Saturday, November 24, 2012

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún


Opening Passage (from the Lay of the Völsungs):

Of old was an age
when was emptiness,
there was sand nor sea
nor surging waves;
unwrought was Earth,
unroofed was Heaven --
an abyss yawning,
and no blade of grass.

Opening Passage (from the Lay of Gudrún):

Smoke had faded,
sunk was burning;
windblown ashes
were wafted cold.
As sun setting
had Sigurd passed;
and Brynhild burned
as blazing fire.

Summary: The source materials for our knowledge of the heroic legends surrounding Sigurd the dragon-slayer are in a state of some confusion. The basic story we know. Sigurd, occasionally also known as Siegfried or Sivard, is the son of Sigmund, who is one of the great warriors of his day. As always happens with the great warriors, Odin favors Sigmund until one day he strikes him down in battle, bringing him to Valhalla to wait the Final Battle. The fragments of his sword are given to his son. Sigurd, Sigmund's son, eventually comes to the care of Regin, who repeatedly attempts to tempt Sigurd to terrible violence. (In the course of these temptations, Sigurd comes to possess his legendary steed, Grani, who descends from Odin's steed Sleipnir.) Eventually Regin tells Sigurd of a great treasure of gold that is guarded by a dragon, Fafnir, who is Regin's brother. This gold had been the wergild for the death of Otr (Otter); it in turn was stolen from a dwarf named Andvari, who, not allowed to keep back even one ring, cursed the ring with a terrible curse. Fafnir killed one of the other brothers in order to have the gold all to himself. Sigurd agrees to take on Fafnir, but he needs a sword. Regin tries to make swords for him the ordinary way, but Sigurd repeatedly shatters them. Finally, Regin makes the sword Gram out of the fragments that Sigurd had inherited from his father, and this is the sword that does not shatter. Sigurd kills Fafnir by digging a trench and slicing the dragon in his soft belly as he passes overhead; bathing in dragon's blood he becomes physically invulnerable. Regin asks Sigurd to cook him the dragon's heart. While Sigurd does, hot drops fall on his hand, and licking them off his hand he gains understanding of the speech of birds, from whom he learns that Regin intends to kill him. So he kills Regin instead. In some versions, Regin is the dragon, and Mimir is the one who fosters Sigurd.

After this point the story gets more complicated, because we have the story of Sigurd and Brynhild, and then of Sigurd and Gudrún, and there are different versions of both. In the case of Brynhild, we have at least two different lines of tradition. In one she is a Valkyrie who angered Odin and therefore was doomed to wed; she surrounds her stronghold with a ring of fire and swears that she will only wed the hero brave enough to ride through it. This is her way of planning to marry only Sigurd, the supreme hero. Sigurd, sworn to aid Gunnar, rides through the flame, pretending to be Gunnar; Brynhild is both baffled and disappointed, but her oath holds her: she weds Gunnar, believing him to be the hero who rode through the flame. She later learns that it was really Sigurd, and this infuriates her: Sigurd and Gunnar have conspired together to make her break a sacred oath. She lies in order to get Gunnar to break his own oaths and kill Sigurd, and then after letting Gunnar know the truth, she burns herself alive on a funeral pyre. In another line of tradition, she is the daughter of Budli and the sister of Atli (Attila the Hun). So we have here a division between a highly mythological version of the story and a highly historicized version of it; the historicized version, in which she is not a Valkyrie but a princess, is almost certainly derivative. At the least, that was Tolkien's view: Brynhild in this other tradition is a Valkyrie humanized, not a human woman Valkyrized. This complicates matters with the tale of Gudr&uactue;n; Gudrún is the one who actually marries Sigurd, through the machinations of her mother, who is a witch, and who sets off the events that lead to Brynhild's revenge; and she later marries Atli and much of her appearance in the stories is precisely in the historical mode. So she bridges the two, and we have all these stories that are not entirely consistent with each other, not just in details, which is only to be expected, but in the entire approach taken to the subject matter. This is a pretty serious issue given that much of our material is fragmentary, anyway, and often obviously worked over in several different, and not always consistent layers.

Tolkien makes an attempt to reconcile this comiplicated and confused mass of source material into a coherent body of story through two lays written in alliterative verse. (The poems were written so he could get practice in writing alliterative verse of the form in which the original poems were written.) He smooths out inconsistencies, fills in gaps, and improves defective features in the originals. He also picks and chooses among alternative versions (e.g., there is no agreement in the source materials about how Sigurd dies). He takes the mythological version of Brynhild, and manages to connect it with reasonable smoothness to the more historicized Gudrún from the Atli stories. This makes the two lays a complete history of the Völsungs, from Sigmund through Sigurd (the Völsungs themselves), to Gunnar's downfall in battle with Atli and Gudrún's avenging of him by killing Atli; simultaneously, because the stories are interwoven, we have the full tale of the Nibelung gold from its being stolen by Loki from Andvari through Sigurd's obtaining of it by killing Fafnir, to the sinking of it in the Rhine by Gunnar and Högni when they are betrayed by Atli. He does very well at giving us more of a sense of motivations than the originals often do.

The form of narrative verse used by the story is a difficult one to write well. It is, in a sense, a very staccato form of narration. Instead of telling a continuous story, it works more by creating frames, in the way a movie reel is created by photographic frames. Each stanza is striking in some way, and the story is less told to you than shown to you by this series of striking poetic scenes; the story is built up in your mind rather than being simply told to you. Tolkien handles this aspect quite well, in part because he was quite aware of it. Christopher Tolkien quotes a nice summary of this point from his father (p. 48):

In Old English breadth, fullness, reflection, elegiac effect, were aimed at. Old Norse aims at seizing a situation, striking a blow that will be remembered, illuminating a moment with a flash of lightning -- and tends to concision, weighty packing of the language in sense and form, and gradually to greater regularity of form of verse.

This is in part, perhaps, why the originals can often get away with being so incoherent, and why they can get away without giving us much sense of the motivation of the characters: the stories are built not out of motivations, nor out of any plotline, but out of scenes that are striking in their own right. This is not to say, of course, that the poets ignored plot or characterization, but these are not emphasized by this kind of stanza narrative.

Favorite Passage: There are several good ones, but this might be one (from pp. 114-115, stanzas 46-47 of the Lay of the Völsungs).

Dark red the drink
and dire the meat
whereon Sigurd feasted
seeking wisdom.
Dark hung the doors
and dread the timbers
in the earth under
of iron builded.

Gold piled on gold
there glittered palely;
that gold was glamoured
with grim curses.
The Helm of Horror
on his head laid he:
swart fell the shadow
round Sigurd standing.

Recommendation: Excellent both poetically and narratively. The style of poetry probably takes a certain taste, but this is definitely recommended.

[Page numbers refer to J. R. R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, Christopher Tolkien, ed. Harper Collins (London: 2009).]

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