Chasing Legends

Back in September, I mentioned that Leiji Matsumoto’s Harlock Saga inspired me to watch the four operas of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. My wife and I treated the viewing a little like many people approach football games. We stocked up on snacks and for each opera, just settled in for an evening’s entertainment.

When we finished the complete cycle, I found myself curious about the legends that inspired it. Much of this was because the legend itself has fascinating mythical elements such as the Norse gods, magical sword, dragon slaying, and a jilted Valkyrie lover. Another aspect was that I saw a handful of parallels between the saga and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, the Ring Cycle is tainted by Richard Wagner’s antisemitism and I wanted to get to know the legend without those disturbing overtones.

I soon learned that early in his academic career, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his own version of the lays that would ultimately give rise to the Ring Cycle. I soon ordered a copy of the book in hopes that the discussion would give me some insights into Norse mythology, some of how Tolkien was inspired by the story, and perhaps even what Tolkien found particularly appealing about the story.

The book includes Tolkien’s versions of the lays along with extensive commentary by his son, Christopher Tolkien. An appendix endeavors to place the story into historical context. There are several notes that show how aspects of the lays and the Norse language influenced The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, the book never really answered why Tolkien found Norse legend especially appealing, other than to mention that it was part of his academic interest.

Perhaps the aspect of the poems I found most interesting was learning that after Siegfried’s (or Sigurd’s) betrayal and death, Gutrune (or Gudrún) went on to marry none other than Attila the Hun. What’s interesting about this for me is that it places the Siegfied story into a particular place in history and that place is about a generation or two before the rise of King Arthur in Britain, a story that has influenced my own writing.

As discussed in the book, it’s unclear how much of Gudrún’s story was intended as history and how much is taking a popular story and melding it with history. According to the most accurate histories we have, we know Attila married a Germanic woman shortly before his death, so their may be some truths in the legend. The timing of the story also made me wonder whether pressure from the Huns drove the Saxons into Britain helping to give rise to the conflicts that ultimately gave us the King Arthur legend.

Perhaps more interesting to me than this idle speculation is just the fact that Tolkien actually went through the process of retelling the Norse lays that he found so fascinating. It reminds me of what I did when I retold the Arthurian Culhwch and Olwen story. For me, it was an exercise in getting my head around a fascinating story and getting to know it better. Now, Tolkien was much more an expert at Norse legend in his youth than I will ever be in Arthurian lore, and he started with the Norse texts whereas I worked with translations. Still, it was fun to see that we approached the problem of understanding these old stories in a similar way.

If you’re curious about my version of Culhwch and Olwen, I recorded it as an audiobook. You can pick up copies from Amazon or directly from Hadrosaur Productions. In short Arthur’s cousin Culhwch entreats the king to help him win the hand of Olwen. Olwen’s father agrees to let the couple marry if Arthur is successful in a dangerous quest for … grooming supplies!

As for my own interest in Arthurian legend, I’ll just say that the more I looked into it, the more I discovered it was something of a puzzle lost in history. The more I looked, the more I was interested in the history behind the legend. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tolkien felt much the same way about the legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

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