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.