Politics & Policy

The Return of the King

Can J. R. R. Tolkien's new book bring medieval Icelandic poetry to the masses?

Upon the release of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, many critics noticed that it seemed to borrow from Wagner’s Ring operas: Both stories traced a ring with the power to control the world as it passed through the hands of Nordic-named heroes. Tolkien famously rebuked anyone who made the comparison with: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.”

Yet even Tolkien admitted that this was an oversimplification. Tolkien’s and Wagner’s work was similar because it was inspired by the same sources — the Norse mythological canon. Wagner’s twist on the tales did shape Tolkien’s views a bit, but Tolkien possessed his own deep expertise. Much like his friend C. S. Lewis, he is remembered mostly for his original literature, despite his significant prowess and contributions as a scholar. Fans of Tolkien will get a special insight into the myths that inspired the creation of Middle Earth with this week’s release of his new book, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

This new book lies somewhere between a translation and an original work. The sources from which Tolkien draws — the sagas of the Volsungs and the sagas of the Fall of the Niflungs — are individually incomplete and collectively contradictory. As in the playground game of telephone, the legend comes down to us in scrambled form. In one version of the story, a character is a dragon; in another, he is Sigurd’s human foster father. Tolkien hoped to “organize” and “unify” these sagas, and, some 70 years later, his synthesis of the disparate tales has been published.

Tolkien’s bouquet of the flowers of Norse mythology is a story everyone can relate to: Boy meets girl after slaying dragon, boy drinks potion causing him to forget girl, boy shape-shifts and rides through impassable wall of fire to win girl for other man . . . well, perhaps it’s not so typical. These sagas play out in swirling loops of blood-debt — seeking revenge for the deaths of others, who were killed as vengeance for yet other insults to someone’s brother’s honor. The stoic warriors and icy shieldmaidens who stride through the verses of these old epics may seem grey and two-dimensional to today’s readers — unsmiling black-and-white photos of our literary ancestors.

And Sigurd will feel doubly foreign to its audience — not only because of the historical distance, but because the book is written in alliterative verse. Instead of organizing its lines around rhyme, a common first letter drives the verses forward, thrusting spears of consonants in lines such as “In forge’s fire of flaming wrath, was heaviest hammer hewn and wielded.” In an age when the closest thing we have to a popular verse epic is R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet, the challenge of reading long-form poetry may daunt all but the most dedicated readers.

Given the obstacles that a nearly century-old translation of a medieval Icelandic fornyrdisig epic poem faces in appealing to a mass audience, one might not expect it to be a hit; yet there are already online bets that it will be among the New York Times’s  five best-selling novels by fall. Such is the power of the Tolkien brand. It has inspired Tolkienites to travel to the New Zealand countryside for tours of the film sites, to learn to read and write Tolkien’s Elvish language, and even to spend their free time producing what may be the first professional-quality fanfic movie. Many complain of the density and plodding pace of the LOTR trilogy, yet its otherness may be the very thing that propels it to success.

We live now in the age of the remake and the reboot. The gatekeepers of culture have learned that we like to recognize familiar patterns and friendly faces — and now that we’ve not only rebooted Spider-Man and the Terminator, but re-rebooted Batman and the Incredible Hulk, what choice do we have but to go further back into the misty realms of the past? Heroes existed before comic books, after all.

The grand quests of these mythic characters can strike a deep and familiar chord, even though they are not the best-known tales of old, such as the classical Greek myths or the legends of King Arthur. Literature-degree requirements have gently shifted toward allowing hyphenated course names to substitute for archaic ones. Today’s students know more of Sir Mick Jagger than of Sir Gawain. Our growing ignorance of antique literature may work to the publisher’s advantage here, however. If the old stories are removed from compulsory courses and read willingly as blockbuster literature, their epic qualities may be appreciated more fully.

Tolkien has certainly paid forward any intellectual debt he owes to the scops and skalds who composed the legendary poetry that kindled his genius. Few new translations of anything so old would gather public attention the way his work has. These stories may have been around long enough to turn a complete 360: Rather than tracing the archetypal story lines that Tolkien interwove throughout his mythic universe, today’s readers are likely to search for shadows of Rohan among the alliterative lines of Sigurd.

Though it remains to be seen whether Sigurd will gain a foothold beyond those who would pay to look at even Tolkien’s used handkerchief, it is certain that this otherworldly book will feel more fresh and new than anything else around. Perhaps Tolkien described the lure of lore best in his seminal essay “On Fairy Stories,” in which he wrote, “Antiquity has an appeal in itself. . . . Such stories . . . open up a door on Other Time, and if we pass through, though only for a moment, we stand outside our own time, outside Time itself, maybe.”

– Emily Karrs is an associate editor of National Review Online.

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