THE LEGEND OF SIGURD AND GUDRÚN is epic adventure teeming with the ingredients of fantastic myth and wonder: dwarves, wolves, grand heroes, valkyries, gods, a great dragon, and, without coincidence, a powerful magic ring imbued with a curse that will affect the lives of all within the tale. Perhaps the work of composer Richard Wagner has exposed more people to this fantastic Norse legend. Maybe some others have read William Morris's retelling. In any event, the tale is an involved one; it has two tellings, German and Norse, and some of their aspects do not mesh together.
And there is a gap.
The history of the Edda is itself a great story to read up on, but this book by J. R. R. Tolkien is not a historical reference per se. There is a fantastic introduction included here that is a speech Tolkien gave in 1926 about the Elder Edda and the Völsungs, and it gives a sensational overview and historical discussion. From there, Tolkien proceeds to unfold his answer to the gap and problems inherent in the Edda with "The New Lay of the Völsungs" and "The New Lay of Gudrún."
Within these two stories are the adventures of the hero Sigurd and his combat with the dragon Fáfnir. There is also the meeting with and betrayal of Brynhilde the valkyrie, the corruptions and deceptions within the Niflungs, the forced marriage of Gudrún to Atli, the mighty warrior we know as Atilla the Hun, and her revenge against those who fixed the marriage. All great tragedies, all epic and vibrant, and all touched by elements that the author would later borrow to forge his own great myth for England known as THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
Tolkien presents these two tales in their proper verse form, and the work he has done is exceptional. What many overlook about the man is the fact that he was, truly, a master of language, sitting as professor of Anglo-Saxon and English Language and Literature at Oxford. But he also taught courses in Germanic, Medieval Welsh, Gothic, Old Icelandic, and many others, including Old Norse. And his love of Old Norse mythology, including the Völsungs, is documented.
What can be said is that this book will not be for everybody. There are people who are turned off by poetry, and some who decide to try this will likely be turned off even quicker by its strict dedication to the old Norse poetic style. For those who do endeavor to read it and give it proper attention, they will be treated to one of the great myths of the world, written in beautiful language, and will be given a glimpse through a crack in the door at the seed of what would flourish into Tolkien's greatest achievement.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on May 5, 2009