Saturday, 1 December 2018

'If in day of Doom one deathless stands'

Readers of this blog may be interested in watching this series of talks given recently in Oxford (in connection with the Bodleian Library's exhibition Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth) on the subject of the medieval languages which interested and influenced Tolkien. There were lectures on Old and Middle English, Medieval Welsh, Gothic and Old Norse (my contribution). If you're interested in Tolkien, the whole archive is worth exploring - the Bodleian have made available talks dating back to 2008, on a range of topics relating to Tolkien and his works.



In my lecture I talked about Tolkien's interest in Old Norse and especially in the legend of the Völsungs, which he explored in his long poem The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. This text interests me because it's such an individual take on the story; though it arises from a deep engagement with the medieval sources, it's far from a straightforward retelling of the legend. There are several ways in which this is true, but in the lecture I focused on the element of Tolkien's retelling which interests me the most: his Christian-inflected retelling of the story of Ragnarök. This too is highly individual, and while some lovers of Norse mythology might feel it detracts from the powerful bleakness of the Ragnarök myth, Tolkien's version has a poignant beauty of its own. His Sigurd, dragon-slayer, is not just a great hero but a Christ-like figure, the Chosen One (that's Tolkien's proposed interpretation of Völsung): the promised Saviour, the fulfilment of prophecies, whose return at the end of time will be the salvation of the world.

A seer long silent
her song upraised –
the halls hearkened –
on high she stood.
Of doom and death
dark words she spake,
of the last battle
of the leaguered Gods.

'The horn of Heimdal
I hear ringing;
the Blazing Bridge
bends neath horsemen;
the Ash is groaning,
his arms trembling,
the Wolf waking,
warriors riding.

The sword of Surt
smoketh redly;
the slumbering Serpent
in the sea moveth;
a shadowy ship
from shores of Hell
legions bringeth
to the last battle.

The wolf Fenrir
waits for Ódin,
for Frey the fair
the flames of Surt;
the deep Dragon
shall be doom of Thór –
shall all be ended,
shall Earth perish?

If in day of Doom
one deathless stands,
who death hath tasted
and dies no more,
the serpent-slayer,
seed of Ódin,
then all shall not end,
nor Earth perish.

On his head shall be helm,
in his hand lightning,
afire his spirit,
in his face splendour.
The Serpent shall shiver
and Surt waver,
the Wolf be vanquished
and the world rescued.'

(Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, ed. Christopher Tolkien (2009), pp. 62-3)

Some of this is drawing on (in places directly translating) the description of Ragnarök in Völuspá, the first poem in the Poetic Edda, but its context and function are very different in Tolkien's poem. The fulfilment of this prophecy, as Odin ensures, is to be Sigurd: he who shall come, 'who death hath tasted / and dies no more.' Tolkien's reworking of Sigurd as a Christ-like figure is done with a light touch - a bit of subtle source-reshaping here, a resonant turn of phrase there - and it takes away nothing from the original story, but invites us to read it in a new light, with new eyes.

All this seems particularly appropriate to think about here at the beginning of Advent, the season which by ancient tradition is not just a preparation for Christmas but an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between prophecies and their fulfilment, between the Old Testament and the New, between the first Advent and the Second Coming at 'the day of Doom'. Tolkien's interpretation of the story of Sigurd is a kind of typological reading of the myth, somewhat like the way medieval readers interpreted the different 'types' for Christ they found in the figures of the Old Testament: Isaac, Moses, Jonah, and more. Those figures and their stories were understood simultaneously to be real historical episodes and to be signs foreshadowing the story of Christ's birth, death and resurrection; neither reading takes anything away from the other, but offers an additional layer of meaning in the divinely-composed narrative of human history.

The idea of a parallel between Sigurd and Christ is something I wrote about a few years ago in this Advent post; there I was discussing the history of the word arkenstone (Old English earcnanstan, Old Norse jarknasteinn), which - as Tolkien must have known - one Old English poem applies to Christ, and one Old Norse poem to Sigurd. The Old English instance occurs in a prophecy, embedded within an account of Christ's second coming at Doomsday:

...æt ærestan
foreþoncle men from fruman worulde
þurh wis gewit, witgan dryhtnes,
halge higegleawe, hæleþum sægdon,
oft, nales æne, ymb þæt æþele bearn,
ðæt se earcnanstan eallum sceolde
to hleo ond to hroþer hæleþa cynne
weorðan in worulde, wuldres agend,
eades ordfruma, þurh þa æþelan cwenn.

...from the beginning,
from the origin of the world, foreknowing men
with their wise wits, prophets of the Lord,
holy ones sage in spirit, spoke to men
often, not once only, of that noble child:
how the precious stone should
come into the world as refuge and comfort
to all the race of men, the ruler of glory,
beginner of bliss, through the noble woman.

This poem is known today as Christ III and as it comes down to us in the Exeter Book (though probably not as originally composed), it stands last in a sequence of three poems which moves from Advent to Apocalypse, from creation to destruction and rebirth - as Völuspá does too, in its different way.

As I've said before, the medieval understanding of Advent was as a season which encourages new and exciting kinds of reading - a season rich in imaginative possibility for those who are prepared to read with the right eyes. Advent is the time when the church reflects on the many different kinds of meaning which Scripture, and the world around us, can reveal: the season for interpreting 'the signs of the times' written in the book of the world, and for reading a Christian interpretation into the prophecies and poetry of the Old Testament (the same kind of light-touch typological reading Tolkien offers in his version of the Sigurd story). The ancient liturgy of Advent is crafted to appeal to all the faculties of the mind and heart which we call upon when we read poetry, or take in stories in any form: it offers metaphor, allegory, foreshadowing, wordplay, expressions of urgent desire, and (especially in the link between Advent and Apocalypse) creative thought experiments with narrative time. Medieval liturgists were some of the greatest literary critics who ever lived - sensitive and imaginative readers of Scripture, who wove together connections between texts, between characters and words and ideas, and between moments in time, and hallowed the very act of reading as a way of trying to understand the mind of God.

There's an imaginative fertility and a reaching ambition about the medieval view of Advent which offers something much richer than just a cheery countdown to Christmas. For many people the basic details of the Christmas story are so familiar that its strangeness and power and meaning have been sucked dry, and it doesn't have the imaginative appeal that other kinds of less well-known mythic story do - the story of Ragnarök, for instance, or the fierce beauty of the Poetic Edda. But Advent can be a yearly exercise in 'making strange' - reading old stories with new eyes.