This week’s reading was third on our list of matters to address, even though we were finishing the Introductory matter to Sigurd and Gudrún and moving on to ‘Upphaf’ and ‘Andvari’s Gold’, the opening sections of The Lay of the Völsungs, the book’s first section, to which Carol again contributed her comments – included mostly after the meeting report.
Laura brought in the spectacular picture of ‘counter-measures’ being deployed by a helicopter above HMS Dragon. The likeness to Smaug over Laketown was tantalising.
Ian then gave us a fascinating report on his visit to the Bodleian Library in order to take his current research to the next level, but of course, that remains confidential until completed.
Eventually we turned our attention to defining the nature of our smial reading group, a matter that became necessary in response to developments on the Internet. But it was an interesting exercise to think about what we do – which is to read!
And so on to what we do – our reading for the afternoon:
Ian had checked the audio aspect of his Icelandic course and gave us a definitive indication of the pronunciation of Sleipnir – Odin’s horse. As we heard, in Icelandic the ‘ei’ has a hard ‘a’ sound, so the name is indeed pronounced ‘Slape-nir’.
Everyone had taken notice of the 6 patterns of stress and unstress that define the structure of lines of Old Norse poetry. These patterns replicate those in Old English, but as we noted, the rest of the poetic structure is quite different. Remarkably, Old Norse poetry, as Christopher Tolkien explains, and as his father replicates it, was divided into stanza.
We noted in addition that Old Norse poetry, as Tolkien himself explained in a lecture included in the book, does not bother with the expansive details found in Old English poetry, but is very concise. We took the example of stanzas 6 and 7 of ‘Upphaf’. The newly created world is threatened by ‘giants’ (the usual opponents!) and “the sun trembled”. The next stanza explains how the Gods plan to fight and heal and rekindle the light. Nothing in the stanza has detailed the actual loss of the light – that is to be understood and interpreted by the reader/listener who is made a participant in the storytelling process by the absence of detail.
Ian, Tim and Angela all remarked on the usefulness of the Commentary given by Christopher Tolkien at the end of The Lay of the Völsungs. Angela added that it was useful to read the Commentary first before reading ‘Andvari’s Gold’. Laura noted that the Commentary helpfully explains the difference between Tolkien’s poem and its Old Norse and Germanic sources.
I then asked what everyone made of the instances of repetition in the 2 sections? Laura picked out the description of Odin as old grey and huge when he walks among mortals, but I had in mind a couple of earlier instances such as the opening lines of both our chosen sections: ‘Of old was an age’. Though the second lines are different, or maybe because the second lines are different, the repetition seems to indicate both looking back to mythic time, and the progress of time after creation. The second instance was the repetition of the Gods who ‘of doom and death / deeply pondered’. Repetition within 9 stanzas of the first mention emphasises threat to the Gods and the sense of instability in the created world.
Laura drew our attention to Stanza 1 and the moving final line after the description of the vast nothing before creation, rounded off with the observation ‘an abyss yawning / and no blade of grass’. Laura remarked on the stark contrast between the images, especially the human scale of the absence of grass. Tim commented on the echoes of the void in Genesis, and in The Silmarillion. Carol was more specific when she noted that ‘unwrought…an abyss yawning…The Great Gods then/began their toil,’ reminded her of Tolkien’s own creation story of the Valar.
I then asked if stanza 5 in ‘Upphaf’ raised the possibility that Tolkien alludes (unwittingly perhaps) to a cosmology or metaphysics in which every positive thing created automatically generated its own negative? The lines I questioned are:
Dread shapes arose
from the dim spaces
over sheer mountains
by the Shoreless Sea,
friends of darkness,
out of ancient void.
Ian responded by citing the atomic theory of opposites – which Tolkien could well have known.
The option was also expressed that ‘though separate, nothingness has to take shape too’.
Angela questioned the concept of ‘unbegotten’, and Tim cited the concept of ‘yin and yang’ in which opposites are required for balance. Chris observed that the shapes that make up the ‘Dread shapes’ are not defined as good corrupted.
Chris and Ian thought the concept of the Other thus defined in the stanza was not like the concept of evil in The Silmarillion. But Ian added that the ‘uncreated’ Other is represented there in the form of Ungoliant.
Carol picked up the quote and commented ‘they lived in laughter…Dread shapes arose…’ is a reminder of the marring of middle-earth.
Laura moved the discussion on to stanza 12 and the image of the ‘shadowy ship / from shores of Hell’ which ‘legions bringeth / to the last battle’, comparing this to the arrival of the Dead in the Black ships commandeered by Aragorn in RotK.
Angela and Laura also attempted comparisons between the gods named in the poem and those in the Silmarillion material, finding similarities but also differences, particularly between echoes of Thor and his hammer and Aule and Tulkas, and between Frey and Freyia and Aule and Yavanna.
Laura then observed the ‘deathless one’ who is to be a serpent slayer is also a warrior and although there is a clear messianic cast to the description, it is more akin to the Jewish concept of a Messiah who will be a warrior, rather than a Christian messiah.
Angela directed attention to the Commentary in which the serpent-slayer, clearly to be Sigurd later in the Lay of the Völsungs, is compared by Tolkien himself in terms of Túrin who would not only kill Glaurung, but would return from the dead at the Last Battle to kill Morgoth.
Angela also picked up Tolkien’s comment that Túrin would also kill Ancalagon the Black, which was a surprise to us all because we all thought Ancalagon was already dead.
Angela then questioned the theme in the second section Andvari’s Gold of the cursed gold from the river, and we remembered that in the second Book of Lost Tales there is an account of Beren’s battle against the Dwarves in which much treasure is lost in a river in Beleriand and cursed because of the violence associated with it.
After an afternoon of diverse discussion we gave thought to our next reading and agreed to read the sections on Signy and on Regin, plus the sections in the Commentary that relate to these.
VOLSUNGAKVIĐA EN NYJA eda SIGURDARKVIĐA EN MESTA – UPPHAF (Beginning)
p.62: the Seeress predicts Ragnarok, echoes of ‘New Jerusalem’.
p.65 ‘for one they waited/the World’s chosen’ does this have Christian overtones? Is it like Beowulf, written by a Christian looking back with regret on an heroic past? Like a new world arising out of the Ragnarok. [Ed. I think we have to distinguish between the original, and this being Tolkien’s version before we make up our minds.]
ANDVARA-GULL (Andvari’s Gold)
p.66 Loki isn’t evil as such. He’s the Trickster who moves things on. Many mythologies have a trickster figure. p.68 ‘fell’ as in clothing – beast-fell? p.69 ‘ruth’ we only use ‘ruthless’ now but ruth is pity and mercy. Introducing the cursed ring.