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Christopher Tolkien – The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún

‘At the door he tumbled
Dreadly crying;
There hell took him
Hewn asunder.’

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is the first publication of two previously unknown works. The main text is that of two long poems composed by Tolkien probably in the early 1930s: ‘The New Lay of the Völsungs’ and ‘The New Lay of Gudrún’. Christopher Tolkien wrote this short introduction to the published work for the website.

Many years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien composed his own version, now published for the first time, of the great legend of Northern antiquity, in two closely related poems to which he gave the titles The New Lay of the Völsungs and The New Lay of Gudrún.

In the Lay of the Völsungs is told the ancestry of the great hero Sigurd, the slayer of Fáfnir most celebrated of dragons, whose treasure he took for his own; of his awakening of the Valkyrie Brynhild who slept surrounded by a wall of fire, and of their betrothal; and of his coming to the court of the great princes who were named the Niflungs (or Nibelungs), with whom he entered into blood-brotherhood. In that court there sprang great love but also great hate, brought about by the power of the enchantress, mother of the Niflungs, skilled in the arts of magic, of shape-changing and potions of forgetfulness.

In scenes of dramatic intensity, of confusion of identity, thwarted passion, jealousy and bitter strife, the tragedy of Sigurd and Brynhild, of Gunnar the Niflung and Gudrún his sister, mounts to its end in the murder of Sigurd at the hands of his blood-brothers, the suicide of Brynhild, and the despair of Gudrún. In the Lay of Gudrún her fate after the death of Sigurd is told, her marriage against her will to the mighty Atli, ruler of the Huns (the Attila of history), his murder of her brothers the Niflung lords, and her hideous revenge.

Deriving his version primarily from his close study of the ancient poetry of Norway and Iceland known as the Poetic Edda (and where no old poetry exists, from the later prose work the Völsunga Saga), J.R.R. Tolkien employed a verse-form of short stanzas whose lines embody in English the exacting alliterative rhythms and the concentrated energy of the poems of the Edda.

As well as commentaries necessary to the comprehension of the poems and their sources, the book also includes three appendices: Appendix A discusses the origins of the legend; Appendix B gives a short poem in rhyming couplets by J.R.R. Tolkien: The Prophecy of the Sybil, also inspired by the Eddaic poem Voluspa; Appendix C consists of fragments of a ‘heroic poem of Attila in Old English’ (with translation). Finally the Introduction to the work gives in substantial part the text of a lecture given by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s on the subject of the Elder Edda, the major primary source for the legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

It is primarily in order to hear the voice of the author of the poems presented in this book, writing (in order to speak) personally and vitally of the Poetic Edda, on which he has never been heard since he last lectured on Old Norse at Oxford some seventy years ago, that I print it here.

I had very little desire to look for buried treasure or fight pirates, and Treasure Island left me cool. Red Indians were better: there were bows and arrows (I had and have a wholly unsatisfied desire to shoot well with a bow), and strange languages, and glimpses of an archaic mode of life, and above all, forests in such stories. But the land of Merlin and Arthur were better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd and the Volsungs, and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable.
J.R.R. Tolkien in On Fairy-stories (1947)