Monday, September 3, 2012

Last Week's Book: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by J.R.R. Tolkien

This was a fun one. Nice to get back to some fiction, as heavy on historiography as it is.

August 26-September 1: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by J.R.R. Tolkien

Mythology (2009 - 371 pp.) 

An important note: The date and page count given are for the 2009 edition by Christopher Tolkien. It's a good edition - I'd recommend it. 

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún consists of two stories in verse, "The Lay of Sigurd" and "The Lay of Gudrún". Each ends with the death of the titular character. One nice aspect of writing entries on centuries-old poems is that spoilers are irrelevant. Christopher Tolkien offers up these and more with regularity in the book's lengthy introduction. The former is a Norse epic involving rarefied lineage, a specially forged sword, a clash of good and evil without a whole lot of explanation as to why the good and evil characters act those ways, and a general understanding that our hero is someone incredibly special. The link to Beowulf is evident, although The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún lacks the additive style that madeBeowulf less exciting to me. (The greatest hero in all the land rode across the field and then he smote a troll and then he captured a maiden and then he rose a flag, and so on.) The latter story concerns Attila the Hun, whose presentation in Norse legend is as cruel as one would expect. Gudrún's compelled marriage to him following the death of her beloved Sigurd leads to the alienation of Gudrún as a character much as Brynhild, Sigurd's Valkyrie betrothed, was in the first story. The storyline is exciting, especially in light of the post-Lord of the Rings interest in Norse mythology in Western culture. 

J.R.R. Tolkien's extensive Old English/Norse scholarship, and his son's antiquarian-style editors' notes, make this a really interesting read. It's not much of an airport read, but a long plane ride and/or a day off will polish this one off nicely. It adds a little poetic perspective to times we know so little about (the late Antiquity/early Medieval period in Northern Europe). What does it say that I enjoyed this more than Lord of the Rings

Thanks to a non-RYM friend for the recommendation. This one had been sitting in my collection since summer 2009. It's a gift well appreciated, if with a short delay. 

Ease of Reading: 4 
Educational Content: 7

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