Icelandic Journals: Notes on 1871 Journey

by Gary Aho

Tuesday, July 11, 1871

‘I confess I shuddered at my first sight of a really northern land in the grey of a coldish morning’

Here again we note Morris’s emotional reactions to landscape.  And in the following few lines, ‘grey’ appears five times, modifying ‘morning,’ ‘water,’ ‘grass,’ ‘ledges,’ and ‘clouds.’  Andrew Wawn, in a recent essay, points out that ‘grey’ occurs over 100 times in the Journals, and he claims that it’s a ‘fundamental colour’ for Morris—‘the essential background against which the stunning primary colours of Iceland flicker across page after page like Northern Lights’ (p. 264). ( ‘William Morris and Translations of Iceland,’ Translating Life: Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics.  Liverpool:  Liverpool University Press, pp. 253-76.)

‘English colours . .  from Grimsby for Iceland’

British fisherman from ports like Grimsby plied the cod-rich waters around Iceland from the middle ages up into the mid-twentieth century, when the Icelanders prevailed in the famous ‘cod-wars,’ when Icelandic gun-boats turned away British trawlers, often after ruining their nets and gear.  Later in the Journals, Morris comments on French fishing boats in an Icleandic port, but he is strangely silent on the ways European fisheries colluded with the Danish trade monopoly to keep Icelandic fishermen off the high seas.

Phrygian cap . . . just-au-corps

Morris is bemused by the garb of the Faroese boat-men, by a strange combination of cloth hat with a floppy sort of cone—red ones appear in 18th and 19th century depictions of revolutionaries—and a coat that reminds him of medieval royalty.  Such playful erudition again reminds us of his primary audience, Georgie Burne-Jones.

Boats . . . ‘cannot have changed in the least’

Morris’s certainty with regard to the provenance of anything man-made is always refreshing.  He’s quite right about these wooden boats.  Twentieth century discoveries of Viking ships in burial mounds and from the bottom of Roskilde Sound in Denmark, and elsewhere, have proven that strake-built (overlapping planks) construction of wooden ships began in 8th century Scandinavia.  And it was these ships that carried the Norsemen west, and into history.

times of the sagas

There are several types of sagas.  The Family Sagas, also Sagas of Icelanders (Islendinga Sogur), are the ones most often read. Morris and Magnusson had already translated several of them.  Njals Saga is the best of the thirty-some Family Sagas.  Then there are the Kings Sagas (Konunga Sogur), the histories of Norwegian kings.  Here falls the Heimskringla, which takes up the bulk of Morris and Magnusson’s six-volume Saga Library. There are also Bishop’s Sagas (Byskupa Sogur), tales of Iceland’s bishops, and Knight’s Sagas (Riddara Sogur); these are much more European—often close translations of Arthurian romances.  And there are many folk-tales, sometimes called Lying Sagas (Lygi Sogur).           

Stockholm tar

Water-proofing tar rendered from pine trees, plentiful in northern forests along northern fjords, and hence a staple of Stockhom merchants.

We were to go a walk…

 Thus begins a long description of a days’ excursion up and over the rocky spine of Straumoy from Torshavn to Kirkiuboe, a farm that during medieval times was an important church center.  We see Morris being ‘affected strongly by all the familiar flowers [he identifies and names a dozen of them!] growing in a place so different.’  And we appreciate his awe-struck responses to the craggy peaks and steep cliffs on these small islands, separated by deep channels and fjords:  ‘it was like nothing I had ever seen, but strangely like my old imaginations of places for sea-wanderers to come to.’  Those sea-scapes and islands he’d depicted in the Life and Death of Jason and in The Earthly Paradise, those scenes are now somehow before his eyes, here in the Faroe Islands.  And he’s seeing them for the first time.  Morris manages to communicate his excited wonder at it all in these descriptions of their walk across the island and then of that evening’s departure through those channels and out into the Atlantic.  These several pages are among the best in the Icelandic Journals.

 it is visibly not later than 1340 

Again we note Morris’s certitude in dating artifacts, now taking on the local parson  who had insisted that a church here was built during the Reformation.  But Morris ‘stoutly asserted, to the parson’s disgust,’ that the date was much earlier, and again Morris was correct.  He was also quite right regarding the date and style of some richly carved pine benches and altar pieces that had been made for that church.  These carvings and their connections to the church ruins are the subject of an important book by Knut J. Krogh:  Kirkjubour Benches and the Cathedral (Torshavn:  Emil Thomsen, 1988). 

best sight of the Faroes yet to see

Morris sees again the terrain they’d crossed that day, but now from the deck of the Diana.  The ship goes round the end of Straumoy and then glides past the church center they’d visited a few hours earlier, and then into a narrow channel, and then there’s another island and they’re very close to ‘a stead with its homefield sloping down to the sea, the people running out to look at us,’ and always there’s the abrupt cliffs and high peaks as backdrops.  Morris’s prose captures his delight at all he beholds.  A few days later, in a letter to Janey, he speaks of their last few hours in the Faroes:  ‘it was so calm that evening that the captain was able to thread the labyrinth of the islands, and a most wonderful sight it was:  I have seen nothing out of a dream so strange as our coming out of the last narrow sound into the Atlantic and having the huge wall of rocks astern in the shadowless midnight twilight; nothing I have ever seen has impressed me so much.’ (Kelvin, I, p. 141)