William Morris Archive

The Medieval Tale for November

Florence S. Boos


[276] "The Lovers of Gudrun," derived from the Laxdaela Saga, is an Icelandic tragedy of desire and kinship destroyed by an "ethic" of revenge. Kiartan Olafson and Bodli Thorleikson, foster-brothers, are attracted to Gudrun Oswifsdaughter, who loves Kiartan, but marries Bodli when the more ambitious Kiartan lingers for several years in Norway. Kiartan eventually returns and marries another woman, but Gudrun goads her brothers and the hapless Bodli to ambush and murder Kiartan, and Kiartan's relatives take revenge on Bodli a few years later.

Morris sympathized with most of the tale's central characters, and wrote Charles Eliot Norton when he finished the poem in August, 1869 that "The story in question I think on the whole the most important thing I have written; the deeper I got into the old tale the more interested I found myself, and now it is finished, I feel. . . rather cold to subjects with less of life and nature in them."

As the story begins, Gudrun—"just come to her full height," and so beautiful that "scarce might she grow fairer from that day"—gives dinner to the wise old seer Guest and his son, at Bathstead, her father Oswif's farm. Guest, overcome by premonitions "[a]s though unseen things to his soul were bared," asks her to tell him her dreams, and she narrates four. In the first, she had torn an ugly coif from her head and thrown it in a nearby stream. In the second, a fine silver bracelet fell from heaven but disappeared into a river. In the third, she fell and broke a golden arm-ring, and "to my heart it came,/ Spite of those flaws, that on me lay the blame/ Why thus was spoiled that noble gift and rare ..." (ll. 195-97). In the fourth, a swift current swept a jewelled golden helm away into the firth.

Guest explains to her that each dream represented a marriage, and the coif, bracelet, ring and helm are husbands. She will contemn the first but love the second, who will die at sea. The third will be worthy but doomed, and the fourth will also die at sea. When Gudrun heard this, "Her teeth were set hard, and her [277] brow was knit/ As though she saw her life and strove with it" (ll. 331-32).

Guest then leaves Oswif's farm and rides to Herdholt, another landholding nearby, where the genial and elegant Olaf Hauskuldson, called Olaf Peacock, proudly points out his eldest son Kiartan Olafson and foster-son Bodli Thorleikson swimming together in a nearby river. Prompted by Olaf, Guest warily predicts that Kiartan will attain "more glory . . . Than any man now waxing in the land" (ll. 592-93), but adds later to his own son that: "[T]hou shalt live to hear when I am dead/ Of Bodli standing over Kiartan's head,/ His friend, his foster-brother, and his bane,/ That he in turn e'en such an end may gain" (ll. 633-36).

Briefly, Morris narrates Gudrun's first two marriages. She divorces her first husband Thorvald when he slaps her, and loves Thord, the second, but he drowns soon after their marriage. She then finds herself attracted to Kiartan Olafson, who "all men's hearts did move," but Kiartan is already preparing to sail to Norway and seek his fortune at the court of Olaf Trygvisson. When Gudrun offers rather wistfully to accompany him, he tells her curtly to care for her brothers and father, and await his return. Bodli Thorleikson departs with his foster-brother, but before he leaves realizes that he also loves Gudrun.

In Norway, Bodli is wary of Olaf Trygvisson, the warlord who 'Christianized' Norway and Iceland at swordpoint, and returns to Iceland after a single year. As he prepares to leave, Bodli asks Kiartan what messages he should convey to those at home, and Kiartan responds that he should "Tell Gudrun all this/ Thou knowest of, my honour and my bliss;/ Say we shall meet again!" (ll. 1784-86).

In Iceland, Gudrun is eager for any scrap of news about Kiartan, and Bodli tells her—accurately—that Kiartan may be courting Olaf's sister, a remark Gudrun, Kiartan and Bodli later construe as betrayal. For reasons the narrative never fully clarifies, Gudrun then decides to marry Bodli, but her anger and disappointment make the union unhappy from the start.

In Norway, Kiartan has none of Bodli's reservations about the new state religion ("sooth, for me ... are all these things but words" ll. 1635-36), and quickly makes himself Olaf's admired vassal and potential brother-in-law. After three years, however, he decides to return home, and abruptly tells Olaf and his sister [278] Ingibiorg that he expects to marry an Icelandic woman more beautiful than any in Norway. Ingibiorg generously bids him a gracious farewell, and gives him a gold-embroidered coif for his future wife.

On his return, the aggrieved Kiartan blames fate, Gudrun and Bodli for his loss of Gudrun, not his own ambition or indifference (Bodli, in particular, is "changed into a shadow and a lie," l. 2364), and as a consolation marries the gentle, graceful and affectionate Refna. After the marriage, petty thefts mar obligatory yuletide visits between members of Olaf's and Oswif's households—Gudrun steals Ingibiorg's golden coif from Refna, and Kiartan's prized sword disappears—and Kiartan, troubled by Refna's distress, beseiges Bathstead and steals several head of cattle in retaliation.

Kiartan's mother Thorgerd and Gudrun's malicious brothers also listen to assorted talebearers, and the atmosphere soon becomes too charged for the venerable Olaf to check. Although Bodli bears no personal responsibility for the thefts and desires peace, he is surrounded by crudely malicious in-laws, and grows steadily more despondent. A rare moment of respite from the demands of 'honor' occurs when Kiartan takes Bodli aside, and asks, "What say'st thou? are the days to come forgiven,/ Shall folk remember less that we have striven/ Than that we loved, when all the tale is told?" (11. 3512-14).

Gudrun, consumed by "a fire/ Of very hate" (11. 3929-30), now goads her brothers to ambush and kill Kiartan, and insists that Bodli accompany them. The now-tortured Bodli reluctantly agrees, but Gudrun remains fiercely suspicious ("Ah! dost thou think thou yet mayst save him then?" 1. 4063), and Morris leaves in suspension whether Bodli's motive is desire to do Gudrun's bidding, or some obscure sense that he and Kiartan are both doomed.

At the ambush itself (a real, locatable event in Icelandic history), Bodli is stricken with shame and dread, and "with his mail-clad hands his face did hide," (l. 4301) but the horrified Kiartan taunts him to "do the deed that thou must do," (l. 4347) and drops his sword. Finally, Bodli thrusts him though ("into his shieldless side the sword was thrust," l. 4351), then lacerates himself with grief and guilt. When he brings word to Gudrun that her demands have been carried out, she capriciously mourns Kiartan and condemns her unwilling instrument. Refna pines away and dies of sorrow, and Olaf's sons wait obediently till their father dies three years later to ambush and murder Bodli.

[279] After Bodli's death Gudrun remembers him with little affection but some respect, and remarries a final time, to a distinguished chieftain (the gold helm) who dies in a shipwreck. In her old age she becomes an anchorite, and asked by her middle-aged son by Bodli, also named Bodli, whom she has loved the most, she "cried, with . . . hands stretched out for all that she had lost: 'I did the worst to him I loved the most'" (a direct translation of the Saga-original, "Ég gerði þeim verst, sem ég unni mest"). By "him," Gudrun presumably meant Kiartan, but the Icelandic "þeim" meant both "him" and "them," and she arguably "did . . . worst" to the mild-mannered man she coerced into murder.

Implausibilities abound in this complex plot as they did in its more laconic original. They do not undermine Morris's deft ordering of its fatalistic frame, or the intricate ironies of its smoldering compulsions, internecine hatreds and desolate regrets.


No Earthly Paradise tale showed more careful attention to the letter of its original, and few deviated more from its spirit, for the Laxdaela Saga and "The Lovers of Gudrun" are impressive but very different literary works. Morris remarked in an 1887 essay on "The Early Literature of the North," that "the Lax-dalers' story contains a very touching and beautiful tale, but it is not done justice to by the details of the story" (Le Mire, Unpublished Lectures, 1969). In the process of "doing justice" to his plot, Morris tempered the Saga's preoccupations with interfamilial negotiations and reasons-of-clan, and refashioned its feud-narrative of property alliances and familial rivalries into an allegory of doomed friendship and vengeful love.

Kjartan and Guðrun were the original Saga's most dramatic characters, but Kjartan's father Ólafur Höskuldsson was its central figure, and the work's author(s) interwove the latter's prophecies, strategic alliances, and counsels of forbearance with a variety of subsidiary episodes (after Ólafur's death, Snorri Goði—Snorri the Priest—played a similar role), and the Laxdaela Saga celebrated the judgments and prophecies of wise dynasts more than the conflicts which rent and tested them. The Saga-Ólafur, for example, deeply loved both his own son Kjartan and his foster-son Bolli (son of Ólafur's half-brother Þorleikur, and adopted as a peace-offering), [280] and the Saga-writer considered Ólafur's sentence for Kjartan's murder—banishment of Ósvífur's sons but not Bolli —both compassionate and just.

Morris also grafted "The Lovers of Gudrun"'s intricate ambiguities of sexual conflict onto the psychologically stark and penurious framework of a multigenerational quasi-chronicle, which focused only in passing on the triangular conflict between childhood friends who loved the same striking woman. Bodli and Kiartan's intense friendship in Morris's tale is much more vivid than its historical ambience of tribal feuds. Morris used all his skills as an internal realist to fashion a narrative groundswell from his characters' convoluted anguish, impose plausible psychological patterns on their behavior, and modulate their more inexplicable actions to heighten sympathy for their fates.

Gudrun required the most "refashioning." Morris had tempered the ruthless, child-slaying classical figure Medea in similar ways in his Life and Death of Jason, and he omitted or elided here the Saga-Guðrun's pride, greed, duplicity, heedlessness of others and zest for plotting, and heightened her fear, love, ambivalence and regret.

In the Saga, for example, Guðrun's marriage-contract with the wealthy Þorvaldur granted her jewelry of her choice, and ensured her half of his estate should they ever divorce. Þorvaldur accepted these terms, but was a bit startled when "In all the Westfjords there were no jewels so costly that Guðrun did not consider them her due, and she repaid Þorvaldur with animosity if he failed to buy them, however expensive they might be" (Laxdaela Saga, trans. with intro. by Magnus Magnússon and Hermann Pálsson, Penguin, 1972, 124). He finally struck her in anger and frustration, and she swiftly divorced him, in profitable keeping with the contract's terms.

The Saga-Guðrun also began her relationship with her second husband Þórður while she was still married to Þorvaldur, and convinced Þórður to divorce his wife to marry her. Conjury by the wife's aggrieved relatives allegedly later led to Þórður's death, and Guðrun gave up her son by him for adoption. In the Laxdaela Saga, Gudrun married her third husband Bolli—a large landowner, skillful manager and reasonable suitor in the Saga's terms—under strong pressure from her family, a commonplace motive Morris chose to omit.

[281] The Saga-Guðrun also needed little help from brothers, gossips or other go-betweens to engineer Kjartan's murder. Morris's Gudrun expresses (inconsistent) distaste for "those murderous men," but the Saga-Guðrun roused her brothers out of bed on the day of the attack and exhorted them as follows: "Men like you have the memory of hogs. It's obviously futile to hope that you will ever dare to attack Kjartan at home if you haven't the nerve to face him now when he is travelling with one or two companions. You just sit at home pretending to be men, and there are always too many of you about" (172).

Morris's Gudrun, similarly, is distraught and grief-stricken when the deed is finally done. By contrast, her Saga-prototype coldly observed that "What I like best is that Hrefna will not go laughing to bed tonight" (176), and assured Bolli that "I am deeply grateful to you for what you have done. I now know for certain that you will do anything to please me."

The Saga-Guðrun also plotted her revenge of Bolli's murder for twelve years, forced her adolescent sons to join the ambush, and promised marriage to one potential avenger before she reneged on the promise. Her brief love for Kjartan quickly faded into the narrative background-noise of her subsequent struggles for personal and dynastic preeminence, and the Saga devoted many pages to her fourth marriage, to the influential and wealthy Christian chieftain Þorkell, and her ambitions for her sons by him and Bolli.

In this context, it was perhaps inevitable that Morris's changes also diminished the Saga-Guðrun's hardy determination, perhaps her most striking trait. In the Saga, Bolli and Guðrun were alone together when Kiartan's relatives cornered him in a farm-shed: Bolli recognized Halldor by his voice, and several of his companions. He told [the pregnant] Guðrun to go away from the shieling, saying that this was not an encounter she would be likely to enjoy. Guðrun said she thought that nothing would happen there which she should not be allowed to watch, and added that it could do Bolli no harm to have her by his side. Bolli insisted on having his own way, however, and so Guðrun left. (186) It seems unlikely that this blunt, unflinching woman would have thrown herself weeping on her bed to lament Bolli's earlier departure to ambush Kjartan.

Morris also made extensive modifications in the motives of the Saga's Bolli and Kjartan, iconically straightforward characters un-[282]sicklied-o'er by ambivalence and reflection. Kiartan's refusal of Gudrun's offer to accompany him to Norway in "The Lovers of Gudrun" is wistful, even romantic:

So fought love in him with the craving vain
The love of all the wondering world to gain,
. . . "thou a word or twain of me shalt hear,
E'en if the birds must bear them o'er the sea." (11. 1144-45, 1014-

The Saga-Kjartan, by contrast, responded flatly that "That's out of the question. . . . Your brothers haven't settled down yet and your father is an old man, and they wouldn't have anyone to look after them if you leave the country. So wait for me instead for three years" (142).

The more physically aggressive and acquisitive Saga-Kjartan also plotted to burn down the Norwegian King and his retainers in their palace (Morris's high-minded character was more preoccupied with self-defense), and sent back no hopeful message with Bolli to Guðrun. Kjartan was also well-aware that Hrefna (Morris's Refna) was the daughter of one of the West-fjords' leading landowners, and his final clash with Bolli involved a property dispute which rankled Guðrun enough to make her complain that:

Kjartan has given you a harsher choice than he offered Thorarin [the previous owner]: either that you leave this district with little honour, or else that you confront him and prove yourself  rather less fainthearted than you have been hitherto" (169).

The Saga-Bolli, on the other hand, was a "courteous and very warrior-like" man who had "a taste for the ornate," and acted calmly and consistently to defend the interests his shame-and honor-ridden culture called on him to defend. He was not diffident or self-effacing, and did not propose to Guðrun soon after his return. When Kjartan accused him of theft, he answered simply that "we are not guilty of the charges you make .... We would have expected anything of you but to accuse us of theft" (166).

The deciding motive for his participation in the assault against Kjartan, finally, was a warning from his father-in-law that Kjartan would be obliged to kill him, if his more hostile brothers-in-law failed to achieve their aims. Morris's Gudrun berates Bodli when he returns, but the disgusted Bolli reproved (283) Guðrun in the Saga: "This luckless deed will live long enough in my mind without you reminding me of it. ... I suspect you would have been less shocked if I had been left lying on the field of battle and Kjartan had lived to tell the tale" (176).

In the Saga's climactic confrontation between Kjartan and Bolli, moreover, Kjartan surrendered in the end from physical fatigue, not despair. Neither Kjartan nor Bolli mentioned Guðrun, and no religious symbolism hovered over the Saga's account of Kjartan's death. In Morris's tale, by contrast, the emotionally charged encounter is a virtual suicide-pact.

Morris's most pointed omission may have been of the Saga's detailed account of Bolli's evisceration and eventual decapitation by Kjartan's brothers:

Bolli said, "It's safe now for you brothers to come a little closer than you have done so far." And he said he did not think his defence would last very long now. It was Thorgerd who answered him, and said there was no need to shrink from dealing with Bolli thoroughly, she told them to finish off their work. Bolli was still standing up against the wall of the shieling, clutching his tunic tightly to stop his entrails falling out. Steinthor Olafsson now sprang at him and swung a great axe at his neck just above the shoulders, and the head flew off at once.
"May your hands prosper," said Thorgerd, and added that Guðrun would now have some red hairs to comb for Bolli. With that they left the shieling. (187-88)

The Saga-Bolli was a sturdy landowner, in short, who tried to protect his pregnant wife and stoically confronted a sordid death. Morris elided all this, and dilated the guilt and pain of his betrayal and desperate efforts to appease his angry wife.

There is little doubt that Morris's extensive changes made "The Lovers of Gudrun" The Earthly Paradise's most successful tragedy, but its bleak insights and sombre power cut against, not with, the Saga's harsh straightforward grain. In the brooding fratricidal conflicts of "The Lovers of Gudrun," Morris set aside his original's generic template of 'epic' retribution, and created a new cathartic tragedy of betrayal and resignation.

Critical Remarks:

"The Lovers of Gudrun" marked Morris's first mature use of a finished Norse frame, and he later matched his extensive revisions of [284] this epic prototype with others he undertook in Sigurd the Volsung, his extended poetic redaction of the Volsunga Saga.

Like her Saga-model, in particular, Gudrun survives to become a nunna and reflect on the moral ambiguities she had wrought, but Morris makes her more striking in manner and appearance than Kiartan or Bodli, and her unquenched passions are markedly more 'romantic' than those of her original. Longevity also gives her insight to interpret her own life and fate, but she remains physically and psychologically repressed, in ways that limit her moral and emotional range.

Morris's Kiartan takes others' affection for granted, and sometimes fails to anticipate the consequences of his actions, but he accepts these calmly when they come. Bodli never wins the affection his early qualities merit, and his deferential gestures eventually become integral to the identity they corrode. In the end, he and Kiartan blend into a kind of composite protagonist—the broken armband, perhaps—fused and tempered, at first, by deep friendship, before their desire for Gudrun shatters them both.

Indeed, contrasts between Kiartan and Bodli visibly diminish in Morris's tale, as the two become complementary figures in a kind of quasi-redemptive immolation rite—one which Bodli, by the way, strangely assumes will reunite them in heaven (he seems noticeably less certain about Gudrun). The most affectionate and yielding of the three, Bodli incurs the tale's harshest internal reproaches, but Morris's intricate casuistry creates a measure of sympathy for his suffering and remorse. Kiartan—the tale's man of action and most "heroic" figure—may be the most inscrutable, and the most difficult to comprehend.

It may not surprise the reader that D. G. Rossetti particularly praised this tale, for one could readily adduce a number of parallels with Morris's and Rossetti's painfully complex but nonviolent rivalry. Its emotional charge both reflected and diffused Morris's own predicament, and Bodli's expressions of helpless longing often seemed to reach beyond conventional poetic expressions of frustrated desire.

It should be mentioned, however, that Morris had always found motifs of fidelity-in-rejection attractive. Such patterns appeared and reappeared throughout his juvenilia, and in The Defence of Guenevere and early prose romances. As early as 1856, [285] for example, he wrote "Gertha's Lovers," a vaguely Scandinavian prose romance in which the introspective Leuchnar expiates a brief flash of envy toward his friend Olaf with a lifetime of devotion, and loyally serves his friend's widow after his death. Even in this early work there are inchoate suggestions of conflict within a single composite character, but "The Lovers of Gudrun" sharpened such conflicts into a crisis, in which each part mortally wounds the other, and therefore itself.

Effectively enacted tragedy, of course, raises questions of moral responsibility. Is "fate" an intervention of internal or external forces, or of some elusive mixture of the two? How much 'choice' do we have, if we 'choose' our lives within narrowly predetermined confines of character and social role?

Whatever choices they may have, "The Lovers of Gudrun'"s three principal characters remain faithful to their deepest and most "fateful" passions. Each bears complementary responsibility for their common fate, and Morris offers roughly equal sympathy for them all. The narrative explicitly exempts Gudrun from blame, attributes no serious fault to Kiartan, and implicitly forgives Bodli his trespasses in the critical confrontation's anguished redemptive embrace.

More sombre and less didactic than most of the other Earthly Paradise tales, "The Lovers of Gudrun" thus interprets 'love' and 'betrayal' as the unwilled confluence of powerful and perhaps arbitrary forces which work their effects in human affairs. The tale's narrator, dreamers and protagonists all grieve, but they find no alternatives to these forces, and struggle in the end to forgive those who enact them. Such fatalism takes more explicitly deterministic forms in Sigurd the Volsung, in which larger-scale thaumaturgic forces ultimately overwhelm generations of 'heroic' protagonists.

"The Lovers of Gudrun," in short, is The Earthly Paradise's most tragic medieval tale, but it does also offer some consolation, and its sacrificial and quasi-redemptive nuances enjoin us to withhold judgment. Temperament might be fate, as Novalis believed, but Morris hoped that memory and forgiveness would temper them both.

See also Boos, 266-301; Calhoun, 185-95; Kirchhoff, 194-98; Oberg, 50-52; Silver, 67, 74-75, 101.


A draft appears in Fitzwilliam Library M. S. EP 25.