Three Northern Love Stories, and Other Tales: Background and Criticism

Anderson, Karl. Scandinavian Elements in "Three Northern Love Stories," in "Scandinavian Elements in the Work of William Morris," Diss., Harvard University, 1940, 192-200.

Although Morris translated so many sagas in the early 1870’s, he published only one small volume of Icelandic tales during these years; this was Three Northern Love Stories, and other Tales, which appeared in June, 1875.1 The first two sagas which he included here, “The Story of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue and Raven the Skald” and “The Story of Frithiof the Bold,” he had already printed in periodicals, as I have pointed out before;2 both these tales he and Magnússon now carefully revised before republishing them in book form.3 I have already commented in detail upon these two translations. The third tale of love is “The Story of Viglund the Fair,” a rendering of the Víglundar saga, a late fictitious narrative. Morris almost certainly based his translation of this work on the text in Nordiska Oldskrifter.4 However, the melody which he introduced in Chapter Eleven for the song that Ketilrid sings when she thinks that Viglund has drowned5 is not found in this edition or in the only other text available in 1873; this tune he evidently inserted because, as he notes in his Journal of his first visit to Iceland in 1871, he had heard it played on an Icelandic violin at one of the farms at which

  1. See Forman, Books of Morris, p. 82. As I have already pointed out, these tales had been translated by the end of 1873 (see above, p. 184).
  2. See above, p. 52 and p. 175.
  3. See above, pp. 53 and 176 and the Athena͜eum, No, 2690(May 17, 1879), pp. 632-633.
  4. According to Islandica, I(1908), 105-106, there were two editions of this saga available in 1873: Nockrer Marg-Frooder Søgu-pa͜etter Islendinga, pp. 15-33 and 187-188 and Nordiske Oldskrifter, XXVII, 47-92. A comparison of the following passages in Nordiske Oldskrifter with the corresponding passages in the other edition and in Morris’s translation shows definitely that Morris was following the text in Nordiske Oldskrifter: XXVII, 47, 11.3, 10, 12-13, 15, and 19-20 and 48, 11.5-6 and 9-11. This book was in Morris’s library at his death (see below, p. 1000).
  5. Collected Works, X, 98-99.

he stayed on this trip.1 These three tales of love, “The Story of Gunnlaug,” “The Story of Frithiof,” and “The Story of Viglund,” make up more than three-fourths of the book; the remainder consists of three very short tales or “pa͜ettir.” “The Tale of Hogni and Hedinn” is a translation of Sőrla páttir, or Heðins saga ok Hőgna; Morris seems to have used the text given in Fornaldar Sőgur Nordrlanda.2 “The tale of Roi the Fool” is an English rendering of Hróa páttr heimska; the two texts of this story existing in 1873, one of which is found in Fornmanna Sőgur and the other in the Flateyjarbók, differ so very slightly that it is impossible to determine with certainty which one served as the basis of Morris’s work, but it seems that he followed the former.3 The last story is “The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Smitten,” a translation of Þorsteins páttr stanagarhőggs, which is a continuation of the vápnfirðinga saga; the text given in Nordiske Oldskrifter of this “páttr” was the only

  1. See Collected Works, VIII, 151.
  2. According to Islandica, V(1912), 41, there were four editions of this work available to Morris in 1873: Saga Olafs Tryggvasonar (Skalaholt, 1689), II, 49-58; Sagan af Heidini of Hogna. – Historia duorum regum Hedini et Hugonis, ex antiqua Lingua Norvegica. Per Dn. Ionam Gudmundi in Latinum translate [Upsala, 1697]; Fornaldar Sőgur, I, 389-407; and Flateyjarbók, I, 275-283. The second of these four editions I have not had an opportunity to examine; however, since it was not in Morris’s library at his death and is an extremely rare work, it is very unlikely that he used it. A comparison of the other three texts with Morris’s translation shows that Morris almost certainly did not base his rendering on the 1689 edition and very likely did not follow the text in the Flateyjarbók. Compare, for example, the following passages in Fornaldar Sőgur with the corresponding passages in the other two editions and in Morris’s translation: I, 394, 11.14 and 22; 395, 11.2, 4, 13, 17, and 22; 397, 11.4 and 16; 399, 1.27; and 400, 1.2. All of these works except the 1697 edition were in Morris’s library at his death (see below, pp. 1000 and 1002).
  3. According to Islandica, III(1910), 32, there were two editions available in 1873: Fornmanna Sőgur, V, 252-266 and Flateyjarbók, Ii, 73-80. It is impossible to determine definitely which text Morris used, but it seems somewhat more likely that he followed the version in Fornmanna Sőgur. Compare, for example, the following passages in Fornmanna Sőgur with the corresponding passages in the Flateyjarbók and in Morris’s translation: V, 258, 1.13 and 261, 1.23. Both editions were in Morris’s library.

one published by 1873.1 In the case of the last four sagas, Morris’s renderings are the only English versions ever printed.2

At the beginning of this collection of six short Icelandic tales we find a very brief Preface with comments on the general nature of each story, and also a chronological table of the main events in “The Story of Gunnlaug.” At the close of the book are two notes; in one of them Morris presents a two-page translation of the story of Hogni and Hedinn as it appears in Chapter L of the “Skáldskaparmál,” thus giving his readers an opportunity to compare this short account with the much more detailed version given in the Sőrla páttr, which he had translated in the text. There are also at the end two indexes of characters and places mentioned in these six sagas.

The book met with almost unqualified approval in the contemporary reviews. All the critics were loud in their praises of the accuracy and general style of the rendering, and freely recommended the volume to their readers.3 As was to be expected, most of the reviewers, recognizing the superior merits of “The Story of Gunnlaug,” placed this tale far above any of the other sagas in the book, and hailed it as one of the treasures of the world’s literature. One critic even devoted his whole article to this saga, merely mentioning the names of the other five tales.4 Edmund Gosse, whose review is by far

  1. V, 48-56. See Islandica, I(1908), 116.
  2. See Islandica, I(1908), 106 and 117; III(1910), 32; V(1912), 41; and XXIV(1935), 72 and 75.
  3. See, for example, the Saturday Review, XL(1875), 90.
  4. See the Spectator, XLVIII2(1875), 1068-1069.

the most scholarly and acute, says of this story.

…it claims admiration for a rounded and finished form, a passionate perfection of style, a fullness of detail without an iota of triviality or thinness, which distinguish it above all its fellows. Without the grandeur of “Njála,” the romantic verve of “Grettis,” the fullness of humanity of that “Laxdaela” which we can only hope Mr. Morris may yet find time to render for us, the “Gunnlaug” has a concise picturesqueness, a purely artistic perfection, which place it at least as high as these, perhaps higher.1

“The Story of Frithiof” also was warmly praised, but “The Story of Viglund” was generally described as being distinctly inferior to the first two “love stories.” Mr. Gosse even went so far as to say, “With all deference to Mr. Magnússon’s learning and Mr. Morris’s taste, we feel doubtful whether they were justified in occupying so much time and space with a saga so late and so poor as this.”2 However, both Gosse and one of the other critics took pains to point out that the songs in this story were particularly beautiful; Gosse wrote, “The ‘Viglundarsaga’ is understood to be inelegant and unclassical in language….The best parts of the work are the passages in verse, which bear marks of an earlier and a far more gifted hand….We would take this opportunity of pointing out how especially beautiful are Mr. Morris’s versions of these short poems.”3 The other three tales in the book were dismissed by the reviewers with only a few words. It is of course not surprising that this collection of stories, unlike the other two saga translations that Morris and Magnússon had published in book form, was highly praised by the critics, for these six short tales, especially the first three, in view of the fact that the characters and action portrayed in them were much

  1. Academy, VIII(1875), 54.
  2. Ibid., VIII, 54-55.
  3. Ibid., VIII, 55. See also the Athena͜eum, No. 2490(July 17, 1875), 75.

closer to modern life, were much more easily understood by the nineteenth century Englishman than the Vőlsunga saga or the Grettis saga.

During the period of Morris’s life which we are now considering, when Morris was devoting himself almost entirely to Scandinavian studies, he became so intensely interested in Iceland and its literature that he determined to make a tour of the country even though he realized that such a trip would be accompanied by severe hardships and real dangers. Early in July, 1871, Morris left England for Iceland in the company of Eiríkr Magnússon, C.J. Faulkner, and W.H. Evans. The party first sighted land at Berufjőrðr in the southeast, and then sailed along the southern coast to Reykjavík. After spending a few days in the capital city, they set out to the southeast for the purpose of visiting Bergthorsknoll and Lithend; then they headed north proceeded through wild, rugged territory up to the northern coast; at Hnausar they turned south, riding back to Reykjavík along the western shore of Iceland, through the district richest in saga-associations. Morris and his friends returned to England early in September.

Even this extended trip, however, did not completely satisfy Morris’s longing for the land which was the main scene of the sagas he loved so well, and he soon began planning for a second visit. Two years later, in February, 1873, he wrote to a friend, “Iceland gapes for me still this summer: I grudge very much being away from the two or three people I care for so long as I must be, but if I The hero and “landnáms-man” of the vale is Ingimund the Old and most of the steads Thorstein shows us have reference to him; at the first we come to Ás[where] lived Hrolleifr, the rascal he protected, and who slew him; … Thorstein points out a sandy spit running into the river which is the traditional place of the deadly wounding of Ingimund….3

As Miss Morris points out in a footnote, these incidents are described in the Vatnsda͜ela saga.4 It is still more surprising to discover a few pages later that he is familiar with the Finnboga saga ramma: he describes Borg as “the place of the Saga of Finnbogi the Strong; in its present condition rather a poor characterless story; but with one touching part in it where the wife of Finnbogi dies of grief for the slaying of her favourite son by a scoundrel.”5

Undoubtedly the two tours increased Morris’s knowledge of the

  1. Collected Works, VIII, 96.
  2. Ibid., VIII,  154.
  3. Ibid., VIII, 90-91.
  4. Ibid., VIII, 90, note 1.
  5. Ibid., VIII, 94.

can only get away in some sort of hope and heart I know it will be the making of me….”1 In July of that year he set sail again for Iceland, accompanied this time only by C.J. Faulkner. Morris and his friend landed at Reykjavík, made a brief visit again to Njál district, and then set off in a northeasterly direction through the heart of Iceland; at Dettifoss, far up in the northeastern corner of the island, they turned west, and when they reached the Blandá they began travelling south, passing between Longjőkull and Arnarfellsjőkull on their way back to Reykjavík. On this second journey they visited very few saga-steads, most of their time being spent in wild, uninhabited country. They returned to England early in September.

During both his trips Morris kept a diary. The first one he rewrote when he came home, turning it into a finished, literary account of his experiences and impressions; the second diary he never revised. Neither the journal of the first journey nor the diary of the second was published during Morris’s lifetime, but they were both printed by Miss May Morris in 1911 in Volume VIII of the Collected Works.2 Both accounts- but particularly the first one- are very well written and are extremely interesting; they have a special importance for the present study because of the light they throw on the extent of Morris’s acquaintance with saga-traditions at this time.

  1. Mackail, William Morris, I, 291.
  2. Morris gave the copy which he made of the first diary to Lady Burne-Jones; in 1922 her son and daughter, Sir Philip Burne-Jones and Mrs. Mackail, presented the book to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, where it is now deposited.

Thus, very frequently in his description of the places that he and his friends visited, Morris shows in a striking manner that he knew the sagas very thoroughly and that he clearly remembered incidents and even details mentioned in these narratives. For example, when he is writing of their journey in the northeastern part of Iceland near Midfirth and is telling of their approach to Midfirth Neck, he notes, “Just as we turn out of the valley on to the neck, we come on a knoll, the site of Swala-stead, where Vali of the Bandamanna Saga was murdered….”1 A few pages later, when he is describing the district around Ramfirth, he refers to Thorodd-stead as “the dwelling-place and death-place of Thorbiorn Oxmain, who slew Atli Grettir’s brother and was slain by Grettir in his turn.”2 In his account of their ride past the head of Swanfirth, he says, “ …we rode down the other side of the firth till we came to Vadil’s-head where Arnkel the Priest, the good man of Erybyggia, is buried; … down here also Thorolf Lamefoot, Arnkel’s father was burned and so partly got rid of.”3 Of Swordfirth he writes,

Then we all rode away together passing by a little creek that Thorlacius pointed out to us as Sword-firth (Vigrafiőrðr) the scene of that ueer fight in Erybyggia where Freystein Rascal is killed, and often mentioned in that Saga: I remembered what a much bigger place I had always thought of for that place, where the very skerry in the middle is named after the fight, and called Fight-skerry.4

  1. Collected Works, VIII, 97.
  2. Ibid., VIII, 102.
  3. Ibid., VIII, 118.
  4. Ibid., VIII, 124-125. For further passages revealing Morris’s intimate knowledge of the sagas see ibid., VIII, 62, 11.17-21; 85, 11.29-31; 135, 11.23-24; 194, 11.1-2; and 196, 11.24-25.

He even remembers the family relationship of various characters: he refers in one passage to Áseirgsá as “the home of Ásgeir Madpate, father of Hrefna and uncle of Grettir’s father,”1 and in his account of Burgfirth he reminds his readers that “Egil lived at Borg, and his son Thorstein, father of Helga the Fair….”2
Moreover, he not only reveals an intimate familiarity with the more famous sagas, which we already know that he had read, but he also shows that he was acquainted with some of the less important tales, which we should hardly expect him to have studied. Thus, when he and his friends are travelling in the northwestern part of Iceland, on their way from Grímstunga to Hnausar, Morris writes,

[200] saga-traditions considerably. On several occasions we are told that the guides supplemented the stories in the sagas by local traditions. For example, in describing Swala-stead, to which I have already referred, Morris says, “Víðalin told us of it that many stories were current of it and of Swala’s witchcraft, and repeated a rhyme that says how the day will come when the big house of Swala-stead shall be lower than the cot of Víðidalstongue.”1 A few pages later he says that when they were riding at the head of Hvammfirth, an old parson at whose home they had made a brief stop pointed out the places of interest in that locality:
Then we went out and he showed us above the house Auð’s thing-stead and doom-ring, and close by the temple of those days; though Auð herself was a Christian, and would have herself buried on the foreshore between high and low watermark, that she might not lie wholly in a heathen land: they show you a big stone on the beach that they call her gravestone: but ‘tis covered now by the tide.2

Moreover, in many cases Morris’s visits to the scenes of the sagas seem to have changed his conception of tales he already knew and to have helped him to understand the characters and their actions more fully. Thus, when he is describing the horrible aspect of the mountains as they are passing Skialdbreið on their outward journey in 1871, he writes that “…just over this gap is the site of the fabulous or doubtful Thorisdale of the Grettis-Saga; and certainly the