Hard to believe it was only two years ago, standing on line with my kids to get a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that I asked myself how many more times I would get to see kids lining up at midnight to get a copy of a 759-page book. Now, a month before the release of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, I get to wonder how many more times we’ll get to see a retelling of a Norse saga that’s guaranteed to hit the top ranks of the bestseller lists.
The curious thing about Tolkien’s fame is that his scholarly background, and his relatively small output as a fiction writer, has already brought unlikely mass appeal to the medieval English poems Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, works you would not otherwise have expected to see in mass-market paperback editions that have stayed in print for decades. Now Tolkien’s name will apply the same marketing magic to the story of Sigurd the Volsung in a way even William Morris couldn’t manage.
I’ll certainly be interested in reading Tolkien’s take on Sigurd, but something tells me it will suffer from the same stylistic problem that made The Children of Hurin all but unreadable — Tolkien’s storytelling ideas work best when he gets as far as possible from the style of his inspirations. Long stretches of Hurin read like indifferent translations of an obscure Icelandic manuscript. There’s no contesting the fact that Tolkien was comfortable with Old Norse and the other medieval languages he studied, but the chattier, more informal style of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was where his voice rang out most clearly. I much preferred the audiobook version of Hurin, and I can only hope there’ll be an audio version of this new book as well.
Personally, I’m most interested in the news that the book will have an introduction adapted from one of Tolkien’s lectures on Norse literature. Now that I’m looking forward to!