When J.R.R. Tolkien wasn't teaching philology at Oxford or penning classic fantasy novels, he did some retellings of old poetry. VERY old poetry.
"The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" is one such work: a verse working of the Norse legend of the hero Sigurd and his adventures, as well as the two doomed women who loved him. The wording is a bit awkward in places, and a good chunk of the book's content is commentary by his son Christopher Tolkien -- but the deep-rooted mythic story and Tolkien's vivid prose are gorgeous.
After exploring the gods and their glittering Valholl, Tolkien introduces the bitter dwarf Andvari and his magic ring, the greedy dragon Fafnir, and the tragic tale of Sigmund, Sigurd's daddy. Sigurd was tricked into slaying Fafnir for his treacherous foster father, and gained a hoard of cursed gold and a roasted dragon heart. Then he learns of the beautiful Valkyrie Brynhild, who is doomed to "wed the World's chosen" only, and sleeps in a fortress of flames.
Though he wakes Brynhild, Sigurd claims that he isn't going to marry her until he has a kingdom of his own -- and he gets one too. But in the process, he falls in love with the beautiful Gudrun and marries her. When his brother-in-law Gunnar wants the finest woman in the world, Sigurd tricks Brynhild into marrying Gunnar instead. This betrayal -- and a cursed ring given to both Gudrun and Brynhild -- leads to lies, hatred, death, and a devastating tragedy that destroys more than one person's life.
"The Lay of Gudrun" is a sort of sequel to the Sigurd legend: after Sigurd dies, Gudrun goes a little nuts in her woodland house and ends up being wed against her own wishes (courtesy of her witchy mom) to the king of the Huns, Atli. Of course, everything goes wrong for the poor woman -- and her brothers Gunnar and Hogni rush to attack Atli.
"The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" is not for those who only like to read Tolkien's Middle-Earth stories. Sure, there's a cursed ring and a mention of "Mirkwood," but the rest of it is pure Norse saga infused with gods, sorrow, magic and ancient battles. But it's a fascinating story, and you can hear the ring of the elves and the Rohirrhim in some of the stately passages ("Hail O sunlight/and sun's rising").
It's also very complex story, with lots of gory battles, doomed love affairs, and everybody involved ending up miserable and/or dead -- in particular, the bleak yet exquisite finale of "The Lay of Gudrun" is astonishing. And Tolkien does make you feel for the two lead characters of Sigurd and poor, tragic Gudrun (whose only crime was to love her husband), even if Sigurd is kind of a jerk. Brynhild just comes across as a snotty ice queen.
And Tolkien's wordcraft is pretty smooth, easily read if you're used to epic poetry. There are a few awkward moments ("Last night I lay/where loath me was/with less liking/I may lay me yet"), but most of it is easy to decipher and to follow. And the words are usually quite vivid, beautifully written ("gleaming robed/as flower unfolded/fair at morning") and evocative ("his beard was grey/as bark of ash"), with many moments that are simply beautiful.
For the record: "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" has a LOT of Christopher Tolkien's forewords, commentary and Tolkien's own information on Norse mythology (for the record, "midgardsormr" means the serpent around the world). There's fifty pages to wade through before the poem even starts. Those with little experience in Norse myth might find it handy, but anyone who already knows the story will find it rather dry.
The legendary JRR Tolkien's working of "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" is a vivid retelling of this saga, and his unmistakable touch is left on the words. If you can handle epic poetry, this one is definitely worth a read.