January 2014: First Saturday

11.1.14

Well, we’re back! After our Yule break we resumed our discussions, beginning with a serious debriefing following our group visit to the film in early December. However, we took a moment to commiserate with Pat’s knee-problem which kept her from joining us, and with Kathleen who is currently in hospital. Somewhat depleted with Ian otherwise engaged, we nevertheless voiced our discontents with the film, and found little to approve in the adaptation, apart from Martin Freeman’s performance. We also considered some of the newspaper material generated by the film.

Before we continue: please see the end of this report for a change to our future reading.

When we turned out attention to our reading of the last part of Sigurd and Gudrun – The Lay of Gudrun, and its Commentary – Angela began the discussion with her observation of the gruesome ending of the Lay when Gudrun gives her husband Atli wine served in the silver-bound skulls of their sons. The wine is their blood mixed with honey.

It was noted that when she tries to drown herself later the waves cast her back and Julie and Mike commented that this is in the tradition of water rejecting the sinner – a device familiar from the ‘swimming’ of witches. However, once Gudrun has expressed her sorrow that her grief-induced madness brought about the deaths of her sons the waves take her and her story ends.

I thought the killing and ingesting of the children had echoes of Greek myth, and of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Laura observed that the skull-goblet motif was reminiscent of the story of the legendary Weland Smith, in which Weland is captured, lamed, and forced to work for his captor. In revenge he kills his captor’s sons and turns their skulls into goblets. Weland Smith is depicted on the Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/t/the_franks_casket.aspx

The Weland story was famous throughout Europe at the time.

Chris noted that the first half of Sigurd and Gudrun is mythological, while the second half is based in history, but linked into the myth.

Tim observed that the structure echoes the methodology of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, which attempts to establish an historical foundation for kingship in Britain by reference to legendary and mythic characters.

Laura remarked that the whole story appears to reiterate a universal, but not religious, motif of the hero who will save the race in its greatest hour of need. As Britain has Arthur, Sigurd is to fulfil that role in the Northern version, at the Ragnarok.

Angela observed that Tolkien adapted this motif in his story that Turin would return at the end of days to kill Morgoth.

Chris then drew attention to the many echoes of elements of Sigurd and Gudrun to be found in LotR. Laura observed that Tolkien may not have remembered all the instances of earlier use because the original source material in Northern myth would have been so familiar to him from his studies and interests as to become part of his being.

Angela then noted that in the description of Gudrun weaving, she weaves an image of Odin in a blue cloak. Angela remarked that after the downfall of Sauron as Gandalf travels north with Galadriel wearing a blue mantle over his usual grey garb.

Laura picked up the similarity between Gudrun wandering in a grief-stricken state and other instances in Tolkien’s work of elvish and other women wandering in woods.

I commented on the way Tolkien creates the impression of Gudrun’s perception time passing in contentment during her grieving recollection of her life before she met Sigurd. This is achieved economically through the repetition of ‘gold and silver’ in stanza 21.

Laura noted that the last 2 lines of this stanza introduce Gudrun’s terrible dream by contrast. This is then elaborated in the next 2 stanzas. She complains to her terrible mother*:

A wolf thou gavest me

for woe’s comfort,

in my brethren’s blood

he bathed me red.

The wolf is Atli the Hun, to whom she is to be given unwilling in marriage, and this will indeed lead to the death of her brothers Gunnar and Hogni.

*[I wonder if Grimhild is really as terrible as she seems, or a politically aware woman and strategist who uses all the means at her disposal to maintain the security of her domain, including coercing her daughter into politic marriages.]

Gunnar’s death in a snake pit was our next topic. Laura remarked that the snake that kills Gunnar is not some exotic monster, but a monstrous-sized adder. We commented again on the alteration in English of the spelling of the snake’s common name from ‘nadder’ to ‘adder’. And Julie observed that there is a river flowing through Salisbury still called the Nadder apparently on account of its sinuous form.

From language we turned back to the grim details of the story as Laura and Angela both commented on the cheapness of life among the slaves or ‘thralls’. Although this could be just a storytelling device, the killing of those who buried Atli reminded us of the stories of the killing of Egyptian slaves who interred the Pharaohs, which again could be a myth! The killing of the thrall Hjalli the swineheard reminded us only of the brutality of existence in the early medieval period.

Changing the tone of the discussion, Julie remarked that she thought that Grimhild, Gudrun’s terrible mother, re-emerged into European story as Snow White’s Stepmother!

Laura then remarked on the way Gudrun lists in detail the 5 harms she has suffered. I commented on the way Tolkien avoids the use of witchcraft in the process of Grimhild’s determination that Gudrun would marry Atli, although she used it to dupe Sigurd into marrying Gudrun. Between mother and daughter Tolkien seems to prefer to imply Grimhild’s psychological power and Gudrun’s inability to resist it.

Angela drew our attention to the many references to eyes, some dark and ominous, others like Gudrun’s shining and beautiful. Angela noted Tolkien’s frequent use of glances and looks in all his work, including Galadriel’s glance that the Fellowship cannot withstand (except Aragorn).

As we moved on to consider the Commentary and Appendix Laura picked up the Anglo-Saxon word waerloga the source of the later word ‘warlock’. This led us into a long digression on how the Anglo-Saxon word, meaning ‘faithless’ came to be associated with the demonic and witchcraft. After consulting Mike’s ‘palantir’, and the OED we were really no wiser! But Sir Walter Scott seems to have popularised the old Middle English version of the word.

After deviation into the background history of the legends given story form in Sigurd and Gudrun we concluded our discussion of the book and agreed to move on to The Fall of Arthur. For our next meeting we will read pages 17-70 inclusive. And following my misunderstanding of the third in our list of texts for this year, we will in fact be reading Unfinished Tales – NOT The Book of Lost Tales 2 – which we have already read! Apologies for the earlier misinformation and any confusion caused.

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2 thoughts on “January 2014: First Saturday

  1. It just occurred to me, shouldn’t we look at the Niebelungenlied too at some point, as it tells the Siegfried story from a different pov. In it the Gudrun character becomes Kriemhild, which is obviously a variant of Grimhild, so she has become conflated with her mother in this version.

  2. It would be logical to look at the Niebelungenlied, and interesting that the mother and daughter become conflated. Maybe we need to draw up an ongoing reading list, unless that would come to feel too restrictive. Something to discuss with the whole group next time maybe?

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