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Tolkien turns Norse
on May 8, 2009
A few corrections need to be made to the reviews already here.
First: This book is NOT a translation. It is a set of two original poems by Tolkien, with supplemental materials. The poems retell one of the most famous stories in Norse legend--the sources are the two Eddas, the Volsunga Saga, and others--but Tolkien gives here his own version. The poem is in the medieval Norse meter and style, but it is a new version, again, not a translation.
Second: These poems are not epics. I have already read a couple of reviews complaining that for epic poetry it isn't "epic" enough. But they aren't intended to be epic. As the introduction makes clear, Norse poetry had no epic mode (although Old English did). What epic verse does for some cultures the Saga did for the Norsemen. These poems are lays, which have a different intended effect, which is discussed in the introduction.
Who needs to read this book? Certainly people who like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but hated The Children of Hurin when it came out recently, and who never got through the Silmarillion, will most likely not want this. If, when you read The Lord of the Rings, you skip the poems and songs, you should definitely skip this. On the other hand, if the Tolkien's poetry is especially attractive to you this may interest you. If you're interested in Tolkien's other writings, though, you probably will want this. For instance, if you've read vol. 3 of The History of Middle Earth, The Lays of Beleriand, you will know the sort of thing you're in for. On the other hand, if you don't care or don't know much about Tolkien's own invented mythology, this book will still fascinate you if you have an interest in Old English or medieval Icelandic literature.
While this book is in general unconnected with Tolkien's own Middle-earth, it does shed some interesting light on it here and there. The Sigurd legend is, of course, related to Tolkien's legend of Turin Turambar. Seeing Tolkien in full heathen mode allows us to draw interesting contrasts with the "redeemed" paganism of his own mythology. Furthermore, Tolkien adds certain elements of his own to the traditional story of the Volsungs which are not irrelevant to the interpretation of his other writings. His interpretation of the heathen myth provides clues to his attitude to myth and its creation which are unique in his writings. This is not *merely* a retelling, but an artistic re-working of the old tale in light of his Tolkien's own insights, interests, and concerns, as well as a virtuoso display of versecraft in an authentic medieval style and meter which, to my knowledge, no other modern author has mastered so well.
This book, then, is not for everyone. But all the negative reviews I've seen blame it for not being something else. For what it is, it is excellent. For those interested in its content or its form, and for true lovers of Tolkien's work, it's a must-have.