Icelandic Journals Introduction
Why Morris Went to Iceland and Why It Matters
William Morris travelled to Iceland twice, once in 1871 and again in 1873. Essentially there were two reasons, one negative and one positive. The negative motivation was the strains in his marriage to Jane Morris, ‘Janey’ to all who knew her, and her relationship with the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Morris had left Janey, their children Jenny and May, and Rossetti in residence at Kelmscott Manor, a house he had taken in joint tenancy with Rossetti just a few months before, perhaps even then recognising the reality of their affair, something which he considered to be a deep personal failure. By leaving them in seclusion together, he had hopes that something that had been dragging on for long enough could lead to some kind of definite conclusion. He also may have felt the need to undergo a ‘trial by ordeal,’ a psychological compensation for his “failure.” Such a trial could of course have involved a trek across the Sahara or similar physical challenge, but Iceland was chosen as the destination for more positive reasons. His expedition was a definite quest, a desire to find something in the wilderness of Iceland.
Morris’s journey was also in part a response to his intellectual engagement with Iceland’s culture and language. Indeed his language teacher and collaborator in translations, Eiríkr Magnússon, himself an Icelander, accompanied him, along with his old friend from university days, Charlie Faulkner, and a third travelling companion, W. H. Evans, who had been invited to share the expense. With these three as company, the journey was not as grief-stricken as its initial motivation might suggest. Morris, who was 37 at the time of the first trip, was cutting himself off decisively from old allegiances. His new passion for the sagas was in itself a discarding of Rossetti, ‘the man of the South,’ and Italianate Pre-Raphaelite influences, in favour of the bluntness of Old Norse literature and the carefree nature of male comradeship. Morris was a designer and a craftsman, and it was characteristic of his practical and resilient nature to reconfigure and reconstruct.
The journey was by mail boat,1 the 240-tonne Diana, which set off on the evening of Saturday 8 July from Granton Harbour, Edinburgh, to Iceland via Torshaven in the Faroe Islands, arriving in Reykjavik on Friday 14 July. When in Iceland the party travelled on horseback. Including mounts for guides and pack animals, they numbered 20 ponies in all. Morris became so attached to the latter that he brought back to England one ‘Mouse’ for his daughters, which lived out its days at Kelmscott Manor. The party mostly camped, and from time to time stayed in farmsteads, or occasionally in more salubrious circumstances with a local official. The expedition lasted just over two months, from 6 July to 7 September 1871, and throughout that time Morris, who was in charge of the cooking, kept a journal. It was intended to be a private record for his close friend Georgiana Burne-Jones rather than for publication, and along with its companion journal of his 1873 trip, it was not published until 1911, 15 years after his death at the age of 62. His time in Iceland amounted to barely four months, including the sea journeys to and from Edinburgh, but the impact on his life and works was out of all proportion to its duration.
Morris was a major figure in the late nineteenth century; by 1871 he was already well known for his poetry and decorative artwork. His reputation in these fields enhanced the impact of his Norse and Icelandic-related work. Nowadays he still is a major figure in the worlds of design, literature, conservation and arguably politics – the quintessential English socialist immortalised by E. P. Thompson. But the interpretation of the legacy of his Iceland-related endeavours has been much more mixed, even speculative. In what follows, I will try to set out the various strands to that legacy, evaluate their current significance and suggest some fruitful areas for future research.
Iceland in the Victorian Imagination
William Morris was not the first English ‘man of letters’ to visit Iceland, but arguably his visits have had the greatest lasting impact both in Iceland and abroad. He travelled there in 1871 and again in 1873, and his experiences of those journeys are recorded in his Icelandic Journals as well as in the poems that the trips inspired, ‘Iceland First Seen’ and ‘Gunnar’s Howe above the house at Lithend.’ In Iceland, both trips commenced and finished in Reykjavik. The first journey focused on the south and west of Iceland, with the Morris party setting out south and east into Njáls saga country, including a short visit to the Þórsmörk valley. At this point, the party headed north as far as Hnausar and then west to the Snæfellnes peninsula, then turned south to return to Reykjavik via Þingvellir. The 1873 journey was more ambitious in scope, taking in much more rugged country. It included a longer visit to the Þórsmörk valley before turning north to cross the central Icelandic desert on the Sprengisandur, a route which is open even nowadays for only about eight weeks a year, then venturing east to Lake Mývatn and the Dettifoss waterfall. From there the travellers turned east to Iceland’s second settlement Akureyri, before returning cross-country to Reykjavik, again via Þingvellir [Plate 11].
Morris’s interest in Iceland sprang from his interest in the sagas and the Edda. By the mid-1860s he had read Thomas Percy’s translation of Paul Henri Mallet’s Northern Antiquities (1847), which Karl Anderson describes as ‘a vast storehouse of information on which … Morris seems to have drawn in writing both versions of the prologue to the Earthly Paradise.’2 (Anderson 1940, 44) During and after the publication of The Earthly Paradise (1868–70), which included two saga-based tales, ‘The Story of Aslaug’ and ‘The Lovers of Gudrun,’ Morris threw himself into learning Icelandic and then translating Icelandic sagas with his collaborator Eiríkr Magnússon. Together they published The Story of Grettir the Strong in 1869; The Völsung Saga, which included their translations of 13 poems from the Elder Edda, in 1870; and Three Northern Love Stories in 1875. They also translated a further five sagas which were not published until 20 years later as the first two volumes of the six-volume Saga Library (1890–1905), with parts of the Heimskringla (vols. 3–5) also worked up in this early period. At the same time, Morris was producing his own extended narrative poems, the longest and most complex of which was his 1876 epic Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, which was profoundly influenced by his two trips to Iceland.3 As in so many other fields of endeavour to which he turned his hand, Morris was prolific. The Victorians, as so ably demonstrated by Andrew Wawn in his book The Vikings and the Victorians, had a strong affinity for the north and the Vikings in particular, and Wawn makes the case for Morris as the Victorian Old Northernist:
He wrote by far the best Victorian poems on eddic and saga subjects. His Icelandic journals, with their arresting personal subtext, offer a unique blend of complex responses to ancient saga-steads, and sharp-eyed sensitivity to the shifting moods and colours of modern Icelandic nature. By their philological alertness the saga translations of Morris and his (too easily ignored) collaborator Eiríkr Magúusson earned an honoured place in the history of attempts to tune in the English language to these elusive narratives – ‘Morrisian’ language, for all the disdain it could generate, attracted many admirers. (Wawn 2000, 249)
It is worth rehearsing the grand scale of Morris’s contribution to, and engagement with, Icelandic culture. Wawn itemises these writings:
translations of some two dozen sagas, verse translations of Danish ballads, sonnets on saga heroes, lyrics triggered by saga reading and saga-stead visits, translations and reanimations of eddic legends, prose romances set in misty old northern locations, lectures about old Iceland culture, Iceland diaries, journalism about modern Icelandic famine and a hefty bundle of Icelandic-related letters to Icelandophile friends. [Wawn 2000, 249–50]
As he puts it, the stuff of a big book rather than a single chapter.
Morris was however far from being the only eminent Victorian to travel to Iceland. The path had already been well trodden from the 18th century onward, including by the notable botanist Sir Joseph Banks in 1772, and another botanist William Hooker in 1809, who published a two-volume Recollections of Iceland in 1811.The Rev. Ebenezer Henderson spent the winter of 1814– 15 in Iceland and published Iceland: Or a Journal of a residence in that Island during the years 1814 and 1815 (2 vols, 1818), which ran to four editions and was widely admired in Iceland. Icelandic academic J. K. Helgason characterises these early descriptions as ‘the product of expeditions which were particularly motivated by an interest in the country’s geology and nature. Most of the parties arriving between 1772 to 1834 headed for one or all of the “lions” of Iceland: Mt Hekla, Geysir and Þingvellir in the south of the country. At this time however Iceland’s ancient literature and culture were rarely mentioned.’ (Helgason 2017, 107) Lord Dufferin visited on his private yacht in 1856 and his Letters from high latitudes was published in 1857. Sir Richard Burton followed Morris in 1872, publishing Ultima Thule; or a summer in Iceland in 1875, and Anthony Trollope also visited in 1878. In fact the path to Iceland was so well-trodden that Morris found his visit to Geysir disappointing because of the tourist litter he found in what he had hoped to be an unspoilt wilderness. While other Victorian writers and artists such as George Dasent (1861 and 1866) Samuel Waller (1874) and W. G. Collingwood, whose book A pilgrimage to the saga-steads of Iceland (1899), written jointly with Jón Stefansson, certainly influenced the Victorian and subsequent imaginations of Iceland, Morris’s influence is the easiest to trace and by far the most prominent today.
In the nineteenth century, the British liberal tradition saw Iceland as the birthplace of democracy and the source of the third set of great classics – alongside those of Greece and Rome – the sagas. They admired Iceland for these contributions to western civilisation and wanted to celebrate them and give them the prominence they felt they deserved in the wider canon of European intellectual thought. Iceland, home of the Edda and the saga, was practically a household word to the educated Victorian, arguably more so than it is today, despite the writings of Sjon, the music of Bjork or the art of Ragnar Kjartansson, all figures with worldwide reputations. Morris’s poetry, translations, and essays thus all fed a public appetite which had been nurtured over several decades by a host of enthusiasts including antiquarians, historians, naturalists, explorers, poets and authors. But Morris was very much the lodestar. His narrative poems earned him an international reputation as Victorian Britain’s most arresting poetic spokesman for the old north, and according to Fiona MacCarthy, The Earthly Paradise was reportedly the mainstay of mid-Victorian picnics and the work that George Eliot used to take out into the woods to read aloud (MacCarthy 1994, 264). An obsession with ‘Vikingism’ was a reflection of the era, and at a time of bewildering social change, it was quite possible to read into the sagas whatever social construction the reader sought, as Wawn puts it: ‘variously buccaneering, triumphalist, defiant, confused, disillusioned, unbiddable, disciplined, elaborately pagan, austerely pious, relentlessly jolly or self-destructively sybaritic’ (Wawn 2000, 4).
Earlier Discussions of the Icelandic Journals
A common interpretation was that Nordic culture had been one of benevolent despotism, exemplified in the Norse god Odin, the strong inspired leader, the firm-willed man of action and saviour of his people who appealed to the Victorian imperial instinct. But as television host Magnus Magnússon reminds us in his introduction to the 1996 edition of the Icelandic Journals,4 Morris had a rather different agenda: ‘To Morris … the Viking was the emblem of the hard working iron-willed Socialist who respected individuality, but had no time for individualism’ (Magnus Magnússon, xix). In fact Morris did not say a great deal in public about how Iceland influenced his later socialism, but in a letter to his friend and comrade in the Social Democratic Federation, Andreas Scheu, on 15 September 1883, he wrote: ‘In 1871 I went to Iceland with Mr Magnússon, and, apart from my pleasure in seeing that romantic desert, I learned one lesson there, thoroughly I hope, that the most grinding poverty is a trifling evil compared with the inequality of classes’ (Kelvin 1987, 2: 229); and in an 1887 lecture to the Hammersmith Socialist League entitled “The Early Literature of the North – Iceland,” Morris concluded with some decidedly political observations for his Socialist League audience:
I may finish by saying a word on the present condition of Iceland: they have suffered very much there from bad seasons of late: but I cannot help thinking that in spite of that they could live there very comfortably if they were to extinguish individualism there: the simplest possible form of co-operative commonwealth would suit their needs, and ought not to be hard to establish; as there is no crime there, and no criminal class or class of degradation and education is universal: and unless by some special perversity should the question of politics stand in the way: the only persons who would be losers by it would be the present exploiters of this brave and kind people and if these men were all shipped off to – well Davy Jones, there would be many a dry eye at their departure. (LeMire 1969, 198)
Before his trips to Iceland, Morris was viewed by himself and others primarily as a poet and artist, and his first approach to Iceland was as a poet and translator, which was how he was received in Iceland. But the experience of Iceland itself, a centrepiece of Morris’s mid-life, enabled him to draw, as E. P. Thompson put it, ‘a draught of courage and hope which was the prelude for his entry into active political life in the later 1870’s’ (Thompson 1955, 186). Magnus Magnússon points to Morris’s major Norse-inspired work, his 1876 Sigurd the Volsung, described by George Bernard Shaw as ‘the greatest epic since Homer,’ as the poem where he welded his own social vision: ‘There budding from the unlikely stalk of tough Norse heroic legend, is the social dream which was to define itself into a Socialist programme and become the vision of all the political writing of Morris’s last twenty years’ (Magnus Magnússon, xxi).This then is ‘what we came forth for to see that our hearts are so hot with desire’ (“Iceland First Seen”).
ii) The Personal and the Spiritual
Apart from a short-lived Socialist Diary covering about three months in early 1887, Morris’s Icelandic Journals are the only reflections on his life written primarily for a personal audience. As such their unmediated style shines a particularly intimate light on him at a time of personal turmoil. MacCarthy explains their significance:
this is the only part of Morris’s life for which we have his own record of day to day events written with a sympathetic female reader in his mind. The journal has a wonderful immediacy, consisting not just of its conventional traveller’s descriptions of the passing scene, though these must rate amongst the best prose Morris ever wrote. Its peculiar quality arises from the subtext, revealing the responses he kept from his fellow travellers, emotions that in a sense subverted the male camaraderie, whole networks of private apprehensions and joys. (MacCarthy 1994, 281)
Morris wrote his 1871 journal at high speed and in conditions that were far from ideal. Making it readable for its intended audience, Georgiana, was more of a struggle, and he only completed the fair copy (Fitzwilliam Library 25 C) days before his departure on his second trip in 1873. The traveller’s first view of Iceland was on the morning of 13 July from the deck of the Diana, which had brought them from Scotland via the Faroe Islands. Morris records the moment:
It was about three a.m. when I went up on deck for that great excitement, the first sight of a new land. The morning was grey still, and cloudy out to sea but though the sun had not yet shone over the mountains on the east into the firth at whose mouth we were, yet patches of it lay upon the high peaks southwest of where we were: on our left was a dark brown ragged rocky island, Papey, and many small skerries about it, and beyond that we saw the mainland, a terrible shore indeed: a great mass of dark grey mountains worked into pyramids and shelves, looking as if they had been built and half ruined; they were striped with snow high up, and wreaths of cloud dragged across them here and there, and above them were two peaks and a jagged ridge of pure white snow. (Collected Works 8: 19)
Throughout, the journals focus on descriptions of sky, sea and emerging landscapes, interspersed with observations on who would have been there a thousand years earlier rather than the people of his day – ‘the grey peak is Svinafell, under which dwelt Flossi the Burner,’ ‘ahead there lies now a low shelf of rock between jokull and sea, and that is Ingolfshofdi, where Ingolf first sat down in the autumn of 874’ – but of the locals, practically nothing. The trading station Djúpivogur, their first landfall, is encapsulated as just ‘half a dozen wooden roofs, a flagstaff and two schooners lying at anchor.’ The contrast between this spare prose and the impact this first sighting of Iceland had on his poem “Iceland First Seen” is striking.
Lo from our loitering ship a new land at last to be seen;
Ah! What came we forth for to see that our hearts are so hot with desire?
In this there is a much more personal response, one that MacCarthy characterises as being of awe, alarm and self-questioning, an internal debate between horror and hopefulness (MacCarthy 1994: 286). Morris’s knowledge of and instinctive sympathy for the sagas had instilled in him a desire to see the land in which these remarkable narratives had been played out, and indeed travellers like Morris, drawn to Iceland primarily by its literary heritage, frequently saw their visits as having an element of pilgrimage, a term Morris quite readily accepts for his own adventure: ‘I was quite ready to break my neck in my quality of pilgrim to the holy places of Iceland; to be drowned in Markfleet or squelched in climbing up Drangey seemed to come quite in the days work’ (CW 8: 67). Indeed, in “The Early Literature of the North,” Morris introduces the subject by referring to his affection for Icelanders, whose “country is to me a Holy Land” (LeMire 1969, 181).
Phillippa Bennett argues that the spiritual nature of the experience was crucial to Morris’s understanding of the place: “Whilst other visitors looked at, rode through, took samples from, sketched and wrote about Iceland, Morris wondered at it” (Bennett, 62). She identifies a series of occasions on his journeys when he experienced moments of ‘infinite wonder’ such as when on his arrival at the Þingmeads plain, the site of the AlÞing established in 930, he wrote, “that thin thread of insight and imagination, which comes so seldom to us, and is such a joy when it comes, did not fail me at this first sight of the greatest marvel and most storied place of Iceland” (25 August 1871, CW 8: 168). Bennett argues that this epiphanic response explains the notable influence of Iceland’s landscape on the series of romances he wrote near the end of his life.
With his last romances, Morris is credited with being a major figure in the emergence of the science fiction and fantasy genres that were developed in the twentieth century by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, and which include figures as diverse as H. G. Wells and recent American writers Ursula Le Guin and Marge Piercy. Morris wrote a series of seven fantasies at the end of his life which can be broadly divided into two groups: The Story of the Glittering Plain, considered to be the most Icelandic of Morris’s prose narratives; The Roots of the Mountains and The House of the Wolfings,5 written between 1888 and 1890, a relatively heroic group; and from 1894, a further four volumes, The Wood Beyond the World, The Well at the World’s End, The Water of the Wondrous Isles and The Sundering Flood, all in a more romantic style. The Sundering Flood was left uncompleted on his deathbed.
The presence of Icelandic landscapes in these romances is clear, with striking similarities between passages in the Journals and Morris’s final narratives. Bennett remarks that ‘It is in the mountainous regions of the last romances that this wondering engagement with the landscape is at its most intense. This is by no means surprising in the context of the marvelling responses that mountains have for centuries evoked in the human mind as geological structures representative in Ruskin’s words of “a link between heaven and earth”’ (Bennett, 65). She further argues that the tenacious impact that Iceland’s mountains maintained on Morris’s imagination and emotions meant that mountains provided some of the most memorable landscapes in the last romances, especially the Great Mountains in The Well at the World’s End. Bennett also identifies significant Icelandic influence in the landscapes of The Story of the Glittering Plain and The Sundering Flood, concluding that ‘Iceland thus provides the uncompromising terrains which simultaneously test and intensify the protagonists’ wondering engagement with the natural world in these final narratives, and in his letters and journals there is a distinct sense that the country functioned in a similar way for Morris during his own extensive travels across its landscape’ (Bennett, 72).
In her introduction to the Journals, May Morris suggests that Morris experienced something profound in Iceland, particularly on his second journey. The strangeness of the land had worn off by then, leading to a sort of detachment, in which ‘he had withdrawn into the frame of mind in which he saw the wilderness in its real loneliness, awful, unloveable and remote from human life – the elemental horrors had seized upon him and perhaps he saw sights and heard sounds from another world than that in which he and his fellow travellers were moving’ (CW 8: xxxiii). Ruth Levitas’s direct experience confirms this quality in the present day (Levitas 2014, 14). Describing her visit to Iceland in 2013, she foregrounded the transcendental nature of the experience in a landscape that is thin in the literal sense, with ‘The earth’s crust ruptured by boiling mud, spouts of water, volcanoes.’ She also found ‘the landscape thin in that other sense of numinous. Here the barrier between the physical world and some other dimension seems a mere veil through which you could, quite easily slip into blue’s transcendent promise of infinite possibility and touch, finally, what it is that is missing’ (Levitas 2014, 14).
iii) The Journalist, the Poet and the ‘Travel Writer’
In his 1962 Icelandic Jaunt, John Purkis considers the Journals to be Morris’s ‘most successful application of his principles in writing English prose; clarity and the dislike of the ornate – the return to simplicity in furniture design mirrored in the drive to simplicity and virility in words and syntax’ (Purkis 1962, 6). In doing so, he argues that Morris devises an example of ‘anti-travel writing’ by adopting what he characterises as a ‘throwaway attitude’ to the experience, ‘avoiding vague gush over “the wonders of Iceland,”’ and as a result, Morris has in the Journals, partly by accident, created one of his great books. As he puts it: ‘Morris … this strange combination of poet and cook traverses the deserts of lava, plunges into strong flowing glacier-fed rivers, crawls painfully through the caves of the Fire Giant, endures sleet, snow, fog and volcanic dust, carefully records all that happens for posterity and emerges at the end of this physical and emotional purgatory a bigger man having taken to himself as carapace the craggy unyielding landscape of Iceland, and forming his character thereafter on the model of its courageous and active heroes’ (Purkis 1962, 5).
Far from being ‘anti-travel writing,’ this approach has practically become the norm in the intervening years. Purkis’s description of Morris’s approach to the experience of travel could be that of Beat Generation writer Hunter S. Thompson – Morris as first gonzo journalist? MacCarthy is sympathetic to this characterisation too. Morris travels with the journalist’s and novelist’s antennae: ‘What makes him so compelling and believable as a travel writer is his delight in the unexpected detail. The rainbows in Iceland are like no other rainbows; flat and segmental instead of arced and soaring. They lie low over the country and they appear to follow you. From the cliff top at Búlandshofði Morris watches a seal eating a salmon; “a black head down in the green sea, dubbing away at a big fish”’ (MacCarthy 1994, 305).
Morris visited two areas of Iceland on both journeys: Þingvellir, home of Iceland’s democratic soul the AlÞing [Plate 12]; and the Þórsmörk valley, an area in southern Iceland known both for its associations with the Njáls saga and for the dramatic landscapes of the Markarfljót and Krossá valleys, whose rivers meet at Þórsmörk before flowing across a huge flood plain to the sea [Plate 13]. Even more than at present, the Þórsmörk valley was in Morris’s time hemmed in by steep cliffs and the towering glaciers of Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull (whose volcano sprang to world-wide attention when it erupted in 2010).
Morris was enchanted by Þórsmörk. He spent two days exploring the area in July 1871. His journal entry for 22 July records his impressions of entering the valley:
[W]e rode over the shingle which sloped a little up to the cliffs, on to the other shingle, which marked where the valley was free from water by being covered with bright yellow-green moss, thickly sprinkled with pink and red stone-crop of a very beautiful kind: the mountains on our right were both steep and high and just before us ran up into a huge wall with inaccessible clefts in it projecting into the valley and crowned by a glacier that came tumbling over it: but round the valley-ward tongue of this, lay fair grassy slopes, under a cliff of red with [volcanic] burning, where we rested presently gladly enough, for the day was very hot by now: this is called Goðaland, and a glacier above [the afore-]mentioned Goðalands-Jokull. Then on again, and past this the cliffs were much higher especially on this side, and most unimaginably strange: they overhung in places much more than seemed possible; they had caves in them just like the hell mouths in thirteenth-century illuminations’ (CW 8: 52–53).
Two years later he returned for a more extensive exploration, from 23 to 28 July. On the first journey, Magnússon had introduced Morris and his party to a local guide, a saddler called Jón Jónsson, a distant relation of his wife who lodged at a farm called Lithendcot, ‘a man deep in old lore: he was very shy but seemed a very good fellow: he talked a little English and offered to guide us the next day to a place called Thorsmark, a wood up in that terrible valley to the east of the Lithe’ (CW 8: 48). This time Jón, who was famous for his knowledge of the remote areas of Iceland, especially Þórsmörk, took them on a much more extensive exploration, ‘this wild place being a sort of pet enthusiasm of his’ (CW 8: 55). On 26 July they reached Þórsmörk on horseback, ‘and after two hours very rough ride including the venomous little Steinholtsá came to the smooth grass of Goðaland just where a ridge divided the two valleys of Markfleet and Crossá, and presently we were in that awful place: all along we had had before us of course that terrible ice-capped wall I have told you of before: though I remembered it so well from last time my wonder at it had lost none of its freshness’ (CW 8: 202). Having got to a point ‘about opposite to where we mounted up before to the glacier-tail, having crossed Krossá once, Jón declared it would be impassable higher up, and we turned perforce into a little green valley … and fell a-riding over a most tumbled set of hills and dales of sand with huge masses of conglomerate stone-making monstrous caves every here, then and there; now and again were patches of deep grass sprinkled with white clover, and the beautiful horned sheep were feeding everywhere’ (CW 8: 202). As the day progressed, they climbed until ‘one could see how the whole place really went and the great glaciers above the rugged wall of rock running up in one place into the flat cone of Eyjafell: but first where the glaciers did not come low down was a great table-land at the top of the cliffs with peaks of its own and its own plain below them, and from that the buttresses of the higher dreadful ice-crowned mountains went up, and most marvellous all this was to see, a world of mountains, like, above the mountains, all utterly inaccessible apparently’ (CW 8: 202–203).
Morris was more accurate than perhaps he realised. Jon had taken them on a route that was just opening up as the glaciers began to retreat after over three centuries of the ‘Little Ice Age’ and was becoming accessible for the first time since the fourteenth century. The area was unmapped and its features unnamed. After Morris returned to England, Jon was consulted on significant features by Icelandic map makers, and he named the area they traversed Morrisheiði, ‘Morris heath,’ in honour of his important guest. (Stott 2017, 21) The name remains on Icelandic maps to this day, though a misspelling in the 1920s has now rendered it ‘Morinsheiði.’6
It is not just as a journalist or ‘travel writer’ that Morris brings Iceland alive to readers. His poetry is equally inspirational, and he combined that with a knowledge of the sagas unrivalled by other British visitors of the time. This is best seen in his poem “Gunnar’s Howe Above the House at Lithend.” The original version, sent to a Danish publisher in 1872 but rejected on the grounds that it was too gloomy, with too many references to grey (a very important colour to Morris, especially as a designer of textiles), had been simply titled “Gunnar’s Howe” on the grounds that everybody, that is, everybody who was familiar with the sagas, knew where that was. The ‘above the house at Lithend’ was a compromise with his public when it finally appeared in his 1891 Poems by the Way almost 20 years later.
Ye who have come o’er the sea to behold this grey minster of lands,
The grey mound should open and show him glad-eyed without grudging or pain.
Morris records his first visit to the site on 21 July (he visited again in 1873):‘we come at last to 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 Njála where Gunnar sings in his tomb; the sweet grassy flowery valley with a few big grey stones about it has a steep bank above, which hides the higher hilltop; but down the hill the slope is shallow, and about midways of it is the Howe; from the top of which you can see looking to right and left all along the Lithe, and up into the valley of Thorsmark’ (CW 8: 48–49).
After their time in Þórsmörk and on the way back to their camp, the party were waylaid by an intellectual local farmer (not so uncommon in Iceland) anxious to meet Morris and discuss the Njáls saga, seeing him as an itinerant poet in the Icelandic tradition and referring to him as a ‘skald’ (bard). Indeed an Icelandic newspaper had welcomed his arrival as the ‘English Skald’ (MacCarthy 1994, 298). Referred to as ‘Vilhjálmur Morris’ in Iceland, Morris was seen as something of a celebrity because of his championing of their old literature, and he retained the affection of Icelanders throughout his life as a result of his active campaigning for their interests during the 1882 famine. With Magnússon he established a Famine Relief Appeal which raised half as much money as was raised in all Denmark, then Iceland’s colonial ruler.
Morris’s Impact in Iceland
For a population of only 78,000, Iceland was amazingly well served by newspapers and literary and cultural magazines, and when Morris died in 1896, there were a number of obituaries and generous tributes published in Iceland. Ruth Ellison (1988) reports that six newspapers and one magazine recorded Morris’s death, some with substantial obituaries. The weekly Fjalkonan, which like all Icelandic newspapers was compact in size, reported current foreign news crisply, thus ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury has died,’ or ‘Presidential elections are in progress in the United States, outcome not yet known,’ but Morris’s death merited a two-paragraph article of over 160 words. Recalling Morris’s visits, Matthías Jochumsson wrote in his obituary, ‘No artist more renowned than he has graced our country with his presence in this century,’ and further described his contribution to Iceland: ‘Art, sagas, freedom, goodness of heart, were the philosophies of this great man. His excellent works and translations from our literary heritage will continue to carry the name of our country and his around the world … The name Vilhjálmur Morris should be written in gold on the shield of Icelandic history’ (Jochumsson, reprinted in WMSN, Iceland supplement, 23). While “Iceland First Seen” did not appear in England until 1891, it was published in Icelandic in 1872 and was well known in the country.
At the time of Morris’s death, Jochumsson also wrote a commemorative poem which remained unpublished until 1923. Celebrating him as the champion of both the old northern muse and the modern socialist cause, it is written in Old Icelandic meter and features revered Icelandic poet-historians such as Snorri Sturluson and saga heroes, including characters from “The Lovers of Gudrun,” who all sing Morris’s praises, and ends with Morris dying a heroic death (like his Volsung, Sigurd), but living on in the mind of Iceland:
May high in praise Braggi’s art-rich hero,
Sustaining Morris’s Legacy
Back in England, the task of sustaining Morris’s memory and building his legacy fell mainly on his daughter May and his biographer J. W. Mackail. May spent a large part of the next 15 years drawing together and editing his Collected Works, which appeared in 24 volumes between 1910 and 1915. The Journals of travels in Iceland 1871–1873 appeared as volume eight in 1911, the first time that these had been published. However, before the complete Works had seen the light of day, the First World War had broken out, and immediately after the Great War, the celebration of Old Norse-inspired heroism largely went out of fashion in Britain. May, ever loyal to her father’s memory, finally made a trip to Iceland herself in 1924, some 50 years after Morris’s, followed by two further journeys in 1926 and 1931 (Gislason 2014, Jonsdottir 1986). Handwritten diaries of these journeys have recently been discovered; neatly written and extensively illustrated with May’s drawings and contemporary postcard scenes, they record her and her companion Miss Lobb’s journeys throughout Iceland [Plate 14, Figs 5.1 and 5.2]. These journeys were very much in her father’s footsteps, as they paid visits by automobile to both Þingvellir and Þórsmörk in the first ten days of their first trip. They managed to meet a number of now very elderly people who had met Morris in the 1870s, and at the end of the final journey, May signed off her last diary, ‘The last of Iceland – my father’s “holy land” and grown very dear to me’ (May Morris 1931).
May Morris maintained contact with people she met there up to her death, donating five volumes of Morris’s works to the Snorri Sturluson Museum and Library at Reykholt, inscribed and dated ‘Kelmscott 1932’ (Stott 2013, 19 July) and a further 400 books to the library in Húsavik in 1936. She was awarded the Order of the Falcon by the Icelandic Government in 1930 as part of its celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the Althing, in recognition of her contribution to promoting Iceland abroad.
A decade or so after the end of the First World War, however, according to Peter Davidson, ‘The compass needle of the 1930s pointed unequivocally northwards’ (Davidson, 83). And plenty of writers and artists travelled north in the 1930s, including the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who very nearly died in Spitzbergen, and British modernist artist Eric Ravilious, a lover of the sparseness of northern landscapes, who died in an air-sea rescue off Iceland in 1942, having been posted there as a war artist. But the literary baton was picked up by modernist poets Louis MacNeice and W. H.Auden. The latter’s father, G.A. Auden, was something of an expert on Old Norse myths, possessed several Morris works in his library and even corresponded with Eiríkr Magnússon on the likelihood of ‘Auden’ being a derivation of the Old Norse name ‘Audun,’ so Wystan would have grown up in a saga-influenced household. Although this was one origin of his attraction to Iceland, Auden was also inspired by Morris’s Journals, and in this context was more of a travel writer, a genre that has been described as ‘the most important literary form of the 1930s’ (Youngs 2006, 68).
Auden and fellow poet Louis MacNeice travelled to Iceland in 1936 in a context in which Old Norse mythology, and arguably Iceland as a place, were being appropriated by the Nazis. The three-month journey was recorded in their 1937 Letters from Iceland, the structure of which is resolutely modernist; a mixture of serious advice for tourists; an anthology of quotations, verses and letters, including one supposedly addressed from one schoolgirl to another; diary entries; and oddly-perspectived and mainly out of focus photographs, it is by turns camp, serious, comic, factual and fanciful. It remains an important and innovative travel text. Letters from Iceland is in many ways a stark contrast to Morris’s work, though its spirit is partly modelled on Morris’s Journals. In mock-comic verses in the “Letter to Lord Byron,” Auden places himself in a tradition of Icelandic travellers who style themselves as poor successors to more famous predecessors:
And even here the steps I flounder in
In the poem “Letter to Graham and Ann Shepard,” MacNeice explicitly identifies Morris’s choice to travel north as a rejection of the ‘soft option’ of the Mediterranean:
Yet further if you can stand it, will set forth
The Journals themselves receive a favourable mention in the collection of ephemera titled “Sheaves from Sagaland.” In Letters, Auden makes it quite clear that he aims to write a fresh, alternative kind of travel book: ‘The trouble about travel books as a rule, even the most exciting ones, is that the actual events are all extremely like each other – meals – sleeping accommodation – fleas – dangers etc, and the repetition becomes boring. The usual alternative, which is essays on life prompted by something seen, the kind of thing Lawrence and Aldous Huxley do, I am neither clever enough, nor sensitive enough to manage’ (Auden & NacNeice, 140). But Morris was.
By the time he had written Letters, Auden was already somewhat ambivalent about Iceland. It was as if he felt it had been spoiled before he got there – a view dramatically reinforced about half-way through the book, where in chapter nine he records finding himself staying in the same hotel as Hermann Goering’s brother. He comments, ‘The Nazis have a theory that Iceland is the cradle of the Germanic culture. Well if they want a community like that of the sagas they are welcome to it. I love the sagas, but what a rotten society they describe, a society with only the gangster virtues’ (Auden & MacNeice 1967, 117). Apparently Goering and his party, on a reconnaissance of Iceland in hope of finding the true Aryan race, were very disappointed with what they found. While admiring the apparent racial purity of the flaxen-haired Icelandic children, they considered the rather poor and not very hierarchical society (too similar to the egalitarian Canadian-style frontier spirit, and lacking in high culture) too degenerate for their taste.
Morris’s conception of Iceland as a land of democracy, equality and heroic masculinity was widely shared for 50 years by liberal intellectuals interested in the birth of democratic institutions as well as the romance of a rival set of myths to those of Greece and Rome. His vision of Iceland attracted visitors to the country in a steady stream – mainly to visit saga sites, but also the great natural wonders – from Victorian times right up to the Second World War. But this positive image of Iceland as the land of the sagas basically died as a result of the baleful influence of the Nazis and the Second World War. The sagas were now considered too embarrassingly male and all about killing people, and no longer fitted with the post-war social democratic sentiment. Iceland itself arguably benefitted economically from the War, its location being a crucial staging post in the Battle of the Atlantic with both British and US forces successively occupying it to pre-empt the Nazis from doing so themselves. Bringing investment and money with them, the British and Americans used its deep, sheltered and ice-free fjords as warship and submarine bases to protect merchant shipping in the Arctic convoys. After centuries of colonial occupation by Norway and then Denmark, Iceland gained its independence in 1944, but then proceeded to drop off the map of European perception, literally in some cases. Perceived as a cold, isolated place, and not really considered as part of Europe, it was excised from some maps entirely.
The 1960s Revival of Fantasy Fiction
Interest in Morris’s writings has waxed and waned over the years. His political rehabilitation came with the 1955 publication of E. P. Thompson’s William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. Almost in parallel, the cultural and intellectual upheavals of the 1960s were a moment when Norse-inspired heroism and the mysticism of the ‘summer of love’ combined to make Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series the go-to fantasy novels for a generation of baby boomers on both sides of the Atlantic. Morris’s own fantasy novels also saw a dramatic revival in interest at this time. The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series republished four of them between 1969 and 1974 with suitably hippie-style cover illustrations for their new audience, with the others being republished in the Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy Library between 1973 and 1979. All seven are still readily available today on Amazon, in paperback editions or on Kindle.
Morris the ‘Travel Writer’ Rediscovered
It is not surprising that Morris’s Journals too was finally published as a standalone book at this time. In 1969, the Centaur Press published the Icelandic Journals of William Morris with an introduction by the well-known journalist and travel writer James (now Jan) Morris. James Morris characterised the Journals as ‘a travel book in the purest sense – a diary of movement, describing a journey step by step or meal by meal,’ (James Morris, xvi) in what was almost certainly an intended dig at the Auden and MacNeice volume. While the Journals were reviewed favourably, it was as ‘travel writing.’ Geoffrey Grigson asserted that ‘The best book of travel written by an English poet is William Morris’s Icelandic Journal [sic] which is also one of the least known … he arrived bereft, his marriage in disarray, in emptiness of love without hope. So Iceland entered him, lava, gravel, tufa, flow, mountain – detail clearly seen, and the condition of man meditated upon, past and present, between grizzly and glum immensity, vast chilled indifference and tiny nooks of green gentleness’ (Greenlaw, ii).
It was another 25 years before Fiona MacCarthy’s 1994 magisterial biography William Morris: A Life for Our Time introduced Morris to new audiences, integrating his political, artistic, poetic and environmental concerns –and Iceland was a significant element in the story. MacCarthy describes his experience of arriving at Thingvellir: ‘It was a sunny afternoon. They rode along the narrow pass, dismounting to lead their ponies down steep slopes. They saw on their left the small, peaked hill known as the Maiden’s Seat, from which the women used to watch the games in the Hoffmannflöt (the Chieftains Plain) below. Then suddenly beneath them was the great grey plain itself, stretching out to the west. Morris had hoped for the moment and found it. Þingvellir was “a beautiful and historical looking place.” He saw it with his usual pictorial sense of history envisaging the cohorts of the tribesmen, the unfurling of their banners, a crowded, surging, almost operatic scene’ (MacCarthy 1994, 306–307). MacCarthy observes that ‘Morris found much to admire in the primitive democracy of Iceland. So much so that he would explain it in laborious detail to his Socialist audiences of the 1880s, making the implied comparison between Victorian Britain and this orderly and equitable social system which respected the personal rights of all freemen. Morris dwelt especially on the fact that crime in his contemporary sense had no meaning in Iceland, where morality was enforced purely by public opinion. People could be outlawed but they could not be arrested. He returned to these themes of criminality and violence in News from Nowhere, the utopian novel which is infused with Morris’s Icelandic ideals’ (MacCarthy 1994, 307–308).
A new edition of the Icelandic Journals was published in 1996, the centenary of Morris’s death, with a foreword by MacCarthy and an introduction by ‘Mastermind’ host Magnus Magnússon. Between them these books have revived interest in Morris and given some focus to travel writing about Iceland.
Poets Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell’s 1996 Moon Country: Further Reports from Iceland echoes quite explicitly the work of Auden and MacNeice in Letters from Iceland, hence the subtitle ‘further reports.’ The book’s structure reflects that of their illustrious predecessors right down to the elaborate kit list. This tradition has been recast by several subsequent writers, including Joanna Kavenna in The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule (2005) Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough in Beyond the Northlands: Viking voyages and the Old Norse Sagas (2016) which like the Vikings, ranges far beyond the northlands, and Sarah Moss in Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland (2012). Moss and family arrived in 2009 shortly after the time of the ‘pots and pans revolution’ and the worldwide financial crash, known as the kreppa in Iceland. They experienced the eruption of Ejyafjallajökull, the volcano that grounded all European flights for a week. It is a take on life in Iceland at a time of crisis, when Icelanders were being forced to look at themselves under the spotlight of worldwide attention, and while Moss was at the same time engaging with the demands of two small children in an unfamiliar culture. Names for the Sea mixes travel writing with autobiography. But for contextualisation, Moss reaches for Morris. Her first chapter is entitled ‘Iceland first seen,’ and in it she reproduces Morris’s famous poem. Kavenna spends only a small part of her journey in Iceland – there are plenty of other contenders for the designation of ‘Thule,’ and she visits them all, but Morris follows her around in Iceland. Visiting Thingvellir, she combines the modernday cinematic with her imagination of Morris’s reaction to the place: ‘he imagined immense crowd scenes with thousands of extras, Viking warriors lurking in every rift. Morris worked himself into a thrilling frenzy, gasping at the cracked earth and the rivers of fire’ (Kavenna, 92).
Lavinia Greenlaw uses Morris’s 1871 Journals to bend and shape our conceptions both of them, and the nature of travel itself, in Questions of Travel; William Morris in Iceland (2011), a book which uses the Journals as a means of meditation on the wider issues of travel. In Questions of Travel, Greenlaw counterposes on facing pages lengthy extracts from Morris’s work with a short phrase, to which she adds her own reflections, sometimes in prose, sometimes in poetry. Thus, on 8 July 1871, while still in Edinburgh’s Granton Harbour before departure, Morris frets on the chaos of waiting, ‘the luggage undiscoverable.’ Greenlaw extracts this phrase and riffs;
Missing the wherewithal
The bravado of travel.
Over 191 pages, Morris and Greenlaw skirmish, Morris describing his experiences at length, Greenlaw picking out a telling phrase and re-framing it: ‘Ingeniously useless,’ ‘nothing mean or prosaic,’ ‘nowhere to put things,’ ‘the astounding nature of the road.’ She subtly extracts the general issues of travel that get lost in the details that Morris presents us with on his travels. Tony Pinkney puts it this way: ‘What Greenlaw does to Morris is effectively what Roland Barthes did to Balzac in his wonderful study S/Z in 1971; break the primary text up into fragments and offer a subtle commentary on those discrete units.’ Greenlaw, in her introductory note to the text, seems to agree, ‘It is the document of a journey that becomes a description of all journeys: the tensions that set in once the decision has been made, the hope that something will keep you at home coupled with the fear of missing your plane or boat or train, the realisation that you are dis-equipped however much luggage you have brought along with you, the dropping away of habits and coordinates, the ease with which you cobble together new ones, and the point at which you stop travelling and start heading home’ (Greenlaw, xxiii). We can all relate to these insights. My own Icelandic journey started with the careful photocopying of my passport details and a panicky realisation on the bus to the airport that I had left the passport itself on the photocopier at home (8 July, Stott 2013). Greenlaw is ambitious on Morris’s behalf, characterising her innovative approach to the original text as an intention ‘to direct the reader towards what Morris didn’t know he was writing about’ (Greenlaw, xxiii).
If this all sounds just a little patronising, Greenlaw nonetheless considers Morris’s Journals to be exemplary. Writing on one of the introductory panels in the 2014–15 National Portrait Gallery exhibition on Morris, ‘Anarchy and Beauty,’ she says, ‘Morris never stopped testing himself or the world in the pursuit of the answer to the question of how to live. His heroic vision was matched by a gift for clear-sighted description, shown at its best in the journals of his travels in Iceland, an inspiring account of why we travel and why we return.’
Morris’s Influence on Fantasy Genres; Literature, Games, Comics and Film
Contemporary travel writing and fantasy merge in Alex Jones’s novel Morris in Iceland (2009). The novel relocates Morris’s travels to a Sydney suburb where it records the activities of a group of students who are wrestling with turning Morris’s Journals into an opera to be performed in a local park. The narrative is interspersed with lengthy extracts from the real Journals and features a fantasy ‘second Morris’ figure who weaves imagined events in Morris’s life into scenes from the sagas. Reviewing the novel, Gary Aho is unimpressed, observing of the opera scene, ‘Disappointing to say the least, this is grand opera become masque, and then appendage to a strange wedding in a public park on a hot summer afternoon in Sydney’ (Aho, 2013: 110). The novel seems to assume that readers will have both a highly developed knowledge of literary theory and a very good knowledge of the life and works of Morris – a niche market. But it does exemplify just how diverse is the range of Morris’s contemporary influences.
However, the themes explored by Bennett in her analysis of the influence of Iceland, its landscape and its sagas on Morris’s late romances have perhaps had their most significant cultural impacts in the cinema and in computer games. Norse fantasy has made a very successful transition into the cinema and the worlds of computer games and graphic novels. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has been the dominant literary reworking of Old Norse myth in the past 50 years and has been described as the most popular work of fiction of the twentieth century. It has inspired a powerful and popular series of films by Peter Jackson in the twenty-first century (Lord of the Rings trilogy, 2001–2003). In From Asgard to Valhalla (2008), Heather O’Donoghue considers that it derives its legacy very much from Morris’s late romances.
Fantasy writing, itself a blurring of the line between adult and children’s fiction exemplified by Lord of the Rings, has strikingly morphed into the sub-genres of fantasy comics and games. O’Donoghue argues that it is relatively easy to place Tolkien’s work in a line of descent from the utopian fantasy writings of Morris and his reaction against Wagner’s Ring cycle on the one hand and, on the other, to the innumerable ensuing fantasy novels with a Norse or vaguely medieval setting ‘which involve dwarves and giants, and highly symbolic dangerous rings and broken swords which need mending’ (O’Donoghue, 188). In this context, graphic novels, comics, computer games and role-playing games such as ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ clearly owe a good deal to Tolkien, but their links to Morris are generally less clear.
However, this older Nordic saga tradition has also thrived in more mainstream culture, not only in Tolkien-derived fantasy gaming but also, and most spectacularly, in the TV series Game of Thrones (GoT), the latest series of which is estimated to have had an audience of well over seven million per episode in Britain. Game of Thrones derives its title from volume one of the epic fantasy novel series by George R. R. Martin on which the series is based, A Song of Ice and Fire (1996–ongoing). At April 2015, the five books in the series had sold more than 60 million copies worldwide and been translated into at least 45 languages. The GoT Wikipedia page is amongst the ten most visited sites in English, German, French, Italian and Russian, and GoT has been described as the world’s single most popular mass cultural product today.
A Song of Ice and Fire author George R. R. Martin is known to admire Morris’s The House of the Wolfings, and while the GoT series, the TV adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, focuses to an almost mind-boggling degree on violence, blood lust and sex, alongside these motifs run narratives of family sagas and battles and a pervasive concern, more prominent in the books than the TV series, with how communities should be ruled. This preoccupation traces its lineage from late-nineteenth-century debates about the respective merits of different societies reflected in Morris’s fantasy writings: where wealth should be concentrated, the (im)permanence of benevolent tyrannies, the workability of anarchist models of governance, the nature and morality of serf and slave societies and the recurrence of fantasies of utopian future societies. In the Morris tradition are to be found in A Song of Ice and Fire both the Free Folk from north of the Wall, who call those south of it “kneelers” because of their obedience to authority, and the Brotherhood Without Banners, a guerrilla force who, like Robin Hood, stand up for the vulnerable and the poor against the rich and powerful and defend ordinary people caught up in the feuds that form the basis of the narrative. There is no shortage of comment in cyberspace on the links between Morris and GoT. For example, in response to Guillame Durocher’s 2015 blog, one 2016 post commented, ‘IMO [in my opinion] everyone should pass on Martin and Tolkien and go back to fantasy’s founder – William Morris. His epic poem ‘The Story of Sigurd the Volsung’ has all the pros of Game of Thrones with none of the cons; it’s probably [the] greatest long poem in English since Paradise Lost.’ The links to Morris’s influence in fantasy novels and computer games are speculative but are fruitful areas for future research.
The impact of GoT on Iceland has also been very significant. ‘Game of Thrones’ tours, which visit sites where filming took place, particularly in the north and east of the country, are booming, and are part of the reason for the doubling of tourism numbers between 2011, when the first series came out, and 2016. Iceland’s infrastructure is struggling with the impact of the unexpected arrival of mass tourism.
The significance of Morris’s contemporary relevance in Iceland was brought into focus during a trip organised by the William Morris Society in 2013, when the group was instructed and entertained one evening by the country’s recently retired Minister for Education, Science and Culture in the 2009–13 Left Government, Katrin Jakobsdottir, leader of the Green-Left Movement or Vinstri Graen (VG)7. In a lecture entitled “Good afternoon Mr Morris,” she demonstrated an extraordinary knowledge not only of Morris’s range of contributions to society, culture and politics, but also of their continuing impacts in Iceland. She structured her talk after the time travel of News from Nowhere around the idea of Morris’s reappearance in present-day Iceland, ‘our demented age,’ where he joins her and her two brothers in a discussion over dinner. The themes of their ‘discussion’ ranged over what she considered to be likely to be Morris’s chief interests on his return: the survival of the Icelandic way of life, including the way Icelandic embroidery has influenced modern Icelandic design; the preservation of historic houses and the pressures of redevelopment; Morris’s views on how to build new businesses based on beauty and quality; the importance of the local as opposed to the mass-produced; the difficulties faced by socialism, particularly ‘the fragmentation that seems to be a constant of the political left wing, exactly as he experienced in the late nineteenth century’; democracy and the role of the media, including social media, and the experience of direct democracy in Iceland’s recent history; the chasm between the power of big corporations and the working class; the integration in perspective between ‘domestic beautification’ and the class struggle and equality; sustainability and the intrinsic value of wilderness; and finally, his likely views on Game of Thrones. It is hard to imagine her counterparts in the United Kingdom or the United States being able to give such a talk, or indeed anyone without specialist knowledge of Morris so precisely addressing his interests or contemporary relevance to their country.
In a completely different context, Morris is still very present in Icelandic culture. The 1967 BBC Omnibus programme film Dante’s Inferno, about Rossetti’s relationship with Lizzie Siddall, directed by Ken Russell and starring Oliver Reed as Rossetti and Andrew Faulds as Morris, has been something of a staple of Russell fan retrospectives. Less predictable was finding extracts from it being broadcast in a ramshackle corrugated iron shed decorated inside and out with Morris wallpaper, on an ancient black-and-white television at the back of the ‘Norwegian House’ in Stykkishólmur where Morris himself stayed for several days in 1871 [Plate 15]. The house itself is now a museum of the town’s history with a ground floor art gallery. The ‘Morris shed’ turned out to be a temporary ‘installation’ (20 July: Stott 2013) and the centrepiece of the summer exhibition. The artwork assumes of its visitors more than a passing knowledge of Morris.
Morris’s cultural influence has changed substantially in the more than 120 years since his death. At the end of the nineteenth century, he was a towering figure, respected for his poetry, design, business acumen, printing innovation, conservation work, politics (by some) and his work in translating, reclaiming and reinterpreting the Icelandic sagas. His work with Magnússon, which bore fruit as the Saga Library, and his extended narrative poems such as Sigurd the Volsung, which became a school set text during his lifetime, were very much part of the Morris ‘persona’ and his legacy. As mentioned, the Victorian interest in Iceland and the sagas was intense. Morris rode that wave rather than creating it.
Morris’s journeys to Iceland were known about by his friends and associates, and insightful comrades would have been able to see the links between them and his subsequent political development. But of the journeys themselves there was no public consciousness. His two Icelandic poems had only been published four years earlier in Poems by the Way, and the Journals were still 15 years away from publication.
However, when they were finally published, taken in the context of Morris’s well-known interest in Iceland, its literature and history and the respect in which he was held, their influence was significant. Magnus Magnússon calls the Journals ‘a series of incomparable descriptions of the large drama and little lyrics of the Icelandic landscape, in language as taut and sinewy and sensuous as anything that has ever been written about Iceland.’ High praise from a native. The Journals have certainly inspired subsequent writers about Iceland, from Auden to Greenlaw, acting both as a point of departure and as a source of inspiration. The Journals also represent Morris at his most exposed emotionally, and the power of the writing has influenced the way travel writing as a literary form has developed. Morris’s contribution is sometimes explicitly acknowledged, but there remains an unmined seam of research to explore how much influence he had and its nature and development over time.
Equally important has been the impact of Morris’s experiences in Iceland as expressed in the late romances. Seen at the time of publication as rather slight in their significance, even as a retreat from politics by Morris, this fantasy genre has endured and has had enormous influence on a range of fantasy and sci-fi writers subsequently, many of whom have acknowledged their debt to Morris. Less explored has been the development of these genres into games, comics, graphic novels and film and other visual media, mainstays of contemporary popular culture. The links to Iceland are inevitably more speculative, and Iceland’s significance as a place is mediated through the prism of fantasy. Nevertheless, Morrisian themes and concerns, such as the nature and exercise of power and the way societies are or might be organised, emerge in books such as the A Song of Ice and Fire series and spin-off programmes such as Game of
Thrones. Whether there is any evidence of a clear intellectual link may be another area of fruitful research for Morris scholars.
A final word on the Iceland experience from Morris himself is appropriate. In the very last sentence of the very last entry of his 1871 Journals, as the party were disembarking back in Granton, Edinburgh, he summarised his experience, saying Iceland is ‘a marvellous, beautiful and solemn place, and where I had been in fact very happy’ (CW vol 8 185).
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Adapted from The Routledge Companion to William Morris, 2020, chapter 5, “`What came we forth for to see that our hearts are so hot with desire’: Morris and Iceland.”