In the course of the late 1880’s, as I pointed out above,1 Morris gradually gave up his active participation in the work of the Socialist movement, and began once again to take an interest in art and literature for their own sake. The first original work he produced during this decade which was not directly inspired by his devotion to Socialism was A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and All the Kindreds of the Mark, a long story in prose and verse which appeared in December, 1888.2 The new form of literary expression that Morris tried in this work must have appealed to him considerably, for this book was followed by a series of seven stories of a similar nature, these eight prose romances, The House of the Wolfings, The Roots of the Mountains, The Story of the Glittering Plain, Of Child Christopher and Fair Goldilind, The Wood Beyond the World, The Well at the World’s End, The Water of the Wondrous Isles, and The Sundering Flood, constituting practically all of his creative writing during the eight remaining years of his life. It is well known that all these tales in varying degrees, both in regard to form and substance, were influenced by the early Icelandic literature which Morris had studied with such zeal a decade earlier and which, judging from the facts presented in the preceding pages, we can be sure he had continued to study, with less exclusive devotion undoubtedly but nevertheless with affection and admiration, during the leisure moments of the years of his public activity; Scandinavian features in the
plots and in the general form of these romances have been pointed out and discussed in all the more important treatments of Morris’s literary works, the most extensive discussion of this matter being found in Arthur Biber’s Studien zu William Morris’ Prose-Romances.1 The influence of the sagas on these tales was, however, far greater than has been indicated in these works; in my discussion of these eight prose romances in the following pages, I shall try to point out all the significant Scandinavian elements in these stories, in order to make clear how very extensive the influence of Morris’s Northern studies upon these tales really was.
The first of these works, The House of the Wolfings, which describes one of the conflicts between the Goths and the Romans in the early centuries of the Christian Era, is the romance which beats the most marks of Morris’s close familiarity with the sagas. In the first place it should be noted that the very form of this work recalls to a certain extent the Icelandic tales; as Mackail remarks, “The use, as the vehicle of the story, of a mixed mode of prose and verse, was…suggested by the Icelandic sagas, but used in a fresh and quite delightful way.”2 Even more striking is the influence of
the sagas upon the general tone of the romance; Miss May Morris, comparing this work with the one that followed – The Roots of the Mountains –, describes this saga atmosphere well:
The House of the Wolfings is entirely conceived in the spirit of the Sagas, certain phrases in it, such “and Thiodolf bore Throngplough to mound with him,” carrying one to the Northern heroic times; it belongs to the Sagas in its remoteness, its breadth of handling and absence of elaborated detail. There is more of the epic quality about it: the thread of fate weaves in and out of the human action, the men and women speak little, and that with stern high courage, about personal griefs and loves, and the Hall-Sun is a more truly heroic figure than any of the gracious women in The Roots of the Mountains.1
When we examine the romance in detail, we find that Morris not only imitated the sagas in the form and general style of his tale, but that he also introduced into his story many feature of Norse life, drawing primarily on the saga accounts for his information regarding these details. For example, many of the terms relating to the government of the Goths remind us of the sagas. As Biber points out, the Goths in the tale, like the early Scandinavians,
(Continuation of note 2 on page 305) the prose portions are…a kind of rough-and-ready setting for the verses, the prose of the Icelandic sagas is as polished as verse, and, indeed, has a movement finer than a metrical one,” and in this respect Morris’s tale resembles the Icelandic sagas very closely. For an account of the way in which the use of a combination of prose and verse as a medium of expression in the Old Norse sagas seems to have developed, see Henry Adams Bellows, The Relations between Prose and Metrical Composition in Old Norse Literature (unpublished Harvard doctoral dissertation, 1910), especially pages 125-126, 334-338, and n – t. For a similar discussion in regard to the Irish sagas, see Marie L. Edel, The Relations between Prose and Metrical Composition in Early Irish Narrative Literature (unpublished Radcliffe doctoral dissertation, 1935), especially pages 1-4, 70-76, 190-196, and 235-237.
call their assemblies “Things”1 or “folk-motes,”2 the meeting-place of a Thing is termed a “Thing-stead,”3 and at the Thing we find a “Doomring.”4 References to “Things,” “folk-motes,” and “Thing-steads” are so common in Old Norse literature that it is not necessary to trace Morris’s acquaintance with these names to any definite source. The term “domhringr,” the name given to the circle of stones within which the judges sat at all Scandinavian Thing-steads, occurs less frequently, but, as I have previously stated, is found in several of the sagas Morris had translated.5 It should also be pointed out that at one of the Thing-steads of the Goths, as it is described in The House of the Wolfings, there is a Hill-of-Speech;6 in introducing this feature Morris very likely had in mind the Old Norse “pingbrekka,” the mound at Scandinavian Thing-steads from which speeches and announcements were made. It is not surprising that Morris was familiar with the “pingbrekka,” for it is frequently mentioned in the sagas7 and he had also seen the mound for the Speaker at Law on the Hill of Laws at Thingvellir in 1871.8 There
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is also one brief allusion in the tale to the “hallowing” of the Thing;1 I shall postpone my discussion of this early Scandinavian custom until I treat the next romance, The Roots of the Mountains, where this practice is described in detail.2
Very apparent, moreover, is the influence of the sagas on Morris’s account of the large hall in which the chief men of the Wolfings lived.3 As Charles Elton in his review of the tale in the Academy points out, this building with its two rows of pillars going lengthwise down the hall dividing it into a nave and two aisles, the sleeping-places in the aisles, and the three hearths down the center of the room with a luffer or smoke-bearer above each one, resembles very closely the typical Icelandic “skali,” as it is described by Morris and Magnússon in their notes to the translation of the Grettis saga.4 Another striking Scandinavian feature not mentioned by Elton is the designation of the two doors of the hall as the Man’s door and the Woman’s door.5
We also find that Morris introduced into his story several terms relating to Norse methods of warfare. In his study Biber lists several passages containing allusions to “fighting in the hazelled field”;6 with this Norse practice we have already on several occasions seen that Morris was familiar.7 Another Norse fighting custom
which is found in The House of the Wolfings but which is not pointed out by Biber or by other scholars is the circulation of the “war-arrow” among the tribes of the Goths as a means of calling out the army;1 most likely the Heimskringla, in which the “orboð” is mentioned repeatedly,2 was the source of Morris’s information regarding this practice.
Very numerous are the allusions made in the tale to the gods and the lesser supernatural beings of the early Scandinavians. Throughout the story we find references to Odin3 or the Father of the Slain,4 Frey,5 Tyr,6 the Norns,7 the Disir,8 the Anses,9 Valhalla,10, Godhome,11
“I bear the shaft of battle that is four-wise cloven through,
And its each end dipped in the blood-stream, both the iron
And the horn,
And its midmost scathed with the fire….”
and Ragnarők;1 the names “Odin” and “Valhalla” occur usually in such Old Norse expressions for “dying” as “wending to Odin’s home”2 and “going on the road to Valhall.”3 The Valkyries are alluded to in the epithet “Chooser of the Slain,” which is applied to one character in the story.4 We also find the Old Norse term “Vala” used in one case for a seeress.5 With all this material Morris had undoubtedly become acquainted through Thorpe’s Northern Mythology and Mallet’s Northern Antiquities. I should also be noted that in his description of the sacrifices to the gods – the killing of the horses, the collecting of the blood, the sprinkling of the blood upon the people, and the eating of the flesh not given to the gods –, Morris seems to have had the sacrifices of the early Scandinavians in mind, for he follows closely the accounts given in the sagas with which we know he was familiar.6
Especially numerous and interesting are the allusions found in the tale to the god Tyr. Again and again Morris refers to the Goths as “the sons of Tyr” or “the children of Tyr.”7 In using these kennings
he may have had in mind the epithet “Týs áttungr,” which is applied to a chieftain as a mark of distinction in the Ynglingatal in a passage with which Morris was almost certainly acquainted through his translation of the early part of the Heimskringla,1 and also in the Haleygiatal,2 which it is less likely that he knew; this phrase “Týs-áttungr,” according to Cleasby and Vigfússon’s Icelandic-English Dictionary, means “the offspring of the gods,” “Tyr” being used here as “the generic name of the highest divinity.”3 It is also possible that Morris was referring to Tyr specifically as the god of war, and that he introduced the expression “sons of Tyr” as a synonym for “warriors”; as Magnússon states in one of the Indexes in Volume VI of The Saga Library, the name “Tyr” was often “used in kennings to signify a man, a warrior.”4 In one case Morris seems to be alluding definitely to Tyr as the ruler over battle, for in a song of victory that he represents the Goths as singing, we learn that the enemy came to the slaughter,
“Yeasaying the dooming of Tyr of the fight.”5
Some of the references to Tyr are not entirely clear. Thus, we read in one passage that Thiodolf, the leader of the Goths, did not want any of the Romans to escape, “but would give them all to Tyr….”6
The context makes it almost certain that Morris is employing the expression “to give them to Tyr” to signify “to slay them”; but this metaphor, so far as I have been able to ascertain, is never used in Old Norse. Extremely puzzling is the expression “the Stone of Tyr,” which occurs in a poem dealing with a victory of the Markmen, the Goths, over the Romans:
“They drew the sword in the cities, they came and struck the stroke
And smote the shield of the Markmen, and point and edge they broke.
They drew the sword in the war-garth, they swore to bring back.
God’s gifts from the Markmen houses where the tables never lack.
O Markmen, take the God-gifts that came on their own feet
O’er the hills through the Mirkwood thicket the Stone of Tyr to meet!”1
This phrase, “the Stone of Tyr,” which is not to be found in early Scandinavian poetry,2 may possibly refer to “Throng-plough,” the mighty sword of Thiodolf, the leader of the Goths, or to the weapons of the Goths as a whole.3 Interesting also is the allusion made to Tyr by Arinborn, the captain of the Bearing host, who, deeply incensed by the Romans’ burning of the Bearing hall, foolishly urges a small band of Goths to fall upon the superior forces of the enemy at once, instead of waiting for the main body of the army to arrive on the scene; he asks ironically, “Yea if the Bearing women be all slain, yet shall not Tyr make us new ones out of the stones of the waste to wed with the Galtings and the fish-eating Houses? – this is easy to be done forsooth.;"
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of this story and that told in the opening chapter of Sorla páttr, which Morris had translated and published in Three Northern Love Stories in 1875.1 There Freyia, passing a cave, is filled with a burning desire to possess a collar on which four dwarfs are working; they agree to give her this treasure if she will lie on night with each; at this point the similarity ends, for in this tale the goddess yields fully and as a result wins the desired object without the attachment of any malediction. There is no exact Norse parallel to the second part of Morris’s story, but the uttering of curses by dwarfs upon people who have in some way mistreated them is a rather common occurrence in the semi-mythological tales of the North; in concluding this episode as he did, Morris may not only have been guided by a desire to keep the character of the Wood-Sun unspotted, but may also have had in mind the curse which the dwarf Andvari laid upon his gold when Loki forced him to give it up,2 or the curse which the dwarfs Dulin and Dvalin fastened upon the sword Tyrfing, which Svafrlami had compelled them against their will to forge.3 It should also be pointed out that in representing the Wood-Sun as rendering the dwarf helpless by her setting a “sleep-thorn” in him, Morris is likewise borrowing from Scandinavian legends; the use of a “sleep-thorn” plays a prominent part, for example, in the story of the Volsungs.4
To his study of the sagas we can also fairly safely attribute the fact that he represents one of the characters, the Wood-Sun, as possessing “the power and craft of shape-changing.”5 In the Old
Norse literature we find that one of the powers ascribed to Odin was the ability to alter his shape and to travel whithersoever he wished in this assumed form, and that he shared this gift with some of the lesser deities, who were thus also said to be “hamrammr.”1 Of course, as Morris and Magnússon state in a note regarding this subject in Volume II of The Saga Library, the belief in shape-changing “is not peculiar to the North, though few people’s literature is so full of it as the Icelandic….”2 That it was the Scandinavian accounts of this belief that led Morris to introduce it here and also in later tales seems rather likely in view of the fact that in The Roots of the Mountains he refers to a woman thought to be gifted with this power by the unusual term “skin-changer,”3 which is the name he had used for such people in his translations of saga allusions to this belief.4
Less important are the other details apparently borrowed from the sagas. Thus, on two occasions in the tale we meet with brief references to the drinking of “the Horn of Remembrance” or “the Cup of Renown”;5 in introducing these allusions Morris very likely had in mind the very common early Scandinavian custom of drinking a cup to the memory of some dead ancestor or chieftain, the draining of this cup of memory, or “minni,” being often accompanied by the
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swearing of oaths.1 It was likewise undoubtedly his study of the sagas that led him to represent certain weapons of the Goths as being covered with runes,2 and that caused him to apply the term “howes” to the burial mounds of the Goths.3 It is also not at all unlikely that the song which one of the old warriors sings over the body of the hero Thiodolf4 was suggested to Morris by the “kva͜eði” which Eyvind Skald-spiller composed on the death of King Hakon the Good and which closes the Hákonar saga goða in the Heimskringla,5 for in both compositions we have a rather similar account of the death of the hero in battle, his approach to Valhalla, and his reception by the gods. Moreover, we also find Morris introducing allusions here, as he had already done in several earlier works, to the custom of swearing oaths over the Yule Boar6 and to the use of “peace-strings” on swords.7 Finally, one other very prominent Scandinavian feature of the tale,- one which is commented upon by Biber in his study – must be pointed out, and that is the nomenclature. As Biber says, in The House of the Wolfings “sind die Namen fast durchweg aus dem Altnordischen űbernommen…. Wenn sie kein altnordisches Äquivalent haben, so sind sie doch jedenfalls
in altnordischem Sinne gebildet.”1 This matter is fully discussed by Biber, and needs no further comment here, except for one name. Morris refers to a mountain as “Braodshield-fell.”2 It seems to me very likely that in giving it this name he had in mind “Skialdbreið” in Iceland, a prominent peak which he had passed both on the outward and homeward journeys during his tour of Iceland in 1871.3 In Morris’s next romance also we find a mountain named “Shield-broad.”4 There, in his first mention of it, he says that the men, as they travelled over the mountains, caught sight of “a low peak spreading down on all sides to the plain, till it was like to a bossed shield, and the name of it was Shield-broad.”5 In the Journal he kept of his first Iceland tour he describes “Skialdbreið” in very similar terms, for he says, “…we see ahead…the wide spreading cone of Skialdbreið (Broad-shield) which is in fact just like a round shield with a boss….”6
Before leaving this tale, I should like to point out that in one of the verse forms Morris used for the poetical passages which he introduced here and there throughout the story, he was almost certainly imitating the metre of early Germanic poetry. In the great majority of his verse interludes, Morris employed hexameter couplets, the verse form of his Sigurd the Volsung, but in four cases he used stanzas made up of four, six, or eight two-stress
lines followed by six four-stress lines.1 The nature of the feet varies considerably, but they are usually anapests or iambs. The rhythmical effect of this metre is a similar to that of the early Germanic four-accent lines with a definite break in the middle. This resemblance to the early poetry of the North is heightened by the free use of alliteration and by the occasional introduction of a kenning. In one respect, however, Morris departs entirely from early usage, for he rhymes every two lines, thus giving the stanza a certain smoothness which is entirely foreign to the early poetry. Finally, it should be pointed out that if in these particular verse passages Morris was imitating in a general way the form of early Germanic poetry – and there seems to be little doubt that he was so doing -, we cannot of course definitely attribute his use of this metre to his study of Old Norse poetry, for he undoubtedly was acquainted with Anglo-Saxon verse also, which employs the same metrical pattern; however, at this time he had not made any close study of Old English poetry, but, as we have seen, he had turned into English a great deal of early Icelandic poetry, so that it is much more likely that it was the Eddic and skaldic verse that he knew which led him to use this particular verse form. The following stanzas may serve as an example of this metre:
“‘Have ye not heard
Of the ways of Weird?
How the folk fared forth
Far away from the North?
And as light as one wendeth
Whereas the wood endeth
When of nought is our need,
And none telleth out deed,
So Rodgeir unwearied and Reidfari wan
The town where none tarried the shield-shaking men.
All lonely the street there, and void was the way
And nought hindered our feet but the dead men that lay
Under shield in the lanes of the houses heavens-high
All the ring-bearing swains that abode there to die.’”1
Near the end of the tale we find a short poem of six two-stress lines which resembles the early poetry even more closely, for here there is no rhyme:
“Now, now, ye War-sons!
Now the Wolf waketh!
Lo how the Wood-beast
Wendeth in onset.
E’en as his feet fare
Fall on and follow!”2
I have tried to show in the foregoing discussion that the influence of the Icelandic sagas upon The House of Wolfings, both in form and substance, was considerable.