It’s probably little (except perhaps among scholars) known that J.R.R. Tolkien, apart from his Lord of the Rings trilogy, was an accomplished philologist who studied and taught courses in the Old Germanic, Old English, and Old Norse languages at Oxford University.
Old Norse was the language spoken by the tribes which settled Iceland, and the language in which they preserved and amended their legends, including that of “Sigurd and Gudrun.” Sigurd’s Beowulf-esque adventure, complete with dragon-slaying and the fantastic romancing of Brynhild, was the inspiration for Richard Wagner’s operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, in which a Germanic Sigurn courts and wins Brunnhilde. William Morris tackled the legend in 1877, releasing “Sigurn the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs” to about the amount of acclaim one might expect. Now Tolkien, Oxford linguist and consummate storyteller, is having a go, of sorts.
Tolkien’s newly-released “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun” is the most authentic translation of the Old Norse yet, and includes commentaries and appendices by his son, Christopher, who arranged for the publication of the book. Tolkien eschews the operatic and Victorian restraints which hampered Wagner and Morris, engaging instead directly with the text and taking pains to replicate the Old Norse meter. The blunt and hard Scandinavian verse tears through Tolkien’s handling of it, no less haunting or brutal for the passing of seven centuries.
The Sigurd legend remains largely intact in Tolkien’s hands, despite some redactions and dimunitions via authorial license. The Niflungs still drink the “blacktongued” blood of the dead, Signy sleeps with her brother, and werewolves abound. The legend is a darker, more violent story than The Lord of the Rings, bereft of whimsical Hobbits, yet in it readers will see clearly the makings of Middle Earth, of Elves, dragons, dwarves, and swords. Here is both Tolkien’s inspiration and his ideal, and the book is worth a read as either.