund had incestuous relations with his sister, and Siegfried/Sigurd was the result. Sigurd is raised by a dwarfish character, without knowledge of his heritage. That dwarf forges Sigurd a special sword, and tells him about a powerful dragon (Fafnir in Norse, Fafner in German) who guards a huge hoard of treasure. Sigurd slays the dragon. He tastes the dragon's blood, and learns the speech of birds. This allows him to detect that the dwarf-father means to betray him, so he kills him, and takes the treasure. Later, Sigurd crosses a ring of flame and wakes the enchanted sleep of a Valkyrie who was dismissed by Odin: Brunnhilde in German, Brynhildr in Norse. They exchange vows. Later, Sigurd falls under the sway of a treacherous set of siblings, who use magic to lure him away from Brynhildr. The tale ends in tragedy as Sigurd is slain and Brynhildr immolates herself in an immense pyre.

So: based on that paragraph, you'd think they're exactly the same story, right?

Due to the similarities, I found myself focusing on all the interesting ways in which they were different. On the whole, I think that Wagner's version is a bit more... compact, maybe, or at least self-contained. For example, in the Lay of Sigurd, we really don't get any background on why Brynhildr had been enchanted; she's just conveniently sort of there. In Die Walkure, though, Brunnhilde was intimately connected with his story, risking Odin's wrath by intervening to save Sigmund's life. The connections between the Sigmund and Siegfried parts of the story seem tighter in the opera.

That said, the Lay is a story, while the Cycle is... well, epic. The Lay opens with a prologue that ties in with some of the gods and their characters, but for the most part tells a single, coherent story. It's mostly concerned with the human characters, and sees their story all the way through. The Lay of Sigurd ends at about the same point as Gotterdamerung, but we immediately get a sequel in the Lay of Gudrun, where we learn about the fate of Sigurd's erstwhile wife, the family that betrayed him, and the final disposition of his treasure. The Cycle uses these characters to powerful effect, but it ultimately looks outward, towards the end times and the twilight of the gods.

All of the Lay of Gudrun was new to me, so it was a bit of a jolt to suddenly get the next chapter in a story of characters who already appealed to me. I've previously remarked that the Ring Cycle inverts the story flow that one gets in a romantic comedy: a rom-com usually has a first act of rising mood (boy meets girl), a second act of rising mood (boy and girl fall in love), a third act of falling mood (a misunderstanding drive boy and girl apart), and a fourth act of rising mood (boy and girl are reunited and more in love than ever). In contrast, the ring cycle has a first act of falling mood (Wotan rashly bargains away the fate of the world), a second act of falling mood (Brunnhilde fails to save Sigmund and Sieglinde from death, or herself from Wotan's wrath), a third act of rising mood (Siegemund kills the monster, finds the treasure, and gets the girl), and a fourth act of falling mood (Siegemund and Brunnhilde are betrayed and die). Gudrun adds a final act of falling mood, but it's one so powerful and so vengeful that it almost feels like rising mood. Horrible things happen here, but they happen to horrible people who kind of deserve it, so it feels a little like history cleaning up after itself, or chickens coming home to roost.

Gudrun herself is a fascinating character. Even in the Lay of Sigurd she's an ambiguous figure: how much of Sigurd's fall is her fault, and how much is she another victim of her family's greed? She's powerful in her own right - not supernaturally so like Brunhilde, but she has inherited some of her mother's gift for prophecy and insight. She does seem to love Sigurd, but since she's aware that she falsely obtained that love, it is inextricable bound with bitterness. She plays a part in Sigurd's death, and so hates herself for killing the one she loved, and her siblings for killing her husband. Even if we just had the Lay of Sigurd, we wound end on a downer note about her, as she orchestrated a series of falsehoods to convince her siblings of Sigurd's supposed treachery. The Lay of Gudrun sees her family basically whoring her out once more, tying her in with a distant Germanic tribe (which, we learn in Christopher Tolkien's notes, is a fictionalized version of famed Attila the Hun, here called Atli) in order to increase their own standing.

The ensuing action is byzantine in complexity, and gut-wrenching in its brutality. I'm pretty surprised that there hasn't been a movie adaptation of this, because the poet basically choreographed all the fight scenes and battles. The Lay of Gudrun might have the epitome of the fast, powerful, punch-punch-punch rhythm of Norse poetry: for pages on end, we're treated to a series of stanzas, each treating the annihilation of foes and the smashing of enemies and the valor of the doomed. I read them through, then went back and recited them out loud, feeling the thrumming beats of intense, deliberate slaughter.

And, wow... those ancient pagans were hard-core! At one point, Gunter and his near-feral half-brother Hogni have been captured by the Huns and separately imprisoned. Atli commands Gunter to tell him where the treasure lies. Gunter replies that he won't speak unless Hogni's heart is cut out. Atli's servants try to trick Gunter, and instead cut out the heart of a cook's thrall. Gunter basically says, "Ha! That isn't Hogni's heart. Look at how it trembles and quivers." So, they cut out Hogni's heart. Then Gunter says, "Nice ones, idiots. Hogni and I were the only ones who knew where the treasure was hidden - how he's dead, and I'll never talk. Suckers!"

And the scene where Gudrun finally gets her ultimate revenge... good lord. For years I've thought that Eric Cartman's vengeance against Scott Tenorman in the Radiohead episode of South Park was the apogee of Grand Guignol revenge, but I take it back now - Gudrun has him beat. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Matt and Trey may have taken some inspiration from this poem.


The book itself is kind of a hybrid - it comes out of academia, and is primarily driven by scholarship and criticism. However, everyone knows that a large audience (yours truly included) will pick up any book that lists J. R. R. Tolkien as the author. So, what we end up with is the text of the two poems as the core of the book. In a very wise move, they are presented without any footnotes; there's the occasional odd archaic Englishism in there, but you can certainly read them normally. There are endnotes at the conclusion of each poem, and many pages of essays before them, mapping out such issues as the historical context, reliability of sources, and evolution of the poem.

Depending on your tastes, you can just read the poems themselves - and I think they certainly do stand on their own - or go full-on lit-nerd like me and read the whole book, cover to cover. There's a lot of fascinating stuff in there, even if you aren't steeped in the arcana of ancient literature. For example, when I heard that this was a translation of a Norse poem, I imagined that the task was something like, say, translating Haruki Murakami from Japanese into English: Tolkien had a text in one language, and had to put it into another language.

The actual task turns out to be much more complex. There are multiple versions of the story, which were set down over a period of several centuries, and in several styles and languages. There is the Poetic Edda, and the Prose Edda, and the various Germanic sources. Frustratingly, some of these sources are incomplete - in one case, several pages had been removed from a particularly ancient book in the middle of this story.

What Tolkien was kind of working towards, then, was a sort of Ur-Edda, the original oral legend that was the source of the myriad and disparate written poems. By examining the snapshots of the legend in its various forms, he was able to make certain educated guesses about what parts were core to the story, which parts had been grafted on from other legends, which parts were "repaired" by later poets hoping to "fix" aspects that they found unpleasant. This is ultimately a task that cannot succeed - we just have too little information, and so inevitably some speculation and subjective choices must be made - but it's fascinating to read about Tolkien's process of reconstruction.

I think that this also provides one of the best explanations I've seen yet of Tolkien's pessimism. One aspect of "Lord of the Rings" that critics tend to harp on, apart from its supposed moral absolutism, is the pervasive sense of decline. The books are filled with a sad and widespread sense that the world is less than it once was. The Valar no longer walk Erda; the Sindarin and Sylvan elves are a faint shadow of the Noldor from the First Age; the mighty empire of Numenor has been shattered, and even its lesser progeny Arnor lies in ruins and Gondor has become practically irrelevant. Even the opposing forces are lesser: Sauron is mighty, but bears only a fragment of Morgoth's evil power; Shelob is a candle to Ungoliant's mighty sun; a single Balrog is the most fiersome enemy faced by the Fellowship, but in the great battles of the First Age whole armies of Balrogs fought the Alliance; Smaug is content to lie on his gold and swap riddles while Glaurung reshaped the world.

That sense of decline wasn't just some authorial knack; it's something that Tolkien deeply felt. Reading through his letters, you regularly see glimpses at his anguish over having missed the time in the past when things were better. Now the woods of England have been cut down, the air has grown polluted, everything has grown less.

Critics often point to this and use it as a lesson to talk about the dangers of fantasy in general and Tolkien in particular: it's promoting a reactionary worldview, they say, that inspires people to look to the past for all the answers, instead of working towards the future. And it's certainly had a huge impact on the field of post-Tolkien fantasy: writers like Terry Brooks and settings like the Forgotten Realms ape this decline, with fictional ancient settings far grander than the mean world its present-day characters inhabit.

Anyways - reading the commentary on the Lays made me realize that Tolkien's sense of diminishment may have come about not from his personal sadness but from his professional frustrations. His entire career was focused on these ancient languages and ancient writings, and they universally had been corrupted by the ages. They certainly have value today, but nobody will ever write a new poem in old Norse, and we may never know the beauty of the poem as it once existed. Pages have been lost, intervening generations have spackled new words onto the old text, and confusions have mounted about the thrust of the stories as reinterpretations multiply. I imagine that virtually every hour of Tolkien's job lay, to one degree or another, under the shadow of lost words, failed reproductions, broken stories. The very nature of his work primed him to always strive towards perfection, which required delving into the past.

I wonder how the Lord of the Rings might have been different if Tolkien hadn't been a linguist. Well, it probably wouldn't have existed, for starters... but just to play around with this idea, it's interesting to consider the sort of epic fantasy that might be written by, say, an engineer, or a scientist, or an artist. Professions that are oriented towards the discovery and creation of new things might be predisposed towards crafting stories where the future is brighter than the past, perhaps driven more by prophecy of a better tomorrow (LotR is notably devoid of prophecy) than legends of a better yesterday.

That would be an interesting tale to read - but, again, it wouldn't be Lord of the Rings. For those of us devoted to the series, even prizing it above other excellent fantasy like A Song of Ice and Fire, that very sense of pessimism and loss is exactly what makes it so powerful. The story is great, but we're captivated by the enormity of its history, the vastness of its landscape, and the calamities of all the ages of failure separating Eru's song from the Battle of Pellanor Fields. The Lays of Sigurd and Gudrun don't have the slightest connection in plot to the Lord of the Rings, but getting a glimpse into Tolkien's professional life has helped me understand just how he could invent such a rich and tragic world.

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