Introduction to "The Fostering of Aslaug"
The Medieval Tale for December
Florence S. Boos
"The Fostering of Aslaug" depicts a benign and tranquil interlude in the dynastic wars of Morris's longer Scandinavian poems, and its heroine's grace is an emblem of resurgent natural beauty in the margins of a cruel and rapacious social order.
Shortly before she dies, Brynhild gives birth to Aslaug, her daughter by Sigurd. Brynhild's foster-father Heimir, an aged ruler, craftsman, and musician, spirits the orphaned child away from her parents' enemies in a large homemade harp, pausing from time to time to let little Aslaug frisk and dance. They stop one night at a rural cottage, and the avaricious bonder's wife Grima notices some gold cloth beneath Heimir's rags, and persuades her husband to kill him. This he reluctantly does, but he is troubled by the character of the man he has murdered, for "rather belike/Odin it was that I did strike," (ll. 457-58).
When the couple discover Aslaug in the harp, not gold, they reduce her to a life of servile drudgery and abuse. Grima ("mask") names the girl "Kráka" ("Crow") and forbids her to bathe, but the now-mute little girl grows into a young shepherdess who lives in Edenic solitude and harmony with nature. At seventeen, she views her image one day in a shallow lake, laughs musically, and speaks for the first time in the poem. She also decides to break her fostermother's taboo by bathing in the lake, and climbs a nearby hill, where she sees a handsomely decorated ship at anchor in the sea below.
When Aslaug returns to the cottage, she finds there sailors dispatched from the ship to buy provisions, and on their return to the ship they describe her in glowing terms to their captain Prince Ragnar. The smitten Ragnar orders Aslaug brought to the ship, asks her to stay with him, and even offers to kill Grima, but she declines and suggests instead that she wait for him to complete his current "deed of fame." He renews his proposal when he returns the following spring, and she gladly accepts, forgives her captors, leaves them gifts, and declines at first to wear any of her new clothes or jewels.
After their first night together, Aslaug describes to Ragnar a dream in which her parents blessed her marriage, and Ragnar narrates a complementary dream, in which Sigurd took a lily from Brynhild's breast as they emerged from a fiery ring and gave it to Ragnar, who recognized that the flower was Aslaug when he awoke. At the poem's end, the internal narrator asserts that the Battle of Hastings later atoned for Ragnar's death at the hands of a Northumbrian king.
The ultimate primary source for this tale was the Icelandic Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, which Morris published in translation with Eírikur Magnusson in 1870, though Morris's daughter May listed his proximate source as Benjamin Thorpe's Northern Mythology, and Thorpe drew in turn on Afzelius's Sago-Häfder and Müller's Sagabibliothek. Morris generally followed the first part of Thorpe's plot, but added some details from the Saga, which as Ralph Bellas has noted, was bound with the only available parchment M.S. of the Volsunga Saga in the Royal Library at Copenhagen. Morris also omitted one mildly sordid episode--found in both Northern Mythology and the Saga--in which Ragnar later schemes to divorce Kráka/Aslaug and marry a Swedish princess, and desists only when Kraka demonstrates her noble lineage.
In his modulations and modifications of the Saga, Morris also suppressed its accounts of Ragnar's intricate dynastic ambitions, and excised other harsh and eccentric details. Much as he had done with Holger/Ogier's character in "Ogier the Dane," he infused Ragnar's character with good faith and heroic purpose, and endowed Aslaug with prophetic insight and a magnanimous spirit. What emerged was another variant of the prince-and-peasantmaid motif Morris favored from his earliest youth.
Morris also excised much of the Saga's elaborate, gruesome, and repellent account of Heimir's murder. Grima's husband Aki in the Saga initially refuses to kill their guest, but gives in when she tells him that Heimir has offered to marry her, and will drive him from the farm if he fails to act. The miserable Aki then strikes only once, with bizarre consequences: the wounded Heimir's "agony caused such a din that the posts of the house were riven asunder, and it crashed down from above, and there was a mighty earthquake; and that was the end of his life." Morris's unnamed husband simply plunges a spear into the sleeping Heimir's breast, and hears a half-moan, half-sigh as he flees the scene.
Morris also lengthened the old hag Grima's tooth. The Saga couple force Kráka/Aslaug to share their hard life, but Kráka is less queruluously hostile than Morris's Grima, and more complex. She is, for example, willing to feed the hungry Heimir when she thinks he is a fellow peasant, but equally ready to murder him when she discovers he is not. Her bathing-proscription and efforts to disguise Kráka are clumsy attempts to conceal the fact that Kráka is not their daughter, and the couple behave rather civilly when the strangers appear. They even express some neutral interest in Kraka's preparations to meet her future husband.
Kráka, moreover, is much less generous and forgiving than Morris's Aslaug, who wishes Grima and her husband any happiness their narrow spirits will permit. Kráka has less to forgive, but wishes Grima and Aki "that every day that passes over you shall be worse than the one before, and the last worst of all; and now we must part" (Schlauch, 1978, 205). Kráka is also a seer, but her prophecies lack the dignity and moral integrity of Aslaug's visionary dreams. She reinforces her claims of royal parentage, for example, in the episode mentioned above, with a mundane prediction to Ragnar that their next child, a son, will bear a snakelike mark over his eye, and names the boy Sigurđur when this duly comes to pass.
The Saga-Ragnar's desire for Kráka is also crasser in assorted ways. He abruptly declares to his men, for example, that "it is my wish that [Kráka] be mine," and orders her to come before him "neither naked nor clad, and neither fasting nor fed; she shall not come alone, yet no man shall attend her," (Schlauch, 205). Kráka thinks about this a bit, then arrives before him dressed in a fish-net (neither naked nor clad), having eaten a leek (neither fasting nor fed), and accompanied by a dog (neither alone nor with a man). The dog has the ill-grace to bite the Prince's hand, however, and his men unceremoniously kill it. The Saga-Ragnar also threatens to punish the sailors severely if Kráka is less beautiful than her predecessor, tries to bribe Kráka with a gold-threaded dress woven by his former wife, and has no sympathy or respect for her peasant upbringing.
In "The Fostering of Aslaug," Morris recast The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok's dynastic chronicle as a consistent and unified myth of regeneration and renewal, and fashioned from it one of his best evocations of loss and poetic rebirth. He also suffused his quasi-historical encadrement of a small part of the Sigurd legend with loving, even luxuriant descriptions of natural and symbolic activities. When Aslaug, for example, removes her peasant garb and "arrays" herself as a lily of the field, "[s]he set hand to her hair of gold/ Until its many ripples rolled/ All over her, and no great queen! Was e'er more gloriously beseen" (11. 905-908).
Other aspects of the tale flowed naturally from Morris's decision to reinterpret the Saga as a myth of miracle and rebirth: the child-Aslaug's communion with music and nature, for example, and the dreamlike intensity of the lovers' later courtship and blessing. His economy and consistency of imagery, careful individuation of character, and attention to detail further refined the tale's gentle and moving affirmation of natural efflorescence and renewal.
In a final quasi-historical touch mentioned above, the narrator's concluding comments also embed this Scandinavian saga into a Saxon cycle, and this in turn into the Saxon-Norman culture of medieval England. Several of the Wanderers have therefore heard a mythic account of their historical antecedents.
See also Bellas, 306-19; Boos, 302-13; Calhoun, 200, 203; Kirchhoff, 206-207; Oberg, 43-45; and Silver, 68, 110.
A relatively polished early draft exists in British Library Add. M. S. 45,300, and the final version is in Huntington Library M. S. 6418.