First Meeting in October

Today we changed our reading from the fascinating biographical details of John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War to Tolkien’s own writing, as edited again by Christopher, in Sigurd and Gudrun. We were reading up to the end of section 4 of the Introductory material. Carol’s comments, where they are not included here, can be found at the end of this report in full.

Angela began our afternoon’s discussion with the comment that it seemed as though we were in for something much the same as usual in the sense of a familiar method of working, because Christopher points out that his father again wrote many versions of the Sigurd and Gudrun story, from which he has ‘compiled’ or selected the published text.

Ian took a more critical position when he directed our attention to the way Christopher reproduces one of his father’s lecture’s ‘An Introduction to the Elder Edda’. Ian thought Christopher had missed an opportunity to locate the lecture in relation to Tolkien’s later creative work, as the first version of it was given in 1926.

I realised I’d been so entranced by the chance to read one of Tolkien’s actual lectures that I had not read around it critically at all.

Laura remarked that she had enjoyed the historical details that emerged from our reading, and the found the explanation of the difference between Old English and Old Norse styles informative.

Both Laura and Angela noted the details of the complex differences between Eddaic and Skaldic poetry, and the changes in their use. They were actually inverted at the hands of later commentators.

Julie observed that up to the end of section 4 there is an assumption that the reader knows the background Norse story and its characters already. Ian added that it implied a need for the approval of like-minded academics, and showed the difference between the young professor as compared to his later more mature creative self.

Chris remarked that Tolkien also seemed quite bitter about the treatment of philologists whose work on unveiling the wonders of Norse poetry has been disregarded.

Ian detected in Tolkien a need to get his ideas and those of the poetry out to a wider audience.

Led by Laura’s initial comment we discussed the lack of knowledge defined in Tolkien’s lecture of our northern heritage and culture. We acknowledged that we still tended to be more familiar with classical Mediterranean culture.
Mike conjectured that in part this might be traced back to the Synod of Whitby and the subsequent dominance to the Roman form of Christian observance. This had the effect of marginalising northerness by constructing it as heretical in all senses.

Ian remarked that a northern focus was lost through successive invasions, while Mike wondered if the far northern weather and environment was conducive to a fortress spirit which preserved the old myths and legends.

We followed this discussion by addressing Carol’s questions about the pronunciation of Fafnir and Sleipnir. Various options were considered based on German or Norse pronunciations. Ian offered to check his Icelandic course, Mike checked his ‘palantir’, and that offered one pronunciation we approved, and one we dismissed. Diane said later she would check her Old Norse dictionary. In the interim we opted for ‘Fafneer’, and considered the version Mike found which was ‘Slapeneer’.

I introduced the topic that Tolkien addresses, of the way stories imported from Burgundian and Hun sources ‘received in exile their finest treatment’. Laura picked this up in the context of The Silmarillion, remarking on the way Tolkien takes the creation myth and rewrites it with his own creative aesthetic. Ian commented that he avoided the Greek model.

Laura then noted that Christopher’s and his father comments on the great age of migrations and their dissemination of cultural ‘treasure’ seems to be reflected in the migrations of the Elves, and the transmission of their creation and other stories. On the matter of literary treasure and their transmission, Carol notes that when the Codex Regius containing the Elder Edda was returned to Iceland crowds and crowds welcomed its return. Carol also commented that ‘in a sense Christopher Tolkien discovering and editing his father’s mss is rather like discovering and editing the old mss – a kind of dual discovery’.

Following on from the matter of migration and cultural transfers, Carol picked up the reference in the text and remarked ‘now that’s interesting – Odin was originally Gothic. Wouldn’t pretend to know how to tell he’s not Scandanavian originally. She added: ‘just a word about the use of runes for writing – the runes haven’t vanished (apart from Tolkien and The Hobbit) but are used nowadays in foretelling the future. You’ll find rune cards in any new age shop, and Odin isn’t forgotten either as a branch of modern paganism is Odinic. Carol also notes that ‘there has indeed been a revival with the rise in all sorts of paganism now that Christianity’s in decline. Tolkien might just have got a flavour of this before he died and it still puzzles me that a conservative Catholic Christian could be so enamoured of the ‘heathen’ north.’

Chris picked up another of Tolkien’s embedded opinions, when he noted Tolkien’s comment on the catastrophic Cotton Library fire which nearly cost us Beowulf (and destroyed the Battle of Maldon). Tolkien observed that Beowulf ‘escaped, just – for the embarrassment of later Schools of English.’ We noted that at the time of the lecture Tolkien and Lewis were determinedly taking on the status quo in the Oxford School of English and trying to ensure that more early literature was included in the syllabus (1927).

I then remarked that I had not connected the wealth of kings with the rise of northern poetry in the way Tolkien expresses it in the lecture. Ian observed that poets represented knowledge and the command of knowledge was power, while Mike remarked that poetry was part of the magnificence of a court. The general view was then that kings derived additional status from being wealthy enough to keep poets who did not produce goods but culture.

Angela likened the situation with early kings and poets to the renaissance kings and their patronage of the finest court painters.

We had earlier noted the difference between Old Norse poetry with its intention to ‘hit you in the eye’ compared to the more expansive Old English long line. I was not surprised that Tolkien chose the short Norse line for his poem, but I was surprised by his comment that it ‘looks better’. Laura observed that the short form fits with the style being ‘punchier’.

Having considered the groundwork, our expedition into the poem begins next time as we pick up at Section 5 and read to the end of ‘Andvara Gull’, allowing ourselves time to consider the Commentary on this.

p.4 ‘using modern English fitted to the Old Norse metre’, brief glance doesn’t seem on metre. Will have to compare with Lee Hollander. p.6 Hollander uses the old modes like fornyrđislag each mode representing a different subject matter in on poetry. See also Bertha Phillpotts. ‘the old 8-line fornyrđslag stanza’. ‘the “oldlore metre”.’
Introduction to the Elder Edda
p.17 when Tolkien talks of reading the lays in ‘filtered form’ is he remembering his liking for Andrew Lang’s child rendition. I think it was reading Lang’s version as a boy that got Tolkien ‘desiring dragons with a profound desire’.
Let’s see if the group feels that ‘almost demonic energy after reading the poems – in English, not Old Norse, because he’s obviously talking about reading the poems in the original!!
p.26 I found the Prose Edda quite boring. Even being a poet I could hardly read it. Found Marie de France equally boring – heresy! Perhaps. I’ll reread and see if I can redeem myself.
[In response to a passing reference Carol remarked] ‘can’t imagine Tolkien using a biro let alone red. Fountain-pen man, or even dipping pen and ink. Nice little insight’.
p. 46 It’s interesting reading about the poetic forms. When I was at university I did an essay, in a fire and ice module, on the different poetic forms relating to some form of Norse myth. Can’t remember off the top of my head what each signified but I must have got it right at the time because I pulled a 1st and my only overall 1st with the exam. Brag boast but I was quite proud of that because it wasn’t easy.
Looking at the 6 patterns of stress, I spoke them out loud and it comes out falling in tone as it does on the page. Try saying out loud: the ‘knights in’ is the same as ‘tyger’ – the opposite of iambic – ‘the roar’. Christopher Tolkien says it – ‘trochaic’ as in Blake’s ‘tyger’. But ‘vowells alliterate’ – I thought that was assonance. [To clarify this point, in Germanic verse including OE long line and Old Norse, all vowels in initial position in words alliterate together. Christopher Tolkien gives the example from his father’s work:
Of old was an age / when was emptiness
the o of old, the a of age and the e of emptiness all alliterate.
Assonance is a later technique deriving from Latin and Old French in which internal vowels are the same in the last stressed syllables of lines. This has developed in the use of the same of similar vowels in words anywhere in a line for particular poetic effect.]
Notes on the poems by the author
It’s a while since I read the Elder Edda but reading Tolkien’s commentary, it’s just struck me that Norse gods interfere in human life just as much as the Greek gods. Naughty!
I’m now recommending other sources:
The Saga of the Volsungs, Jesse Byock, Penguin 1990
Edda and Saga, Bertha S Phillpotts, D.B.E., Litt.D, Thornton Butterworth Lts, 1931. Byock gives a good account of the historical figures behind the Sigurd and Gudrun lays and is a prose rendition and probably easier to read to get the bones of the story. Phillpotts is a very old book and you probably won’t be able to lay you hands on it but if you do it’s just a good general all round read. It comes in a series called Home University Library which had loads of titles for those wishing to learn but unable to go to university.
The Poetic Edda Lee M Hollander, Univ. of Texas, 1999. Hollander dwells more on the poetry, history, and provenance and styles. His is a poetic version in the original styles but of course in translation. I like Hollander because one gets a flavour of the original.

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