I’ve never been a big one for short stories but when perusing the New Titles last month I was struck by this one – Tales Before Narnia – the roots of modern fantasy and science fiction. To be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect but having taken a week off to loaf around home I thought some stories that I could pick up and put down would be a good distraction.
And it was. The tales vary in length immensely but most can be read in a short sitting and were mostly fantasy with a couple of early science fiction stories that could almost be classified as steam-punk now. Many of the stories were first published in the 19th century, one or two even older, and the one that I particularly enjoyed, Undine (1811) had the feeling of almost Arthurian literature. There are tales by Longfellow, Hans Christian Andersen (The Snow Queen), William Morris, Robert Louis Stevenson, Tolkien, Dickens, Kipling and some less well known authors.
On reading the introduction I discovered that the editor, Douglas A. Anderson, had previously edited a similar book of Tales Before Tolkien, which the library has a copy of at Akaroa library. But that will have to wait because first I have to read the new Tolkien book The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun. This has just been published and is Tolkien’s version of the Norse sagas of the Volsungs and of the Niflungs, both from the Elder or Poetic Edda. This will be my third version of this story having read it as the Volsung Saga, and also as the 12th century Germanic version The Nibelungenlied – if you want full immersion try Wagner’s Ring Cycle opera, based on the same story.
The new Tolkien version is written as a poem. Translations often lose this element but this is not a translation. These poems, there are two, have never before been published, in fact for a while Tolkien thought he’d lost them. It’s presented with a lot of additional material including the text of a lecture on the Poetic Edda that he gave at Oxford University, a bit of history of the story itself, and commentary.
And if epic heroic poetry interests you let me also recommend Seamus Heaney’s award-winning translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf which we have on CD so you can hear the poet (Heaney) reading his own work.