Last Saturday in July


Our meeting this afternoon was a little depleted, with Tim, Julie and Mike all busy elsewhere, as befits a hot summer Saturday! We needed windows open and fans at full power in the seminar room. Anne has also been out of action after a nasty encounter with a comfy chair, but Pat was with us again, having braved the uncertainties of the buses.

Our nominated reading was ‘Sellic Spell’ – Tolkien’s imaginative re-creation of the original folk story underlying the Beowulf poem, but before we turned our attention to that, Ian updated us on the remarkable computer model he has created of ‘Thackley’, the house built for Joseph Wright in early 20th century Oxford, and thus the house in which Tolkien had tutorials with Wright while an undergraduate. We all congratulated Ian on his detailed work on the 3D walk-around model, and hope he will consider making it accessible to a wider audience at some point.

Angela then launched us into our chosen text with her observation that the prose ‘Sellic Spell’ and its shorter companion piece in verse ‘The Lay of Beowulf’ were both easier than the Beowulf translation itself.

Ian remarked that ‘Sellic Spell’ has a touch of Roverandom about it, reading like a useful version of the Beowulf story for children, as well as showing where the OE story comes from. Laura described ‘Sellic Spell’ as the afternoon version, suitable for a matinee! Ian commented that the change of names delivers a very different story.

Pat picked up the idea of names and expressed her delight in the names in ‘Sellic Spell’, in their translated form they can be seen to be very apt as Beowulf becomes Beewolf (i.e. ‘bear’), Unferth becomes Unfriend, and Hondscio becomes Handshoe (i.e. glove), and Grendel becomes Grinder. Each name defines the special ability or quality that defines the character, e.g. Handshoe has a special attribute in his gloves with which he can complete extraordinary tasks. Pat specifically noted how Beewolf’s strength was specifically that associated with a bear – strength of hand and arm.

Laura observed that although the 3 characters have special characteristics, it is Beewolf’s strength that lasts better in ‘Sellic Spell’.

Ian noted that this could not be the case in the OE Beowulf because that deals with the aging process.

Laura thought the names in ‘Sellic Spell’ were more Anglo-Saxon than in Beowulf.

Ian noted that this reminded him of Egil’s Saga and the bear-like strength of Skallagrim. Angela remarked that Beewolf reminded her of Beorn in The Hobbit.

Pat then noted the number of times distinctive trios of names are found in Tolkien’s works, as with Beewolf, Unfriend and Handshoe, but also many in LotR, of whom she named Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli, but we recognised many others.

Laura commented that she was interested in the invented detail that Beewolf was found as a child living with bears, and compared this to the present-day fascination with children said to have been found living among animals.

Chris then startled us with his question about the form of ‘Sellic Spell’ – does it constitute an example of Tolkien writing fan-fiction? This really made us sit up and think. There was some concern to define what we identified as fan-fiction. Ian thought there is a difference between a writer working a folk-tale mode and those just extrapolating from existing work, because a folk-tale is a composite by many different ‘authors’.

I wondered if we should not consider LotR a kind of fan-fiction if we were identifying that mode of writing as merely extrapolating from existing works because we can so easily identify the presence in LotR of many sources.

Chris added that where folk-tales show a need to develop a motif along similar lines, Tolkien was always writing his own version.

Pat noted an instance of Tolkien’s individual development when she drew attention to his insertion of Unfriend’s his length of rope in the episode of the Mere. Although this is completely absent from the Mere episode in Beowulf Chris noted that it does have echoes in LotR when Sam uses his rope on the Emyn Muil, and Angela noted the similarity between the waterfall described in Tolkien’s version of the Mere episode and the Window on the West in LotR.

Chris observed that there are many more similarities between LotR and ‘Sellic Spell’, right down to the level of shared phrases.

Pat noted that there are more extended use of runes in LotR than in ‘Sellic Spell’, where they are only used for names on swords. Ian was puzzled by references to Hrunting being given, cast aside, then returned, and this led on to Pat wondering who the old sword in the cave had belonged to.

Angela noted that there are references to the state of being ‘unfriend’ in The Silmarillion.

Pat was interested in the difference between possible examples of ‘magic’ in ‘Sellic Spell’, such as the melting of the ancient sword, and the construction of ‘wizardry’ in LotR. Sadly we did not develop this complicated topic, but we did give further thought to Pat’s observation that the baleful light in Grinder’s eyes goes out once he has been beheaded. This sequence is not the same as that in the OE poem, but Laura observed that the poetic ‘Lay of Beowulf’ shows Tolkien trying out a different version of Grendel/ Grinder’s eyes.

I then confessed to a late-breaking moment of enlightenment when reading Christopher Tolkien’s comments about the formation of the ‘Sellic Spell’ text. What I read was

“The manuscript C was closely followed by a careful typescript ‘D’ that in all probability I made at the same time as my typescript of the translation of Beowulf.”

For years CT’s dedication to editing and publishing what his father left has impressed me for the selfless effort involved. But suddenly I realised the extent to which CT has always had a vested interest in the editing and publishing process because he had been so constantly involved as his father’s informal amanuensis. In effect, it seemed to me, CT’s efforts to get his father’s remaining works published are also an acknowledgement of his own participation in the developmental process.

Ian observed that in these last books that he has edited CT has been less constrained about his involvement, and Angela wondered if CT’s preoccupation with his father’s work had contributed to the failure of his own first marriage.

Having finished the Beowulf book, we agreed that for our next meeting we will return to Unfinished Tales and pick up our reading with ‘The Line of Elros’ and ‘Galadriel and Celeborn’.




First Saturday in July


We continued this afternoon with our reading of the Beowulf translation. To begin with Ian updated us on his review of the significance of the publication of the three latest Tolkien works: Sigurd and Gudrun, The Fall of Arthur and Beowulf. I then diverted us slightly back to our last meeting and Tim’s response to Pat’s question about the significance of ‘twisted gold’ in the text – Tim had suggested that it implied an added value. While reading for other reasons, I had come across a text that I thought shed some light on this:

Emilie Amt’s book on women in medieval Europe includes examples of the wills of Anglo-Saxon women and in one of these is a woman named Wynflæd (d. c. 950) who bequeathed to Eadwold (a man) ‘her gold adorned wooden cup in order that he may enlarge his armlet with the gold’.

Tim remarked that perhaps the increasing of a man’s ‘beag’ (armlet/arm-ring) in this way approximated the adding of ‘ribbons’ to medals – a sign of personal worth rewarded rather than mere monetary value.

Ian suggested that the gift implied added status for the man, while I thought it might also signal to others his place in an important relationship, since the woman was wealthy enough not just to bequeath the gold-covered cup, but had the status that allowed her the privilege of making a will – not something many women could achieve.

Laura thought there was an historic dimension implied in the making, and reworking, of jewellery, establishing a connection with ancestral skills in society.

Ian directed our attention to Tolkien’s long commentary on the place of Christianity within the Beowulf poem. I remarked that the whole section read rather as though Tolkien was ‘evangelising’. Ian responded by observing that Tolkien was arguing for the way his students should approach the text, and that the poem was originally educating its audience in the mixing of Christianity in the heroic age. We noted that the translation pre-dates Tolkien’s seminal essay Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics.

Laura turned our attention then to the matter of the comparison between the 2 queens the virtuous Hygd and the cruel maiden Þryđ (Thryth) who then becomes the perfect queen when married to the right man. Angela suggested that this was the ‘Taming of the Shrew’ motif, and indeed Klaeber noted as much in his OE edition of the poem.

Laura noted that the Commentary reveals the problem of the ‘difficult bits’ of the poem – lines and sections which resist definitive translation and which are shown to admit various possible translations.

I mentioned that while reading and checking various bits of the translation against the Klaeber OE edition I had come across the term hysteron proteron. Investigating it revealed its classical Greek origin as a rhetorical device in which the natural order of chronological events is reversed. Ian suggested the example ‘put on your shoes and socks’ – logic tells us we can’t put socks on after putting on shoes. The Beowulf poem includes not only this rhetorical device, but further reading shows it to be full of others, some of which can be seen to influence Tolkien’s prose in LotR. Angela recalled an example of hysteron proteron in the chapter ‘The Passing of the Grey Company’ when Aragorn had ‘neither rested nor slept’. Ian, using his palantir, discovered the website Silva rhetorica which confirmed the definition of hysteron proteron.

Part of the difficulty of Tolkien’s Beowulf translation, where the syntax is indeed strangely contorted, must be due to his wish to retain the underlying significance implied by the original use of rhetorical devices. These are detailed in a Christian context in a work by Bede, although Tolkien probably knew them anyway from his early training as a classicist.

Ian observed that, as in the poem, Tolkien reuses various terms and, as in the poem, that reuse brings in additional significance from the external sources. If a translator oversimplifies a translation some of that is bound to be lost.

Laura then asked if we should not give some thought to the dragon? And quoted Tolkien’s assertion that ‘a dragon is a dragon’, but that the dragon might also be seen as old age – the one thing Beowulf the hero cannot overcome – the final defeat. Time wondered if the dragon fight was a metaphor for Beowulf battling himself and his reputation in old age, while Ian wondered if the dragon represented the Geats themselves.

Ian observed that in the final battle Wiglaf is the human hero in place of Beowulf the mythic hero who was also the totem of his kingdom, holding it together, but who can no longer exist in the newer world. Ian went on to note that Beowulf’s slaying of the dragon is not wholly welcome because he dies and leaves his people open to attack by the Swedes.

Laura commented that Wiglaf’s last speech of rebuke to the men of the household who could not face the dragon reminded her of the old retainer’s ‘mod scal þe mære…’ exhortation at the end of the Battle of Maldon – an injunction to stand and fight or face inevitable destruction. Beowulf’s Geats will be overrun by their Swedish enemies because Beowulf dies as the English will be overrun by Vikings (also mostly Swedes!) at Maldon.

Tim noted that after the dragon is killed many twisted armlets are discovered and Laura described the investigation of the barrow as like an Anglo-Saxon ‘Time Team’ as the Geats excavate many ancient objects from it. Ian added that there is then a realisation that this is a bad move as they finally rebury the treasure.

This led us to finding clear links with Tolkien’s stories when Tim remarked on the discovery of the ‘ancient blades’ in the Barrow-wight’s mound and Angela noted the discovery of the Elven swords in the troll cave in The Hobbit. Tim noted that Beowulf’s sword Nailing fails in his last conflict as Narsil fails Elendil in his confrontation with the great destructive force that was Sauron.

Laura remarked that the blade of the giant sword Beowulf uses to kill Grendel’s mother melts away as does the blade of the Morgul knife used to stab Frodo, and Angela noted the same melting of the blade of Merry’s sword after he stabs the Lord of the Nazgûl. We considered the difference between the 2 instances of melting.

Chris observed that the treatment of swords in LotR and TH suggests the societies represented in those stories are ‘deskilled’, because there is a constant reliance on old swords and ancestral artefacts.

Ian thought this implied the need for special attributes in order to be able to wield those special items.

Chris added that there is plenty of ‘new weaponry’ such as catapults and ‘dynamite’ (Saruman’s blasting fire), but these weapons do not have ‘status’.

Laura observed that for the Anglo-Saxons any marvellous sword of ancient ancestry ‘might’ have been forged by the mythic Germanic smith Weland.

I had drawn attention to a Bilbo and Frodo moment in the translation where a corslet, sword and ring are passed by an old warrior to a younger one, and Ian remarked that when weapons are given as gifts the relationship between the donor and recipient is protected by the giving.

Ian noted that dire consequences were associated with dragon treasure in the poem so it was returned to the earth and stories were made about it instead.

Angela also noted that the dragon is said to have burned itself, and Laura remarked that Beowulf gets hot under his masked helmet, which reminded her of the Sutton Hoo helmet with its mask (OE grima), which may have belonged to Rædwald.

Tim then thought he spotted a ‘fox’ moment – in the translation/poem when the raven is mentioned. I noted that the raven is in association with the eagle and the wolf and together they are the Anglo-Saxon ‘beasts of battle’.

Chris observed that the pessimistic tone of the Beowulf poem and translation fits perfectly with Tolkien’s other work which does not specialise in happy endings. Ian remarked that this pessimism represented northern acceptance of ‘how things are’ – there is no salvation in the pagan northern tradition [something Tolkien picks up and deals with in Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics], and Laura noted that there is no sense that Beowulf is going to heaven in spite of all the biblical references.

After an afternoon’s wide-ranging and quite intense discussion (at times), we agreed that for our next meeting we would finish reading the Commentary and the ‘Sellic Spell’.

Last Saturday in June


This afternoon was what has become our annual special gathering because Carol and Rosemary joined us, and after her long absence so did Pat. Our reading for the meeting was as much of Beowulf as we could individually manage, so we were able to move around in the text.

Ian began the discussion with his observation that the Commentary is outstanding in the amount of insight and information it provides, and the quality of these.

Pat, who has not had time to read very much of the poem remarked that she encountered problems with all the names, especially the sons and relatives of Hrothgar whose names also begin with ‘h’. Pat also noted the many Christian references and asked if they were an addition. I explained that their exact place in relation to the development of the poem remains the subject of scholarly debate, but they are a feature of the poem in its existing manuscript form and so belong to the Anglo-Saxon period, but have been considered evidence of scribal insertion, and also as evidence of accretion as the conversion process took place – patchy and insecure as it was.

Carol remarked that the end of the Preface reads like Christopher Tolkien’s swansong for his father’s work, and Ian added that he was recalling here his father’s work of academic scholarship in contrast to all his creativity.

Pat then asked why there was a specific reference to Beowulf being rewarded with ‘twisted gold’? Tim responded that if it was twisted then it has been worked by craftsmen and this gave it added value. There is surely a point to be considered about the Anglo-Saxon value placed on aesthetics and craftsmanship here, and Tim reminded us of the brilliance of much Anglo-Saxon goldwork such as the Sutton Hoo treasures.

Laura picked up the matter of wealth and found it poignant in the context of what the original audience knows will happen in the end.

Pat questioned what we are told of Grendel’s descent from Cain, and wondered if it implied his destiny. Laura noted that Grendel is denied any prospect of redemption.

Ian pointed out that there is no redemption for Beowulf either, but he is an ‘outsider’ who is acceptable to the society of Heorot. Carol remarked that Grendel is excluded.

Rosemary wondered why Tolkien adopted such an archaic style for his translation, and Laura thought the style of the translation was more ‘Round Table’ than ‘mead hall’, and felt that the Christian bits seemed to be ‘shoe-horned’ into the older pagan text.

Carol thought perhaps Tolkien would have cringed in later life at this work of his younger academic career.

Rosemary observed that the translation style slows down the reading process and Julie noted the frequent inversions of word order.

Laura noted with approval Tolkien’s retention of the many famous ‘kennings’ on the original, and Tim picked up their complexity in terms of the semiotics of language.

I addressed the problem levelled at both LotR and Beowulf that there are ‘no women’, or that women are treated as merely types. While we all agreed that this was a outdated assessment on relation to LotR, I argued that there is much to be learned about the lives and treatment of aristocratic women in Anglo-Saxon society and poetry. I particularly contested the notion of women as ‘peace-weavers’ because although the term is used, its reality is subverted by the example of Hildeburh, whose peace-making marriage ends in slaughter as the ‘in-laws’ revive their old feud.

Pat wondered at the status of royal women who, she suggested, were being treated as nothing more than servants as they carried the mead to the warriors. I commented that in doing so they were in fact honouring their guests.

Our discussion was so wide-ranging and detailed that I made fewer notes than usual and so this completes the report for this meeting.

For our next meeting we will finish what we haven’t yet read of the poem and the remainder of the Commentary.

Last Meeting in November


We began this afternoon with the usual sharing of supplementary information gleaned from newspapers and Internet sources. This included developments on the theme of the cats said to have pulled Freya’s chariot, and congratulating Julie on her new dragon. In the context of our reading for the day, I had discovered a small piece of information based on Professor Rory McTurk’s research into Tolkien’s supplementing of the missing section of the Codex Regius. Brief though it is, Prof McTurk comments on the tension between Tolkien’s scholarly impulse – in which his own research concluded that 200-300 stanzas had been lost from the Codex – and his creative impulse in which he only supplies 125 stanzas.

As part of our survey of tangential and supplementary information, Laura asked if we had seen the TV programmes on the Nazis’ search for the Holy Grail, and the early 20th century discovery of a fortress city in Turkey thought to be the stronghold of the Hittites. Laura commented that the really interesting aspect of this was the discovery there of cuneiform tablets, which, when eventually translated showed a non-middle-eastern language. Rather it showed word forms for bread, water and father that were cognate with Indo-European, and particularly Germanic.

This led us back to our reading, which were the sections ‘Brynhild’ to ‘Strife’ (inclusive), and the Commentary on these. The Commentary points out that Tolkien was working across mythological material from both the north (Scandinavia) and the south.

Pat picked this up when she asked about the assertion that Odin was not originally a Norse god. Laura proposed that the ‘southern’ Germanic mythology may have derived from the migration of the Hittites northwards, since no evidence now exists to show what happened to them.

Ian expanded this view in terms of established anthropology when he suggested that as part of the process of migration this greater, more powerful culture had become mythologised.

Ian and I then remarked that both Christopher Tolkien and his father comment on the northern and southern sources for the Brynhild and Sigurd myth, that both have similar elements and a later synthesis was attempted. But Tolkien tries to establish consistency in his poem.

Pat drew our attention to the earlier’ Regin’ section when she noted the different vocabulary assigned to the Raven – who croaks of hardship, and the Finch who twitters mostly about Brynhild and beauty.

Ian commented on the fairy-tale elements in the sections we had chosen for the meeting, particularly the ‘who is the fairest of them all’ wrangle between Brynhild and Gudrun while they were washing their hair in the Rhine.

The matter of Odin’s Thorn – which is said to have put Brynhild to sleep – the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ motif, gave rise to Ian sharing a bit of Yorkshire dialect. It appear that a splinter under the skin is known in his native dialect as a ‘spell’, and this use of the word derives from Old Norse.

Pat then asked us if we thought fate was stronger love. It rather stumped us, until Laura observed that Tolkien’s poem shows that Odin has decided what will work out best for him at Ragnarok, so he arranges to have all the greatest heroes apparently taken at the height of their powers. Ian, however, remembered his Anglo-Saxon and reminded us that Maxims II declared that ‘wyrd’ (fate) is strongest.

In the section ‘Brynhild Betrayed’ stanza 32 Pat was unconvinced that the unsheathed sword really guaranteed Brynhild and Sigurd’s chastity when they shared a bed.

Angela asked in regard to this whole narrative situation whether oath-breaking counts if it is accidental. The matter of oath-breaking in the story becomes very complicated. Brynhild’s does not seem to be intentional, neither is Sigurd’s, but the result of being given an enchanted drink.

Chris then drew our attention to many instances where Tolkien seems to introduce a phrase or idea which he then reuses in LotR. This links into the matter of oath-breaking through the frequent repetition of the line regarding oaths in the poem ‘all fulfilled them’, which will be used again in RotK. However, it is reversed with considerable impact in the dialogue between Brynhild, Gunnar and Högni when Gunnar declares:

Evil wrought Sigurd

oaths he swore me

oaths he swore me.

all belied them.

Angela noted with regard to Brynhild a significant change of wording when she describes herself as ‘queen of yore’, suggesting her high rank before her marriage, but then she declares herself ‘queen no longer’ in spite of her queenly status in marriage once the betrayal is known.

Pat noted echoes of Beowulf in Section VII ‘Gudrun’ in the description of the ships and splendid halls, and Pat, Ian and I noted the reference to horses hooves creating ‘stonefire’, sparks, an image Pat and I remembered from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. However, Ian remembered the concept of ‘stonefire’ from Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and defined as a sign of a faerie element in the story.

Angela noted another case of repetition in the same section: ‘In came Gudrun’ Ian observed the significance of repetition for emphasis, but also for the possibility in literature of reliving a moment, which is impossible in real life. Chris noted that the repetition in this case is divided between stanzas 38 and 39, and the first half of 38 and second half of 39 are a gloomy depictions of Sigurd as he drinks the witch-brew that will ensure he betrays Brynhild with Gudrun. Tim remarked that the 2 stanzas give 2 different perceptions of Gudrun.

Pat picked up one word from these 2 stanzas for special comment. It was ‘glamoured’. Laura thought it sounded too much like Middle English with its French influence to fit well into the Germanic myth. Julie added that ‘rowel’ seemed also unfitted to the ancient tale. Ian wondered on the other hand whether Tolkien was simply choosing the right word for his purpose.

Angela remarked that the –hild name suffix, as in Brynhild, is used sparingly but is used in LotR in some names among the Rohirrim.

Ian commented that in section IX ‘Strife’ stanzas 44-6 recapitulates the narrative as Brynhild and Gunnar discuss Sigurd’s betrayal of his oaths to them. I thought it made a very lively dialogue.

Ian thought that throughout the poetry showed a very condensed word use.

Julie remarked that the hair-washing episode picked up what she saw as Tolkien’s fascination with hair – repeated again in the mingling of Eowyn and Faramir’s hair in Minas Tirith.

Mike wondered if the repeating of the defending sword story was inflected with bitterness.

Repetition throughout the sections, we noted, was by no means a simple rhetorical device. And at times the (mainly) 8-line stanzas break into contrasting groups of 4 lines.

Our next meeting will not be until January 11th, when we will finish reading the book. Our next text after that will be The Fall of Arthur, followed by Finn and Hengist, and then Lost Tales Part 2.

First meeting in November


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.