William Morris Archive

Anderson, Karl. Discussion of "The Story of Aslaug," "The Lovers of Gudrun," "In Arthur's House." "Scandinavian Elements in the Works of William Morris." Diss., Harvard University, 1940.

"The Fostering of Aslaug" [from Chapter 1]1 

In addition to his translating, Morris was occupied during 1870 with preparing the last volume of The Earthly Paradise for publication. He wrote to his mother on November 25,
I am still hard at work over the proofs; but ‘twill soon all be done…
I feel rather lost at having done my book: I find now I liked working at it better than I thought. I must try and get something serious to do as soon as may be…2 
The book was published in December of this year.3 It included six tales, only one of which, “The Fostering of Aslaug,” was Scandinavian in origin.

I have already pointed out that Morris’s study of Icelandic literature in the original gradually turned him away from the style of the romance to that of the epic in his own work and that this transition is first noticeable in certain poems in Volumes Three and Four of The Earthly Paradise.4 In Volume Four the new treatment is best exemplified in the two stories “Bellerophon at Argos” and “Bellerophon in Lycia,” upon which I have already commented5 

In “The Fostering os Aslaug,” the only Scandinavian tale in this volume, “the old and new manners are combined,” as Mackail says, “with exceptional skill and unique fascination.”6 

The exact date of the composition of “The Fostering of Aslaug” is not known. In the list of poems to be included in the second half of The Earthly Paradise did not mention “The Fostering of Aslaug”; this fact makes it almost certain that he had not at that time composed the tale and had not many any definite plan to write a poem on this subject. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that Morris was acquainted with the story of Aslaug at this time and had been for many years, for there is a very full synopsis of the legend in Thorpe’s Northern Mythology, and this book, as we have seen, Morris read while he was a student at Oxford.7 In the poem that he did write, he followed in the main Thorpe’s abstract; however, he added some details which are not in Thorpe but which are in the Old Norse original- that is, in the last chapter of the Vőlsunga Saga and in the opening chapters of the Ragnars Saga Loðbrókar. Thus, he could not have composed the poem as we have it until he had read these works, - in fact, it was most likely his reading of this fuller account of the legend as well as the first-hand acquaintance with Old Norse literature that he had gained since the fall of 1868 that inspired him to write a poem based on this story. Now as I have already pointed out, Morris began reading the Vőlsunga Saga in the summer of 1869, put it aside for a time, and then completed it during the winter of 18698 ; very likely he read with Magnússon the Ragnars Saga Loðbrókar also at this time, although he never published any translation of this saga. In the Fornaldar Sőgur Nordrlanda, the edition of the Vőlsunga Saga that Morris and Magnússon seem to have used, the story of Aslaug is begun in the last chapter of the Vőlsunga Saga, and the Ragnars Saga, in which it is completed, is placed directly after the Vőlsunga Saga.

The poem “The Fostering of Aslaug” must then have been written at some time between the late autumn of 1869 and the late summer of 1870. Now Mackail says, speaking of The Earthly Paradise, that by the end of 1869 “the whole cycle was practically complete, and for Part IV, though it was not issued till a year later, little remained to be done beyond revision and selection of poems already written.”9 Unfortunately he does not state on what evidence he bases this remark, and he does not indicate whether his assertion that by the close of 1869 “the whole cycle was practically complete” includes “The Fostering of Aslaug.” On the whole, however, it seems safe to assume that the poem was composed before the end of 1869, for the semi-romantic manner in which Morris treated his original indicates that he wrote the story before he had read the Eddic poems dealing with the Sigurd story in the winter of 1869 to 1870; as Miss Morris says,
“The Fostering of Aslaug” in The Earthly Paradise, and still more, perhaps, the unpublished romantic tale of Swanhild, the sun-bright daughter of Sigurd and Brynhild, seem to have been my father’s first reachings-out towards the realization of the Matter of the North before he became fully alive to the splendour of the Sigurd legend.10 

The realization of Morris’s tale to its sources has been very fully analyzed by T. B. Thompson in Chapter III of his Skandinavischer Einflusschauf William Morris in den ersten Stadien (The Earthly Paradise).11 Thompson points out, as I have already done, that Morris seems to have followed in the main the abstract in Thorpe’s Northern Mythology but that he added some material given only in the fuller version of the story in the Vőlsunga Saga and the Ragnars Saga. The details and incidents in “The Fostering of Aslaug” which Morris did not find in Thorpe but seems to have inserted on the basis of the sagas are Grima’s suggestion to Heimir that it would be better for him to sleep outside than inside the house,12 her leading him to the barn for the night,13 the difficulty of Grima and Aki in opening the harp after they have slain Heimir,14 Grima’s statement that “Crow” was her mother’s name,15 Crow’s bath,16 her discovery of Ragnar’s ships anchored off the shore,17 Grima’s assertion to Ragnar’s men that she is too old to help them bake but that her daughter Crow will soon be home and will be able to aid them, and the sailors’ doubt that Crow is Grima’s daughter.18 Although Morris could have made one or two of these additions without the use of any source, there can be no doubt that he was here drawing on the Vőlsunga Saga and on the Ragnars Saga.19 

In the course of his study Thompson very carefully lists all Morris’s changes, omissions, and additions. Most interesting are the cases in which he shows that Morris added Norse allusions which he did not find in his immediate sources but drew from his reading of other Scandinavian books. Thus, Thompson calls attention to Morris’s allusions to Odin,20 Freyia,21 and Baldur.22 He also points out that in representing Ragnar as making a vow over his cup at Christmas, Morris was referring to a custom common among the Scandinavians though by no means restricted to them.23 Furthermore, he suggests that the fact that Ragnar "nach Myckklegard wollte, ist…dem Krakamál enthommen, woe s heist:
'Unnun atta jarla
Austr fyr Dynu mynnl.'
Dies hat Morris in der Übersetzung von Percy (Five Pieces of Runic Poetry) gelesen".24 

A little later he writes,
R.25 schlen den Leuten des Nordens ein überaus herrlicher Held zu sein, so dass viele Elaubten, England hätte für seinen Tod in dem Schlandenz…inger in Northumbria nicht Sühne renur bezahalt, bis Harald Godwineson erschlegen und getőtet wurde, und die gesőttigten Raben űber dem Schlactfeld zu genlac in Sussex schweòten. In selner Einleitung zu “the Dying Ode of Ragnar Lodòrok” (2. 23, 24) glòt Percy einen Kurzen Überlich űber diese Geschicte.26 

These last two statements, it seems to me, are open to question. In the first place, it is certainly not necessary to suggest that Morris was drawing on Percy’s Five Pieces of Runic Poetry for his knowledge of the death of Ragnar in a snake-pit at the hands of Ella, for there is a very detailed account of the end of Ragnar in England in the Ragnars Saga27  and, as I have already shown, there can be practically no doubt that Morris had read this saga. Moreover, it seems to me extremely unlikely that Morris represented Ragnar as going to Micklegarth because he had read now remembered the lines

Unnun atta jaris
Gustr fyr Dynu mynnl

in the “Krakamba,” as Thompson suggests. This statement in the Old Norse poem is of course exceedingly vague, and it certainly does not indicate with any definiteness that Ragnar ever visited Constantinople. Very likely Morris introduced this reference to Micklegarth without having any definitive source in mind,28 merely because he had not read in the Ragnars Saga that Ragnar was a great sea-rover and he felt that an allusion to a voyage to Micklegarth would give the poem greater verisimilitude.

In a few other cases also the sources Thompson suggests seem extremely improbable. The following remark, for example, seems entirely unnecessary:  “Die Zeile, And smitten or unsmitten, still erinnert an die Zeile in Peer Gynt (Akt I, Szene 1): ,Om man hamrer eller hamres.’”29 Again, the similarity Thompson points out in the following quotation between a passage in “The Fostering of Aslaug” and two stanzas in the “Eiriksmál” is so slight that it is scarcely justifiable to suggest that Morris’s account was influenced by the Old Norse verses:

  1. Statt dass Aslaug R.30 später im Lemben űber ihre Herkunft berichtet, last der Dichter sie einem anderen ihre Träume in der Hochzeltsnacht erzählen, in die der Dichter ihre Lebensschicksale verwoben hat. Es ist also keine eigentliche Umgestaltung, sondern es handelt sich hier mehr um ein Ersatzmotiv. Aslaug erzählt, dass sie onverletzt durch ein grosses Feuer gegangen sie, welches einen goldenen Palast umzűngelte; als sie die Halle betrat, sah sie ein Kőnigspaar; sie hőrte ein Horn, und der Kőnig fragte die Kőnigin, warum die Säulen bebten; diese erwiderte, es sei der Ruhm R. As; auf seine Frage, was fűr Schatten er in der Tűr sehe, antwortete sie, es sei ihre eigene Tochter, welche sich mit R., der seit dem Tode ihres Gatten der beste Mann sei, verheriatet habe; dann kűssten sie sich, und Aslaug wachte auf. Dieses Motiv kehrt im Eirikamál wieder:

    2.“Hvat prymir bar, Bragl,
    sem pusund bifisk
    eðr mengl til mikit?
    Braka oll bekkoili,
    sem munl Baldr koma
    aptr I Oðins sali.

  2. Odin:

    “Heimsku mala skalatu,
    enn horski Bragl,
    pvít pú vel hvat vitir
    fyr Eiríkl glymr,
    es hér mun inn koma
    jofurr í Odins sall.”31

On the whole, however, what Thompson has to say about Morris’s use of his Scandinavian sources seems to be correct.

In most of the contemporary reviews of Volume IV of The Earthly Paradise, very little mention was made of “The Fostering of Aslaug,” the critics usually focusing their attention on the two tales dealing with Bellerophon. Most of the brief remarks made about the Scandinavian story are, however, commendatory. Sidney Colvin in Academy said that the poem was “full of the brightest grace and freshness….”32 The Spectator stated that the tale showed “what a fair structure Mr. Morris can build up on a very slight foundation of incident.”33 The London Quarterly Review called it a “charming poem,” and went on to remark, “To English Saga-lovers not sufficiently erudite to read the Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok in the original, this poem will  have an interest beyond its intrinsic interest, when taken as an episode connected with the Volsung tale, which the author has so finely translated into prose….”34 The Saturday Review considered it “the gem of this volume.”35 The reviewer in the Athenaeum was the only one to justify his praise. He said that the story was “full of beauty,” but he also felt that the “dreams at the end, and some other passages, might perhaps be called surplusage.”36 Aslaug’s and Ragnar’s dreams do not seem to me to be at all superfluous, for both these visions, with their allusions to Aslaug’s distinguished ancestry and to Ragnar’s great fame, definitely serve to heighten the climax of the story, the wedding of the hero and heroine, by calling attention to the importance of the union. Moreover, both dreams are described with a great deal of beauty and imagination.

Before leaving the last volume of The Earthly Paradise, I should like to point out that Morris made a brief allusion to Brynhild and Sigurd in another poem included here - namely “The Hill of Venus”; in the course of a description of a procession of the world’s immortal lovers, he wrote,

A loveless waste of ages seemed to part,
And through the cloven dullness BRYNHILD came,
Her left hand on the fire that was her heart,
That paled her cheeks and through her eyes did flame,
Her right hand holding SIGURD’S; for no shame
Was in his simple eyes, that saw the worth
So clearly now of all the perished earth.1

It is clear that the great story of Sigurd was very much in Morris’s thoughts at this time.

"The Story of Aslaug," pp. 120-27.

"Lovers of Gudrun," 64-109.

Morris and the Earthly Paradise, especially "Prologue: The Wanderers," 13-38.

    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.

    5. See above, pages 55-56.

    6. William Morris, 1, 204.

    7. I, 109-113.

    8. See above, pages 2-3.

    9. See above, pages 63-64 and 109-110.

    10. William Morris, 1, 204.

    11. Pages 91-30.

    12. See Collected Works, VI, 31, 11. 16-27 and Fornaldar Sőgur Nordrlanda, I, 230, 1. 28-231, 1. 2.

    13. See Collected Works, VI, 32, 11. 11-12 and Fornaldar Sőgur, I, 231, 11. 2-7.

    14. See Collected Works, VI, 35, 11. 8-14 and Fornaldar Sőgur, I, 233, 11. 5-9.

    15. See Collected Works, VI, 36, 11. 21-23 and Fornaldar Sőgur, I, 233, 11. 22-23.

    16. See Collected Works, VI, 39, 1. 20-40, 1. 9 and Fornaldar Sőgur, I, 244, 11. 1-3.

    17. See Collected Works, VI, 41, 11. 6-16 and Fornaldar Sőgur, I, 243, 1. 26-244, 1.

    18. See Collected Works, VI, 41, 11. 26-31 and Fornaldar Sőgur, I, 243, 11. 20-25.

    19. See Collected Works, VI, 42, 11. 83-85 and Fornaldar Sőgur, I, 244, 11. 11-19.

    20. The additions just enumerated show that Karl Litzenburg’s statement, in Scandinavian Studies and Notes, VIII (1034-1035), 104, that Morris acquired the story of “The Fostering Aslaug” “from the summary in English of the Volsung legends published by Thorpe in Northern Mythology, Volume I” is not entirely correct.

    21. See Thompson, op. cit., pp. 96, 97, and 98 and Collected Works, VI, 24, 1-4 and 34. 1.11. Thompson does not, however, mention the reference to Odin in Ibid., VI, 45, 1.25. Moreover, in commenting on the allusion to Odin in Ibid., VI, 24, 1.4, he does not point out that in representing the people as thinking that “Odin had called Heimir home,” Morris was using a common Old Norse expression for “to die.” For occurrences of expressions of this type that Morris may well have known, see the Heimskringla, tr. Laing, I, 259, 1.14; 319, 11.8-10; 357, 1.1; 364, 1.11; and 424, 11.25-26.

    22. See Thompson, op. cit., pp. 95 and 97 and Collected Works, VI, 24, 1.11 and 39, 1.25. Thompson neglects, however, to point out the reference to Freyia in Ibid, VI, 44, 1.24.

    23. See Thompson, op. cit., p. 96 and Collected Works, VI, 35, 11, 26-27.

    24. See Thompson, op. cit., p. 97 and Collected Works, VI, 45, 11.15-16.

    25. pp. 97-78. For the passage in the poem, see Collected Works, VI, 45, 1.18.

    26. “R” stands for “Ragnar.”

    27. Page 98. For the passage in Morris’s poem, see Collected Works, VI, 64, 11.4-13

    28. See Fornaldar Sőgur, I, 251-288.

    29. The Ragnars saga does not mention any visit of Ragnar to Constantinople.

    30. Page 97. Thompson has misquoted the line’ it should read Om jeg hamrer eller hamres. See Henrik Ibsen, Samlede Verker, edd. Francis Bull, Halvdan Koht, and Didrik A. Selp (Oslo: Gyldendal gorsk Forlag, 1928-1937), VI, 66.

    31. Pages 100-101. Similarly, Thompson’s reference on page 97 to the poem “The Land of the East of the Sun and West of the Moon” scarcely seem necessary. Moreover, I cannot understand why Thompson says (on page 96) that Heimir's reference to Grimhild (in Collected Works, VI. 28, 1.8) points to the influence of the Nibelungenlied, for the story of Grimhild and her evil deeds is fully told in the Volsunga Saga

    32. II (1870-1871), 58.

    33. XLIV (1871), 105.

    34. XXXVI (1871), 253.

    35. XXX (1870), 808.

    36. No. 2251 (December 17, 1870), 796. For other reviews of the Volume IV, see the Galaxy, XI (1871), 606-609; the Nestminster Review, XXXIV, New Series (1871), 581; and the Eclectic Magazine, XIII, new Series (1871), 250-251.No. 2251 (December 17, 1870), 796. For other reviews of the Volume IV, see the Galaxy, XI (1871), 606-609; the Nestminster Review, XXXIV, New Series (1871), 581; and the Eclectic Magazine, XIII, new Series (1871), 250-251.