Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Legend of Sigurd & GudrúnSUMMARY (from Goodreads): Many years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien composed his own version of the great legend of Northern antiquity, recounted here in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

In the Lay of the Völsungs is told the ancestry of the great hero Sigurd, the slayer of Fáfnir, most celebrated of dragons; of his awakening of the Valkyrie Brynhild, who slept surrounded by a wall of fire, and of their betrothal; and of his coming to the court of the great princes who were named the Niflungs (or Nibelungs), with whom he entered into blood-brotherhood.

In scenes of dramatic intensity, of confusion of identity, thwarted passion, jealousy, and bitter strife, the tragedy of Sigurd and Brynhild, of Gunnar the Niflung and Gudrún his sister, mounts to its end in the murder of Sigurd, the suicide of Brynhild, and the despair of Gudrún.

The Lay of Gudrún recounts her fate after the death of Sigurd, her marriage against her will to the mighty Atli, ruler of the Huns (the Attila of history), his murder of her brothers, and her hideous revenge.


The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún was a demanding but rewarding read for me. Tolkien’s poetic retelling of Norse stories is beautiful and the accompanying texts provide plenty of interesting information.

Tolkien’s poems are written in alliterative half verse in 8-line stanzas. Resembling the form of Eddaic poetry, they also capture its spirit. The emphasis is on seizing individual moments, with only a very general feel of the story in the background.

Therefore, the additional texts, especially the introduction, are helpful for the understanding of Tolkien’s poems. Tolkien’s son Christopher provides an extensive commentary and analysis of both poems, using his father’s notes for his lectures on Norse literature.

The supplementary texts sound somewhat dry and require a lot of focus. There is a lot of information and hypothesising on linguistics, etymology, history and mythology – from Norse and Germanic to Old English, drawing parallels between various texts. Some references to possible origins of Tolkien’s ideas for The Lord of the Rings and his other works are also included.

On the whole, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is far from being an epic narrative similar to The Lord of the Rings. However, the two poems once again reveal Tolkien’s masterly skill of handling words and are a delightful read. The additional texts are slow and somewhat tedious, but as a linguist I appreciate the data they provide.

RECOMMENDATION: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is not a leisurely read. If you expect an absorbing epic narrative such as The Lord of the Rings you will be disappointed. Otherwise, it is a great book for those who are interested in Nordic and Germanic tradition and literature.


  1. I never heard about this one before, but even if it's not a leisurely read it's definitely the book you can learn a lot from ( if one makes the effort).

    1. I agree, it has a lot of value, especially if one is interested in mythology and linguistics.


Don't hesitate to drop me a few strange new words! I'd love to hear what you think!