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on 7 May 2009
It has to be said that this is one of the most excellent and important of Tolkien's publications. The Verse (or Elder) Edda is, of course, one of the most significant pieces of home-grown Northern literature. The legend of Siegfried (i.e. Sigurd), and that of the Nibelungs have been immortalised in the Nibelungenlied as well as Wagner's operatic cycle of the Ring.

This is exactly the kind of literature which inspired Tolkien to his own mythology. If his own mythology is as sound as brass, this is as brilliant as gold. In his version, Tolkien has captured the incandescent power and energy, and brutality, of Northern verse. Lacking in particles as well as rhyme, the alliteration and rhythm punch out of the pages like the pagan warriors it depicts.

Glimpses of Tolkien's genius appeared in his Sir Orfeo and Gawain and the Green Night; but this is concentrated verse of hoary origin and terrible power. It may be too strong a stuff for many, and certainly this is not for children. This is Tolkien the academic, the philologist, and poetic visionary. These are NOT his own myths and stories (which in fact merely seved as a backdrop for his linguistic adventures, which are indeed derived from sources such as the Edda) - these are, to be pictorial, the loins from which the very civilisation of the North had sprung.
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on 10 December 2017
An audacious feat of scholarship which manages to combine extant Legends and Sagas with Wagner and Middle Earth, to produce a completely new verse version, which is, nonetheless, true to its fragmented and diverse source material. Probably best read out loud for full effect. The commentary by Christopher Tolkien is scholarly, but not essential to a lay appreciation of this work of his late father.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 1 May 2011
When J.R.R. Tolkien wasn't teaching philology at Oxford or penning classic fantasy novels, he did some retellings of old poetry. VERY old poetry.

"The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" is one such work: a verse working of the Norse legend of the hero Sigurd and his adventures, as well as the two doomed women who loved him. The wording is a bit awkward in places, and a good chunk of the book's content is commentary by his son Christopher Tolkien -- but the deep-rooted mythic story and Tolkien's vivid prose are gorgeous.

After exploring the gods and their glittering Valholl, Tolkien introduces the bitter dwarf Andvari and his magic ring, the greedy dragon Fafnir, and the tragic tale of Sigmund, Sigurd's daddy. Sigurd was tricked into slaying Fafnir for his treacherous foster father, and gained a hoard of cursed gold and a roasted dragon heart. Then he learns of the beautiful Valkyrie Brynhild, who is doomed to "wed the World's chosen" only, and sleeps in a fortress of flames.

Though he wakes Brynhild, Sigurd claims that he isn't going to marry her until he has a kingdom of his own -- and he gets one too. But in the process, he falls in love with the beautiful Gudrun and marries her. When his brother-in-law Gunnar wants the finest woman in the world, Sigurd tricks Brynhild into marrying Gunnar instead. This betrayal -- and a cursed ring given to both Gudrun and Brynhild -- leads to lies, hatred, death, and a devastating tragedy that destroys more than one person's life.

"The Lay of Gudrun" is a sort of sequel to the Sigurd legend: after Sigurd dies, Gudrun goes a little nuts in her woodland house and ends up being wed against her own wishes (courtesy of her witchy mom) to the king of the Huns, Atli. Of course, everything goes wrong for the poor woman -- and her brothers Gunnar and Hogni rush to attack Atli.

"The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" is not for those who only like to read Tolkien's Middle-Earth stories. Sure, there's a cursed ring and a mention of "Mirkwood," but the rest of it is pure Norse saga infused with gods, sorrow, magic and ancient battles. But it's a fascinating story, and you can hear the ring of the elves and the Rohirrhim in some of the stately passages ("Hail O sunlight/and sun's rising").

It's also very complex story, with lots of gory battles, doomed love affairs, and everybody involved ending up miserable and/or dead -- in particular, the bleak yet exquisite finale of "The Lay of Gudrun" is astonishing. And Tolkien does make you feel for the two lead characters of Sigurd and poor, tragic Gudrun (whose only crime was to love her husband), even if Sigurd is kind of a jerk. Brynhild just comes across as a snotty ice queen.

And Tolkien's wordcraft is pretty smooth, easily read if you're used to epic poetry. There are a few awkward moments ("Last night I lay/where loath me was/with less liking/I may lay me yet"), but most of it is easy to decipher and to follow. And the words are usually quite vivid, beautifully written ("gleaming robed/as flower unfolded/fair at morning") and evocative ("his beard was grey/as bark of ash"), with many moments that are simply beautiful.

For the record: "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" has a LOT of Christopher Tolkien's forewords, commentary and Tolkien's own information on Norse mythology (for the record, "midgardsormr" means the serpent around the world). There's fifty pages to wade through before the poem even starts. Those with little experience in Norse myth might find it handy, but anyone who already knows the story will find it rather dry.

The legendary JRR Tolkien's working of "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" is a vivid retelling of this saga, and his unmistakable touch is left on the words. If you can handle epic poetry, this one is definitely worth a read.
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on 9 July 2011
I do not tend to read the newly-edited remains that Christopher Tolkien has put out. I believe in the format of the novel, which compresses events and characters and produces something we call "PLOT", and it doesn't seem that the History of Middle Earth maintains that concept. However, when I saw The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, I was nevertheless curious. My curiosity was rewarded when I discovered that, unlike many of the recent Tolkien publications, this is an original composition based on Viking mythology not Middle Earth.

So, loving both Tolkien and Vikings, I bought it.

First, then, the non-poetic aspects of the book. This book has over 50 pages of introduction; being something of a philologist-in-training, interested in Vikings, and interested in Tolkien, I enjoyed these introductory features. You may not. You may want to get straight into the poetry, and for this I commend you. If you wish to learn a thing or two about the remains of Norse literature, read the introductory lecture notes by Tolkien on the Elder Edda. If not, the most useful introductory notes for you are pp. 40-50 which tell of the origins of the poems you are about to read as well as giving an introduction to the versification.

The other non-poetic aspects are commentary and one appendix. The commentary for the first poem, The New Lay of the Volsungs, is quite extensive. Unless you read it while you read the poem, you won't know what on earth is going on. And it is my opinion that reading the commentary at the same time of the poem would be a difficult, cumbersome endeavour. Since the second poem, The Lay of Gudrun, is much shorter, you can read the commentary following the poem and still know what's going on. The appendix on the origins of the legend is very interesting, especially for those interested in the barbarian migrations of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

Enough of that, though. What you really want from this book is the poetry.

There are two poems central to the whole book which everything else -- introduction, commentary, appendices -- is meant to help with the interpretation and reading of. The first is The New Lay of the Volsungs, the second The Lay of Gudrun.

They are written in modern English but with Old English versification. This only serves to increase their awesomeness. This means that the words flow with a fairly natural rhythm, although there are times and stanzas of awkwardness that remind the reader that Tolkien did not write these poems for publication. I find that this Old English verse-style possesses a power and a rhythm and a strength that the Greek meters lack when they have been adapted to the English language. Part of its power comes from the alliterative scheme, for alliteration is a device that helps binds words more closely to one another.

In deep hollow
on the dark hillside
long there lurked he;
the land trembled.
Forth came Fafnir,
fire his breathing;
down the mountain rushed
mists of poison.

The fire and fume
over fearless head
rushed by roaring,
rocks were groaning.
The black belly
bent and coiling,
over hidden hollow
hung and glided.

I feel that in these verses we sense the grim world about a dragon's lair, and I don't know that iambic pentameter could catch it as well.

The story is one familiar to students of Norse mythology, readers of the Nibelungenlied, and fans of Wagner. After a dramatic account of the origins of the cosmos, it begins with the gold of Andvari and Odin. Then it tells of Odin's descendants among mortals, including one Volsung and his kin -- especially Signy (Sieglinde) and Sigmund. The lay takes us from Sigmund to Sinfjotli to Sigmund's second son Sigurd (Siegfried, who is not Signy/Sieglinde's son in this telling). Sigurd goes on to perform great and wondrous things, and we see the rest of the tale of Fafnir, Brynhild, and the family of Gudrun (I don't know her German name) to the final betrayal.

The Lay of Gudrun picks up where The New Lay of the Volsungs ends, telling of Gudrun's life and the doings of the wolf Atli (Attila the Hun). Events familiar to readers of the Nibelungenlied ensue. There is violence, battle, death, murder, torture, lyres, and snakes. These two lays are everything you want from Germanic mythology.

I am impressed with the offerings here. Tolkien has taken the various narrative strands from throughout the Prose Edda, the Elder Edda, the Volsunga Saga, the Nibelungenlied, and elsewhere, and made a coherent whole from them. He has produced a pair of narrative poems that tell a united story, woven from beginning to end in the powerful force of his verse. It is a brilliant display of scholarship, poetic skill, and narrative craft.

Appendix B includes a poem in English called "The Prophecy of the Sibyl" that reflects some of the themes of the introductory "Upphaf" in The New Lay of the Volsungs. It is written in rhyming couplets. Appendix C is an Old English poem Tolkien wrote that reworks some bits of the Norse tellings of Atli. This, thankfully, has a translation into Modern English.

This book was excellent and I am glad to own it. I recommend it to all fans of Tolkien, Vikings, Norse Mythology, and the early Germanic world. What I would like to see Christopher publish next are Tolkien's unpublished papers and lecture notes, as unedited as possible, so we can catch another side of this brilliant philologist who did so much for the imagination of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 May 2009
When J.R.R. Tolkien wasn't teaching philology at Oxford or penning classic fantasy novels, he did some retellings of old poetry. VERY old poetry.

"The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" is one such work: a verse working of the Norse legend of the hero Sigurd and his adventures, as well as the two doomed women who loved him. The wording is a bit awkward in places, and a good chunk of the book's content is commentary by his son Christopher Tolkien -- but the deep-rooted mythic story and Tolkien's vivid prose are gorgeous.

After exploring the gods and their glittering Valholl, Tolkien introduces the bitter dwarf Andvari and his magic ring, the greedy dragon Fafnir, and the tragic tale of Sigmund, Sigurd's daddy. Sigurd was tricked into slaying Fafnir for his treacherous foster father, and gained a hoard of cursed gold and a roasted dragon heart. Then he learns of the beautiful Valkyrie Brynhild, who is doomed to "wed the World's chosen" only, and sleeps in a fortress of flames.

Though he wakes Brynhild, Sigurd claims that he isn't going to marry her until he has a kingdom of his own -- and he gets one too. But in the process, he falls in love with the beautiful Gudrun and marries her. When his brother-in-law Gunnar wants the finest woman in the world, Sigurd tricks Brynhild into marrying Gunnar instead. This betrayal -- and a cursed ring given to both Gudrun and Brynhild -- leads to lies, hatred, death, and a devastating tragedy that destroys more than one person's life.

"The Lay of Gudrun" is a sort of sequel to the Sigurd legend: after Sigurd dies, Gudrun goes a little nuts in her woodland house and ends up being wed against her own wishes (courtesy of her witchy mom) to the king of the Huns, Atli. Of course, everything goes wrong for the poor woman -- and her brothers Gunnar and Hogni rush to attack Atli.

"The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" is not for those who only like to read Tolkien's Middle-Earth stories. Sure, there's a cursed ring and a mention of "Mirkwood," but the rest of it is pure Norse saga infused with gods, sorrow, magic and ancient battles. But it's a fascinating story, and you can hear the ring of the elves and the Rohirrhim in some of the stately passages ("Hail O sunlight/and sun's rising").

It's also very complex story, with lots of gory battles, doomed love affairs, and everybody involved ending up miserable and/or dead -- in particular, the bleak yet exquisite finale of "The Lay of Gudrun" is astonishing. And Tolkien does make you feel for the two lead characters of Sigurd and poor, tragic Gudrun (whose only crime was to love her husband), even if Sigurd is kind of a jerk. Brynhild just comes across as a snotty ice queen.

And Tolkien's wordcraft is pretty smooth, easily read if you're used to epic poetry. There are a few awkward moments ("Last night I lay/where loath me was/with less liking/I may lay me yet"), but most of it is easy to decipher and to follow. And the words are usually quite vivid, beautifully written ("gleaming robed/as flower unfolded/fair at morning") and evocative ("his beard was grey/as bark of ash"), with many moments that are simply beautiful.

For the record: "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" has a LOT of Christopher Tolkien's forewords, commentary and Tolkien's own information on Norse mythology (for the record, "midgardsormr" means the serpent around the world). There's fifty pages to wade through before the poem even starts. Those with little experience in Norse myth might find it handy, but anyone who already knows the story will find it rather dry.

The legendary JRR Tolkien's working of "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" is a vivid retelling of this saga, and his unmistakable touch is left on the words. If you can handle epic poetry, this one is definitely worth a read.
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on 7 May 2009
In this book Tolkien gives us his English versions of the lays of Sigurd (aka Siegfried) and Gudrun - old Germanic stories known predominantly from the Edda. These are written in the style of the poetic Edda. This he really manages to pull off, especially when considering that the English language does not lend itself easily to such an undertaking. As such the English used is of very high quality and at times almost difficult to understand. These lays are the main corpus of the book, however, Tolkien junior threw in some goodies: first and foremost a lecture given by professor Tolkien in Oxford (Introduction to the Elder Edda) that is quite excellent. Then there are appendices such as the fragments of Tolkiens Old English version of the Lay of Attila. This is again brilliant. Also, Christopher Tolkien gives us an account of the genesis of these Eddaic stories. We here have standard scolarship, well written but in effect superfluous. He mistakenly continues on the road that these stories refer to historical facts. Unfortunately, by following standard opinion he gets this all wrong (cf. the research of Ritter-Schaumburg, Schmoeckel, et al.).
The book itself is well bound, good font, good paper quality. Alas, the publishers could have spared half the paper had they not gone to such lengths to waste space in order to make the book a little thicker.
All in all, this is highly recommended for those interested in Icelandic heroic epics. However, if you're only acquainted with the Hobbit DO NOT purchase this!
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HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 7 June 2009
When J.R.R. Tolkien wasn't teaching philology at Oxford or penning classic fantasy novels, he did some retellings of old poetry. VERY old poetry.

"The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" is one such work: a verse working of the Norse legend of the hero Sigurd and his adventures, as well as the two doomed women who loved him. The wording is a bit awkward in places, and a good chunk of the book's content is commentary by his son Christopher Tolkien -- but the deep-rooted mythic story and Tolkien's vivid prose are gorgeous.

After exploring the gods and their glittering Valholl, Tolkien introduces the bitter dwarf Andvari and his magic ring, the greedy dragon Fafnir, and the tragic tale of Sigmund, Sigurd's daddy. Sigurd was tricked into slaying Fafnir for his treacherous foster father, and gained a hoard of cursed gold and a roasted dragon heart. Then he learns of the beautiful Valkyrie Brynhild, who is doomed to "wed the World's chosen" only, and sleeps in a fortress of flames.

Though he wakes Brynhild, Sigurd claims that he isn't going to marry her until he has a kingdom of his own -- and he gets one too. But in the process, he falls in love with the beautiful Gudrun and marries her. When his brother-in-law Gunnar wants the finest woman in the world, Sigurd tricks Brynhild into marrying Gunnar instead. This betrayal -- and a cursed ring given to both Gudrun and Brynhild -- leads to lies, hatred, death, and a devastating tragedy that destroys more than one person's life.

"The Lay of Gudrun" is a sort of sequel to the Sigurd legend: after Sigurd dies, Gudrun goes a little nuts in her woodland house and ends up being wed against her own wishes (courtesy of her witchy mom) to the king of the Huns, Atli. Of course, everything goes wrong for the poor woman -- and her brothers Gunnar and Hogni rush to attack Atli.

"The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" is not for those who only like to read Tolkien's Middle-Earth stories. Sure, there's a cursed ring and a mention of "Mirkwood," but the rest of it is pure Norse saga infused with gods, sorrow, magic and ancient battles. But it's a fascinating story, and you can hear the ring of the elves and the Rohirrhim in some of the stately passages ("Hail O sunlight/and sun's rising").

It's also very complex story, with lots of gory battles, doomed love affairs, and everybody involved ending up miserable and/or dead -- in particular, the bleak yet exquisite finale of "The Lay of Gudrun" is astonishing. And Tolkien does make you feel for the two lead characters of Sigurd and poor, tragic Gudrun (whose only crime was to love her husband), even if Sigurd is kind of a jerk. Brynhild just comes across as a snotty ice queen.

And Tolkien's wordcraft is pretty smooth, easily read if you're used to epic poetry. There are a few awkward moments ("Last night I lay/where loath me was/with less liking/I may lay me yet"), but most of it is easy to decipher and to follow. And the words are usually quite vivid, beautifully written ("gleaming robed/as flower unfolded/fair at morning") and evocative ("his beard was grey/as bark of ash"), with many moments that are simply beautiful.

For the record: "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" has a LOT of Christopher Tolkien's forewords, commentary and Tolkien's own information on Norse mythology (for the record, "midgardsormr" means the serpent around the world). There's fifty pages to wade through before the poem even starts. Those with little experience in Norse myth might find it handy, but anyone who already knows the story will find it rather dry.

The legendary JRR Tolkien's working of "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" is a vivid retelling of this saga, and his unmistakable touch is left on the words. If you can handle epic poetry, this one is definitely worth a read.
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on 15 May 2010
Do read: if you are interested in old Norse and Germanic legends or want to know the roots of Tolkein's own stories.
Don't read: if you cannot get past the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings in Tolkein's writings.

First of all, be aware that this is not in any way a book about Middle Earth except where it helps to illuminate a story there which it has drawn elements from.

The meat of this (i.e. the bits written by JRR rather than Christopher) is of two long poems in English using the fornyrthislag verse form and alliteration rather than rhyme. The first is the Lay of the Volsungs, the second is the Lay of Gudrun.

The verses take some following and it certainly helps to know the underlying story, which is related to the German Nibelunglied and of course Wagner's Ring Cycle. I would recommend reading Rhinegold by Stephan Grundy for telling the whole story following much the same principles that Tolkein follows here, that Norse sources are to be preferred to German ones but that the German traditions are to be respected to illuminate the obscure parts in the Norse, and that the scraps in Old English poetry should also be given due respect.

Christopher Tolkein's editorial is generally helpful here and he adds useful excerpts from his father's lecture notes and other scholarly articles and gives a full background as to why he wrote the two lays. He does venture into the much lampooned business of "this was written hurriedly in pencil and much corrected in biro" but when that is a light touch here and actually makes the scholarly input lighter to read. I enjoyed reading the Appendices immensely - indeed I read them before I launched into the lays and they were of great help. I enjoyed Tolkein's composition in Old English of a poem about the Burgundians and Attila which is also covered in the Lay of Gudrun.

My main criticism is that a work of this nature lacks an index which would make it a more useful scholarly work.
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on 23 January 2016
Did the publishers really think this was going to be a book that was going to be soon forgotten and didn't deserve to be printed on good paper or to be given the dignity of a sewn binding? Shame on them and all the many publishers like them who only think of their costs and profit margins.
Because of course the answer to my question is that the publishers knew they were assured of all public and University libraries having to buy a copy, plus a good many serious fans of Tolkien and Wagner.
How many times have I heard or read discussions about contemporary publishing in which I've heard the interested parties say that the future of publishing in the digital age will be in publishing handsome books that people will be proud to own permanently (or as permanently as life allows)?
So when will we see this new, particularly British, publishing which has some self respect and respect for their customers? I see no sign of it in so many books that are obviously of permanent value, although I often come across luxury books of dubious literary/historical/bibliographic value, or books which have only temporary or topical value but which are produced up to far higher standards than you would expect, and often cheaper than you would expect.
Which makes it even more offensive that a book like this, which most of us interested in buying would expect to keep and cherish, should be produced in a form that in a few years will look very browned at the edges and unless handled carefully will develop a weak or cracked spine. And I might also add that once it loses its paper jacket the underlying hard cover will start to wear at the hinge edges, and the paper surface of the boards will look progressively more furry and unpleasant the more it is used, instead of ageing gracefully as cloth can do.
At the very least we had the right to expect it to be printed on decent quality paper, and with pages that would stay together with easy handling and normal use over time.
My copy is already showing signs of the paper ageing, even though knowing what to expect, I have always deliberately kept it in a shaded part of my bookshelves.
Frankly, it's enough to make you want to convert to the digital book, and I can't say worse than that.

The irony is that although the publishers have made available (at an unjustifiably high price) Tolkien's well annotated prose translation of Beowulf in an alternative high quality edition they have not thought to do so with this far more important and useful text. There are a great many translations of Beowulf, some of them in faithful prose like Tolkien's,and many highly annotated ones, whereas there are very few alternative translations available for these original versions of the Norse myths and legends.

The above comments only apply to the BRITISH edition.
Other reviewers here have described the contents of this volume which is indispensable for anyone interested in this material both because of the translated texts and the editorial apparatus by the two Tolkien's.
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on 24 February 2015
I didn't have the chance to read the book yet. I bought it for several reasons and expecting something similar to the Lord of the Rings is not one of them. Tolkien was a scholar and I'm interested in how he came out with such a vivid and realistic world, despite of the obvious fantasy. I identified already many of his sources and I'm interested in everything he wrote as I like myths.
Besides, the book itself is simply beautiful and arrived in perfect condition, luckily and thanks to the seller careful wrapping.
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