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The last Tolkien?

Dark arts, deaths and dragons. It’s that old ring, writes Damini Purkayastha.
Hindustan Times | By Damini Purkayastha, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAY 23, 2009 10:50 PM IST

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun
JRR Tolkien
Harper Collins
Rs 900 | pp377

If you’re one of those initiated into J.R.R. Tolkien’s world, courtesy Hollywood director Peter Jackson, save yourself Rs 900 and buy the trilogy’s DVD box set instead. Published posthumously with reams of commentary and appendices by the author’s son Christopher Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun pre-dates Middle Earth. Written in the 1920s, when Tolkien taught Norse mythology at the Oxford Un-iversity, the book is a re-telling of the popular legends of Sigurd and Gudrun told in the Icelandic Edda, the only written record of Norse legends.

The stories are narrated in short rhythmic alliterative verses, with a jump from character to character. This is folklore in academic guise with the ratio of fiction to information around 1:5 — intimidating at best, offputting at worst.

Please skip the introduction and Mythology: Myth, Legends & Fantasies. Go straight to Part 1, The New Lay of the Volsung, where Odin (the best known Germanic god since 1 AD) is trapped in a demon’s house. As generations progress, we meet Sigurd, the hero, who slays many a men until he’s betrayed by love. There are betrayals aplenty, scheming women, dragons and prophecies of doom. Sigurd’s lover Brynhild, his wife Gudrun, his aunt Signy — all the women knowingly or unwittingly become portends of evil.

Though Tolkien cannot be blamed for the evident misogyny of these Norse legends, constant refrains like “Woe worth the words/ by women spoken” by Sigurd, his brother Gunnar and Hogni (another warrior) only make matters worse.

Book II, The New Lay of Gudrun is tighter. Here we meet Atili, aka Attila the Hun, who is served his own children for dinner by his wife, Gudrun, a heroine whose story ends in absolute tragedy (“In the waves she cast her,/the waves took her;/in the wan water/her woe was drowned”).

A keen reader might even find echoes of Galadriel, the elf queen, in Gudrun. After all, Tolkien often said that it was these dark and tragic Northern myths that held his childhood imagination and perhaps even gave preliminary shape to worlds like Lothlorein and the Shire. Magical imagery is conjured with the simplest of words (“Sun they rekindled/ and silver Moon/ they set to sail/ on seas of stars”.) and some stanzas almost throb with the beat of war drums. Don’t let your unthumbed copy of Beowulf put you off the Legends. Tolkien’s version and vision of events might just hold you spellbound.

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