Notes on Icelandic Journey 1871
Complete List of Notes by Gary P. Aho
Thursday, July 6, 1871
‘We found Brown waiting to see us off’
Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), the well-known Victorian painter, was a good friend to Morris and Janey during the Red House years and thus in on its decorations and then the advent of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Company, in 1861. His design work for the Firm was important, particularly on stained glass, tiles, and furniture. When Morris re-organized the firm in 1875, Brown left, angrily, receiving a buy-out of 1,000 pounds. But here, a few years earlier, he’s obviously still on good terms with Morris and Charles Faulkner. What makes this bon voyage somewhat surprising is that he was even closer to Rossetti, now ensconced at Kelmscott with Janey and the girls. That situation was a primary reason for Morris’s trip to Iceland.
Morris’s flippant way of referring to Eirikur’s wife, Sigridur, and her sister, Maria Einarsdottir (he does it again a few days later; see July 8) provokes an amusing mistake in Fiona MacCarthy’s excellent biography, when she says that the ‘Lilja’ who leaves the boat a week later (see July 13) is Magnusson’s sister-in-law. It’s actually a book he wrote. This mistake also indicates the overly casual ways that Eirikur has been treated by Morris biographers and critics, too willing to accept what Mackail or May Morris had to say about Morris’s guide through matters Icelandic.
Magnusson gets to Kings Cross late, and Morris thus gets ‘very fidgety,’ and then when he does finally arrive he quarrels with a cabman and thus ‘fidgeted’ Morris again, so this was indeed, as Morris says at the outset, a ‘fidgety afternoon.’ I’m drawing attention to this word—it appears three times in these opening lines—because Mackail used it (Life, vol. 1, p. 242) to describe Morris’s erratic temperment, on display here when he fidgets and when he says, ‘that morning my heart had failed me and I felt as if I should have been glad of any accident that had kept me at home, yet now it would have seemed unbearable to sleep in London another night.’ And Mackail, at the outset of his discussion of the IJ, quotes this same overwrought confession, surely a strange opening for a travel narrative. But it invites us to recall the situation at Kelmscott and the reasons for this trip to Iceland, reasons that Mackail carefully never makes explicit. Fiona MacCarthy makes a nice point, pertinent here, when she says that the IJ have at times a ‘peculiar quality that arises from the sub-text, revealing the responses that he kept from his fellow travellers, emotions that in a sense subverted the male camaraderie, whole networks of private apprehensions and joys.’ (WM, A Life for Our Times, p. 281)
‘forges of Darlington’
Darlington was a manufacturing center, particularly for Britain’s railway industry. Here were made the locomotives and the steel rails they ran upon. Blake’s ‘satanic mills’and Dickens’ Coketown come to mind, as Morris reacts to ‘the fires of the ugly sheds’ at Darlington, and to the countryside further north, ‘most haplessly blotched by coal … simply horrible.’
Morris’s mood changes as they move north into ‘cleaner’ country and then at the seaside a ‘glimpse of a very beautiful old castle.’ Warkworth was a fortress site as early as the Norman Conquest, and massively rebuilt in the 16th century. The castle is mentioned in several scenes in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, ‘a worm-eaten hold of ragged stone.’
The monastery here, Lindisfarne, was sacked by Vikings in 793, and an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for that year, ‘Deliver us Oh Lord, from the fury of the Northmen,’ was well-known to every British schoolboy. But Morris, off to another island destination of those early rovers, chooses not to comment, except to say that it lies in a ‘poetical-looking bay.’ Morris, throughout the IJ, is prone to see the poetry in land and skyscapes.
Berwick, border ballads
Morris’s descriptions of the long bridge here are precise and interesting and so too are his thoughts on seeing the countryside just north of Berwick: ‘very rich looking with fair hills and valleys’ with a ‘wonderfully poetical character about them; not a bit like one’s idea of Scotland, but rather like one’s imagination of what the backgrounds to the border ballads ought to be.’ Berwick, though north of the Tweed, is now part of England, and part of the ‘Debatable Land,’ site of many battles, skirmishes, feuds, from the 13th century until the boundary was established in 1552. It is a place rife with tradition and story, stirring tales that another famed British writer collected a few generations earlier. Scott’s three volume edition, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, first appeared in 1802. Morris knew this ‘minstrelsy’ well. In an 1895 letter, he writes, to a German doctoral student, ‘I may say that I am fairly steeped in medievalism generally; but the Icelandic sagas, our own border ballads, and Froissart … have had as much influence over me as, or more than, anything else.’ (Kelvin, volume 4, p. 338). And he had planned, alas never finished, a Kelmscott Press edition of the Border Ballads. The links Morris makes here at Berwick between landscape and imagination seem significant, particularly as Morris embarks for Iceland, whose landscapes he’ll famously and uniquely describe.
Friday July 7, 1871
Scotland’s capitol, spread across seven hills, with its castles, cathedrals, and grand Georgian architecture, usually drew full and positive reactions from Victorian visitors. Morris says merely that ‘it looks striking enough,’ and while it is ‘splendidly set down’ among ‘wild looking mountains about Arthur’s Seat’ (one of the seven mountains), he says no more about the rugged vertical setting of the city, nor about the Arthurian legends, which of course he knew well. And about the ancient and storied palace, he gives us only ‘what is left of Holyrood.’ While it must once have been ‘poetical’ and ‘impressive,’ now there is only ‘dolefulness.’ And then a series of negatives: ‘the station is a trifle more miserable looking than the worst of such places,’ (neat ironies in these comparisons); and then we have ‘black,’ ‘comfortless looking,’ ‘dismal.’ The next day they did a bit of sight-seeing, and again Morris is disappointed: ‘all is dirty and wretched-looking in the old town, and the new town provincial and pretentious to the last degree.’ They must have gone down Princes Street, by the lush park with the Palace and the huge Scott Memorial, completed in the 1840’s. Pretentious? Morris is mute. In a letter to Webb, posted from Granton just before the Diana embarked, he says, ‘When I really want to cut my throat, I shall go to Edinborough to do it’ (Kelvin, Volume 1, p. 141). During the 1880’s, Morris carried his socialist message north to Glasgow and Edinburgh, often with real success. In 1885, he writes, ‘I have been getting on pretty well in Scotland, but whether pock-pudding prejudice or not, I can’t bring myself to love that country, tis so raw-boned.’ (Quoted in Mackail, Volume 2, p. 143.)
Morris’s cranky negatives carry over into his descriptions of the relatively new port facilities, built in the 1840’s, at Granton. The station there is ‘little’ and ‘particularly wretched,’ and its Inn is ‘dismal.’ Generally, it’s a ‘dull, dull place with the slip-shod do-nothing air that hangs about a small port.’ But several subsequent details and comments on a timber ship being unloaded, and the like, are lively and positive. He mentions the coming and going of the steam-ferry carrying rail cars back and forth to the northern shores of the Firth. This was the first such rail-ferry in the world, and in place until the long railway bridge over the Firth was completed in the 1890’s, and Granton resumed its small port functions. Before the rise of the railroads, Leith was the formal port of entry for Edinburgh, and it remains so today.
‘in terror of the dreaded animal’
Morris is speaking here, with a bit of irony, of the parasitic insect, the louse, mentioned so often in the narratives of travelers to Iceland that it became a kind of trope. Lice were common in Icelandic dwellings, often squalid, just a few rooms above the stables where sheep wintered. And so the Morris party is wary of Icelandic interiors, sleeping in their tent, or on the floor of a church. At the end of the 1871 trek, in an entry for August 31st, Morris ‘saw a louse crawl just below my chin across the bed-clothes: the place was so clean that the inference was that I myself was lousy, which probability was plentifully rubbed in by my fellows, I assure you.’ Here, as so often in these Journals, Morris seems to have a specific reader in mind, namely Georgie Burne-Jones.
Saturday July 8, 1871
Morris’s description of this Danish steamer, ‘the long low vessel with three raking masts,’ is nicely detailed. And in a letter to Webb (see above), Morris drew a simple tripartite diagram of the Diana’s masts and their rigging. A photograph, taken in 1885, testifies to the accuracy of Morris’s precise and clear descriptions, both verbal and schematic.
‘went to write my letters in a rather excited frame of mind’
On the 1871 journey Morris wrote letters home three times: from Granton, on July 8; from Reykjavik, on July 16; and from Stykkisholm, on August 16. Only two of the Granton letters survive: one to his mother, and the other—mentioned above—to Webb. A week later, he posted eight or nine letters from Reykjavik. We know the precise number because in one of the surviving four, to Louisa Baldwin, he says, excusing his brevity, ‘I have 8 letters to write, and only a limited time of privacy to do it in.’ And then there’s a brief report to his mother, and, finally, two letters to Kelmscott, a longish and loving one to Janey, and a shorter missive to his ‘littles,’ to Jenny and May, this with a sketch of an Icelandic mountain and a wonderful description of porpoises, ‘like oiled pigs.’ Another letter from the 1871 journey survives, this one written on August 11, and sent off to Kelmscott from a port in western Iceland (Kelvin, Volume 1, pp. 140-47). [May Morris reproduces these last three letters in her Introduction to the Icelandic Journals, Collected Works, Volume 8] Two weeks later, back in Reykjavik, Morris eagerly seeks letters from home, hurrying to the post office, wondering ‘why doesn’t one drop down, or faint, or do something of that sort, when it comes to the uttermost in such matters?’ Eleven letters awaited him: ‘I opened one from Ellis there and then, thinking that from him I should hear any bad news in the simplest form,’ and he admits to being in a state of ‘terror.’ Again we’re invited, or forced, to recall the situation at Kelmscott. Six letters survive from the 1873 trip, three from Granton, three from Reykjavik. (Kelvin, Volume 1, pp. 193-97). Of particular interest is the letter he sent to Janey from Reykjavik on July 18, 1873, which concludes ‘My dear, how I wish I was back . . . I am so anxious for you too. It was a grievous parting for us the other day. And this shabby letter! But how can I help it, not knowing whether I am on my head or my heels.’ (Kelvin, I, p. 196). Two years on and the situation at Kelmscott has obviously not improved. The Iceland letters provide important clues to that situation.
‘very like P.P. Marshall’
A surveyor whose work for the Firm was minimal. Mackail says that his inclusion was ‘rather unaccountable’ (Life, Volume 1, p. 147). And, like Brown, he was bitter when Morris took over the Firm in 1875. Marshall was, moreover, a notorious drunkard, and I suspect that the fellow he’s compared to here is a bit in his cups. Georgie would have recognized and appreciated the reference.
Berufirth in the East
As Morris says in a footnote here, this itinerary change turned out to be a ‘gain … as we saw thereby some of the most strangest and most striking scenery in Iceland.’ And it was a gain for us as well, for it led to one of Morris’s finest poems, ‘Iceland First Seen.’
Blue Peter hoisted
Under international regulations all ocean-going ships were required to signal their intent to leave harbor by running up a blue flag with a white square. This is the ‘Blue Peter’ and here the Diane has picked up steam and is heading out, but without raising the signal flag. That Morris draws attention to ‘Evans’ great disgust’ at this infraction is interesting and indicative of Morris’s take on the military mind-set. See his remark, later, on Evans and hunting.
The four of us sat down to whist
This card game, with its bids, tricks, trumps, and the like, is similar to pinochole and bridge. Morris played whist with Faulkner and other members of the ‘set’ at Oxford, and during the Red House years, and on these two journeys, but later the pastime is never mentioned. His evenings, what might be considered leisure time for others, were taken up, as he puts it in an 1875 letter, with either ‘bread and cheese work’ [for the Firm] or with ‘pleasure work with books’ (Kelvin, Volume 1, p. 248). And for the next two decades his ‘work,’ whether for bread, for pleasure, for politics, increased in depth and scope. Morris had no time for card games.
Sunday, July 9, 1871
‘an old gunboat, long and low’
Here, and continuing for twenty-some lines, is Morris’s fine description of the Diana. The passage, with its sharp details couched in straight-forward prose, verifies John Purkis’s claim that the Journals have ‘great literary merit,’ so much so that ‘G.D.H. Cole regretted leaving them out of his Nonesuch selection.’ (The Icelandic Jaunt, p. 5)
‘huge appetite (please don’t be too much disgusted)’
With Georgie in mind as the primary reader, we here see Morris making fun of himself, and of his reputation as a trencherman. And the description of this huge breakfast, with nine or ten items, is indeed remarkable, and it leads perfectly into the arch comment on Faulkner’s ‘serious’ contemplation of the array, and his immediate disappearance below decks. His constitution was not so robust as Morris’s, and this fact becomes a minor theme in the Journals.
‘one amusement was seeing the sailors heave the log’
Purkis claims that such passages convey a ‘real feeling of lying about on deck,’ and he draws attention to the similes—‘like a carrot’ and ‘like spun glass’—used to depict the coxswain here at work. (The Icelandic Jaunt, p. 6)
Monday, July 10, 1871
This patent medicine, well-known in Victorian times, contained laudanum, chloroform, and cannabis, and it was touted as a cure not just for insomnia, but for neuralgia, and other ailments. (Rossetti once recommended it to Janey.)
‘where Kari stayed with David . . . in the avenging of Njal’
That Morris uses an incident from Njals Saga, the greatest of the Family Sagas, to mark this remote Orkney island is significant. It was these sagas that first drew Morris’s attention to Iceland, and on both trips there he visits the most important saga locales. His comments on them, on the ways that geography influences character and plot, are among the high points in these Journals and should rank among the best critiques we have of these 13th century narratives. Here Morris adds a footnote citing the first English translation of the Njala, by Sir George Webbe Dasent (1817-96). Its full title gives a better sense of the scope of Dasent’s book: The Story of Burnt Njal or Life in Iceland at the End of the Tenth Century. From the Icelandic of the Njals Saga. With an Introduction, Maps and Plates. The Introduction stretches to 204 pages, the Appendix and Index another 100 pages. It is a massive work, imposing and authoritative, and it’s easy to understand the kudos that Andrew Wawn showers upon Dasent in his comprehensive book, Vikings and Victorians: Inventing the Old North in 19th Century Britain (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000). See its 6th chapter, ‘George Dasent and Burnt Njal,’ pp. 142-82. Many British travellers to Iceland had Dasent’s 1861 translation in their duffel; if Morris had it along, he doesn’t mention it.
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).
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)
Tuesday, July 12, 1871
‘a shoal of porpoises’
We have two earlier versions of this ‘very common sea-sight’ that so pleased Morris. Here’s the first, from the Notebooks now in the British Library: ‘the only amusement the desolate gray sea gave us was a shoal of porpoises that came leaping after the ship in the funniest manner and made me howl with laughter and their strength was beautiful to see.’ (BL, Additional MS: 45,319A, p. 17). The second is in a letter Morris wrote to his daughters from Reykjavik a few days later, where the sea creatures are set in a sort of mini-narrative: ‘we had a good voyage, and I was not very sick: one day we saw porpoises a long way off and when they saw the ship, they swam after it as fast as they could, jumping out of the water so that you could see them all: they soon came up with the ship and played about her; it made me laugh so, because they looked like oiled pigs.’ (Kelvin, Volume 1, p. 145). Morris’s final take on the porpoises, in the text prepared for Georgie and thus in CW, seems bland by comparison.
Tuesday, July 13, 1871
‘the Grange which by the way was like some house at Queen's Gate’
A puzzling comment. The Burne-Jones family lived at the Grange, the Morrises at Queens Gate. What are we to make of ‘by the way’? Again, we’re reminded that Morris has a specific reader in mind, namely Georgie Burne-Jones.
‘Papey, which is an island inhabited by the Culdee monks’
Medieval written sources, like Islendingabok (The Book of Icelanders) speak of ‘papar’ (Irish monks), living on this small island in the 8th and 9th centuries, before the first Norse settlers came to Iceland, ca. 870. No physical evidence of their presence has been unearthed. Morris here equates the ‘papar’ with Culdee (‘Ceile De’, from ‘client of God’) monks. These Scots monastics were thought to be pre-Vatican Catholics, northern and Germanic, and Morris would have found that association appealing. The Culdee are not usually linked to the ‘papar.’
‘the mainland, a terrible shore indeed’
Several of the images in this long passage re-appear in ‘Iceland First Seen,’ an 84-line poem that captures Morris’s excitement, when at 3 AM on this July morning the Diana approached the southern coast of Iceland. He wrote that poem, as well as ‘Gunnar’s Howe’ (see IJ, July 21, pp. 48-49) while on the 1871 journey. Magnusson urged his distinguished friend, Jon Sigurdsson, to have both poems translated and published in a journal he edited in Copenhagen. Jon didn’t like either of them, but he relented on ‘Iceland First Seen,’ and it appeared in Ny Felagsrit in 1872 as ‘I Landsyn vid Island,’and thus the poem was well-known to Icelanders long before it appeared in English, in Morris’s Poems By the Way, in 1891. For important commentary on these two poems, see Andrew Wawn, ‘William Morris and Translations of Iceland.’
‘Bulandstindr which stands a little way down’
Magnusson added a rather pedantic footnote here: ‘Not “a little way down,” because Bulandstindr stands out at the very extremity of the western side of Berufirth.’ This footnote is the second, of 33, that he added to the 1871 IJ. He provided 15 for the 1873 IJ (all marked ‘E. M.’), as well as many end-notes, 30 for the 1871 IJ (pp. 237-41), and 41 for the 1873 IJ (pp. 244-51). These end-notes are fuller and more informative than the footnotes which often seem trivial, as above, and which a few times must have tried the patience of May Morris, who had enlisted Magnusson’s help when she was preparing her edition of the IJ in 1910. Footnotes that she contributed tend to be short and restrained, and in one of them, concerning her father’s prose, she said: ‘He has embraced the main features of the country with general accuracy and breadth of vision, and one or two discrepancies in detail need not be noted’ (p. 152). She added 28 notes (all marked ‘Ed.’) to the 1871 IJ, 10 to the 1873 IJ. Morris himself had added some three-score notes to the 1871 IJ, a half dozen to the 1873 IJ.
‘Vatna-jokul, an ice-tract as big as Yorkshire’
With an expanse of 3,400 square miles, Vatna-jokul is the third largest glacier in the world, after ice-caps in Antarctica and Greenland. ALCOA has recently built a huge dam whose lake laps up against the northern edges of this glacier. See my article, ‘Morris, Iceland and Alcoa,’ The WM Society in the US Newsletter, (Spring, 2006): 12-16.
‘Flosi the Burner’
One of the main characters in Njals Saga, Flosi is a good man provoked into leading the attack on Njal and his sons, and thus to their deaths in the notorious ‘burning-in,’ at Bergthorsknoll. Morris is obviously anticipating their imminent visit to this famous saga site.
‘Ingolf’s Head, where Ingolf first sat down in the autumn of 874’
Here Magnusson, playing the pedant again, adds a footnote: ‘870 was the date of Ingolf’s landing. He settled down at Reykjavik 874.’
A group of 14 small islands, just off the south coast of the mainland. The Diana stops here at the ‘trading station’ on the largest island (Heimey), where 400 people lived then, where there was a good harbor and at the island’s corner ‘an old crater.’ In 1975, there was a spectacular eruption from that crater; lava flowed for days and ash covered whole sections of what had become the town of Vestmanneyjar, with a population of 7,000. Those folks all fled to the mainland. They returned when the volcano subsided, and they cleared away the ash and fashioned a larger and safer harbor, utilizing a wall of the new lava. Morris would have appreciated the tenacity and courage of these island-dwellers.
‘seven men, five letters, and Lilja’
Morris added a footnote here, one that commented wryly on the kinds of wind and weather and high seas that the these islanders, these ‘poor fellows in their walnut-shell of a boat,’ dealt with routinely. They’ve rowed out to the Diana to pick up five letters and a book by Magnusson. Its full title: Lilya. The Lily, an Icelandic Religious Poem of the 14th Century, by Eystein Asgrimsson (London, 1870). A second footnote: ‘Mrs. Magnusson’s eldest sister’ identifies ‘Maria Einar’s-dottir,’ and it occurs on this same page. Fiona MacCarthy’s confusion is understandable. See my note, ‘Magnusson’s Womankind,’ under July 6.
Friday, July 14, 1871
'a French war-brig and gunboat'
Morris says simply that these vessels are 'here to look after the interests of the 400 sail of French fishing vessels that do most of the deep sea fishing off Iceland,' drawing no political conclusions. But May Morris, writing 40 years later, says that her father was bothered by 'the incessant privations of the Icelanders' and by the fact that foreigners 'got all the abundant harvest of the deep sea fishing' (Introduction, IJ, p. 21). In the IJ, such political points are rarely made, or even hinted at, though some modern critics have been able to find anti-capitalist sentiments therein.
'Zoega the guide'
This genial and competent and multi-lingual guide is mentioned, always favorably, by several travellers from the 1860's—when the steamboat opened up Iceland to visitors from Europe and America—and for the next few decades. Morris's description of Zoega is sharp and interesting, especially the simile that concludes it: 'a big fellow, red-haired, blue-eyed and long-legged, like a Scotch gardener.' See PHOTO, http://morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu/icelandicsuppleillus.html
'not a very attractive place, yet not very bad, better than a north-country town in England'
Note the nice progress of 'not,' 'yet,' and 'better.' Other travelers' descriptions of Reykjavik in the 1860's and 1870's tend to be much harsher. Morris never dwells on what was perhaps wretched or squalid, saying instead that a dwelling or room was 'none too clean.'
Such heart-felt exclamations ('Heavens!' introduces Morris's next footnote) remind us that Morris's intended audience is Georgie Burne-Jones, his friend and confidant.
'the rank angelica is wedged into my memory'
Morris's remarkable and capacious memory has often been commented upon. Faulkner, twenty years earlier on, had marvelled at 'how Morris seems to know things.' (Mackail, Life, vol. 1, p. 44). Here Morris himself seems to marvel at that memory, and that angelica, a large, leafy plant somehow got 'wedged' therein. Such comments have caught the attention of Alex Jones, an Australian novelist. In his recent Morris in Iceland, Jones links 'angelica' to Morris and Co. designs and also to a girl Morris meets during his Marlborough College years, a meeting that never happened, just one of many liberties Jones takes with the factual record.
'veri ther saelir! Be ye seely!'
Morris, in his translations, was notoriously fond of finding English cognates, no matter how archaic, as is the case here with 'seely,' where 'healthy' or 'well' would better capture the meaning of the salutation. The Morris/Magnusson saga translations have drawn negative reactions from the outset. For comments upon his 'Wardour Street' English, see my article, 'Morris and Iceland,' Kairos, I (1982), pp. 103-33.
Saturday, July 15, 1871
'for the Geysirs with an English party'
Most tourists went directly from Reykjavik to these unusual and striking thermal pools and spoutings. The Morris party went directly into Njala country. They did stop at the Geysirs ten days later, but Morris was not happy about it. See his scornful comments in entries under July 25.
'the little beast'
As Morris's footnote here tells us, he shipped this horse back to England. May Morris, in her Introduction to the IJ, has a wonderful description of the little horse at Kelmscott, fat and contented though perhaps a bit lonely. And she adds, 'it was long a grief to us children to know that the fate of many of his fellows when sold to the Scottish dealers was to go down into the mines where they never saw daylight again.' (Introduction, pp. 28-9). Morris himself had made a similar point in a later entry, at Monday, July 25: 'They are bought principally for work in the coal mines; it seems rather too hard a fate for the spirited courageous little beasts.' It's interesting that he chose to omit this observation from the fair copy he sent to Georgiana. May's footnote on p. 61 brings it back into the record.
'a mocking stock, an abusing block'
Morris, playfully, and surely with Georgie in mind, often casts himself in such terms, as an ineffectual and over-weight bumbler, one who loses his gear and goes off to write in his journal while the others set up camp, and so forth. This is not the 'club-man persona' that Purkis detects in the IJ (The Icelandic Jaunt, p. 11).
'hidden and mysterious parcel in its bowels'
Morris's long and elaborate description of this parcel and of the wild hilarity of the companions when they discover its contents, a kind of mock-heroic narrative, seems a puzzling addition to a travel narrative, until we recall that Georgie would appreciate Morris's sense of the absurd, would be pleased to enter the circle of laughter. At any rate, Morris thought that was the case.
'most noteworthy of them was Jon Sigurdson'
There's a statue of this man in Parliament Square in the center of Reykjavik. Jon Sigurdsson (1811-79) organized and led Icelandic resistance to Danish rule, and his political work led in 1874 to a Constitution that granted Iceland partial independence. His birthday, June 17, is Iceland's Fourth of July, and Jon's picture graces Icelandic stamps and its 500 Krona banknote. That Morris would devote three lines to Jon, the most important and revered Icelander of the 19th century, and 40 lines to a carton of mis-sent scents seems rather unfortunate, but again we're reminded that Morris was writing for Georgie rather than posterity. Jon was the editor of the Icelandic journal, Ny Felagsrit, that published Morris's 'Iceland First Seen' ('I Landsyn vid Island') in 1872. See my note, above: 'the mainland, a terrible shore indeed,' under Wednesday, July 12.
'letter-writing and fidgeting'
Here's a linkage I noted earlier (see entries above at July 6 and July 8, under 'fidgety' and 'write my letters'). The two letters he wrote to Kelmscott on this Sunday—to Janey and to his daughters—are both reprinted in May's introduction to the IJ. Morris is here 'fidgeting' about delays brought on by problems with their gear and by the weather. He's anxious to get started on the trek, for the sooner it's over, the sooner he can return home to learn if and how Janey and Rossetti have dealt with the situation that's the prime impetus for the journey to Iceland.
Monday, July 17, 1871
'as swart as a gypsy'
There are anecdotes about crack German pilots, on trans-Atlantic flights in the 1930's and re-fueling in Reykjavik, being puzzled by such dark-skinned Icelanders, here in the home of the Vikings, where they expected to meet true Aryans. The answer is simple enough. The original settlers brought with them thousands of Irish slaves.
'a time to be remembered'
Morris's prose here, in the several dozen lines describing their first day in the saddle, neatly captures his excitement at the 'clatter' and 'rattle' and 'cracking of whips,' as the party sets forth. And his descriptions of the passing scenes are exemplary. Here is his rendering of the first of many rivers they cross. It 'runs through a soft grassy plain into a bight of the firth; it is wonderfully clear and its flowery green lips seemed quite beautiful to me in the sunny evening.' Such prose is magical. At the end of that long day, near mid-night, Morris goes out with Evans to look for game, and he remarks on the strange light, 'wonderfully clear but not like daylight for there were no shadows at all: I turned back often from the slopes to look down on the little camp and the grey smoke that that now began to rise up, and felt an excitement and pleasure not easy to express.' Not easy, perhaps, but he makes it seem so. And Morris's somber and surprised and sometimes fearful reactions to cliffs, bogs, lava wastes, and the like, are also sharp and convincing, among the best we have from the many travelers who have attempted to describe Iceland's unique terrain. For commentary on these travelers, see my article, 'Iceland on the Brain.'
'a steep green bank'
This phrase, and one a few lines earlier ('a bank of sweet grass') evidently encouraged Alex Jones, in a 2008 novel, to assert that Morris had brought along Darwin's recently published Origin of Species. So Jones has Morris quote Darwin's famous lines on 'the entangled bank' and then go maundering off on the plight of British workers, on the survival of the fittest, and the like. It is one of many liberties, often silly, that Jones takes with the IJ, in his Morris in Iceland (New South Wales: Puncher and Waterman, 2008, pp. 23-7). See my review: Journal of WM Studies, 20.2 (2013).
'my shooting which I did not like at all'
A comment from Mackail, particularly his recollection of Morris's complaint, is pertinent here, and memorable: 'Mr. Evans did most of the shooting that was done on the journey; Morris took no pleasure in it. “I had to see to my gun,” he complains later, “which was rather a heavy charge all through the journey, wanting as much attention as a baby with croup.” (Life, vol. 1, p 254)
Tuesday, July 18, 1871
'I confess it was with pride'
Morris comments several times—it becomes an interesting and often humorous theme in the IJ–on his prowess as camp cook. Morris had practiced for this job before leaving England. Mackail says that 'the Burne-Jones children long remembered vividly how Morris came one day and built a little hearth in their garden with loose bricks, over which he cooked a stew in the manner of some pirate or backwoodsman in a story-book' (Life, vol. 1, pp. 241-42). Since Mackail had married one of those children, he speaks here with easy authority.
'Magnusson knew and embraced'
Morris could not have had a better guide round the saga steads of Iceland, for Magnusson knew the prominent folk at every site, as well as all pertinent saga lore. Morris adds a footnote here re: the relatively few Icelanders they saw on the road. They were busy with farm work, and many were at the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, then in session in Reykjavik. Jon Sigurdsson (see note at July 15) was presiding at these parliamentary meetings. His work there would lead to an Icelandic constitution in 1874, only a few years off. Morris always skirts political commentary in the IJ.
'great joy of my fellow travellers'
Once again Morris invites Georgie to join in his mates' laughter at his ineptitudes. At the outset of the trek, he loses, first, his 'tin panniken' (a mess-kit), and then one of his slippers.
The highest and most famous of Iceland's approximately 150 active volcanos, Hekla has spouted smoke and lava many times since the first recorded eruption in 1104. There were major eruptions in 1300, 1510, 1693, 1766, 1845, and 1947, each of them destroying farms, often creating famine conditions for many Icelanders. The eruption of 1845 lasted for seven months, that of 1947 for thirteen months. Long believed to be one of two entries to Hell (Stromboli was the other), Hekla was not climbed until 1750. But in the 19th century, after the advent of the steamboat and the rise of tourism, many visitors had an ascent of Hekla on their itinerary. Richard Burton was scornful of the supposed difficulties of the climb. See my article, 'Iceland on the Brain.'
'trading station at Eyrarbakki'
The Morris party stopped at several such stations as they made their way around the island. They never stayed in an Icelandic stead. The stations were relatively clean, roomy, well-stocked. They were part of the Danish monopoly that helped keep Icelandic farmers in fairly severe poverty.
Wednesday, July 19, 1871
'Ingolf the first settler'
Tradition has it that Ingolfr Arnarson in 874 sailed from western Norway to Iceland. There he threw his bed-posts overboard, vowing to settle wherever the currents washed them ashore, and that turned out to be, fortuitously, near the present site of Reykjavik. So when the Icelanders wrote their own constitution in 1874, attaining Home Rule and partial Independence from Denmark, they could claim a 1000-year anniversary for the country and its capital.
'wastes of Thurso and Olfus waters'
Many of Iceland's rivers do indeed seem like 'wastes.' They are full of gravel and sand, yellowish-white in hue and perfectly opaque, all because they flow from the many (now fewer, alas) high-land glaciers in the interior. But the Rang-river, which the party fords here, is not fed by glacial melt and it is hence, to Morris's delight, 'as clear as glass' and 'quite beautiful.'
'Soemund, Ari, and Snorri' Sturluson'
Morris's assertion here that these three men who lived and worked at Oddi were the 'great guardians of the body of Icelandic lore' is quite true. Soemund, or Saemundr frodi (1056-1133) compiled the mythic and heroic poems now known as the Elder or Poetic Edda. Snorri Sturluson (1179-1214) wrote the Younger or Prose Edda (The meaning and source of 'edda' is uncertain; it might be derived from 'Oddi,' where Morris has on this night enjoyed the old priest's hospitality and is now musing on his predecessors there). Ari Thorgilsson, more often called Ari inn frodi, (Ari the wise) wrote Islendingabok (the Book of the Icelanders), an important and very early, ca. 1125, chronicle of events and dates and names re: Iceland's settlement. Snorri Sturluson wrote not just his Edda, but also Heimskringla (World's Ring), a history of Norwegian kings from mythic times up to 1177. Morris and Magnusson translated Heimskringla; it makes up the bulk of the six-volume Saga Library. Snorri was also an active participant in the often bloody events of the 13th century, and he was slain in his bath at Reykholt, where the Morris party will stay in late August.
Thursday, July 20, 1871
'stead of the Sturlung period'
Iceland's early history is often divided into periods, or 'Ages,' thusly: the Age of Settlement, 870-930; the Age of Sagas, 930-1030; the Age of Peace, 1030-1180, and the Age of Strife, 1180-1260. During the Age of Strife, also called the Age of the Sturlungs, after the powerful family so named, writers like Snorri looked back to more heroic times, and set their tales then, in the tenth and eleventh centuries. These are the Family Sagas, and now the Morris party is moving into areas where the greatest of them, Njals Saga, takes place.
A stead named for Njal's stalwart wife, Bergthora, and the site of their death, by 'burning-in,' in Njals Saga, a culminating event in this, the best of the Family Sagas, and thus on the itinerary of many British travellers, especially after the publication in 1861 of Sir George Dasent's translation and edition of the Njala (see above, my note on the 'avenging of Njal,' under July 10).
'fear extinguished curiosity'
Morris is not nearly as explicit regarding the cramped and filthy and smelly interiors of Icelandic farm-houses as were other travelers, whom—interestingly enough—Morris mentions a few lines earlier when he identifies the source of his fear, the 'obnoxious animal' (the louse), which he admits that he fears because he is 'moved by silly travelers' tales,' an admission perhaps made easier to understand when we recall Georgie as his primary audience.
Friday, July 21, 1871
'the bonder comes and offers to show us the traditional places about the stead'
These places include 'Flosi's Hollow' where Flosi and his band, 100 men with their horses, had waited to attack Bergthorsknoll; and also 'Kari's Garth,' where the only survivor of the attack hid after leaping into a stream to quench the flames consuming him. Now, that Hollow, says Morris, 'is not big enough to hide a dozen men,' and there is no stream, only a bog of sorts. The farmer, moreover, told them of a bed of ashes he'd recently discovered, as proof of the actual location of Njal's hall. Morris offers these details to note 'how much the present Icelanders realise [believe] the old stories.' He seems a bit skeptical, and when he calls this tour 'our entertainment,' something the farmer expects to be paid for, he seems disappointed. Then he says, 'I will recapitulate and tell what Bergthorsknoll looks like today, so as to have the matter off my conscience.' The short description that follows is precise and does not mention any of those 'traditional places.' How Morris is thereby easing his conscience raises interesting questions about both tourism and the veracity of the sagas.
'these meadows were Gunnar's great wealth in the old days, but they are now sadly wasted and diminished by the ruin of black sand'
When Gunnar is riding away from Hlidarendi to serve his three-year sentence of outlawry, his horse stumbles, and Gunnar turns and sees his green fields. His response equals one of the great moments in the saga: 'Lovely is the hillside—never has it seemed so lovely to me as now, with its pale fields and mown meadows, and I will ride back home and not leave.'
Morris realizes that Iceland's geology, rivers of lava as well as glacial floods, will have changed, even obliterated, certain saga sites. They are more evident around the slopes of Hlidarendi, Gunnar's stead, than at Bergthorsknoll, where Morris was uneasy with those 'traditional places.'
'a man named Jon'
An appealing and interesting man, who was to be Morris's major guide on the 1873 journey. He corresponded with Morris, and with Janey, to whom he sent a poem about Morris, a major influence on this poor and learned saddle-maker. See Ruth Ellison, 'The Saga of Jon Jonsson, Saddlesmith of Lithend-cot,' Journal of the William Morris Society, vol. 10, pp. 21-30.
'a big mound rising up from the hollow, and that is Gunnar's Howe: it is most dramatically situated to remind one of the beautiful passage in the Njala where Gunnar sings in his tomb.'
The dead Gunnar singing, defiant in his tomb, this is the sort of magic saga incident that springs to his mind when Morris sees this 'big mound' in just the right spot, and it tells us why a journey to visit saga sites could be so important to someone with Morris's sensibilities. Here Morris adds a footnote containing the passage from the Njala when Skarphedin and Hogni see the Howe open, Gunnar within, singing merrily. This would be the subject for one of Morris's finest poems, 'Gunnar's Howe Above the House at Lithend,' one he wrote in the next few weeks. This was one of the two poems that Magnusson asked Jon Sigurdsson to publish in his journal, Ny Felagsrit, in 1872. Jon published the other one, 'Iceland First Seen.' See above, my note on 'the mainland,' under July 13. And see also Andrew Wawn, 'William Morris and Translating Iceland.'
Saturday, July 22, 1871
'Danish, which as a true-born Icelander, he hates of course,'
Morris usually avoids anti-Danish sentiments, though he must certainly have encountered them often on the journey, since he was travelling with Magnusson, good friend to Jon Sigurdsson, then at the Althing arguing against Danish rule, the Danish monopolies in charge of trade, and the like. See above: 'most noteworthy . . .' under Friday, July 14.
'just like the hell-mouths in 13th century illuminations'
Morris was rapidly becoming an expert on such manuscripts and the early printed books that followed them. And the party is now close to Hekla, Iceland's most famous volcano, and regarded throughout the middle ages as the actual entrance to Hell. A famous early map shows Hekla vomiting flames and smoke.
'that was Thorsmark'
Now Jon leads them into this fabled wilderness, the residence of outlaws, giants, and all manner of fierce 'landvaettir.' [land spirits] Morris's descriptions of Thorsmark in the next few pages are sharp and fine, to my mind as evocative and important as his earlier reactions to the Faroes. See above: 'best sight of the Faroes' under Tuesday, July 11.
'It’s over the Thorsmark wilderness that Eyjafjallajokull looms. This mountain made international head-lines in April, 2010, when ash-laden clouds from an erupting volcano beneath one of its glaciers closed down jet travel across the Atlantic.'
'I felt cowed . . . a feeling of exaltation too, . . . how people under all disadvantages should find their imaginations kindle amid such scenes.'
Many British travellers have attempted to describe Thorsmark's twisted cliffs and deep caves, its massive glaciers, its rushing and roaring waters everywhere; none have done it better than Morris in these pages. He manages to 'kindle' our imaginations as well.
'no work houses or lunatic asylums'
As in England, or in other more developed European countries. A place where a political point might have been made, regarding pre-capitalist fellowship, or the like, but Morris, unlike some of his recent biographers, does not draw such lessons, in these journals, from what he encountered in Iceland.
'Faulkner has no genius for cookery.'
Morris was proud of his own role as the expedition's cook, and here he is also joshing Faulkner, who had shot 'at a venture,' the dismal birds that provide the main course. He has his primary audience, Georgiana, in mind, knowing she would appreciate such remarks. Magnusson, writing forty years later, has a different audience in mind when he adds the footnote with the scientific name of the birds. Such notes seem pedantic, quite unlike Morris's, which are often playful and ironic. We get a sense of why Cockerell told May Morris—who had enlisted Magnusson's aid with the Icelandic texts in the Collected Works—that the Icelander could be 'tiresome.' See my Introduction to Three Northern Love Stories.
Saturday, July 23, 1871
'bringing me a book . . . an 18th century Icelandic poet, rather rare I believe.'
Morris's interest in collecting old books began early; he probably acquired other Icelandic books on the 1871 and 1873 trips. An 1876 catalogue of books in his library lists 291 titles, 54 of them Icelandic.
Saturday, July 24, 1871
'if the buyer says nay'
Rather puzzling—doesn't Morris mean the 'seller'? Not if we realize the role of the sheriff here; he's an important local authority, one who mediates between foreign merchants (here the Scots speculators in horse-flesh) and the local farmers. He handles the money and keeps a tally for the farmers who raised the horses. More than a hundred sheriffs, 'syslumenn,' were scattered across Iceland's 18 counties, or 'syslar.'
'nice-looking little beasts'
See above, 'the little beast' under Friday, July 14.
'(the Springs--remember Ingjald of the Springs in Njala)'
The subject of the imperative, 'remember' is Georgiana. Morris is inviting her to recall a character in Njals Saga, which—in Dasent's translation—they'd evidently read together. Morris tells her--a few years later, in an 1877 letter--that he'd been reading the Njala in the original, and 'it is better even than I remembered; the style most solemn (Dasent now and then uses a word too homely I think, which brings it down a little): all men's children in it, as always in the best of the northern stories, so venerable to each other, and so venerated: and the exceeding good temper of Gunnar amidst his heroism, and the calm of Njal: and I don't know anything more consoling or grander in all literature (to use a beastly French word) than Gunnar singing in his house under the moon and the drifting clouds: or do you remember the portents at Bergthorsknoll before the burning, or how Skarphedinn takes them? Or Skarphedinn's death; or how Flosi pays the penalty for the Burning, never appealing against the due and equal justice, but defending himself and his folk stoutly against it at every step. What a glorious outcome of the worship of Courage these stories are.' See Mackail, vol. 1, p. 335, and Kelvin, vol. 1, p. 344. We must be pleased that Mackail preserved such heart-felt and wonderful appreciations of the greatest of the Family sagas, proof of Morris's critical acumen, as well as the depth of his friendship for Georgiana. He is confident that she shares his love for the Njala, and that she would appreciate every word of the IJ.
'on the way the old fellow'
These homey touches, for the benefit of Georgiana, make Morris's Journals unique among the few dozen 19th century travelers' accounts of Iceland. And note here also that WM must have gotten fairly adept at speaking Icelandic.
Saturday, July 25, 1871
'pretty Sallust from me'
Morris had brought along small gifts, gracious exchanges for hospitality received. Here the gift is evidently an edition of the Roman historian, Sallust (86-34 BC), perhaps his history of the Catiline wars.
'famous to Mangnall's Questions'
Richmall Mangnall (1769-1820), a Yorkshire school-mistress, was the author of Historical and Miscellaneous Questions for the Use of Young People (1800), widely used in British schools in the first half of the 19th century.
'Geysir the Icelanders call it, . . . Gusher'
According to the OED, “Geysir” entered the corpus of English in 1780, but Morris, 80 years later, evidently still felt the need to translate it. It's now understood by all English speakers, one of the few Icelandic loans in the language. (Another is 'berserk'). That the sagas never mention the Geysirs perhaps seemed to Morris a further indication of their insignificance.
This noun phrase opens and closes a score of lines where Morris's prose artfully conveys his scorn for the proposed camp-site, for the British tourists who had befouled the place. Alliteration links and supports semantic associations, as with the /st/'s in 'stinking steam', and then 'nasty' and 'bestrewn.' And consider also the ways his SCORN is packed into, carried along in the repeated sibilants, and in the /sk/'s in 'scored,' scalding,' and 'squelched.' We must believe that he is indeed 'feeling a very unheroic disgust gaining on me,' a Morrisean eruption, yes: a mini-Geysir. But the adjective 'unheroic' undercuts all that rumbling; here's that self-deprecating narrator again, trying to get a smile from Georgie. Such passages, conveying both a strong sense of place and also of Morris's personality, make his descriptions of Iceland unique.
Drang Island's massive cliffs rise out of the cold waters of Skagafjord in north central Iceland. Here is where Grettir, the legendary outlaw—hero of Grettisaga—met his end. Morris and Magnusson had recently translated the saga, published in 1869 as The Story of Grettir the Strong. As the party moves northward, it passes through sites prominent in the saga, and Morris's reflections are often striking, so it's a pity that this famous and striking island was not on the itinerary.
'He was rather more than half grinning at me all the time, don't you see'
Morris provides a rather humorous mini-drama here, a confrontation between the Icelandic guide and the two British visitors, who despite their angry imprecations, will end up following the Icelander's advice, and camping at the site made noxious to Morris by the litter left behind by earlier visitors. Eyvindr grins at his small triumph, at Morris's anger. Such confrontations between canny natives and naïve travelers are common in travel narratives, made interesting here because the referent for 'you' is Georgiana, so again we see Morris making fun of himself. We also see here his prowess with Icelandic, since he's translating Eyvindr's remarks for Evans.
Sunday, July 26, 1871
'a little crater inside the big basin'
The simple, small marginal illustration here is interesting, helpful. In the 1871 IJ, when he made the fair copy for Georgiana, he added eight such simple topographical illustrations. In the original journals, those now at the British Library, there are two drawings: of a 'porridge pot' (Friday, August 4), and of an 'Icelandic fiddle' (Saturday, August 19) that Morris did not include—I'm not sure why—in the fair copy.
'for he was ambitious'
Morris's comments on Evans are often fairly negative, revealing his distaste for a military attitude, or habits.
Thursday, July 27, 1871
'disdaining a worm, came home empty'
Yet another dig at Evans, the proud and meticulous military man, one who uses only the best equipment, and the sort of personage not normally a part of the Morris circle, so one that he and Georgie can chuckle over.
'and the expedition seemed on its legs again'
That the trek would be crippled if Faulkner had returned to Reykjavik is not an exaggeration, for he was WM's closest friend on the trip, one who shared assumptions and attitudes about people, situations, hair-dressing, and the like (See above, July 25th and passim). And the Icelandic Journals would be diminished, since WM delights in telling Faulkner stories to Georgie.
'talking prodigiously, and so to bed after a very merry evening.'
Faulkner and Morris, sharing memories and ideas, both great talkers and story-tellers–this is the pair responsible for the 'prodigious' talk and thus the 'merry evening.' Proof that the expedition is indeed 'on its legs again.'
Friday, July 28, 1871
'People thought us lucky to have seen this, as Geysir had gushed the morning of Evans' and my arrival, and he doesn't often go off within six days of his last work'
And we are lucky too, since WM's descriptions of the Geysir's 'work' are particularly fine, as in the lines just prior to these, of the 'Gusher growling,' of its 'rumblings and thumpings,' striking characterizations indeed.
'Sigurdr the bonder of Hawkdale. . . our guide on the morrow'
Hugh Bushell, in "News from Iceland," (JWMS 1.1 Winter, 1961, 7-12) notes that the Sigurd is the grandfather of another Sigurd, a guide, that his party hired in 1961 to take them over the same rough roads. Bushell also points out that WM was 'still well-known in Iceland' and that WM is 'a good person to go to Iceland with." Quite true, as I found out some years ago: "Following in the Footsteps of WM" (Atlantica and Iceland Review 20 (Winter 1982), 84-93).
'would have been a desirable way'
Indeed it would have been desirable as well for readers of the Icelandic Journals, for WM's descriptions of Drangey would surely have been interesting, for this is the island, a very steep, becliffed isle, where Grettir met his doom. And the saga of Grettir, one of the most beloved and famous of the Family Sagas, Morris and Magnússon had just translated, in 1869.
Saturday, July 29, 1871
'peculiarly solemn place and is the gate of the wilderness through which we shall be going now for some three days'
WM's fine descriptions here, and in the next few dozen lines, of jutting greys and blacks close by, and of shining glaciers in the distance, do recreate a sense of solemnity and wonder at the desolate and vast spaces where Grettir wandered during his many years as an outlaw. Jane Cooper, in 'The Iceland Journeys and the Late Romances" (JWMS 5.4, Winter 1983-84, 40-59) points out interesting parallels of image and movement between the Icelandic Journals and WM tales like The Glittering Plain and The Water of the Wondrous Isles.
'this pretty king's highway, (for as I live by bread 'tis marked as a road in the map) and there was not one of the ponies that wasn't cut and bleeding more or less before the day was over."
Hugh Bushnell (see note July 28) had the same problems with these inland Iceland roads, and he, 90 years later, was steering a British Landrover rather than an Icelandic pony. WM's use of the epitaphs 'as I live by bread' and 'heaven save the mark,' a few lines earlier, indicates the depth of his exasperation.
'the fabulous or doubtful Thorisdale of the Grettis-Saga; and certainly the sight of it threw a new light on the way in which the story-teller meant his tale to be looked on.'
This is the place where Grettir confronts the fearsome and evil Glam (May Morris, in her introduction, recalls 'roof-riding like Glam' at Kelmscott, while her father was in Iceland.) And note here the distinction WM makes between 'teller' and a story to be read, between the oral and the written story, and we recall that these tales were current in Iceland before Christianity brought in writing.
'whereon we fry a joint … of lamb'
Here Morris makes fun of Magnússon, while reminding Georgie of his own proud role as chief cook on the expedition.
Sunday, July 30, 1871
'setting us into inextinguishable laughter; and in fact I remember still the odd incongruous look of the thing in the face of the horrible black mountains of the waste.'
What is 'incongruous' here is the laughter, the human noise that confronts the bleak and silent terrain. Other travelers' descriptions of those wastes are often telling, effective, but none of them are juxtaposed with laughter, laughter triggered here by, of all things, a packing box that broke open, spilling its contents. WM is right; it doesn't sound funny, not at all. But boxes are linked to laughter elsewhere in the IJ. Recall the scene when WM and Faulkner open crates sent from London, one with an errant box whose contents WM surmised were Fragrant Florille, hair oil and perfumes, and when that turned out to be so, then the mirth, the laughter of Faulkner and WM is so extreme that it puzzles and frightens Icelandic onlookers. (See above, Sunday, July 15). And there's a long passage where again boxes and their contents are linked to Faulkner and to laughter. (See below, Friday, August 11). Such passages are unique in travelers' accounts of Iceland and they're present here because WM is thinking of how Georgiana will appreciate anecdotes about the fastidious Faulkner, who becomes the guardian of the boxes. See, in this regard, at the end of this day's entry when a few boxes are deemed a 'huge anxiety of Faulkner.'
'my dread of—, inspired principally by Baring-Gould's piece of book-making about Iceland'
Sabine Baring-Gould, an astonishingly prolific author, wrote dozens of books, among them a fifteen volume survey of saint's lives and several books on history and folklore, as well as several travel books. Among the latter was Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (1863) which should not be dismissed as a 'mere piece of book-making'' and recalled only for its discussion of the Icelandic louse (a recurring motif in the IJ). That discussion occurs in one of the books' five appendices, a careful survey of Icelandic insects. Andrew Wawn claims that this book is the best of the many travel books left to posterity by Victorian writers. See his 'Sabine Baring-Gould and Iceland: A Re-Evaluation,' pp. 27-42, in The Discovery of Nineteenth Century Scandinavia, ed. Marie Wells (London, Norvik Press, 2008). Baring-Gould could read and speak Icelandic, and his 1862 translation of Grettirs Saga appeared in 1862, and it needs comparing to the WM translation of 1869.
Monday, July 31st, 1871
'I should have been surprised at the presence of a louse, but as aforesaid I had been stuffed full of traveller's stories on this point and was troubled thereon'
Here the 'stuffed full of travellers's stories' reminds one of Sir Richard Burton, who coined the phrase “Iceland on the Brain' for exaggerated claims about Iceland's various marvels. Burton's two-volume Ultima Thule, or A Summer in Iceland (1875) is a significant survey of Iceland's resources and problems in 1872. It was preceded by articles in British journals that caused WM to call Burton 'one of the curses of our hum-bugging society now-a-days.' (Kelvin, Letters, vol. 1, p.159)
'the great cave of Surtshellir'
It is indeed a 'great' cave. A mile long and 15-20 feet deep, it is the largest string of caves ('hellir') in Iceland. WM added a short footnote here: 'Surtr is the god of fire,' a note that EMG lengthened with the following: 'the demon of fire, about whom so much is said in the Voluspa of the Elder Edda as leader of the forces of destruction on the day of Judgement.' Magnusson's notes, as here, are often helpful. At other times his deep erudition exasperated May Morris and Sydney Cockerell. See Aho's Introduction to Three Northern Love Stories.Surtr, in November 1963 (the same week that C.S, Lewis and John F. Kennedy died), boiled forth off the south coast of Iceland, creating an island that bears his name: Surtsey.
“Gilsbank, Gunnlaug's stead . . . only some ten miles from us, though it will be be three weeks at least before we are there'
Morris was accurate in his forecast; they would be back at Gilsbank (now Gilsbakki) in exactly three weeks. Now they would go through the waste to the north coast and then out into Laxdoela country and then still further west to the very end of Snaefelsnes before turning back into the interior. They would arrive on August 22nd at Gilsbank, the stead of Gunnlaug. He was the skald-hero in the first saga that WM and EMG translated: 'The Story of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue Raven the Skald.' It appeared in The Fortnightly Review in 1869, and after extensive revisions in Three Northern Love Stories (1875). See Aho's Introduction to that volume for comments on WM's impressive mastery of skaldic verse.
Tuesday, August 1, 1871, In the bonder's house at Grimstunga
‘We did, did we! I was roused from sweet sleep by Magnússon, who came to tell me that two hours before the ground had been covered with snow, and that it was sleeting, raining, and blowing; I confess I felt strongly inclined to suggest lying there till the weather changed, for it was warm under the blankets.’
A rather informal opening entry for this day’s notes, one that refers back to the conclusion of the July 31 notes, where WM exclaims over their plans to swim in the clear waters of the Buthara, since the weather on the morrow was to be ‘fine.’ The informality, the shamefaced confession of preferring his warm bed to the rigors of Iceland’s severe weather, that he nevertheless ‘groaned and got up,’ all recall for us the primary audience for these notes, to wit, Georgie Burne-Jones.
‘Grimstunga is the homestead at which the young Gunnlaug the Wormtongue gave the first proof of his prowess. See his Saga, chap. V. E.M.’
One of thirty-some notes that EMag provided on the page rather than within the end-notes. The translation of the Gunnlaug also provided early proof of WM’s prowess with the sagas, for it was among the very first of the texts tackled by him and EMag. It first appeared in Three Northern Love Stories (1875) and is easily the best, the most realistic, of the three tales.
‘and chaffing each other the while to keep up our spirits, and so, after a sloppy half hour, to horse, and away into the very teeth of it. I don’t like to confess to being a milksop, but true it is that it beat me.’
The references to ‘chaffing’ (often used for the verbal sparring between WM and Faulkner) and to WM’s role as ‘milksop’ (and a striking noun–‘milksopishness’–appears a few lines later!). Such diction is rare in travel narratives, but typical in these journals because of their primary audience. Georgie would understand.
‘I stopped by a considerable stream to drink after we had ridden some hours [through very cold and stormy winds] and felt a thrill of pride as a traveler . . . They go down ‘cliffs very steep,’ so steep that the sure-footed horses have trouble with them. They see ‘buttresses’ that ‘block out the sun,’ all manner of rough terrain that ‘provides no unworthy background to Glam the thrall and his hauntings’
Morris offers no gloss here to Glam whose ‘hauntings’ are a central concern in Grettis Saga (here referred to, familiarly, as ‘the Gretla’); he knows that Georgie would have read this tale, one of the greatest of the sagas, for he and EMag had just finished and published their translation, The Story of Grettir the Strong (1869).
Wednesday, August 2. At the same place.
“I got up very well and light-hearted and with a furious appetite; breakfast of smoked mutton, salmon and curds which I think very good. I looked up the geography of Njala and wrote my diary quite contented with not going out into the weather.”
Morris the expedition’s cook, often refers to food and drink, and he does so with the kind of gusto we’d expect in a personal letter rather than a travel narrative. They have moved north, and are many miles from the settings and landscapes of the Njala, which hadn’t lived up to Morris’s expectations. See my notes under July 10 and 13 and, most important, under July 21, where he wonders, sadly, about the great discrepancies between saga scenes and the muddy realty of the present. He is now, days later, working still on the Njala, while expressing pure animal delight in food and warmth. Such mixings make Morris’s narrative interesting, perhaps unique.
“so we amuse ourselves very well; buy beautiful warm stockings of the goodwife; clean our guns, which want it sorely enough; . . . then I, seeing a netting needle and mesh propose beginning a net for the goodman which amuses me till it is time to get ready for cooking dinner, Faulkner meantime making a biscuit box into a sugar box for us is thoughtful over it, and Magnusson and Evans amuse themselves in a simpler way by sleeping:”
What amuses Morris is activity, getting his hand in, working away at something useful, and Faulkner is doing the same, while the other two members of the party—Morris waxing ironic here—find amusement in sleep, hardly an activity, certainly simpler than weaving a net or repairing a box. Morris and Faulkner are enjoying themselves because they are involved in Useful Work, a collocation all Morrisolaters will recognize, here being demonstrated in a completely apolitical context. Morris purchased more than mere knitwear at many of the steads the party visited in 1871 and 1873. Orn Gislason has written about such memorabilia, present today at Kelmscott Manor (William Morris Society Newsletter-US January 2014, 25-27)
Thursday, August 3, 1871 In Dr. Skaptason's house at Hnausar
Friday, August 4, 1871 In Mr Jón Viđalin's House at Viđadalstunga
St Barbara. . . Hans Burgmair style'
Burgmair was associated with the St. Barbara engraving, and also with a north Byzantine tradition 'mixed up with the crisp sixteenth century leafage'. Morris assumes any/everyone would recognize such 'leafage,' and 'crisp' seems a wonderfully evocative modifier, one which brings to mind Morris's flat-pattern designs on wall-papers and tapestries, the designs that made Morris and Co. famous. That such a learned passage on 16th century art occurs side by side with the ribald Faulkner 'legend' makes Morris's Icelandic Journal desscriptions stand apart from those in other diaries and journals of Iceland travelers.
‘he turned out to be Baring-Gould’s guide, and I thought him an unpleasant, boastful, vulgar sort of fellow: he was travelling about the country for the Sottish horse dealers.’
Baring-Gould (Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas, 1862) spent more time in Grettir’s domains than even Morris. This ‘unpleasant, boastful, vulgar’ man, who here receives an unusual string of pejoratives, this ‘fellow’ has a truly odious job. He’s buying sturdy Icelandic ponies who shall be shipped to Scotland to work in coal mines, where they will live out their lives, pulling heavy wagons, never to see green grass or to breathe pure air again. May Morris in her introduction mentions these horses when she talks of Mouse, a horse that Morris rides on this 1871 trek and that he brought back to Kelmscott, where he became a favorite of the Morris girls: ‘I often thought about him, the lonely little beastie . . . It was long a grief to us children to know that the fate of many of his fellows when sold to the Scottish dealers was to go down into the mines, where they never saw daylight again—the squalor, the desolation of it, after this wild free life [in Iceland] between firth and mountain!’
‘the bondr Vithalin, somewhat of a magnate, a man who can trace his direct descent to a ‘landnamsman,’ . . . a friend of Magnasson’s too, and they fell to talking busily about politics . . .’
This bondr, because his name and lineage appear in the Landsnamabok, would indeed be important, even a ‘magnate,’ though that noun seems out of place, here in rural Iceland. That he and Magnusson talk politics is understandable, when we recall that Jon Arnasson was drafting Iceland’s constitution at the time. One wishes that Morris had recorded some of their talk here, but his account is for Georgie, rather than fellow politicos, so we get a mere mention and then talk of food and sleep.
‘Then the host showed us his antiquities, an old pewter ‘askr’ or porridge pot, which he said had belonged to bishop Guthbrand (1627), and was at all events of his date; several good cups and spoons of silver, and a fine piece of embroidery with scripture with scripture subjects worked in circles, . . . it looked like thirteenth century work: but I suppose was eighteenth.’
In the BM draft of the 1871 Journal, Morris included a sketch of this pewter pot. That the pot had once belonged to Guthbrand (see next entry) would make it valuable. Morris’s certainty in dating such artifacts we've noticed before.
Saturday, August 5, 1871
"Got up pretty early and walked about the stead and into the little turf-walled church that stands on a grassy knoll . . . our host followed us in, to show us what there was to see; it was all deal inside with a rather elaborate screen, a pretty brass chandelier and two old (17th century?) pictures, an altar triptych and painted rood: there were a good many books in it; among them a Guthbrandur Bible; a rather valuable MS. of ecclesiastical annals, and a handsomely written book of Sagas: Hrolf Kraki to wit, Volsunga, and Ragnar Lothbrok.”
Larger steads had small, one-room churches, green-walled from the verdant turf, with an altar and pulpit at one end, the entry door at the other, an aisle separating the six to eight benches where the congregants sat. Icelandic farms, in vast valleys, as well as the cruel weather for much of the year, made the travelling ministers--and parishioners--expedient. Along with the expected décor—the altar and cross, a few paintings, there are many books. The Bible and the annals MS. are proper here, in this Lutheran church, but the book of Sagas, “handsomely”copied out—and by a scribe certainly Christian, this book with its bloody and pagan tales might seem out of place, until we recall that these tales preceded the coming of Christianity, and indeed of writing, to these northern shores, and that such tales remained popular, well-known to all the Icelanders Morris encountered. The Saga of the Volsungs was among the first of the Morris and Magnusson translations and its heroes and themes are the basis for Morris’s long narrative poem, Sigurd the Volsung.
Later note: The saga manuscript Morris looked at is now in the National Library, Lbs 170 fol. (see handrit.is). It was bought in 1891 from Petur Eggertz (1831-1892), whose sister Elinborg had married Pall Vidalin (1827-1873) from Vidadalstunga. The "little turf-walled church" is gone, however, replaced in 1889 by a wooden church, now a protected building (Kirkjar Islands, col. 7). (Paul Acker)
‘ . . . lies Statharbakki, a church and parsonage, not an historical place:’
‘ . . . lie the three heaps of turf and boarded gables of a poor house, which is Biarg, where Grettir was born;’
‘and this they call Grettir’s “head-mound,” i.e. the place where his head was buried. After this we go up the hill that looks down on all this, where is a big stone (some twenty tons C.J.F. guessed it) . . . which they call a Grettir’s Heave’