The Story of the Volsungs and the Niblungs


Anderson, Karl. From "Scandinavian Elements in the Works of William Morris." Diss. Harvard, 1940. "The Volsunga Saga," pp. 110-119.

Two versions are available; for a version with footnotes at the end, click here.

Morris and Magnússon’s rendering of the Vőlsunga saga was “through the press by April 1870,”3 and was published the next month.4 In the volume the two collaborators offered to the public, the translation is provided with a great deal of introductory and supplementary material for the benefit of the general reader. First we find a short Preface, in which the two translators express their admiration for the saga and their surprise that it has not hitherto been turned into English, saying that “this is the great story of the North, which should be to all our race what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks….”5 Morris and Magnússon also call attention here to the ten heroic lays from the Poetic Edda which they have rendered wholly or in part and have added at the end of their version of the Vőlsunga saga, describing the relation of each one to the story as it is told in the saga; they also point out three cases in which they have inserted passages from the Poetic Edda in the translation proper.6 Then follows a list of “The Names of Those who are most Noteworthy in this Story.” Next comes “A Pro-

  1. “Ned” is Edward Burne-Jones.
  2. Mackail, William Morris, I, 209.
  3. Forman, Books of William Morris, p. 65.
  4. Mackail, op. cit., I, 208.
  5. Collected Works, VII, 286.
  6. In the Notes at the end of the whole work (see ibid., VII, 481, 11.27-29), they call attention to a fourth passage inserted from the Edda which they seem to have forgotten to mention in the Preface.

logue in Verse” by Morris, consisting of six stanzas in rhyme royal; in these lines Morris describes how this beautiful old tale, dealing only with events which brought disaster, despair, and woe to those involved, has become to us through the passage of many centuries a means of diversion and entertainment,

so we awhile
with echoed grief life’s dull pain may beguile.1

To this attitude towards the legends of old Morris gives expression again and again throughout his writings.2 Directly after this “Prologue” comes the translation of the saga itself. At the end Morris and Magnúson placed “Certain Songs from the Elder Edda, which Deal with the Story of the Volsungs,” then a few notes, and finally an “Alphabetical List of Persons, Places, and Things in the Story.”

The two translators do not state which edition of the Vőlsunga saga they used in the main part of their rendering or which text of the Poetic Edda served as the basis of their English version of the heroic lays which they added to the tale. However, a comparison of the translation with the texts available of the two works indicates that they used the edition of the Vőlsunga saga in Fornaldar Sőgur Nordrlanda and the text of the Sa͜emundar Edda issued by Svend Grundtvig.3 The rendering of the saga follows the original

  1. Collected Works, VII, 289.
  2. See, for example, the cancelled lines quoted above on page 99 from the first draft of “The Lovers of Gudrun” and the stanzas in the illuminated manuscript of the Eyrbyggja saga translation (in Mackail, op. cit., I, 263-264).
  3. According to Islandica, V (1912), 45, there were four editions of the Vőlsunga saga available in 1869: the text in Nordiska Kämpa Dater, ed. Erik J. Bjőrner (Stockholm, 1737), No. 13; the text in Altnordische Sagen und Lieder, ed. Friedrich H. von der Hagen (Breslau, [1814] ), pp. 17-118; the text in Fornaldar Sőgur Nordrlanda, ed. C[arl] C. Rafn (Copenhagen, 1829-1830), I, 113-234; and the text in Norrone Skrifter af Sagnhistoriak Indhold, ed. Sophus Bugge (Christiania, 1864-1873), II, 83-192. A comparison of Morris and Magnússon’s rendering

very closely except for the inserted verses to which I have
(Continuation of note 3 on page 111)   of the Vőlsunga saga with these texts makes it almost certain that the translators followed the text in Fornaldar Sőgur Nordrlanda. Compare, for example, the following lines in the Fornaldar Sőgur with the corresponding lines in the other editions and in the rendering: I, 115, 1.2; 115, 11.4-5; 115, 1.8; 115, 1.10; 115, 1.15; 116, 1.2; 116, 1.11; 116, 1.13; 116, 1.20; 116, 1.26; 118, 1.10; 131, 1.10; and 131, 11.14-15. I should also like to point out that a copy of the Fornaldar Sőgur was found in Morris’s library at his death (see below, page 1000).

According to Islandica, XIII (1920), 1-5, the following editions of the whole or of the greater part of the Poetic Edda had appeared by 1870: Edda Sa͜emundar hinns fróða (Copenhagen, 1787-1828); Lider der alteren oder Sämundischen Edda, ed. Friedrich H. von der Hagen (Berlin, 1812); Lieder der alten Edda, edd. The Grimm Brothers (Berlin, 1815); Edda Sa͜emundar hinns fróða, edd. Erasmus C. Rask and Arv[id] A. Afzelius (Holmis, 1818); Den A͜Eldre Edda, ed. P[eter] A. Munch (Christiania, 1847); Die Edda, ed. Hermann Lűning (Zűrich, 1859); Edda Sa͜emundar hins fróða, ed. Theodor Mobius (Leipzig, 1860); Norroen Fornkva͜eði, ed. Sophus Bugge (Christiania, 1867); and Sa͜emundar Edda hins fróða, ed. Svend Grundtvig (Copenhagen, 1868). I have not collated all of Morris’s Eddic translations with the texts in these editions, but in those cases in which I have compared the rendering with the texts available, it seems almost certain that Morris was following Grundtvig. Thus a comparison of the following words or passages in Grundtvig’s edition with the corresponding words or passages in the translation and in the other texts indicates that the English version was based on Grundtvig: p. 126, col. 2, 11.21-32 (note the order); p. 129, col. 2, 1.20 (“avaran”); p. 142, col. 2, 1.21 (“saefang”); p. 153, col. 1, 11.18-21; and p. 154, col. 1, 11.1-6. Moreover, in a footnore (in Collected Works, VII, 437), Magnússon and Morris state, in commenting on a difficult passage, that the “original has ‘a við less.’” This reading is found in exactly this form only in Grundtvig. However, the translation occasionally departs from Grundtvig’s text. In Collected Works, VII, 410, 1.33, Morris and Magnússon write,

Adrad was Gunnar,
But Grundtvig (on p. 128, col. 2, 1.1)

has Hryygr varð Gunnar.

Moreover, all the other editions have “Reipr” as the regular reading. Again, in Collected Works, VII, 410, 11.1-6, Morris and Magnússon omit two lines inserted in Grundtvig’s text; it so happens that these lines are omitted in some of the other editions, but Morris and Magnússon do not seem to have been here following any of these other editions either, for all of them adopt a different stanzaic division at this point. Very likely these discrepancies are merely the result of changes that Morris and Magnússon made on their own authority in Grundtvig’s text. Finally, I should like to point out that Grundtvig’s edition of the Poetic Edda was in Morris’s library at his death (see below, page 1006); two other Edda texts were also found in Morris’s library in 1896, the one printed at Copenhagen between 1767 and 1828 and the one edited by Bugge in 1867.

already referred. It ends with the account of the slaying of Hamdfr and Sorli, who had been sent by Gudrun, their mother, to the land of King Jormunrek to avenge the death of Swanhild; it does not include the story Heimir and Aslaug, the daughter of Sigurd and Brynhild, which most editors of the Vőlsunga saga insert as the last chapter. The reason for this omission, according to a statement made by Magnússon many years later, was that he and Morris “had considered it to belong rightly to the Ragnar Lodbrok saga”;1 the two sagas are found together in the same manuscript, the Ragnars saga loðbrókar being given as a continuation of the other one.2

The heroic lays included in the rendering of the Vőlsunga saga were not the only Eddic poems translated by Morris. In the Preface to Volume VII of the Collected Works, Miss Morris prints two others, “Baldur’s Dream” and “The Lay of Thrym,” which she says were prepared at this time,3 and in her William Morris: Artist Writer Socialist, she presents an unrevised rendering of the Voluspá,” which she states she found among her father’s manuscripts

  1. Collected Works, VII, xxxii.
  2. See Finnur Jónsson, Den Oldnorske og Oldislandske Litteraturs Historie (2nd ed.; Copenhagen: G. E. C. Gads Forlag, (1920-1924), II, 826.
  3. Pages xx-xxxii.

after she had prepared the Collected Works.1 Morris may have turned into English still other poems from the Poetic Edda, for according to Dr. Einarsson in his article “Eiríkr Magnússon and his Saga-Translations,” Morris wrote in a letter in 1874 that he definitely intended to publish a rendering of the Edda at some time.2 However, no other translations by Morris from this collection have ever been printed or are known to exist.3

The publication of Morris and Magnússon’s rendering of the Vőlsunga saga brought forth a variety of reviews in the periodicals of the time. In the Academy appeared a criticism by G. A. Simcox and Guðbrandr Vigfúson, which, as is to be expected, is both thorough and scholarly. At the opening of their review the critics call attention to the translators’ statement that the story of the Volsungs and the Niblungs “should be to all our rave what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks,”4 and then they explain why this Northern

  1. I, 9 and 543-563.
  2. Page 25.
  3. According to Dr. Einarsson’s article (on pages 26-27), Magnússon wrote out a complete translation of the Poetic Edda and also of the Prose Edda in 1893 and 1894. The manuscript of this rendering survives; it has not been revised by Morris but Dr. Einarsson states that the nature of the manuscript seems to indicate that it was intended to serve as the basis of a translation by Morris. He believes it likely that if Morris had lived longer, he and Magnússon would have included a rendering of the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda in The Saga Library.
  4. Collected Works, VII, 286.

saga has not had, and cannot have, the same effect upon the thought and art of succeeding generations as the Trojan story.

It is probable that the Greek race was more highly gifted for artistic purposes than the northern; it is certain that the society of the Homeric age was artistically richer than the society of the Icelandic sagas, for it was more complex and more regular. These Icelandic compositions are largely influenced by a spirit of naïve “historical veracity, a desire to get as quickly as possible through all that is remembered of the traditional facts. This tendency is not without its value; it excludes inartistic loitering,” and sobriety is always impressive. But a literature of this kind is not suggestive, it does not germinate; it begins and ends in ballads, and the compilations that come between are scarcely epical – even in dimensions.1

The reviewers next point out certain inaccuracies and inconsistencies they have noted in the rendering itself; I shall refer to these later in my discussion of Morris’s style of translation.2 The second half of the article is devoted, first, to a discussion of certain “gaps and discrepancies” in the story as it is told in the Vőlsunga saga, - omissions and inconsistencies which result from the fact that the “ballads which the compiler tried, or did not try, to work into his narrative, were written at different times and places” and “sometimes represent incompatible traditions…”3 -, and, secondly, to an account of some of the beauties in the saga, “which justify the praise of Mr. Morris’s lovely Prologue in Verse.”4 The whole review is instructive and well worth reading.

Quite different are the notices of the book in the Athena͜eum5 and in the Old and New;6 they were apparently written by men who

  1. I (1869-1870), 278.
  2. See below, pages 557-559.
  3. I (1869-1870), 279.
  4. Loc. cit.
  5. No. 2224 (June 11, 1870), 763-764.
  6. II (1870-1871), 364-367.

were only very slightly acquainted with the material to be discussed. The article in the Athena͜eum consists almost entirely of a very full synopsis of the story; the one in the Old and New presents rather superficial comments on some of the most important incidents in the tale. The writer of this last-mentioned review reveals his lack of familiarity with Icelandic literature by confusing Gudrun of the Vőlsunga saga with Gudrun of the Laxda͜ela saga; he says of Gudrun, the daughter of Giuki, that “readers who have fallen in love with her in Mr. Morris’s poem of her lovers will be glad to read of her in these earliest renderings.”1
Two other reviewers devote almost all of their attention to pointing out that parallels to certain elements in the Vőlsunga saga are to be found in Greek, Latin, and Oriental folk lore. The article in the Saturday Review was written by the same critic whose comments on the Morris-Magnússon translations of the Grettis saga in the same periodical I have already discussed.2 He begins by saying that just as he revealed that exact parallels of many of the incidents in the Grettis saga could be found in classical  and oriental popular tales and that as a consequence the translators’ statement that the saga treated “events true in the main”3 was incorrect, he will not show in the same way that the Vőlsunga saga does not “reflect the lives of men and women of our own race in any age or in any land,”4 as the translators imply. To be sure, he is somewhat more justified in analyzing incidents in the Vőlsunga

  1. II (1870-1871), 366.
  2. See above, pages 59-60.
  3. Collected Works, VII, xliii.
  4. Saturday Review, XXX (1870), 83.

[117] saga in this way than he was in subjecting the Grettis saga to a similar examination, for the Vőlsunga saga, particularly the introductory part, from which he takes almost all his examples, is distinctly legendary in nature, whereas the Grettis saga has a definite historical basis; however, just as in the earlier discussion, he frequently carries the methods of the study of comparative mythology too far, especially when he traces certain incidents in the saga back to nature myths. Moreover, it is almost certain that Morris and Magnússon, by their statement that the reader of this story “will be intensely touched by finding, amidst all its wildness and remoteness, such startling realism, such subtilty, such close sympathy with all the passions that may move himself to-day,”1 did not mean that they considered the saga an actual picture of the life of our early ancestors; the reviewer seems to interpret the statement in this way simply because he desired an excuse for attacking it and for applying to the saga the methods of comparative mythology. He writes, for example,

In the northern stories, the hero frequently dies before his son, who is to take his place or avenge him, is born; or, as the Greek story would have it, Apollôn has forsaken Korônis before her child sees the light. This is simply the legend of the birth of Vőlsung, whose father, Rerir, goes home Odin, leaving his wife sick at heart, like Lêtô, while she wandered from land to land before the birth of Phoibos….In a form still more striking, this mythical death of the parents of fatal children is exhibited in the story of Agni, the fire, whose parents are the two sticks, from which his flame is kindled, and which he devours as soon as he is born.2

A little later, in regard to the deadly worm which Sinfjotli kneads up into the bread at the command of Sigmund, the reviewer says:

This worm is almost ubiquitous in Teutonic and Scandinavian myths; and unless all the results of comparative mythology be overthrown or set aside, it is the Python of Delphi, the Aki and Vritra of the Hindu, the Crendel of Beowulf, the Chimara and dragon of Bellerōphontes,

  1. Collected Works, VII, 286. The statement is quoted by the critic in the Saturday Review, XXX (1870), 81.
  2. Page 82.

[118] Perseus, or Iason. Its death is the slaying of the darkness, whether of the night or of the winter….1

In only one paragraph of this review does the writer turn from his discussion of comparative mythology. Here, in regard to the translators’ insertion of certain Eddic songs at the end of their rendering of the Vőlsunga saga, the reviewer says,

Many of their readers may regret that the volume which gives them the lays of Helgi Hundingsbana, Sigurd, Brynhild, and Gudrun should not give them those of Regin, Fafnir, and Grifir, or the Greenland lay of Atli; in short, that it should not, on the mere score of convenience, give them all the Edda songs. We are still more inclined to regret that anything should be inserted into the translation of the prose Saga which is not actually found in the original.2

It would undoubtedly have been superfluous to include all the Eddic poems, but, as the reviewer suggests, there would have been a decided advantage for readers to have all those lays bearing on the story of the Volsungs and Niblungs collected in one place, so that these metrical accounts might easily be compared with the prose saga. Moreover, it may have been preferable for the translators to place all the added poems at the end instead of introducing a few of them into the rendering of the saga itself, but inasmuch as the saga-man himself incorporated a number of these songs into the body of his story, it does not seem especially improper or undesirable to have a few more inserted at the proper points.

The other reviewer dealing with the relations of certain elements in the early part of the Vőlsunga saga to the myths of other lands appeared in the London Quarterly Review; the remarks on the Vőlsunga


  1. Page 82
  2. Page 81

[119] translation form only a part of a long article on the “Myths of the Aryans.”1 The writer of this essay points out even more absurd parallels than the Saturday Review critic, and seems still more disposed to find a nature myth as the basis of every event.

These five reviews that I have discussed show not only that Morris and Magnússon’s rendering of the Vőlsunga saga was found to be generally satisfactory and pleasing but also that it appealed to both the general reader and to the student of folk lore who was unable to read Old Norse.

  1. See the London Quarterly Review, XXXV (1870-1871), 77-100. The references to the Vőlsunga saga are found on pages 96-98.
  2. Collected Works, VI, x-xi.
  3. See Forman, Books of William Morris, p. 65.
  4. See above, pages 64-67.