Ossus Library Index Non-Fiction Index


By David Day (1994, Harper Collins)

A collection of different legends that focus on the probable inspiration behind the central Ring quest in Tolkien's epic.




Read March 14th to April 10th, 2002, for the second time  
    This book contains an ebb and flow of interesting and dull material.  Somehow, I would have preferred to have a book that dealt with all these legends, but with no reference to Tolkien!

The legends were the best part about this book, and that is reason enough to have it on my shelves.  It entices us to think about other fantasy in a way that only myths of historical heroes can describe them.  I really want to find a detailed prose form of the Volsunga Saga, because it was so interesting!  Others were more or less interesting, but I wonder how much of that stems from the author's style.  For he seems to be most interested in the Norse mythology, and its Germanic variations.  When he gets to the other sections, such as English or Biblical or Oriental myths, and so on, he seemed to write in a very amateurish manner, as if it was not really research that he wanted to do.  He was obviously not very familiar with these other legends (compared to the Norse ones) from the way he wrote about them. 

Strangely enough, I didn't like the way he deconstructs Tolkien's works, even though that is the purpose of the book!  His analysis seems to show that every part of the Lord of the Rings was derived from some other legend, and it (unintentionally, I'm sure) makes Tolkien's works seem like rip-offs, especially when he shows how the names of all the dwarves and Gandalf in The Hobbit are taken directly from other legends. 

However, that is not what he is trying to do.  He does not mention it enough, but I know (and it is reiterated once or twice in this book) that Tolkien consciously took events that existed in other legends, and melded them into a comprehensive whole, because he wanted the readers (or those who were familiar with some of these legends) to sense some familiarity in them.  He wanted the English to feel like his story was the original inspiration for all the legends they knew about, from Sigurd to Arthur.  I only figured this out about halfway through.

Instead, the author seems to turn it around, pointing out how Tolkien took and modified the legends, almost to the point of being unoriginal. 

The history given in the opening chapters is very interesting.  I have never before heard that the Vikings had the Ring as their sacred pagan symbol, and that once they were defeated, the symbol had to be defeated also, a much more difficult job.  The witch trials of the middle ages seems to be simply about Christianity purging the Ring believers from the world, competitors to the Christian faith.  It really makes sense from a power standpoint.  Christianity of that time was under siege, and they didn't have the values that we have today to tolerate competing religions.  But what the author fails to mention is why the ring is so pervasive in pre-Christian and Judaic times.  Why was the Ring such a great symbol for the Vikings and other pagan religions all over the eastern world?  So many religions seemed to have this symbol that I wonder about a common origin, something that is not mentioned.

Actually, what this book needs, and I think it fails miserably because of this, is a bibliography.  It is frustrating that the author doesn't provide us with a section telling us where we can go for additional reading on these legends -good ones, so that we don't have to search through the multitude of poorly written theses to get to the good stuff.  It really was frustrating to come to the end of a chapter and not know where to go next.  Something like that might have been helpful before reading the book, as well.  The author assumes a certain knowledge of the factual history of the English people, from Roman and the Saxon invasions and the rest, through the ages, which puts me at a disadvantage, growing up in the North American school system (where history really begins with the later colonial age).

The best part of the book comes in the various incarnations of the Volsunga and Nibelungenlied sagas.  These are the Norse and Germanic forms of what appear to be the same legend, with minor differences. 

The tale speaks of the Norse god Odin, and his relationship with the race of men, especially the line of Sigurd.  But it is a tragedy, and through treachery (poorly conceived so that it seems like a cheat), Sigurd forgets that he has won the love of a Valkerie, and betrays her in his ignorance.  Using a magic ring, he changes form to look like another man, and wins her love for that man, when he had won her for himself years earlier.  The two women involved become jealous of each other and the men, flinging lies and truths around until nearly everybody is killed.  Both the Norse and Germanic versions are almost identical, and we go through the legends a few times, which makes them familiar enough that I could actually spot differences in some of the versions.  I really liked the tale of Sigurd, and would enjoy finding a fuller account somewhere, so I could go into more and more details.  Several parts didn't really make sense, or stretched logic concerning the stories, but I wonder if that isn't because they are being told in summary form.  By the time we get to the end of the book, in the chapter Wagner's Ring, the story is nicely polished, and I liked the many good changes he made to the saga.  The back-story was very nicely expanded, taking place before the main story, instead of in dialog when Sigurd is young, especially concerning where the Ring came from, and the role the Valkerie had in it.  The reason for breaking Sigurd's father's sword is given a much better explanation here (an incestuous relationship) than the arbitrary way it's told in the earlier chapters.  But I preferred the old ending, of revenge on a neighboring kingdom rather than the Valkerie jumping into the pyre.  But I suppose, since this was a play, that it had to be scaled down quite a bit, and was best ended at that point rather than going on for another act just to see the loss of the Ring.

There are several instances where I could see where the author was going, as he enhanced the parts of the legend that were similar to the Lord of the Rings.  But often, it felt like he was really stretching his logic to get his point across.  One instance of him missing his mark altogether comes with his comparison of Sigurd's dragon-slaying technique with that of Bard, in The Hobbit.  He seems to completely miss the nearly identical manner in which Turin Turambar killed Glaurung in The Silmarillion!  It isn't even mentioned, and that's a shame, since it is much closer than Bard's situation with Smaug.

In relating Gandalf and Aragorn to Merlin and Arthur, the author seemed to stretch his reasoning even farther.  This is part of the reason, I think, that I didn't enjoy the later chapters as much as the Volsunga Saga.  The stretching of reason and logic continues with the legends of Charlemagne and the Oriental legends, but thankfully, they were sometimes interesting enough on their own, since I was unfamiliar with them to begin with.   I was especially interested in the exploits of Charlemagne, and will probably seek out the references, though except for reuniting the old kingdoms, there is very little related to Tolkien here.  I was not interested in the Tibetan myth, but the Chinese Emperor was intriguing to read about.  Even the Biblical legends were not very interesting.  I really wanted to see the source material for the legends surrounding Solomon that he describes here.  The way the author tells it, the Bible contains all sorts of supernatural demons and magic.  For a religion that disavows the supernatural, it's strange that this would be present -except that it's not in the Bible, which is why I want the sources!

The source of the Greek infatuation with rings is shown in its respective chapter.  The chief of the Titans, who was imprisoned when the gods overthrew them for dominion of the world, created humanity.  He was punished for this, but through compassion, Zeus allowed his punishment to be symbolic, so he was chained to part of the mountain by wearing a ring of made from the stone of the mountain!  Thus humans honor him by wearing rings as a sign of devotion.  I thought this was truly magnificent!  Of course, the stories told in this chapter still have little to do with Tolkien.

On another note, the usually terrific art of Alan Lee is not worth his name in the accompanying drawings.  I could have done without the pencil drawings at all!  Most of the time, even when I could tell what he was trying to portray, I found them lackluster.  The color plates were a little better, but not significantly.

Taken as a whole, the book is a real mixed bag.  The author was obviously more interested in the Norse and Germanic traditions, but decided to become more diverse and include all sorts of European, Oriental and Mediterranean legends for completeness.  I appreciated that, but often they were so superficially described that I couldn't get interested in them.  I also didn't enjoy the way he picked at Tolkien's works, though that was the purpose of the book!  However, it does give a very nice summary of a variety of legends and myths, and unless I can find all these myths in a more detailed form, this is a good enough reference book.



3 stars

Also read August 1st to 9th, 1995  

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