Thanks were due to Mike (via email and via Julie) and to Laura for information regarding Beowulf – a topic that has inevitably cropped up when we have compared Tolkien’s adaptation of the Norse poetic style with the Old English style.
Our reading this week where the sections from ‘Signy’ to ‘Regin’ inclusive, and including the related sections in the Commentary. Included in this report are some of Ian’s comments as he could not be with us, and some of Carol’s. The rest of Carol’s comments will again be added after the main report, as will Ian’s other brief comment.
Angela began our discussion with her observation of the similarity between the sections dealing with the broken sword and the special child in ‘Regin’ section, and the forging of the shards of Narsil for Aragorn; with the references to flame and fire and the meaning of ‘Anduril’ as ‘flame of the west’.
Carol commented: ‘I don’t thing Tolkien was consciously cribbing the cursed ring, the dragon, the sword. It was just deep down in his consciousness and he used it subconsciously.”
Angela also picked out the incest motif in ‘Signy’, comparing the intentional taboo relationship between Signy and Sigmund with the unintentional relationship of Turin and Nienna and their distraught responses.
The important incest theme called up interesting comparisons. Laura mentioned the Pharaohs and their institutionalised protection of the blood line by ‘pure breeding’. Tim added the destructive inbreeding of the Habsberg dynasty leading to genetic disaster. Chris and Angela noted the problems thrown up in Iceland on account of the relatively small population. Angela also remarked on the possibility of problems among the small surviving population of the Rangers and the very apparent problems created when the purity of the blood-line was diluted.
Tim drew attention to the problem of the theory of Eugenics implicit in all these observations, which would have been roughly contemporaneous with the writing of Sigurd and Gudrun.
Carol remarked by email “poor Signy, nobody asks her opinion, bit like Eowyn about being steward to her people while the men are away fighting , but at least she wasn’t married off for convenience. When she does speak it’s dismissed as ‘woman’s boding’. And the reference to the ‘bounden word’ is to Volsung’s not Signy’s.” Carol continued to look at the treatment of female characters, observing: Of women fairest/in war taken/a wife took Sigmund;/woe she brought him. If they take women against their wills after killing their kin, then they deserve everything they get. Carol did remark then – sorry to the so ‘feminist’ and I know I should take it in context but we really have been a much maligned gender – across cultures and we can’t wholly blame Adam and Eve.
Laura commented on the paradoxes in the creation of the character if Signy, who is not just a ‘victim’ of her society’s treatment of women, but has a brutal side to her in her attitude towards her own offspring. I suggested we might need to understand her as a mythic being fulfilling a necessary role in that myth.
We discussed the form of Sigmund and his son/nephew Sinfjotli, when they are described in terms of werewolves and wolves generally. Angela and Carol and I noted the parallels between the fate of Sigmund and his brother and that of – here we all struggled to remember the story – was it Barahir, Beren, and their comrades, and were they in Angband, or Sauron’s stronghold? I have checked, and in The Silmarillion Sauron captured Beren and Felagund and their 10 companions and threw them into a pit where a werewolf came and devoured the companions. Finally Felagund killed the beast when it came for Beren but was mortally injured.
Pat thought the description of Sigmund and Sinfjotli as a threat outside the hall of Siggeir was reminiscent of the description of Grendel outside Heorot in Beowulf. Tim compared the fear of Grendel to the uncontrolled fear of wolves in northern societies.
Laura and Julie both picked up the description of Odin as a ferrymen; Tolkien seems to connect it with that of Charon the ferryman across the Styx in Greek mythology. But Julie observed that Odin’s role at that point in the poem is that of a psychopomp – a guide to the underworld. Laura untangled the etymology for us explaining it derived from ‘psyche’ (soul), not ‘psycho…’
We went on to consider the various references to ‘the Chosen’ and Julie suggested that their intermittent inclusion might suggest, not Tolkien trying to make Sigurd into some messianic figure, but the occasional addition of a Christian reference much as the Beowulf scribe is supposed to have interpolated Christian motifs into his text.
Pat wondered if the stanza concerning Sinfjotli’s voyage to Valhalla in ship ready to bear him, had echoes of Frodo’s last voyage. Laura perceived echoes of the ship funeral of Scyld Scefing in Beowulf.
I than remarked that Tolkien had set the whole story out in a form that looked more like drama than ‘just’ a poem because narration often plays a smaller part than dialogue. Tim added that the poem was not set out to convey the impression of a bard speaking it.
Pat remarked on the ‘abrupt’ style of the composition, and Ian in his emailed comments described it Thus: “With regard to ‘The Legend ‘ I am quite taken by the ‘staccato’ delivery of the story. It reads (to me that is) almost like a graphic novel, with each stanza as a separate frame containing visual cues.”
Carol remarked that “The telling is immediate, deals only with quick action, covering many years; dare I say it, rather like a child’s telling.”
Tim observed that in Tolkien’s case a few words can paint a vivid picture. Chris observed that Tolkien strips his sources to create a condensed narrative. Kathleen, however, commented that the flow of the story was made difficult because so many bits had been left out.
Julie went on to note the presence of the kenning ‘dew of battle’, and found its echo in Tolkien’s reference ‘red fell the dew in Rammas Echor’.
Tim noted that the reference to Sigmund’s second wife having many suitors was an echo of the fate of Penelope in the Odyssey. And I wondered about the extent of classical sources that seemed to be appearing in the poem. Time then compared the description of Odin as ‘A warrior strange …/standing silent…/ and hooded darkly’ to the familiar description of Aragorn when Frodo first encounters him.
Laura and Kathleen then took up the theme of the many instances of injustice that characterise this version of the northern myths. Chris noted what he suggested might be a case of Regin the fratricide attempting to justify himself to himself through his intention of killing Sigurd, even though he had urged Sigurd to commit murder. Pat likened the murderous tendencies of one brother against the other to the biblical myth of Cain and Abel.
We were, of course, dealing now with the confrontation between Sigurd and Fafnir the dragon (Regin’s transformed brother), and the upthrust with which Sigurd kills the creature was likened by Chris to Sam’s wounding of Shelob. Angela added Turin’s upthrust which mortally wounded Glaurung, and Laura widened the likekness when she drew attention to the way Fafnir. Glaurung and Smaug ruin the countryside.
Angela and Laura questioned the sudden inclusion of the Helm of Horror in the poem. It seems to come from nowhere, but could be extrapolated to be a folk-memory of the first time a shiny helmet of Roman (or Greek) fashion was used against northern tribes. Its likeness to Turin’s Dragonhelm was considered.
Our next reading will be the sections from ‘Brynhild’ to ‘Strife’, inclusive, and with the parts of the Commentary that relate to them.
Carol’s and Ian’s comments:
Sigurd – Regin
Synopsis – sounds like the scenario of a modern soap only with different means – dragons, cursed gold etc. but the attitudes are just the same – duplicitous, stubborn, vengeful.
First 4 lines, st. 1 reminds me of Eol [the lines are: ‘The forge was smoking / in the forest-darkness;
/ there wrought Regin / by the red embers.’]
I like the hoard/heard, fell/fill, gold/weregild, rede/roads, regin/rogue, ride/road.
Stanza 32 – ‘bale’ – we don’t use bale now but sometimes baleful. I’d like to see the old-fashioned words used like before: ‘ruth’ we only use ruthless now, apart from the girl’s name. st. 33 ‘glamoured’ – glamour originally meant a sort of magical falsifying. Now it means beautiful, chic, and physical falsifying as in make-up.
Stanzas 41-4 – Sigurd can now understand birds like Bard in The Hobbit but the birds’ messages are harsher by far.
All the blood-letting and drinking: do violent modern films qualify as successors. Has the audience always had a taste for blood and violence – yes, look at the Roman circus. Aren’t we a vicious lot.
Re. the Commentary, I note with interest the liberties Tolkien took in re-ordering events from the original text.