Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fortnightly Book, November 11

For the fortnightly book, I thought I would re-read J. R. R. Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, as edited by Christopher Tolkien. This consists of two narrative poems written by Tolkien, the New Lay of the Völsungs, and the New Lay of Gudrún. They are not translations, but an attempt to unify various strands in the Norse traditions about the Völsungs; Christopher Tolkien notes that Tolkien had mentioned them in a letter to W. H. Auden, in which he says that he wrote them while "trying to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry" (p. 6). Christopher Tolkien adds to the two poems a portion of a lecture by Tolkien on the Elder Edda, and some extensive commentary on each.

I thought the introductory paragraph to Christopher Tolkien's introduction was interesting:

Many years ago my father referred to the words of William Morris concernign what he called 'the Great Story of the North', which, he insisted, should be to us 'what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks', and which far in the future 'should be to those that come after us no less than the Tale of Troy has been to us.' On this my father observed: 'How far off and remote sound now the words of William Morris! The Tale of Troy has been falling into oblivion since that time wtih surprising rapidity. But the Völsungs have not taken its place.' (p. 13)

It is a very Tolkien-esque sentiment.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was actually born in South Africa; his parents were in South Africa more or less because his father was in charge of an international division of a British bank. While on a visit to England with his mother, his father, still in South Africa, died, and thus the Tolkiens did not return. His mother became Catholic when Tolkien was eight; the rest of the family was Baptist, so this did not go down well. She died four years later, but she had arranged for a priest at the Birmingham Oratory to be Tolkien's guardian should anything happen to her. He got a degree from Exeter College in Oxford in English Language and Literature. He fought in World War I, but he deliberately delayed his enlistment so that he could finish his degree. He came down with trench fever in 1916 and was sent home. His recovery took a long time, and it was while he was recovering that he began The Book of Lost Tales. After the War he worked first for the OED, then began to teach at the University of Leeds. He almost served in World War II as a codebreaker, even having taken an initial course, but never actually did so. He moved after WWII to Merton College, Oxford. He retired in 1959 and died in 1973.

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