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Pre-‘Rings’ poems by J.R.R. Tolkien published for the first time

"The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun," by J. R. R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.00) is two previously unpublished poems, translated and integrated from Norse/Icelandic mythology.
"The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun," by J. R. R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.00) is two previously unpublished poems, translated and integrated from Norse/Icelandic mythology. MCT

Before J. R. R. Tolkien was known as the master fantasy writer behind "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit," he was fascinated with Norse mythology.

Lost for 70 years, and buried among his papers, were two poems he wrote concerning "the Volsung and Niflung (or Nibelung) legend, using modern English fitted to the Old Norse metre." They now appear for the first time as "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun."

Tolkien's tireless son, Christopher, has footnoted, detailed other versions and traditions _ Germanic, Icelandic and others. By the end, the detail is illuminating but overwhelming.

The poems, the "New Lay of the Volsungs" and the "New Lay of Gudrun," aren't direct translations of the original "sources," which were "various in their nature, present obscurities, contradiction, enigmas." This was J. R. R.'s attempt to "organize the Edda material dealing with Sigurd and Gunnar."

Cambridge University lecturer Dr. Elizabeth Rowe explains that "The Poetic Edda" is the term used to refer to the 29 Old Norse poems about gods and heroes that are contained in an Icelandic manuscript from around 1270. She adds, "In the field of Old Norse, Tolkien's place is that of subject, rather than scholar, for his works draw frequently and learnedly on Scandinavian mythology."

As in all good sagas, there is betrayal, love, slaughter, and in the Norse tradition: dragons, dwarves, golden hoards, and a lot of drinking.

The "Volsungs" deal with the life and death of the Volsung family. It's mainly about Sigurd who slays the dragon Fafnir, takes his cursed gold, wins the love of the warrior maiden Brynhild but is told to come back when he has a kingdom. Sigurd, overcome by an enchantment, marries the beautiful Gudrun instead, then deceives Brynhild into marrying his friend, Gunnar. As you might guess, the proud Brynhild doesn't take this well. Sigurd is assassinated and Brynhild commits suicide so she can join him on his funeral pyre.

Flames were kindled,

Fume was swirling,

A roaring fire

Ringed with weeping.

Thus Sigurd passed,

Seed of Volsung,

There Brynhild burned:

Bliss was ended.

Gudrun's saga continues. She's married off to Atli (Attila) the Hun who covets the late Sigurd's dragon gold. When he doesn't get the treasure, he slaughters her relations. She retaliates by killing her two sons by Atli:

Their hearts thou tastest

With honey mingled,

Their blood was blent in the bowls I gave;

Those bowls their skulls

Bound with silver,

Their bones the hounds

Have burst with teeth.

Atli collapses. Gudrun mocks him on his deathbed, sets the house on fire, escapes, and in the end, mournfully casts herself into the sea.

Not an upbeat pair of tales.

Tolkien always remained interested in Norse mythology. "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" was an exercise in integration of ancient legend and myth. Some of his research made it into his more famous work.

In "The Hobbit," most of the dwarves were named out of the Edda.

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"The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York (377 pages, $26)

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