Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the complete schedule here.
There’s a lot of advice I’d like to go back and give to my 15-year-old self, and somewhere on that list would be “make sure you marry someone who accepts and endorses your love of Tolkien’s work.”
So when my husband surprised me on my birthday with a copy of a brand new posthumously-published Tolkien book, I knew I’d made some good life choices to reach this point.
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is a book containing two long poems that tell the stories of characters such as Sigurd, Brynhild and Gudrun. It’s inspired by Old Norse mythology and features dragons, dwarves, doomed marriages and grisly deaths. This is not likely to be made into a film trilogy any time soon.
Gripping though the story is, it’s the style that really stands out. For where many authors choose to “update” mythology for their own time, retelling an old story in a modern format (Adele Geras’ novels “Troy” and “Dido” are just two of hundreds of examples you could find), Tolkien has stayed true to his source material by writing the poems in the traditional style of the Norse Poetic Edda. It’s not difficult to spot comparisons with Old English and Beowulf as you read it. The effect of this is that the reader is transported to another time and place. You have to imagine yourself in a Viking hall in a Scandinavian land many centuries ago. In the light of a roaring fire, a bard steps forward and begins to recite: he is telling you the story of the Volsungs.
It was therefore perhaps an error on my part to take this book into work and read it during my coffee break. You see, so good is Tolkien at his craft, that the words on the page are just crying out to be spoken aloud. Go on, read this next section out and see how delicious the words are:
In forge’s fire
of flaming wrath
was heaviest hammer
hewn and wielded.
Thunder and lightning
Thor the mighty
flung among them,
felled and sundered.
Isn’t it wonderful? The rising and falling rhythm with the alliteration makes a beautiful combination. It’s wonderful, that is, unless, like me, you just accidentally read those words out to a room full of your colleagues. Ignore the strange looks; they don’t understand.
Spoken poetry has been an important part of many cultures, from the Ancient Greek poet conjuring up the destruction of Troy by reciting lines from the Iliad, to today’s poetry slams where performers compete to deliver the most powerful verses. Some words simply refuse to stay confined to a page.
I challenge you to get through The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun without needing to hear how the words sound as Sigurd faces the dragon Fafnir:
but fell Fafnir
folk all name him
of dragons direst,
Or indeed when he wakes Brynhild from her enchanted slumber, rather like Sleeping Beauty except that Brynhild is a lot fiercer than your average fairy tale princess, and even in her sleeping state wears full armour with a sword by her side. The relationship between these two is also less ‘happily ever after’ and more grim Norse myth, but you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly why.
All this muttering poetry to myself reminded me of another favourite Tolkien quote, from The Two Towers, where Gandalf says “I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to…!”
So if anyone looks at you oddly while you read Tolkien’s poetry, just tell them it’s a sign of your wisdom.
About the Author
Claire is an author and charity worker based in Yorkshire, where she spends a lot of time writing her next novel from a two-hundred-year-old cottage while drinking coffee and listening to folk music. Visit her at Claire Wong Writing.