Icelandic Journals: Notes on 1871 Journey

Monday, August 1, 1871, In the bonder's house at Grimstunga

‘We did, did we! I was roused from sweet sleep by Magnússon, who came to tell me that two hours before the ground had been covered with snow, and that it was sleeting, raining, and blowing; I confess I felt strongly inclined to suggest lying there till the weather changed, for it was warm under the blankets.’

A rather informal opening entry for this day’s notes, one that refers back to the conclusion of the July 31 notes, where WM exclaims over their plans to swim in the clear waters of the Buthara, since the weather on the morrow was to be ‘fine.’ The informality, the shamefaced confession of preferring his warm bed to the rigors of Iceland’s severe weather, that he nevertheless ‘groaned and got up,’ all recall for us the primary audience for these notes, to wit, Georgie Burne-Jones.

‘Grimstunga is the homestead at which the young Gunnlaug the Wormtongue gave the first proof of his prowess. See his Saga, chap. V. E.M.’

One of thirty-some notes that EMag provided on the page rather than within the end-notes. The translation of the Gunnlaug also provided early proof of WM’s prowess with the sagas, for it was among the very first of the texts tackled by him and EMag. It first appeared in Three Northern Love Stories (1875) and is easily the best, the most realistic, of the three tales.

‘and chaffing each other the while to keep up our spirits, and so, after a sloppy half hour, to horse, and away into the very teeth of it. I don’t like to confess to being a milksop, but true it is that it beat me.’ 

The references to ‘chaffing’ (often used for the verbal sparring between WM and Faulkner) and to WM’s role as ‘milksop’ (and a striking noun-- ‘milksopishness’--appears a few lines later!). Such diction is rare in travel narratives, but typical in these journals because of their primary audience. Georgie would understand.

‘I stopped by a considerable stream to drink after we had ridden some hours [through very cold and stormy winds] and felt a thrill of pride as a traveler . . . They go down ‘cliffs very steep,’ so steep that the sure-footed horses have trouble with them. They see ‘buttresses’ that ‘block out the sun,’ all manner of rough terrain that ‘provides no unworthy background to Glam the thrall and his hauntings’

Morris offers no gloss here to Glam whose ‘hauntings’ are a central concern in Grettis Saga (here referred to, familiarly, as ‘the Gretla’); he knows that Georgie would have read this tale, one of the greatest of the sagas, for he and EMag had just finished and published their translation, The Story of Grettir the Strong (1869).

"I felt such happiness as I suppose I shan’t feel again till I ride from Buthara to Grimstunga under similar circumstances.   I should think we sat for about an hour thawing ourselves in our wet clothes, and talking to the bondr, a jolly-looking, fat old man, . . ."

An example of gentle Morrisean irony, a round-about way to express his ‘happiness.’   Its  like will not be  ‘felt again’ until he undertakes the same long trek, over the same rough terrain , in  the same savage weather, and that means NEVER.  That journey was unique; so too is his present joy.   And we note here that Morris has chosen to underline one of the adjectives describing their host at Grimstunga, who was ‘jolly’ and ‘fat’  [underlined].  Why does Morris call attention to the farmer’s paunch? Perhaps because his own stout physique was so often remarked upon, in a ‘chaffing’ fashion,  in drawings by Burne-Jones, or with rather savage satire, in cartoons by Rossetti, and Georgie would smile here at Morris stressing that there’s another rotund fellow in this group.  And consider an entry three weeks later, when the priest at Reykholt, showing Morris the head-waters of the  Whitewater, is surprised at Morris’s fatigue:  ‘I came up panting, and threw myself down on the grass, and when the priest made an astonished face at me, explained that I was heavily clad and booted: he nodded his head, and then tapped me on the belly, and said very gravely: ‘Besides you know you are so fat.’  This amusing exchange, made more so by the by the priest’s solemn ‘tapping’ and ‘grave’ pronouncement, strongly implies that Morris has Georgie in mind.

'I found Eyvindr just come back with my bag which he had duly found at the [last] camp.  I shook hands and thanked him with effusion and hope he will forget my threat of this morning.’

We too should be  thankful, for the bag, or ‘haversack,’ contained not only personal items but also the diary that’s the basis for the present journal.  Morris’s anger was real, in a Morrisean sense, for he was quick to rage, then equally quick to cool off.  This Eyvindr episode is atypical for a travel narrative, but instead what we’d expect in a personal letter.  Again Morris has his primary audience in mind.