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Christopher Tolkien scratches the bottom of the barrel with this one
on 18 November 2010
The original legend behind this is one of the all-time greats of literature, maybe even the Germanic world's greatest literary triumph. This book presents J.R.R. Tolkien's unpublished interpretation of the story, complete with scholarly commentary by his literary "curator" and son, Christopher Tolkien.
In writing 'The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun', Tolkien drew on all of the relevant poems from the medieval Icelandic 'Poetic Edda', as well as the prose renditions from 'The Saga of the Volsungs' and 'The Prose Edda'. As a professor of Anglo Saxon, as well as an expert linguist with great proficiency in Old Norse, Tolkien went to great lengths to reconcile the fragmentary nature of the source material and to iron out their inconsistencies. As such, while remaining faithful to the source material, there are many differences, and so this cannot be classified as a "translation" of the original stories, but rather his own take on them.
The story itself is excellent. This book, however, I can't say the same of. For one thing, very little of what's inside is actually 'The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun'. Most of it is commentary, and what little of the actual poem it contains has been shamefully padded out to make the book seem bigger than it really is. The poem itself, as Christopher Tolkien attests, is a difficult read. Though the language J.R.R. Tolkien uses is great (to be expected), it's intentionally archaic, and Christopher Tolkien has purposely chosen not to include any footnotes to help the reader along the way. This is a real problem, more so for the fact that Old Norse poetry assumes that the reader understands the society and mythology of the time than the fact that the language is slightly difficult.
Christopher Tolkien's commentary is interesting, but it's focused on the story in relation to his father more so than any wider academic implications. For the hardcore Tolkien fans who are interested in such works as 'The History of Middle-Earth' and the like, I have no doubt that these commentaries would be a goldmine of information. However, I can't say the same for myself. Perhaps if this book had been half the length (and half the price!), I'd be less harsh on it. But, as it stands, unless you're a huge Tolkien fan, there's very little reason to recommend this. The poem itself isn't even the best version there is out there, and I personally think that anybody who hasn't been fortunate enough to have read it before should go for a proper translation, such as the one found in Carolyne Larrington's excellent translation of 'The Poetic Edda'. The original poems may be fragmentary, but you'll be getting the whole story (Tolkien is quite liberal with his omissions), and at least it has footnotes.
'The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun' was never intended for publication, and it shows. As a big fan of Christopher Tolkien's general handling of the Tolkien legacy since his father's death, I'm actually quite appalled with this effort. The padding is relentless, and the whole thing stinks of a desperate attempt to scrape the bottom of the barrel of J.R.R.'s unpublished works before every scrap of paper left runs out. But, for all the problems of the book itself, the main story is still excellent. Only get it if you're a hardcore Tolkien fan, otherwise pick up a copy of 'The Poetic Edda' and/or 'The Saga of the Volsungs'.