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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Last Meeting in November

23.11.13

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.