The Story of the Glittering Plain

Supplementary Material: Criticism

"Scandinavian Influences in The Glittering Plain," From Karl Anderson. "Scandinavian Elements in the Works of William Morris." Diss., Harvard University, 1940, 337-42.

While his News from Nowhere was appearing in the Commonweal, Morris published in another periodical, the English Illustrated Magazine, his third prose romance, called The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men.4 I have already pointed out that critics have noticed in the prose romances of Morris a gradual but definite movement from the style of the romance to that of the epic. The Story of the Glittering Plain reveals a distinct advance in this direction; as Mackail says of the work,

…it is…notable as marking the full and unreserved return of the author to romance. In “The House of the Wolfings,” and even to some degree in “The Roots of the Mountains” also, there had been a semi-historical setting, and an adherence to the conditions of a world from which the supernatural element was not indeed excluded, but in which it bore such a subordinate place as involved no violent strain on probability. Here the imagined world is of no place or time, and is one in which nothing is impossible. The dreamer of dreams has returned to that strange Land East of the Sun, mingled of Northern saga and Arabian tale, through which the Star-Gazer had passed two and twenty years before in the days of “The Earthly Paradise”….5

4. The tale appeared in the English Illustrated Magazine in the June, July, August, and September issues for 1890 (see ibid., VII (1889-1890), 687698, 754-768, 824-838, and 884-900). Shortly thereafter it was published in book form.
[Note 5 is cut off from the bottom of the page.]

As is to be expected, as Morris reverted more and more to the style of pure romance, he introduced into his tales fewer and fewer features borrowed from the Icelandic sagas. However, in The Story of the Glittering Plain, the work in which he first returned fully to romance, there are a considerable number of Scandinavian elements. Most of these details we have already met with in the first two tales or in still earlier works. For example, we find in The Story of the Glittering Plain such terms and expressions as “mote-stead,”1 “handsel,”2 “shut-bed,”3 “the Norns,”4 “the Gloom of the Gods,”5 “skin-changer,”6 “a double share of luck,”7 and “earth-yoke.”8 As in The Roots of the Mountains there are a number of extremely vivid mountain descriptions in which Morris is undoubtedly drawing on his recollections of his tours in Iceland; one passage in which one of the characters in the story reveals his affection for his rugged land very likely expresses the devotion Morris himself felt towards Iceland and the love which he knew the Icelanders bore towards their stern home:

“Nay, I love the land. Belike thou deemest it but dreary with its black rocks and black sand, and treeless wind-swept dales; but I know it in summer and winter, and sun and shade, in storm and calm.

  1. See Collected Works, XIV, 323, 11.32-33 and above, page 321.
  2. See Collected Works, XIV, 289, 1.27 and above, pages 325-326.
  3. See Collected Works, XIV, 230, 11.13, 34, and 35; 235, 1.32; 241, 11.18 and 29; 277, 1.4; 287, 1.37; 288, 1.7; 292, 1.9; and 317, 1.36. See also above, page 328.
  4. See Collected Works, XIV, 308, 1.30 and above, page 309.
  5. See Collected Works, XIV, 248, 11.28-29 and above, page 241.
  6. See Collected Works, XIV, 224, 1.21; 318, 11.34-36; and 321, 11.21-22. See also above, pages 314-315.
  7. See Collected Works, XIV, 224, 11.21-25 and 253, 1.9. See also above, pages 333-334.
  8. See Collected Works, XIV, 309, 11.1-3; 318, 1.10; and 319, 11.16-31. See also above, pages 239-240. It should perhaps also be pointed out that the alliterative formula found in a speech of the hero of the tale (in Collected Works, XIV< 256, 11.31-37) was probably imitated from the Old Norse “tyrgðamál,” as similar for-

[The rest of note 8 and note 9 are cut off from the bottom of the page.]

And I know where the fathers dwelt and the sons of their sons’ sons have long lain in the earth. I have sailed its windiest firths, and climbed its steepest crags; and ye may well wot that it hath a friendly face to me; and the land-wights of the mountains will be sorry for my departure.”1

We also find in The Story of the Glittering Plain several new allusions to Scandinavian customs, beliefs, and traditions. Thus, one of the characters in the tale remarks that if he and his companions should injure Hallblithe, who, although he is their deadly enemy, has dared to come to their hall in search for his beloved, “his head on our hall-gable should be to us a nithing-stake….”2 The raising of a “nithing-stake” was a common way for a man in medieval Scandinavia to bring evil upon an enemy. The account given in the Egils saga of how Egil set up a “nithing-stake” against King Eric and Queen Gunnhilda is one of the best saga-descriptions of the custom; the saga-man says that Egil erected a pole on a mountain peak, and set the head of a horse on the stake, uttering these words as he did so:

  1. Collected Works, XIV, 319, 11.8-15. When Morris referred at the end of the quotation given above to the “land-wights of the mountains,” he very likely had in mind the “land-va͜ettir” so often mentioned in the Old Norse literature, although of course the early Scandinavians are not the only people who have believed in the existence of guardian spirits of the land. For Scandinavian allusions to “land-va͜ettir” see Thorpe, Northern Mythology, I, 116-117 and the Corpus Poeticum Boreale, I, 419-420. See also the quotation from the Egils saga presented at the bottom of this page.
  2. See Collected Works, XIV, 312. Sagan af Agli Skallagrímssyni, p. 137. The translation is that given by Thorpe in his account of this custom in his Northern Mythology, I, 219-220.

Morris is almost certainly referring to the opening episode of the Ragnars saga loðbrókar ok sona hans when he represents a young princess in his story, who is pining away because of unrequited love, as exclaiming,
“‘Yea, why is the earth fair and fruitful, and the heavens kind above it, if thou comest not to-night, nor to-morrow, nor the day after? And I the daughter of the Undying, on whom the days shall grow and grow as the grains of sand which the wind heaps up above the sea-beach. And life shall grow huger and more hideous round about the lonely one, like the ling-worm laid upon the gold, that waxeth thereby, till it lies all round about the house of the queen entrapped, the moveless unending ring of years that change not.’”1

The “ling-worm” referred to must be the “lyngormr” which the princess Thora, according to the Ragnars saga loðbrókar, received from her father; the little dragon, which Thora laid on some gold in a box, grew so large, we are told, that it had to be placed out-of-doors, and then it continued to grow until it encircled the house in which Thora was shut up, so that she was actually imprisoned until Ragnar killed the dragon and rescued her. With this tale Morris had undoubtedly long been familiar, for it is told in Thorpe’s Northern Mythology,2 which he read as a student at Oxford.

I should also like to point out that it is extremely likely that Morris gave to the land of everlasting youth which plays an important part in the tale the names “the Land of the Glittering Plain,”3 “the Land of Living Men,”4 and “the Acre of the Undying”5 in imitation of the

  1. Collected Works, XIV, 266.
  2. I, 108-109.
  3. See, for example, the title of the tale and Collected Works, XIV, 211, 1.36 – 212, 1.1; 212, 11.15-16; 228, 11.27-28; 233, 11.23-24 and 34; 234, 11.1-2; 243, 1.13; 244, 11.16-17 and 24; 245, 11.24-25; 246, 1.9; 248, 1.29; 248, 1.38 – 249, 1.1; 249, 11.15, 20, and 32; 251, 1.2; 253, 1.12; etc.
  4. See, for example, the title and ibid., XIV, 212, 1.5; 226, 11.35-36; 253, 1.27; etc.
  5. See ibid., XIV, 249, 1.1; 253, 11.22-23; 22, 11.5-6; and

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terms “Gla͜esisvellir,” “jőrd lifanda manna,” and “Ódáinsakr,” which are used for Paradise in some of the Scandinavian mythical-heroic sagas. Only one of these names, so far as I am aware, is found in a saga that we definitely know Morris had read,1 and none of the other tales in which they occur, – the Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks konungs,2 the Eiríks saga viðfőrla,3 the Hálfdanar saga Eysteinssonar,4 the Helga páttr Dórissonar,5 the Dorsteins páttr ba͜ejarmagns,6 and the Bósa saga – 7 had been translated into English before 1890.8 However, Morris must by this time have attained a high degree of proficiency in reading Icelandic, and it is not at all unlikely that he had at some time read some of these sagas in the original, either by himself or with the aid of Magnússon. They were all in his library at the time of his death.9 It is also possible that he had become familiar with these terms through treatises on Scandinavian and Germanic mythology, such as R. B. Anderson’s translation of Viktor Rydberg’s Teutonic Mythology10 and the Grimms’  English rendering of Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie by Stallybrass.”

  1. The name “Gla͜esisvellir” is found in the Norna-Gests páttr, which, as I have already pointed out, Morris is known to have translated, –  in part, at least; see above, pages 189-191. For occurrences of the name in the Norna-Gests páttr, see the Flateyjarbók, I, 347, 11.3-4.
  2. See Fornaldar Sőgur Nordrlanda, I, 411, 11.11 and 15; 442, 1.22; 444, 1.9; and 452, 11.10-11.
  3. See the Flateyjarbók, I, 29, 1.11; 31, 11.34 and 35; 32, 1.3; and 34, 11.6 and 27.
  4. See Fornaldar Sőgur Nordrlanda, III, 519, 1.11.
  5. See Fornmanna Sőgur, III, 136, 1.22; 138, 1.5; 139, 1.14; and 140, 1.5.
  6. See ibid., III, 183, 11.1-2 and 12; 194, 1.23; and 196, 1.30.
  7. See Fornaldar Sőgur Nordrlanda, III, 208, 1.7; 210, 1.16; 214, 1.5; 215, 1.6; 216, 1.20; 217, 1.17; 218, 11.1-2; 219, 1.2; 228, 11.8-9; and 233, 1.8.
  8. See Islandica, V (1912), 22-26, 12, 20, 21, 60, and 10-11.
  9. See notes 1-7 on this page and below, page 1000.

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In regard to the personal names used in this tale, Biber points out that only one, the name of the hero, Hallblithe, is Scandinavian in character.1 Finally, I should like to call attention to the fact that in two of the poems in the story, Morris uses the metre which, in my discussion of the first two romances, I have commented upon as being slightly imitative of early Germanic poetry.2