Introduction: Morris and the Sagas

Marjorie Burns

Early in his essay, “The Sagas,” in a book called Essays in Little, Andrew Lang pauses to ask an essential question: “What is a Saga?” He then explains that a saga “is neither quite a piece of history nor wholly a romance.  It is a very old story of things and adventures that really happened, but happened so long ago, and in times so superstitious, that marvels and miracles found their way into the legend.  The best Sagas are those of Iceland, and those, in translations, are the finest reading that the natural man can desire” (142).  The year is 1891; the first volume of William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon’s Saga Library has just been published, and Andrew Lang, in his kindly and unpretentious way, is promoting not only the reading of sagas but Morris/Magnússon in particular.

This is quite an endorsement on Andrew Lang’s part—in an essay on sagas in general.  After all, William Morris was not the first Englishman to translate sagas, nor the only one doing so at the end of the nineteenth century.   Morris was, however, the most famous of England’s nineteenth-century translators; he was also the most prolific.  Together with Magnússon, Morris translated over thirty sagas in all; and working on his own, Morris retold sagas or segments of sagas in more modern forms—most notably Sigurd the Volsung, a verse rendition of Volsunga saga, and The Lovers of Gudrun, based on Laxdœle saga.  Beyond this, Morris wrote essays and poetry based on Iceland; he translated Old Icelandic verse; and his 1871 and 1873 journeys to Iceland and Iceland’s saga sites were published under the title Icelandic Journals.

By themselves these accomplishments are impressive enough, but they represent only a small part of what William Morris undertook and what William Morris achieved.  By the time he met Eiríkr Magnússon in 1868 and the two of them began translating together, Morris was already a businessman, a designer, an artist, a poet, an essayist, and a writer of short romances.  From there he went on to become a printer, a lecturer, an expert on dyes and dyeing, a translator of other ancient literatures, and a promoter of various causes: the arts and crafts movement, for example, and socialism and the working man.  Even then Morris kept up his translations of Old Icelandic, publishing a volume of The Saga Library each year from 1891 to 1895, the year before his death.

Among all these undertakings, the Icelandic sagas held a special attraction for Morris, and the family-based sagas, íslendingasögur, recorded (for the most part) during the thirteenth century appealed to him in a particularly inclusive way.  They satisfied not only his love of the medieval world (with its old forms of language, its encounters with the supernatural, and its tales of heroes and friendship and fierce enmity), but they also appealed to the socialist in Morris.  In Iceland, both ancient and modern Iceland, Morris saw what he believed to be a freer, more egalitarian world, a world where “political society was not yet founded” and “personal relations between men were what was considered” (“Early Literature of the North—Iceland,” 183).      

In the words of May Morris, “something deeply rooted” in her father found the world of the North “familiar.”

Proud as Morris was of his Celtic blood, the building up of our modern race owes so much to the far North that one accepts without surprise the phenomenon of a many-sided nature like this going out in profound         sympathy to the story of our Northern forefathers . . . . These men of the North,  reared in a land where every day brings adventure and struggle for the right to live, imagined their heroes grim and gigantic and meet to fight the forces of Nature, striding the pathless wastes of ice and wading the grey rivers. (William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, I, 445-6)

It is important to realize that William Morris was by no means alone in his idealism of the North.  Morris lived and wrote during a period when England’s fascination with all things northern had been growing for over two centuries.  Translations of Old Icelandic, also called Old Norse, began to appear in Europe and England in the mid seventeenth century (in Latin initially) and continued to appear throughout the eighteenth century—the age we call the Neoclassical Period and tend to think of as focused solely on the Classics and the Classical south.  It was during this period that Thomas Gray published “The Fatal Sisters,” a poem that depicts the Valkyries of Norse mythology weaving a web of battle gore.  Gray’s 1768 rendition of these “Sisters” was still thrilling readers in Morris’s century.

By the end of the eighteenth century, journeys to Iceland were on the increase and becoming something of a fad; even Dr. Samuel Johnson, that most representative of eighteenth-century figures, once hoped to make the journey.  And by the start of the nineteenth century, interest in the sagas—with their legendized tales of individual men and women—began to replace the eighteenth century’s emphasis on mythology.  Writers of poetry, plays, and novels borrowed increasingly from a romanticized Old North.  The most famous of these writers, Sir Walter Scott, not only drew upon the north for his own fiction but wrote and published an 1814 abstract of Eyrbyggja saga (later translated in full by Morris and Magnússon).

By 1834, the year Morris was born, more and more of the English were looking to the Viking world, studying Old Icelandic and imitating its tales or avidly reading what others brought out in print.  George Stephens’ Frithiof’s saga (the first complete translation of a saga to be published in English) appeared in 1839; Samuel Laing’s Chronicle of the Kings of Norway appeared in 1844, and George Dasent’s The Story of Burnt Njal, a project of nearly twenty years, was published in 1861.(1)

This Scandinavian appeal is easy to understand.  The North—particularly Iceland’s north—had much the English would like to have had themselves: vast regions of untamed land, a home-grown mythology, an extensive heroic literature, an unadulterated language, a purity of race, and a tradition of recordkeeping that has allowed Icelanders to trace family lines back to the days of Iceland’s settlement and sometimes earlier.  Though it was not possible for the English to claim a similar purity of language or race, they could at least play up their Viking connection, and they did so with considerable success.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was not only acceptable but popular for the English to think of themselves as hereditary northerners, as a people only incidentally removed from a Viking past.  In the vigorous north (the English assured themselves) lay England’s true beginnings, and from a Viking “infusion of Northern blood” came England’s best qualities (Dasent, “The Norsemen in Iceland,” 166).  Like the Vikings before them, the English now ruled the seas, wielding a commercial and military strength that extended far from their homeland shores.  Sentiment of this sort allowed Thomas Carlyle to speak of England’s industrial leaders as modern versions of Viking conquerors, as “Sons of the icy North” and “Sons of the Jötun-land; the land of Difficulties Conquered” (“Captains of Industry,” 287). 

Along with this insistence on England’s northernness came an inevitable lessening of praise for the south.  Warmer, more southerly countries—whose histories and literatures had previously done much to shape England’s thought—began to be spoken of as un-English, as too luxurious, as lacking in vigor or will.  (“Languid” is the term John Ruskin applies.)  This shift away from the south in favor of the north lies at the base of Charles Kingsley’s 1854 “Ode to the North-East Wind,” a poem that dismisses the “hot,” “listless,” “gaudy” south and its “soft South-wester” (a mere “ladies’ breeze”) to embrace the invigorating, hero-making Viking wind as England’s own.

Come, as came our fathers,
Heralded by thee,
Conquering from the eastward,
Lords by land and sea. 
Come; and strong within us
Stir the Vikings’ blood;
Bracing brain and sinew;
Blow, thou wind of God!   (310-12)

Given all this, it is no surprise Morris’s own appreciation of the North came easily and remained a consistent theme throughout his writing career.  Early during his time at Oxford he wrote “The Rising of the Mosque in the Place of the Temple of Solomon.”(2)   Lines from that poem are an excellent match for Kingsley’s south-rejecting ode.

O! south sky without a cooling cloud,
O! sickening yellow sand without a break,
O! palm with dust a-lying on thy leaves,
O! scarlet flowers burning with the sun.
I cannot love thee South, for all thy sun,
For all thy scarlet flowers or thy palms;
But in the north for ever dwells my heart.
The north with all its human sympathies,
The glorious north, where all amidst the sleet
Warm hearts do dwell, warm hearts sing out with joy.

                                                                 (Boos, 50)

While he was still a student at Oxford, Morris extended his “historical reading” by including translations from Old Norse literature, “a good corrective,” he claimed, “to the maundering side of mediaevalism” (Letters, II, 229).  He also wrote a series of romance tales for the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine.  Several of these tales (“Gertha’s Lovers,” “Svend and His Brethren,” “Lindenborg Pool,” “The Hollow Land”) already showed a northern propensity.  One, “Lindenborg Pool,” openly acknowledges inspiration from Benjamin Thorpe’s mid-century Northern Mythology.

Fifteen years after Oxford, Morris met Eiríkr Magnússon and took up the study of Old Icelandic.(3)   In Morris’s words: “The delightful freshness and independence of thought of [these stories], the air of freedom which breathes through them, their worship of courage (the great virtue of the human race), their utter unconventionality took my heart by storm” (Letters, II, 229).  It was a response that shifted his writing career.  The philosophy of the north (as Morris understood this philosophy) became an even stronger theme.  Translations from Old Icelandic became Morris’s primary focus for a decade and a half.(4)  Even when he turned again to other literary forms, his saga translations continued, influencing not only his view of early northern society but his literary style as well, most obviously in those “saga-like” (5) romances Morris began to create in 1889, tales such as The House of the Wolfings, The Roots of the Mountains, or The Story of the Glittering Plain.

As always with Morris, the tale and the antiquity of the tale mattered more than scholarship.  He was not an academic by nature; he did not, in fact, greatly admire the academic world; and when it came to categorizing the sagas or explaining scholarly details, Morris mostly stepped aside.  In the preface to his and Magnússon’s translation of Grettis saga (their first full-length saga publication), Morris states right off that no general information will be supplied.  “Those to whom the subject is new, we must refer to the translations already made of some other of these works, and to the notes which accompany them” (v).  Nor was Morris pleased with Magnússon’s request to insert a “Flateyjarbók” note into the preface of their Three Northern Love Stories.“You see my preface is written entirely to ignorant people,” Morris responded; it “was not meant to be taken even by an ignoramus for a learned one” (Letters, I, 256-7).  And just as Morris chose to work as “a poet and not as a pedant” (Letters, I, 275), he could not be bothered with grammar and made this clear to Magnússon when they first began to meet.  “‘You be my grammar as we go along,’ was the rule laid down by himself from the beginning and acted upon throughout” (Collected Works, VII, xvii).(6)

And yet, in spite of Morris’s professed dislike of scholarship and scholarly analysis, nearly all of his translations include ample scholarly material in the form of notes, lists, indexes, historical information, and explanations of metaphors.  For this, Magnússon deserves the greater credit.  He was the one who developed genealogical tables and indexes; he was the one who added critical notes.(7)   To Morris, fell the more creative role; it is his voice that most often dominates the prefaces(8) and his style and taste that lie behind changes made to those of the sagas Magnússon translated first.

But there are exceptions to Morris’s scholarly reticence.  As he grew more familiar with Icelandic literature, he became more willing to discuss it as a whole.  In his 1887 lecture, “The Early Literature of the North—Iceland,” Morris himself names and identifies the various branches of Old Icelandic literature (though in a brief and somewhat scattered fashion).  And by 1891, in the first volume of The Saga Library, Morris fully defines the sagas and relates their history.  Here, in the first eight pages of a forty-three page preface (the rest of it written by Magnússon), Morris covers Icelandic settlement and early history and gives detailed information about “Icelandic original mediaeval literature,” dividing it into “Mythology,” “Romances,” “The histories of events foreign to Iceland” (mostly  “King-Stories,” or “the Heimskringla”), “The histories of Icelandic worthies, their families, feuds, etc.,” “Mere fictions,” and, finally, “other important works that do not come within the scope of the Saga Library.”  These last include “the Sturlunga Saga, the Bishops’ Sagas, the Annals, religious poems like the Lilja, codes of law like Grágás, and translations of mediaeval romances” (xi-xii).

What Morris does not give us in any prefaces or essay, however, is a description of his partnership with Magnússon or their way of working together.  Fortunately, letters by Morris and reminiscences by Magnússon do much to fill this in.  “Our acquaintance began first in August, 1869,”(9) Magnússon states in the Preface to The Saga Library, VI.(10) He then relates how Morris invited him upstairs, bounding up before him, and led the way to a study, where (writes Magnússon):

I had before me a ruddy-complexioned, sturdily-framed, brawn-necked, shock-headed, plainly dressed gentleman of middle stature, with somewhat small but exceedingly keen and sparkling eyes; his volubility of speech struck me no less than the extensive information he displayed about Iceland and Icelandic literature      generally, acquired, of course, at second hand.   (xii-xiii)

Further on, Magnússon describes their first translation session.  “Off he started, translated, blundered, laughed; but still, he saw through it all with an intuition that fairly took me aback.  Henceforth no time must be wasted on reading out the original.  He must have the story as quickly as possible” (xiv).           
They fell into a pattern:

Our Method of work was this: We went together over the day’s task as carefully   as the eager-mindedness of the pupil to acquire the story would allow.  I afterwards wrote out at home a literal translation of it and handed it to him at our   next lesson.  With this before him Morris wrote down at his leisure his own version in his own style, which ultimately did service as printer’s copy when the    Saga was published.”   (Collected Works, VII, xvii)

But the pattern was by no means consistent.  In the Preface to the final volume of The Saga Library (published after Morris’s death) Magnússon has this to say:

Having read together the sagas contained in the first three volumes, Morris wrote out the translation and I collated his MS. with the original.  For the last two volumes of the Heimskringla the process was reversed, I doing the translation, he   the collation; the style, too, he emended throughout in accordance with his own ideal.  Morris wrote pp. v-xii of the preface to volume i; the rest of it was drawn up by me, as was also the preface to the second volume and submitted to Morris’ revision.  Indexes, notes, genealogical tables I took in hand, also the drawing of the maps which Morris had printed in his own way.
(Saga Library, VI, vii)

Each had his strength; each had need of the other, but their relationship was not equally balanced.  Morris had a considerable advantage when it came to money and connections, an advantage Magnússon depended on.  Association with Morris not only allowed Magnússon to advance Icelandic sagas in English (something he had previously attempted to do),(11) but Morris’s influence and Morris’s recommendation helped him gain the position of Under Librarian at Cambridge.(12)   Moreover, Magnússon was typically in need of money, and Morris was repeatedly willing to help.  “I will do my best to get the money ₤70 together in about a week’s time,” Morris wrote in 1873; “if this seems a cold answer, I must ask you to understand that though I seem comfortably off I am always rather lacking of cash. . . . .  I don’t mention this to make your request burdensome to you for I think myself bound to help you in any way I can” (Letters, I, 180).  In yet another letter, Morris responds to a request for wine: “Im afraid I can’t help you with the port and sherry,” he writes in 1872, “for I have not bought any for years . . . : on the other hand I have sent you ½ doz each of claret and German wine out of my cellar if you will accept them” (I, 158-9).

Morris’s well-recognized name also led to an easy ignoring of Eiríkr Magnússon’s role.  Even their publisher was capable of disregarding Magnússon—at one point repeatedly sending material to Morris that was intended for Magnússon.  “Please send all the copy of notes & Preface of Saga Library to Mr. Magnússon not to me,” Morris wrote to Chiswick Press in 1891, underlining the word not four times.  “I have mentioned this twice before” (Letters, III, 314).

In their public life Morris was generally quick to defend Magnússon and quick to give him his due.  When the Pall Mall Gazette erroneously accredited Sir G. W. Dasent with translating Jón Árnason’s Icelandic folktales, Morris informed them the translation had not been done by Dasent but by “my friend, Mr. Eiríkr Magnússon, helped by Mr. George E. T. Powell” (Letters, III, 242).  Most impressive, however, is an 1879 letter Morris wrote to The Athenaeum:

I have noticed that Mr. Vigfusson, in his recently published Prolegomena to the Sturlunga Saga, speaks of me as the sole translator of the English versions of the Grettis Saga and the Gunnlaugs Saga Ormstungu, omitting to mention the name of Mr. Eiríkr Magnússon, my collaborateur.  As a matter of fact, when we set about these joint works, I had just begun the study of Icelandic under Mr. Magnússon’s mastership, and my share in the translation was necessarily confined to helping in the search for the fittest English equivalents to the Icelandic words and phrases, to turning the translations of the “vísur” into some sort of English verse, and to general revision in what might be called matters of taste; the rest of the work, including notes, and all critical remarks, was entirely due to Mr. Magnússon’s learning and industry.   (I, 513)

But it is also true that Morris was not always as careful about acknowledging Magnússon as he might have been.  “I have translated a great deal from the Icelandic a little from old French; and of late have translated Beowulf” (IV, 338), Morris writes in an 1895 letter, mentioning neither Magnússon nor A. J. Wyatt, his collaborator for Beowulf.  According to Norman Kelvin and Holly Harrison (editors of Morris’s Letters), “it seems likely that in an earlier year of his life Morris would have felt obliged to mention and credit them” (IV, 338-9n).

Work-related letters show a similar pattern.  Those written early in their relationship are respectful and obliging.  “Thanks for the correction of vísur, I wrote the other rather thinking it was wrong, and hoping you would correct me,” goes a letter to Magnússon from 1872 (I, 164).  Another from 1874 begins: “I am quite ashamed of having held my peace so long, & all the more as I must come before you with another apology” (I, 242).  Others, mostly later letters, are less agreeable.  An 1890 letter states that Morris will give Magnússon’s proposed corrections “all consideration,” but in matters of style, Morris’s own view is to be “the final one; as no book can be written by two people” (III, 235).   And in 1891 he writes, “I send back the sheets of preface and notes, with a few remarks & alterations, to which kindly give your attention . . . ; I think you will if not agree with me, at least see the force of my objection” (III, 317).

If Magnússon resented Morris’s more imperious moods, he does not make this known in his reminiscences but speaks only with admiration and gratitude.  Though he mentions that Morris always threw “himself heart and soul into a subject” and that he did it “altogether in his own way,” Magnússon also claims that during “the seven-and-twenty years” they worked together “never a high word was uttered; our differences, what few there were, found always a speedy settlement” (Saga Library, IV, xvi and xiv).

Differences that did occur nearly always revolved around style.  What was particularly important to Morris—even more important to Morris than to Magnússon—was recreating the tone and feel of Old Icelandic through lost, or nearly lost, Anglo-Saxon words.  The proper “dignity of style cannot be reached by the Romance element in English,” Morris claimed.  “If it is to be reached at all—and then only approximately—it must be by means of the Teutonic element in our speech—the nearest akin to the Icelandic” (Collected Works, VII, xviii).  Morris points to French as a particularly villainous corrupter, one that has long left England’s literature sadly “Frenchified.”  Ever since Chaucer, the “great works of the English poets . . .  have had to be written in what is little more than a dialect of French,” Morris claimed.  “If we could only have preserved our language as the Germans have their, I think we with our mingled blood would have made the world richer than it is now” (“Early English,”177).(13)  Where other translators, including Magnússon, merely give precedent to the Anglo-Saxon in English, Morris goes further still, even resorting to invention where English lacks a word.(14)

Several manuscript drafts still exist “in Magnússon’s hand with Morris’s alterations all over them,” May Morris explains in William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist (455).   She then offers examples, beginning first with a Magnússon translation from “Olaf the Holy”:

Once on a time it happened that King Sigurd wanted to ride away from home, and no man was at home in the stead; so he ordered Olaf his stepson to saddle a horse for him.  Olaf went to a goat’s-pen and took the buck-goat and led it home and put thereon the saddle of the King, and then went and told him he had harnessed him the steed.  Then king Sigurd came on the spot and saw what Olaf had been up to.  He said: ‘Tis clear enow that thou art minded to wash thine hands of all orders from me; belike it be, your mother deemed seemly that I give no orders to thee that are not to thy mind; and it is easily seen that we are not like in temper; for thou art much more high-mettled than I.  Olaf answered little and went away laughing.”

Morris’s amended version follows:

On a time it befel that King Sigurd would ride away from his house, and no man   was home at the stead; so he bade Olaf his stepson to saddle him a horse.  Olaf went to the goat-house and took thence the biggest buck-goat and led it home and laid thereon the saddle of the King, and then went and told him he had harnessed him the nag.  Then went King Sigurd thither and saw what Olaf had done.  Then said he: ‘Tis clear enow that thou art minded to wash thy hands of all my bidding; belike thy mother deemeth it seemly that I have no biddings to thee that are not to thy mind; and it is easily seen that we are not like in temper, for thou art of mickle higher mettle than I.  Olaf answered little and went away laughing” (I, 455-6).

Though May Morris’s intention is to show her father’s superiority, to demonstrate how easily he could turn what she considered a “banal phrase” by Magnússon “into a telling one” or how easily he could change “Magnússon’s unconsidered journalese into a language more worthy of the subject,” the above passages also serve to illustrate Morris’s dedication to archaic English—his substitution of “mickle” for Magnússon’s “much more,” for example, or his “deemeth” for Magnússon’s “deemed.”(15)

This archaic preference on Morris’s part has not always been received with favor by those who want the story only in modern terms.  But those with sympathy for the original—those hoping to come as close as possible to Old Icelandic through the medium of English—praise Morris’s work.  Morris’s approach is “worthy of a master of language, and not for one moment to be confounded with the mock-archaism” of others, the reviewer Edmund Gosse wrote in 1876 (Faulkner, 235).

Magnússon agrees:

As to the style of Morris, little need be said except this that it is a strange misunderstanding to describe all terms in his translations which are not familiar to the reading public as ‘pseudo-Middle-English.’  Anyone in a position to collate the Icelandic text with the translation will see at a glance that in the overwhelming majority of cases these terms are literal translations of the Icel. originals. (Saga Library, VI, vii-viii) 

Morris’s dedication to Icelandic forms, Magnússon insists, helps bring about understanding of the “the old language.”  Is such closeness to the original worth it?  “That,” says Magnússon, “is a matter of taste; therefore not of dispute.  But when the terms complained of are indexed and explained as they now are the inconvenience to the reader, real or imagined, is reduced to a minimum” (Saga Library, VI, vii-viii).

As both Morris and Magnússon knew, the greatest difficulty in saga translation lies with the verse; and what makes Old Icelandic verse particularly difficult are the kennings, a traditional form of skaldic metaphor baffling to the uninitiated.  May Morris remembers her father speaking about the supreme difficulty of these “far-fetched,” “crabbed,” “roundabout metaphors” (Artist, Writer, Socialist, I, 460); and to Magnússon, Morris wrote the following: “As to the Visur, I will do my best, only I must say I look forward to the job with little short of anguish, for truly sometimes they are really un-translateable” (Letters, III, 227). 

In Icelandic verse, “Nothing is called by its right name,” Frederik Winkel Horn wrote in 1880, “and the result is an obscurity and a distortion of language which, as a rule, make the skaldic verses unintelligible, except to those who possess the key to the metaphors.”  To prove his case, Horn first gives the reader a literal translation from a short saga verse:

The moon of the eye-brows of the white-clad goddess of the onion soup shone beaming on me as that of a falcon from the clear heaven of the eye-brows, but the beaming splendor from the moon of the eyelids of the goddess of the gold ring  causes since then the unhappiness of me and of the goddess of the ring.

Horn then gives us the key: The “moon of the eye-brow” is the eye.  The “goddess of the onion-soup” means woman.  (Women make soup.)  The “heaven of the eye-brows” is the forehead.  The “moon of the eye-lids” is the eye, and “goddess of the gold ring” or “of the ring” once again means woman.  What the passage says, then, is this: “The eye of the white-clad woman shone beaming as that of a falcon on me from her forehead, but the beaming splendor of her eye causes mine and the woman’s unhappiness” (History of the Literature of the Scandinavian North, 36 and 37n ).

The problem faced by translators is obvious.  Those who avoid traditional Icelandic metaphors are throwing away an essential element of Old Icelandic verse, but those who remain true to original patterns risk incomprehension.  It was a risk William Morris was willing to take and a risk Magnússon once again defends.  “The quaint vividness of fancy that manifests themselves in these ‘kennings’ appealed greatly to Morris’ imaginative mind, and he would on no account slur over them by giving in the translation only what they meant, instead of what they said” (Saga Library, VI, ix). 

In 1871 and again in 1873, Morris traveled to Iceland, visiting saga sites as well the usual tourist scenes.  Like others of his time, Morris was ready to find the same ideals in modern Iceland that he admired in the sagas, the same independence of spirit and the same fortitude.  “Ah! what came we forth for to see that our hearts are so hot with desire?” he writes in his poem “Iceland First Seen,” and then continues with further rhetorical questions:

Is it enough for our rest, the sight of this desolate strand,
And the mountain-waste voiceless as death but for winds that may sleep
not nor tire?
Why do we long to wend forth through the length and breadth of a land,
Dreadful with grinding of ice, and record of scarce hidden fire,
But that there ’mid the grey grassy dales sore scarred by the ruining streams
Lives the tale of the Northland of old and the undying glory of dreams?

                                                                                  (Collected Works, IX, 125)

There were times, however, when Morris’s saga-induced idealism failed to mesh with the everyday Icelandic men and women he met along the way—the “little peak-nosed parson,” for example, or the whiskey-wheedling “carle,” he refers to as “Wolf the Unwashed” (Icelandic Journals, 108 and 104).  “Lord!” writes Morris, a month into his travels, “what littleness and helplessness has taken the place of the old passion and violence that had place here once” (108).(16)

But even reactions of this sort failed to dampen (or dampen for long) Morris’s Icelandic zeal.  He would later speak of Iceland’s inhabitants as “descendants, and no unworthy ones, of the bravest men and the best tale-tellers whom the world has ever bred” (“The Early Literature of the North—Iceland,” 198), and he would continue to praise, as he did to Aglaia Coroni, “the glorious simplicity of the terrible & tragic, but beautiful land with its well remembered stories of brave men” (The Letters of William Morris to His Family and Friends, 58).  

William Morris did not invent idealization of the North, but his translations, his saga-inspired romances, and his admiration of Iceland gave Old North literature a push that continued its popularity long after his time.  It was what Magnússon deeply hoped would occur; and by 1905, in the Preface to the final volume of The Saga Library, Magnússon could proclaim that England’s appreciation of Icelandic literature had “spread into wider circles” and would “continue still to do so” because of William Morris’s efforts and what William Morris achieved (VI, x).

Where Morris’s legacy shows best is among younger writers, men who began their careers while Morris was still living or shortly after his death.  Before the century was ended, Andrew Lang had already borrowed and condensed “Mr. William Morris’s prose version of the ‘Volsunga Saga’” for his 1880 Red Fairy Book (Preface); Robert Louis Stevenson had written to Morris, addressing him as “Master” and based his short story, “The Waif Woman” on a Saga Library incident;(17) and H. Rider Haggard, author of  She, King Solomon’s Mines, and other adventure novels, had published an original tale, The Saga of Eric Brighteye, a tale influenced by Morris’s translations and his “archaic and other-world kind of romances” (Haggard, The Days of My Life, 284).  Like Morris, Haggard also traveled to Iceland in search of inspiration, and he did so carrying letters of introduction Morris had supplied.  Even Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native shows a likely Morris influence.(18)

In the early twentieth century, Eric Rücker Eddison—best known for The Worm Ouroboros and similar fantasy thrillers—again imitated Morris (and Haggard) by visiting Iceland and publishing an original “saga,” Styrbiorn the Strong.(19)   Four years later, Eddison produced the first complete English translation of Egils saga.  (Morris’s incomplete translation remained unpublished until 1936.)  In an essay, “Some Principles of Translation,” included with his Egil’s Saga, Eddison claims two translators “stand above the rest: Sir George Dasent and William Morris” (232).  In this same essay Eddison rails against those who criticize Morris “for using archaic words and phrases”:

People who have never given much thought to the question are apt to take the view that old-fashioned language must be artificial and therefore devoid of life.  They forget that the sagas themselves are written in what is, to us, (and to Icelanders to-day, for that matter), old-fashioned language.  The heroic age itself is old-fashioned to us to-day: it will seem not old-fashioned only but unreal and ridiculous if we attempt to galvanize it into a semblance of modernity by putting into its mouth the sophisticated parlance of our own very different times. (239-40)

Though he never took to it the way Haggard and Eddison did, C. S. Lewis (inspired by Morris) also tried his hand at Old Icelandic translation, tried and gave it up but continued to admire Morris. (20)  Those who have read Lewis’s letters and essays are aware of how often he mentions Morris and praises Morris’s work.  What Lewis emphasizes above all is the importance of “Northernness” in Morris and how this Northernness influenced others.  He recognized as well that Morris is in some ways closer to “the world of the sagas, at once homely and Heroic,” than he is to the world of romance.  The “hard-bitten” style of the sagas were “of all influences upon his language . . . the most fruitful” (Rehabilitations, 42).

But of all the twentieth-century writers who looked to William Morris, J.R.R. Tolkien is the one who comes closest to Morris in vision, intention, and taste.  The story of Sigurd the Völsung, slayer of Fafnir the dragon, first turned Tolkien’s imagination to what he calls “the nameless North”(“On Fairy-Stories,” 40).  And that version of the Sigurd story was the one Andrew Lang condensed for children from the William Morris translation.  During his last year as a student at Exeter College (the college Morris attended as well), Tolkien used part of his Skeat Prize in English to buy three Morris books: The Life and Death of Jason, The House of the Wolfings, and Morris’s Völsunga Saga translation.

Tolkien rarely had much to say about the influence of others, but he understood the debt he owed to Morris, particularly to the saga-influenced romances Morris began publishing toward the end of his career.  “I am trying to turn one of [my] stories . . . into a short story somewhat on the lines of Morris’ romances,” Tolkien wrote in an undated letter of October, 1914 (7).  Forty-six years later another letter is more specific: “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon” owe much to “William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains”(303).

Like Morris, Tolkien knew Icelandic and was deeply familiar with the sagas and Norse mythology.  Like Morris, Tolkien idealized bygone ages and the heroic northern world.  Like Morris, Tolkien wrote a verse rendition of Vǫlsunga saga and translated the Anglo-Saxon and strongly Scandinavian Beowulf into modern English.  Where Morris believed the “real religion” of the northern peoples “was the worship of Courage” (“Early Literature of the North—Iceland,” 190), Tolkien believed the “greatest contribution of early Northern literature” is the northman’s “theory of courage” (“Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics,” 20).   What is ultimately most impressive about both writers, however, is their shared desire for legendary material rooted in England’s past.  Tolkien’s own “beloved country,” he believed, was impoverished by a scarcity of stories it could call its own.  His early ambition to create “a body of more or less connected legend” was intended to fill this void (Letters of J. R. Tolkien, 144).

Morris felt England’s lack as well, but for Morris the answer was already at hand and there for us to claim.  At the end of his Völsunga Preface, he writes the following:

In conclusion, we must again say how strange it seems to us, that this Volsung Tale, which is in fact an unversified poem, should never before have been translated into English.  For this is the Great Story of the North, which should be to all our race what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks—to all our race first, and afterwards, when the change of the world has made our race nothing more than a name of what has been—a story too—then should it be to those that come after us no less than the Tale of Troy has been to us.   (xi)

This is how William Morris looked upon the sagas of Scandinavia: as England’s own, as tales from a shared northern heritage, needing nothing more than deliverance into England’s northern tongue.  More than any other writer of his own century or the century after him, Morris believed in England’s Viking past and promoted this ideal.  It was a belief that stayed with him throughout his writing career.  In poetry, essays, lectures, and romances; in prefaces to the sagas and choices made for translated words, Morris reminds his English readers that they are northern too and that the sagas of the Northmen belong to them as well.



1. Morris never translated Njáls saga himself, though the saga was one of his favorites.  It was the “Saga of Burnt Njal” that Rudyard Kipling later realized he had heard William Morris recount when Kipling was “about eight.”  Morris, “gravely as ever, climbed on to our big rocking-horse.  There, slowly surging back and forth while the poor beast creaked, he told us a tale full of fascinating horrors” (Something of Myself, 16).

2. Morris’s “The Rising of the Mosque in the Place of the Temple of Solomon" was likely inspired by an Oxford poetry competition offered in December 1853.  The poem was first published in its entirety in 1983, when it appeared in Florence Boos’ The Juvenilia of William Morris: With a Checklist and Unpublished Early Poems (45-52).  

3. Magnússon had come to England a few years earlier to oversee the printing of the New Testament in Icelandic for the British and Foreign Bible Society.

4. This shift gave Morris some concern.  “I am doing nothing now but translations,” he wrote to Aglaia Coronio in 1873.  “I should be glad to have some poem on hand, but it’s no use trying to force the thing; and though the translating lacks the hope and fear that makes writing original things so absorbing, yet at any rate it is amusing and in places even exciting.”  A few days later he wrote to her again: “My translations go on apace, but I am doing nothing original: it cant be helped though sometimes I begin to fear I am losing my invention” (Letters, I, 177-8).

5. From Theodore Watts’ unsigned review in The Athenaeum, 1897 (Faulkner, 419).  Though the influence of the sagas on Morris’s romances is more general than specific, a possible exception can be found in The Story of the Glittering Plain.  See  Stephen Hunt’s “An Icelandic Source for an Incident in William Morris’s The Glittering Plain, in Notes and Queries, New Series, Vol. 33, no. 2 (June 1986): 172.

6. From a reminiscence Eiríkr Magnússon created for May Morris; British Library, Additional MS, 45746.

7. Grettir the Strong, for example, includes a Chronology of the Story, explanatory footnotes, eight pages of endnotes (on such matters as supernatural forces or the architecture and organization of halls), an Index of Persons, an Index of Places, an Index of Things, a section called Periphrastic Expressions in the Songs, and, finally, a list of Proverbial Sayings—all of it produced by Eiríkr Magnússon.

8. Even preface writing was less to Morris’s taste than pure translation.  In an 1874 letter, he assures Magnússon he is working on their preface for Three Northern Love Stories but adds, “Lord, how I hate doing prefaces though!” (I, 243). 

9. Magnússon is one year off.  He and Morris met in 1868.

10. This account of their meeting also appeared as an obituary in the Cambridge Review (November, 26, 1896)

11. Magnússon originally began collaborative translation with the poet, George E. J. Powell.  Their English version of Jón Árnason’s Iceland folktales (Icelandic Legends I-II) was published in 1864-66, but their work on an Icelandic-English dictionary or on Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings and Egils saga Skallagrímssonar never made it to press.

12. See Letters, I, 66 and 138.

13. Others had worried about foreign influence and language impurity before: “Let our philology  . . . be rather home-born than foreign,” George Dasent proclaimed in 1873 (Jest and Earnest, II, 41).  For Morris, French is the primary villain; for Dasent, those “twin tyrants” (Latin and Greek) have far too long “lorded it over the other languages of the earth” (Popular Tales from the Norse, xliv).

14. In nearly every case, however, Morris’s inventions “are constructed by using usual English prefixes and suffixes,” Linda Gallasch concludes at the end of her 1979 analysis, The Use of Compounds and Archaic Diction in the Works of William Morris (158).   An earlier study by Karl Litzenberg, “The Diction of William Morris” comes to the same conclusion.

15. See J.N. Swannell’s essay “William Morris as an Interpreter of Old Norse” for further comparisons between Morris’s and Magnússon’s renditions.  “It is clear that Morris is emending with the Old Norse by his side,” Swannell writes, “for when Magnússon accidentally omits three and a half lines Morris, on the opposite blank page, inserts a translation of the missing words” (378).

16. For a discussion of Morris’s idealization of Iceland and the ways in which both the sagas and nineteenth century Iceland fall short of this ideal, see Gary L. Aho’s “William Morris and Iceland.”

17. The Saga Library volume that inspired Stevenson to write Morris is the one containing Eyrbyggja saga, and it is Eyrbyggja saga that gave Stevenson  his “Waif Woman,” story.  Though “The Waif Woman” was likely written in 1893, it was not published until December 1914, when it appeared in Scribner’s Magazine, with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.

18. See Heather O’Donoghue, Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Short Introduction (181-2), for how the Morris and Magnússon translation of Vǫlsunga saga appears to have influenced Hardy’s novel.

19. Republished in 2011 by the University of Minnesota Press, with an afterword by Paul Edmund Thomas.

20. See All the Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-1927 (421-2 and 452).

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