Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Tolkien material coming this summer!

Has anyone else just seen this? According to The Tolkien Library, this May will bring us The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited and introduced by Christopher Tolkien. From The Tolkien Library —
The previously unpublished work was written while Tolkien was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University during the 1920s and ’30s, before he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The publication will make available for the first time Tolkien’s extensive retelling in English narrative verse of the epic Norse tales of Sigurd the Völsung and the Fall of the Niflungs.
And from David Brawn, of HarperCollins UK —
It is an entirely unpublished work, dates from around the early 1930s, and will be published – all being well – in May this year. Otherwise the clue as to what the book will contain is in the title – THE LEGEND OF SIGURD AND GUDRUN. You will surmise from this that it is not a Middle-earth book, but we are confident that Tolkien fans will be fascinated by it.

Certainly something to look forward to! At least for the medievalists among us; pace Brawn, I would think the work will have only the most limited appeal to mainstream fans of Tolkien’s fiction. For those unfamiliar with the story of Sigurd and Gudrún, follow the link above for a summary of the Norse subject matter The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is expected to treat.

I suspect this work must be the “long unpublished poem entitled ‘Volsungakviða En Nyja’, probably written in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Tolkien described it, in a letter to [W.H.] Auden dated 29 January 1968, as ‘written in fornyrðislag 8-line stanzas in English: an attempt to organize the Edda material dealing with Sigurd and Gunnar’” [1]. Coincidentally, I was just discussing this poem with someone no more than a week ago. The title is Old Norse and may be translated, more or less, as “The New Lay of the Volsungs”. How good is it, this poem? No way to know that yet, of course, but Tolkien described it as “a thing I did many years ago when trying to learn the art of writing alliterative poetry” [2]. No doubt some will accuse Tolkien’s publisher, HarperCollins UK, of scraping the bottom of the barrel here, but even Tolkien’s “practice works” (perhaps even especially his “practice works”) hold great interest to scholars.

What is also unclear is the precise meaning of “long unpublished” in the note above — is it “long, unpublished” (i.e., the poem is long and has not yet been published), or is it “long-unpublished” (i.e., no comment on the length of the work, but rather on the duration of its languishment). Tom Shippey has pointed out that there is an 8-page gap in the Codex Regius manuscript of the Poetic Edda, specifically in the Sigurðr cycle [3]; if Tolkien’s poem was meant to fill that gap, as Shippey supposes, then we have reason to think it must be fairly short. If it is, then I hope the publisher doesn’t go overboard puffing it up into something “book-length” in the interests of profit. That may be a futile hope, but we will be very happy to have it, whatever its form.

UPDATE — On the other hand, if we’ve identified the right poem, and if its companion is also published with it (as seems likely), then we may have a pretty substantial publication after all. As Ardamir pointed out in the comments (below), the two poems are 339 and 166 stanzas, respectively, each of eight lines, for a total of more than 4,000 lines. Based on the number of lines per page in The Lays of Beleriand, this would translate into something on the order of 115 printed pages. Even with an introduction and other front matter by Christopher Tolkien, that’s still a fairly short book, but not as short as I feared. Nor is it likely to be a simple gap-filler for the eight lost pages in the Codex Regius. Perhaps Tolkien began with this in mind, but in his usual way, eventually embellished it far beyond its original ambit. And so, mirabile dictu, we have a new book by Tolkien — a mere seventy or eighty years later. :)

[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, p. 452 [note 3 for Letter #295].

[2] Ibid., p. 379.

[3] Shippey, Tom. “Tolkien and Iceland: The Philology of Envy.” Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien. Walking Tree Publishers, 2007 , p. 192.


  1. According to the Companion & Guide (Reader's Guide p. 654), the poem consists of 339 stanzas. There is also a companion poem of 166 stanzas.

  2. Excellent information, Ardamir! Thank you! I hadn’t taken the time yet to go looking for anything further, but I’m glad somebody did. I did suspect, even as I was writing the post, that Wayne and Christina had probably read the poem (and its companion piece). In the first version of the Tom Shippey essay I cited, he mentions two poems, but by the time it was printed in Roots and Branches, it was down to one — and likewise, in one of Shippey’s essays for the Tolkien Encyclopedia (ed. Drout). I guess the companion poem was what he had in mind originally.

  3. Jason

    Per your post on my blog - I know Iknow - When I was 12 I went to Medieval Times in Upstate New York and was grounded for a week afterwards because I walked around and said "that is not historically correct" etc - add to be removed from the quasi Medieval banquet!!!

    Anyway (back to your blog) - that's great news!! A new book by Tolkien - I've been wondering about this one after I read the Shippey article. Perhaps this will start a trend and more like Sellic Spell (Tolkien prose work that was to serve as the background for Beowulf) and his early Arthurian cycle may come out - and what have you heard about Tolkien's Diaries?? Also if we can get Carl H at ELF to get done with his work on Taliska that would make for many hours of new Tolkien study.

    Think I will schedule some Old Norse study around that time.

    Thanks, Andy

  4. Hi Andy! :)

    I can’t imagine that Tolkien’s private diaries would ever be made public. Even if they are eventually to be published, I’m sure we’re in for a long wait. The best I think we might reasonably hope for is that the padlock might be removed for scholars visiting the Bodleian, but even that is not likely, if you ask me.

    But I would expect we’ll continue to see a fair number of previously unpublished works come to light over the next few years. I would also like to see an expanded edition of Tolkien’s letters. That is certainly a possibility, if still a longshot.

  5. I expect you're right about the limited general appeal of this work. Even The Children of Hurin, which was specifically designed to be user-friendly, puzzled a lot of people (including one poor friend of mine who kept trying to overlay the map of Beleriand on the map of Third Age Middle-earth, reading the Sirion as the Anduin and so on).

    But it will be fascinating to those of us who do follow this stuff. Of Tolkien's unpublished poetry of this period, I'd most like to see his Arthurian work, but I'll take whatever we can get.

  6. As you know by now, Carl Hostetter has confirmed the number of stanzas in a post here.

  7. @ N.E. Brigand: I saw that late last night, thanks. It’s nice to have the number confirmed by someone who has seen the actual draft of the new book.

  8. David, you took the words right out of my mouth. I appreciate the comment.

  9. Great News!

    I have been waiting for this a long time. Rayner Unwin had made references to this when, as Mallorn Editor, I had interviewed him in 1986.

    At some stage, there should also be a collection of original poems (not translations) coming out,
    including the Fall of Arthur, 2 poems based on Icelandic sagas (The Prophecy of the Sibyl and
    another one) and several other poems, the names of which I cannot recall, and perhaps also a reprint of the Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

    Let us hope that Christopher is well enough to do that.

    We are also waiting, of course, for Tolkien's own translation of Beowulf, but it may come out
    edited by someone else, like Michael Drout.

  10. Hello, Denis. Thanks for stopping by and adding your voice (and personal recollection of Rayner Unwin) to the conversation. As you probably know (perhaps even first-hand), Rayner mentioned this poem again, inter alia, in his 1990 address at the annual Tolkien Society dinner. The speech was published in Volume 2 of Digging Potatoes, Growing Trees.

    Too, I join you in hoping that the next few years will bring other famously unpublished works to light. There are many others I would also like to see, even if (as so often) they are unfinished.

    Oh, and you’re absolutely right — it’s high time somebody reprinted “Aotrou and Itroun”; I think Tolkien Studies should consider looking into that. They’ve rescued several other pieces (e.g., “The Name Nodens”) from moldering in the stacks of a few lucky libraries.

  11. I was at that 1990 event, and remember it well!


  12. Jason,

    I've been reading your blog for several months now and took some time today to explore previous posts. When I did this, I stumbled onto a post from the Mythcon conference making reference to two papers on the freedom of beings, particularly elves, in Middle Earth. I believe the authors of the papers are Carl Hostetter and Verlyn Flieger.

    I'm interested in reading these two papers, any idea as to where I could find them?


  13. Welcome, Matt. Glad to hear you’ve been poking around in my archives. :) As to the papers in question, yes, you have the authors right. Both are (so far) still unpublished. I’m not sure whether Verlyn plans to publish hers or not, but I know that Carl intends to. The only question is where and when.

    If you’re interested in the subject and will permit me to be immodest, hahae, I’ve also written about it, in an essay called “‘Man does as he is when he may do as he wishes’: The Perennial Modernity of Free Will,” published in the book, Tolkien and Modernity, Volume 1 (edited by Thomas Honegger and Frank Weinreich, Walking Tree Publishers, 2006).