Truly, J.R.R. Tolkien is the Tupac Shakur of the literary world. His son Christopher has once again raided the fell barrow where his corpse resides and found still another unpublished manuscript there, entitled The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. It goes on sale today.
That sounded sarcastic. The new book is definitely a legitimate, heretofore unpublished work by J.R.R. Tolkien, consisting of two long narrative poems written in a traditional Norse meter. In the introduction Christopher Tolkien quotes from a letter his father wrote to W.H. Auden in 1967, in which he described the poems as “a thing I did many years ago when trying to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry: an attempt to unify the lays about the Völsungs from the Elder Edda, written in the old eight-line fornyrðislag stanza.” These poems are that thing.
I’m not going to lie to you: they’re pretty challenging reading. The narrative is not always easy to follow. Sometimes I forget that in addition to being a fantasist, Tolkien was a hard-core philologist who really really liked Norse stuff. These poems belong more to Tolkien the philologist than Tolkien the novelist. They are way Norse. Some might say almost too Norse.
Some aspects of the poems are familiar. They deal with Odin and Loki and Thor and dragons and swords and such — Tolkien is reworking and expanding an existing Norse legend. But they’re written in a decidedly ancient idiom, with a lot of alliteration and a lot of tortured grammar:
There wrought Regin
by the red embers
of gold things gleaming,
of grey silver,
there Fáfnir lay
by the fire dreaming.
Sometimes you get really striking images — in that passage above you feel like you’re getting a glimpse of Smaug from The Hobbit, and even the Ring itself. But sometimes things get a little bit hip-hobbit.
I’ll be interested to see how the fan community reacts. I found Tolkien’s last “new” work, The Children of Húrin, pretty rough going too, but it has sold, they tell me, more than a million copies. Maybe I should stop whining and learn to love the fornyrðislag. There’s an interview with Christopher Tolkien here in which he talks about The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. He also clarifies that his home is not guarded by a wild boar, in case you were in any doubt on that score.