Tag Archives: Icelandic sagas

That sudden recognition

As I write this, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun has fallen to the second tier of the New York Times bestseller list, having debuted on the tenth rung of the list only the week before. That’s a bit of a comedown, considering that the previous manuscript exhumed from Tolkien’s papers, The Children of Hurin, debuted at the top of the list in May 2007. It’s also a pity, because The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is far and away the more valuable of the two books.

That’s because The Children of Hurin, cobbled together from notes and previously published excerpts, merely showed Tolkien imitating one of the sources of the inspiration that led to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, on the other hand, shows the old philologist grappling directly with one of those sources, on its own terms, and if read in that spirit it could start other readers on the same scholarly quest that animated Tolkien’s life and work. 

The sources of Tolkien’s inspiration are well known: echoes from the Elder Edda, Old English verse (notably Beowulf), and the Icelandic sagas run through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. For me, the biggest selling point for The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was the chance to read one of the old don’s own lectures on the Elder Edda, and get a glimpse of the scholarly passion that drove him:

It remains true, all the same, that even robbed of their peculiar and excellent form, and their own tongue whose shape and peculiarities are intimately connected with the atmosphere and ideas of the poems themselves, they have a power: moving many even in school or pre-school days in filtered forms of translation and childish adaptation to a desire for more acquaintance.

There remains too the impact of the first hearing of these things after the preliminary struggle with Old Norse is over and one first reads an Eddaic poem getting enough of the sense to go on with. Few who have been through this process can have missed the sudden recognition that they had unawares met something of tremendous force, something that in parts (for it has various parts) is still endowed with an almost demonic energy, in spite of the truin of its form. The feeling of this impact is one of the greatest gifts that reading of the Elder Edda gives. If not felt early in the the process it is unlikely to be captured by years of scholarly thraldom; once felt it can never be buried by mountains or molehills of research, and sustains long and weary labour.

This is unlike Old English, whose surviving fragments (Beowulf especially) — such at any rate has been my experience — only reveal their mastery and excellence slowly and long after the first labour with the tongue and the first acquaintance with the verse are over. There is truth in this generalization. It must not be pressed. Detailed study will enhance one’s feeling for the Elder Edda, of course. Old English verse has an attraction in places that is immediate. But Old English verse does not attempt to hit you in the eye. To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet.

I experienced my own faint echo of that “sudden recognition” years ago when I had to translate a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “The House of Asterion,” for a Spanish class. After weeks and months of See-Diego-Run grammar exercises, to have a genuinely great story come into focus under my pen was a rare thrill — something akin to having a statue I’d walked past for weeks suddenly turn its head and call out to me.

I envy anyone who has that experience on a regular basis, though I don’t envy anyone the amount of labor it takes to get there.

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