William Morris Archive

Peter Wright

From Edda to Epic: How Morris Refashioned the Volsung Story, and the Manner of its Telling

When introducing his translation of Volsunga Saga, published in 1870 as The Story of the Volsungs and the Niblungs, Morris ended with these words: 

"This is the Great Story of the North, which should be to all our race what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks; to all our race first, and afterwards, when the change of the world has made our race nothing more than a name of what has been, a story too, then it should be to those who come after us no less than the Tale of Troy has been to us."1 

Morris at first thought that story, which he was reading in the draft translation in modern English that Eric Magnusson had sent him in 1869 for conversion into more archaic language, 'rather of a monstrous order'. Though he was deeply moved by some scenes, such as that of the final confrontation between Sigurd and Brynhild, he was then decidedly doubtful whether it would be sensible to attempt to turn it into an epic in English.2 This introductory essay is intended to discuss and explain the main alterations, including both additions and omissions, which, with perhaps unjust self-depreciation, he later described as 'modem amplification and sentiment',3 when five years later he had fulfilled his 'hankerings' of 1869–70 by telling that tale of Sigurd the Volsung in a form of epic scale and pretensions, that he hoped would be worthy of that 'Great Story'. When doing so, he relied as the basis for his narrative chiefly on that given in the Saga, but increasingly, as he proceeded, added details from the Eddic poems in the Codex Regius the compiler of Volsunga had probably used those poems as his source, paraphrasing them in prose. Towards the end of the story Morris included a few important motifs, though few details, from the Germanic version, best preserved in the Nibelungenlied of about 1200. His epic on this subject had few parallels in any language in the 19th century: several versions were then written in German, including one by the distinguished poet Friedrich Hebbel, and one of course by Wagner himself, but all but one were composed in dramatic form.4 Perhaps German readers, already having the Nibelungenlied available in their own language, in the original or in modernised versions, were not thought to need to have it told again to them in a verse narrative.

Morris could already see about 1870 that the tale as he found it in the Volsunga Saga was a not too careful compilation from earlier poems, and by the 1890s, if not sooner, he had concluded that the character of his hero was created from a combination of two or three different legendary personages in Northern myth.5 Here, however, we shall not be concerned with the origins of the story: how between the fifth and the tenth century the tale of a hero of illustrious ancestry who slew a dragon and won its treasure, and went on to wake a sleeping maiden (perhaps like the Sleeping Beauty to become his bride) lying on a flame-encircled mountain, was connected with the historical fact of the destruction in the 430s of a kingdom of  Burgundian tribesmen, beside the Rhine, by a raiding army of Huns, and with developing legends about the death in 453 of the great Hunnish king Attila. The processes by which that connection was effected: how the dragon-slaying hero was induced, using disguise, to forgo his first love in favour of a friend and brother-in-arms; how his impersonation was discovered and avenged by his slaying; and how his death was in turn avenged on the kindred that slew him, have been the subject of extensive scholarly investigation and speculation, especially in editions of Volsunga Saga and its German counterpart, the Nibelungenlied.6 Here we shall take, as Morris did, the form that the tale had reached in that saga as a given, and explore the changes that he made to it.

Morris notoriously disliked and despised the musical setting that Wagner provided for his version of the story. He might have been even more displeased, and even shocked, if he ever studied the text of that version, available in English translation by the 1870s, (he had been sent a version at least of 'The Valkyrie' in 1873)7 at the liberties that the composer took with the narrative. (Wagner did so, freely combining, compressing, and transmuting the salient episodes that he selected from the mass of the legend, partly to tighten it up so as to make it fit for dramatic presentation, partly to make it a suitable vehicle for the philosophical views that he wished to express through the drama.) Thus, at the start of the Volsung tale he made the god Wotan (Odin) himself, not his descendant King Volsung Siegmund's father; roughly amalgamated the hero's first and last mates into a single mother for Siegfried (Sigurd), who was both Siegmund's wife and sister; and transplanted the great tree into which the god thrusts the sword destined for the hero from the hall of his father Volsung to that of his adversary Hunding.

Wagner treated the end of the tale with even more heroic ruthlessness, sweeping away the traditional climax, in both Germanic and Nordic versions, of the slaughter of the Nibelungs in Atli's hall, and making Hagen (Hogni), known in the Nibelunglied for loyalty to the head of his house, kill Gunther, almost in passing.8 

By comparison Morris seems to hew much more closely to the traditional story, as given in the saga. Nevertheless a closer reading of his poem shows that he too chose to make numerous changes to it, though usually less drastic ones. Some, probably arising as he sought to amplify its telling onto an epic scale, presumably occurred as his imagination was fired by the story he was telling: in the same way medieval authors whom he admired altered the narratives found in the 'sources' of stories that they wished to tell, Chaucer transforming Italian poems by  Boccaccio into the 'Knight's Tale' and 'Troylus and Cryseide', or Malory working over the French romances that he combined into his 'Book of King Arthur'. Other changes made in Sigurd probably resulted from a need to remove apparent imperfections in the existing Saga version, which might astonish or dismay a Victorian readership, and about which even Morris himself might feel disquiet: both inconsistencies in the story and an excess of bloodthirstiness and grotesqueness in some episodes, which had already been the object of criticism in reviews when he published his translation in 1870.9 There were also implausibilities in the tale needing to be corrected, not indeed because it included magical or supernatural events (Morris was happy to accept these in their legendary setting), but rather in the conduct and motivation of the human actors.

This introduction will consider primarily the major kinds of change made by Morris that run through, or affect, the whole of Sigurd, making occasional comparisons with the treatment of the story by Wagner, as being the one that is probably best known to modem readers. Lesser alterations will be discussed in paragraphs of introductory comment, before the notes to Morris's text of the poem, at the beginning of each section of those notes, divided according to and within the books into which Morris divided his epic.

A. Trimming the Branches.

Mackail criticised Morris for including, in the first book of his poem, the 'dim and monstrous' part of the Saga that dealt with the 'savagely magnificent' lives of Sigmund, Signy, and their son Sinfiotli, as irrelevant to that of Sigurd himself. Morris was not prepared to sacrifice their tale, but even he found some of the Saga's contents unnecessary for its adequate telling. So he omitted any account of the lives of Volsung's ancestors Sigi and Rerir, as told in its opening two chapters, only alluding to them briefly when describing songs sung in King Elf’s hall to celebrate Sigurd's birth. [p. 75] He also cut away, beyond a few lines of summary, the heroic deeds and death of Helgi, Sigmund's son by his first recognised wife Borghhild. [Chs. 8-9; pp. 47–8.] That cut allowed him, too, to avoid noticing that the King Lyngi, who was Sigmund's rival over his last brief marriage, and fought him in the battle in which he fell, was the son of the Hunding whom Helga 'Hundingsbane' had slain, and needed to revenge his death. [Chs. 9, 11] Morris also left out, perhaps wishing that the quest to slay the dragon should be the first exploit of Sigurd's youth, the section of Volsunga [Ch. 17] in which Sigurd also fulfils a Teutonic man's first duty, by seeking out, escorted by the otherwise unwarlike Regin,10 his father's slayer Lyngi and killing him and his brothers. Later in Sigurd's life, Morris also ignored his fathering of Aslaug, whom Brynhild, when leaving her Lymdale home, entrusts to her foster-father Heimir, [Ch. 27] presumably considering that he had said enough about that child in the tale of her fostering written for the December pair of the Earthly Paradise. He also excluded, though he translated the relevant Eddic poem of lament, the story of how, after Brynhild's death, Gunnar loved another sister of Atli, Oddrun, who vainly sought to rescue him from the serpents' pit. And at the end of the poem he allowed Gudrun to seek her death in the sea, setting aside the final episodes of Volsunga, in which she comes to land with Swanhild, her daughter by Sigurd, and finds a new husband. [Chs. 40-43] Morris had already begun to write for the Earthly Paradise a tale, including a 'final appearance' for Gudrun, of Swanhild's wooing for her beauty by the harsh, old king Hermanaric but only reached the point where she meets his son Randver and falls in love with him instead.

In writing Sigurd Morris also had to contend with the way Volsunga had been compiled, probably in the 13th century. Its author apparently had before him a set of mythical and heroic poems,the later ones gathered together to tell the Volsung story, resembling, if not identical with, those that survive in the Codex Regius.11 They were probably not originally intended to be heard or read as a sequence, for several of them tell the whole story of Sigurd in a brief manner, sometimes in the form of laments by its female characters for their troubles, but also in the guise of highly detailed prophecies of its events, such as that in which Gripir foretells to Sigurd all too clearly his future adventures and how he will meet his death.12 Even the compiler of the Saga, who treats those prophesyings as having actually occurred within the story, so that their subject is made to know in advance of his or her doom, thought it better to abbreviate this episode. [Ch. 16] Morris,who would not wish to portray his hero as not merely brave  but foolhardy, thought it best to make the description, in his account of Sigurd's visit to Gripir, of such future events much cloudier, naming no names, and intelligible to an audience who know the tale, but not clearly to the hero listening within it. [pp. 111–13] A similar prophetic poem must lie behind the episode [Ch. 25] in which Gudrun brings her symbolic dreams about her future husband to Brynhild in Lymdale for interpretation. Morris saw to it that Gudrun should repeat both her dreams (not just one, as in the Saga), and that Brynhild should not tell her future rival openly that Sigurd is her chosen love, or of the full course and result of Gudrun's successive marriages. He also prudently moved the episode to before Sigurd's coming to Lymdale. [pp. 148-58] Later he also obscured by vaguer language Brynhild's foretelling [Ch. 32: compare p. 269] to Gunnar, just before her death, of his future life and love, and of his death at Atli's hands, and even of the fate of Gudrun’s daughter by Sigurd.

B. Clarifying the Queens' Deeds, and their Motives

Morris had also to decide how to make intelligible the deeds and fate of the two great heroines, rivals for Sigurd's love, of whose activities there were variant accounts in the Saga and in the poems on which it was founded. For the queens described earlier in the story, he could keep quite close to the Saga version, showing Signy single-mindedly devoted to the perpetuation of the Volsung line as the best avengers for the slaying of her father and brothers, though he offers no fuller explanation than the Saga for her decision to perish beside her hated husband Siggeir in the flames of his hall, rather than departing with her brother and son. For Hiordis, who in Volsunga [Ch. 11] chose to wed Sigmund rather than his rival because he was 'of greatest fame', Morris adds her foreseeing that from him 'such a stem' would grow that all folk would praise the 'womb where once he lay'. [p. 57]13 

For Brynhild, however, there were differing traditions, among which Morris would have to choose, of her origins, of her first encounter with Sigurd, and of the way in which she was cheated of her apparently destined husband. In the end, unlike Wagner, Morris could not bring himself to part with either the version [Ch. 20] in which Sigurd finds an armoured maiden, the 'victory-bringing' Valkyrie, condemned by Odin to wedlock and perhaps mortality, asleep on a mountain top, or that in which he meets a human princess,almost by accident after his hawk has flown through the window of her hall in the woods of  Lymdale. [Ch. 24] (Volsunga had apparently already in its combination of successive Eddic poems identified the two maidens.) But Morris effected considerable changes to both versions:in the first he incorporated [pp. 135-6], from the account in Ch. 27, the hero's fearless riding through a wall of flame. (The Saga speaks only of 'a great light, as of fire burning' .)  Morris also gives a rather less particularised account of the fault for which Odin cast her into her enchanted sleep.14 He has also had greatly to transform the speeches, imparting her wisdom, in which Brynhild addresses her deliverer. The Saga transcribes for them verses from the Sigdrifumal in which she first instructs him about a number of magical runes and then gives him in prose form, in Ch. 21, some advice for the prudent conduct of life, similar to that in the extensive poem, Havamal, in which the proverbial wisdom of the Northmen was set out. Morris, though keeping [on p. 143] a little of that counsel, has substituted for the runes reflections on the uncertain fortunes of heroism [p. 142] and has concluded with a summary account in rather Biblical phraseology, [p 144–5] suitable to one who formerly served the Gods, of the shaping and nature of the world and its people, and of her own quest for Wisdom.

Even for the more human Brynhild whom Sigurd finds in Lymdale, first in his own person, then disguised as Gunnar, Morris has substantially altered the context of her life, depriving her of most family attachments. In Volsunga she is daughter of the Hunnish king Budli, and so sister of Atli, [Ch. 25] who later rebukes the Giukings forher violent death, [Ch. 37] while Heimir, lord of Lymdale, her foster father, [Ch. 24] is also wedded to her sister, the great craftswoman Bekkhild.  [Ch. 23] Morris, having made his heroine point out Lymdale to her deliverer, and dispatch him from Hindfell to that sister and her kingly husband, [pp.145-6] has given only two more lines to that marriage, omitting Bekkhild's name. [p. 158] He has also completely cut out Heimir's son, the 'most courteous' Alswid, who in the Saga accompanies Sigurd when he comes to Brynhild's hall and explains who she is. [Ch. 23-4] Likewise, when the Giukungs are seeking to wed Brynhild, they go first to Budli and then to Heimir as if to seek their approval, [Ch. 27] rather as a respectable Victorian suitor was expected to ask for leave from his intended bride's father before formally asking for her hand in marriage. (Budli and Atli also bring her to her wedding to Gunnar. [Ch. 27]) Later, indeed, in Volsunga Brynhild reveals [Ch. 27, 32] that the Giukungs had actually threatened Budli with war if he would not give her to Gunnar as his wife, and, threatens to return to her father's house, taking with her the wealth that she had brought at her wedding. [Ch. 30]15 Morris has removed this whole dynastic aspect of her life, and has largely excluded from her motives for objecting to the way she has been deluded into wedding Gunnar the resentment she will feel as a warrior maiden at being induced to break her oath only to wed the bravest of warriors, to be tested by riding through the fire encircling her hall. [Ch. 29] (It is only Morris who suggests [p. 189; cf. pp. 206-7] that that fire has sprung up after Sigurd has been bewitched into forgetting her.) So, with Brynhild isolated from most human connections, her passions are left to be concentrated on her love for the fearless hero who is to rouse her from her sleep, and then on the grief and despair, finally fatal to him, that overcome her when she discovers by what deceits she has been deprived of him.

Gudrun, especially towards the end of Morris's account of her, has had her character and actions, even more transformed. Though she is clearly destined by her dreams to wed and lose Sigurd, the Saga tells nothing of her feelings towards him before their marriage: she is shown simply as being given to him by her parents and brothers as a pledge of a dynastic alliance. [Ch. 26] It is Morris who portrays from her first meeting with Sigurd the development of her initially concealed and hopeless passion for him. and his sympathetic awareness of her sorrow, which makes it more plausible that, when his love for Brynhild has been magically wiped away, he should transfer his attachment to Gudrun. [pp. 176, 179–80, 184, 192-5] (Morris has also added the account of the emotional disturbance that troubles Sigurd's heart and drives him on his lonely ride around Brynhild's dwelling after he has drained that potion of forgetfulness. [pp. 189-91]) Morris draws out the tension within the kingly household that follows Brynhild's wedding to Gunnar, [pp. 228-32] and, when the two queens quarrel at their bathing, he makes Gudrun vainly seek reconciliation with Brynhild in the kings' garden. [pp. 235–9] even before Sigurd has rebuked her for her unwise revelations, and not afterwards. [Ch. 28; pp. 240-1] After Sigurd is slain, Morris has borrowed the account of Gudrun's ‘mighty grief' [pp. 262-7] and her handmaids' attempts, long vain, to comfort her, from one of the Eddic poems which he has inserted in the text of his Saga translation. [Ch. 31] He has also brought forward her despairing flight from the Niblung hall into the wolf-haunted forests, where Queen Thora finds her helplessly wandering, [pp. 267, 279-80] to a moment before Sigurd's funeral, and not afterwards, as the Saga, presumably taking up a new poem, suggests. [Ch. 33] At the start of the next part of the epic, the embassy of  King Atli's earl to seek her hand from the Giukings has been inserted by Morris to clarify the story [pp. 277-9], and her apparent reconciliation with her kindred greatly elaborated, though her warnings of danger to them through that marriage are omitted, along with their offer of gold to her in 'atonement' for Sigurd's slaying. [Ch. 33; pp. 281-6]

It is over Gudrun's motives and actions connected to the deaths of her brothers at her new husband's hands that Morris has parted most completely with the Nordic version set out in Volsunga and the poems on which it is founded. They present her as sending those brothers warnings of Atli's evil intentions towards them, a ring enwound with a wolf’s hair, or runes which his emissary defaces, [Ch. 34] and when they nevertheless journey to his land, she welcomes them and fights at their side. [Ch. 37] Her vengeance for their deaths, slaying first Atli's sons and then himself [Ch. 39] naturally follows on her preferring, like Signy at the tale's beginning, the ties of blood over those of marriage. Morris has chosen instead the basic theme of the Germanic version as revealed in the Nibelungenlied, though not adopting the details of its narrative. He makes it clear how, it is from an intense desire to have vengeance for Sigurd, that Gudrun works on Atli's desire for wealth [pp. 288-90] to induce him to invite her brothers to meet their doom in his hall. But, having selected that motive, Morris kept, for almost all the details of the Niblungs' destruction, to the Nordic version, except that he has placed the whole of the battle between them and Atli's Easterners within that hall. In the Saga and its associated poems the fighting seems to start outside and only move later into the hall, [Ch. 37; cf. Atlamal, st. 39 seqq.] whereas in the Nibelungenlied fighting breaks out when news is brought to the Nibelung lords feasting with King Etzel in his hall of a slaughter of their servants outside it. (Morris has also borrowed from the German poem the episode during the battle in which the besieged Nibelungs cast the corpses of their dead enemies down from the windows. [p. 319; cf. Nibelungenlied, tr. Hatto, ch. 34]) Morris has, however, also altered his heroine's place during the fighting: in the German poem her counterpart Kriemhild is outside the hall, urging on successive warriors to attack and slay her brothers and their men. It is Morris who has imagined her white-clad figure gazing unmoved over the massacre of her people. [pp.312-13, 316-7, 319-20] When that bloodshed is over, Morris stresses even more than the Saga her professions of inability to avenge her brothers' deaths, [pp. 338-40; cf. Ch. 39] but omits entirely the first part of the vengeance that she nevertheless takes for them by slaying Atli's sons, (See below, in C) and he has made her slay Atli himself and set fire to his hall single-handed, not as in Volsunga aided by a surviving son of Hogni. [Ch. 39] It might seem that, having used the greed of the Huns' king asa weapon for destroying those responsible for Sigurd's death, Gudrun now contemptuously breaks that tool as worthless once it has served its purpose.

C. Gentling the Legends 

Morris may have made some changes in his epic, especially towards its beginning, through a desire to answer criticisms that had been made of parts of the Volsung story as excessively barbaric, through brutality or grotesqueness. Thus he substantially alters the account of Sigmund's deliverance from the she-wolf that has devoured his brothers. In the Saga [Ch. 5] Signy is able to send a 'trusty man' to observe their fate, and finally to smear honey on Sigmund's face so that when the wolf licks it he can catch its tongue between his teeth and kill it by tearing it out, also shattering his bonds. Morris provides two were-wolves, male and female, to finish the captive Volsungs off faster, in five not ten days,and so ignores the suggestion that the wolf was really King Siggeir's evil mother turned into a were-wolf: he has clearly also found it unlikely that Signy would have been left unwatched to help her brothers [pp. 21--2] till her husband believes from his woodmen' s reports that they are all dead. Only thereafter can she in Morris's version go out to find Sigmund after all living, having fought his wolf teeth to teeth and in that struggle broken his bonds and killed her with them. But Morris added Sigmund's momentary disgust with heroism and willingness to become wolfish himself and not fight as a warrior in Odin's host in the last battle. [pp. 23-5] When he and his son Sinfiotli are indeed transformed into wolves after donning enchanted wolf-skins, [Ch. 8](an episode that could easily have been omitted), Morris alters the motive for Sigmund mortally wounding his son, before magically reviving him, to one better matching  his concept of their respective  characters. [See p. 41] In the Saga that slaying follows Sinfiotli's taking on eleven opponents, more than the seven they had agreed to face separately, so casting a slur on his father's courage. Morris [pp. 36-8] has the pair fighting, unavoidably, a party of hunters, but then encountering some merchants, whom the fiercer son wantonly attacks, then to be slain by his more generous father in 'wearied' 'wrath'.

Some of the odder aspects of Regin's tale [Ch. 14; cf. the Prose Edda, on 'Otter's ransom'] of how the elf Andvari's gold came into the possession of his kin, were also changed in Morris's telling. In the Saga version Loki kills the man Otter, turned into that beast, to catch the salmon he is eating16 , skins him, and rashly displays that trophy in his father Reidmar's home. The compensation demanded, obtained by Loki plundering Andvari's treasure, is to stuff the otterskin with the gold, and then cover its outside, stood on end, with more gold, and the elf's accursed ring, which Odin had taken from Loki, is needed to hide a last muzzle hair. (Wagner took this version as a basis for the piling up of the Nibelung dwarf's hoard to hide the goddess Freya from an amorous giant, when the Ring must hide the last glimpse of her eyes from him.) Morris apparently thought this physical play with the otter skin too strange, and makes Reidmar demand Andvari's treasure directly as his son's wergild, [p. 90] while the ring, still on Loki's finger, is discovered by Reidmar's noticing its gleam flashing through his hall.[p. 94-5] (In the Saga Andvari apparently dwells, in pike form. and gathers his gold, in a waterfall in the river where Otter was fishing when he was killed: Morris has taken advantage of the Edda sending Loki to Swartalfaheim (the Black Elves' Home) to find him. and so placed Andvari's 'force' far off at the end of the world. [p. 91]) The changes thus made raise this part of the legend to a more heroic level.

Morris moreover has omitted some elements of the legends that show a casual cruelty to the innocent and powerless. Thus, describing Brynhild's death, he cuts her ordering four thralls to be killed to burn with her on her pyre. [Ch. 32] When Hogni is to be killed, so that his heart may be cut out, the substitute at first suggested, to spare him that fate, (in the Atlamal, st. 51-9), King Atli's cook is treated with a half-humorous contempt Morris, and his Hogni, show real compassion for the thrall Hialli, when he prefers even the hardest of lives to such a death. [pp. 329-30] (In this episode Morris had also to clear away a duplication in Volsunga [Ch. 38] in the demand for Hogni's slaying, first by Atli, only later by Gunnar, resulted from its compiler's having two Eddic poems to follow: in the Atlavitha that demand for the display of the hero's heart comes solely from Gunnar, and in the Atlamal only from Atli; so that the unhappy thrall is twice threatened with death, but only killed the second time.17 Morris has decided [pp. 327-32] that having only Gunnar seek that mutilation both allows him to concentrate on the contrast he draws, as in the Saga, between the trembling thrall's heart and Gunnar's  brother's steady one, and perhaps to insist on the most plausible motive for his seeking his brother's death, to limit knowledge of their treasure's hiding place to himself.)

It was especially the use of violence against children that Morris has chosen to leave out of his version. Thus, when Signy in the Saga sends successively two of her young sons by Siggeir to Sigmund to see if they will be suitable helpers in taking vengeance on her husband, [Ch. 6-7] she first tests their endurance by sewing their gloves (or cuffs) to their hands. (Sinfiotli, her child by her brother, is even more cruelly tested.) When Siggeir's sons show, by fearing to knead up flour with a snake concealed in it, that they will not be fit tools for her purpose, she counsels Sigmund to kill both boys, and he does so. Morris completely omits the physical testing of all three boys: in his version. [pp. 28-30] only one son of Siggeir, who proves at first fairly tough, is sent to Sigmund, and he is not killed, but sent home by his formidable foster father simply with a request not to tell of him, which the boy refrains from doing 'for the heart of a king's son bad he'. (But would a son of the treacherous Siggeir have been so generous?) Morris cannot, however, cut out a later episode, an unavoidable part of the narrative, in which, when Sigmund and Sinfiotli lie concealed in Siggeir's hall, ready to assail him, and are accidentally discovered by his two youngest children as they play, Signy ruthlessly brings them to her brother and son to be killed for that betrayal, and the fierce Sinfiotli does indeed slay them, hurling the corpses at their fathers' feet though Sigmund is reluctant [Ch. 8; pp. 40-1] Later, however, he ignores the existence of another Sigmund. Sigurd's child by Gudrun, and so can omit his killing at Brynhild's urging, so that that 'wolf cub' should not grow up to avenge his father's slaying. [Ch. 30, 32]18 At the end of the story Morris also leaves out the closing barbarity, in which Gudrun not merely kills her two young sons by Atli, but feeds him with the flesh of their bodies and mingles their blood in his wine in cups made from their skulls. [Ch. 39] (He has already removed the foreshadowing in a dream that Atli tells to Gudrun of that double child-slaying [Ch. 34])  He thus does not need to explain why Atli, though bitterly reproaching her when she reveals what she has done, makes no attempt to impose the punishment he threatens her with, and so leaves her free to encompass his own stabbing in his sleep amidst the flames of his hall; which Morris, concluding with that slaying, presumably reckons a sufficient chastisement, without the Saga's infanticide, for his pride and greed.

D. Inventing a Mythic Geography

In Volsunga some of the successive events of the tale take place in a landscape that has a certain relation to the actual geography of Dark-Age Europe. Volsung's grandfather Sigi, and Volsung himself, are indeed described as kings of the Huns, [Chs. 1, 2] and his descendant Sigurd occasionally appears as a 'Hunnish' king.19 Siggeir, the suitor for Volsung's daughter, is king of Gothland, which some brief references in Morris's early verses20 suggest he assumed to be the supposed first home, in southern Sweden, of the ancestors, Beowulf's Geats, of the historic Gothic people. Later King Alf (Morris's Elf), who rescues Hiordis, is king of Denmark, [Ch. 12], where Thora later gives refuge to the grieving Gudrun. [Ch. 33] When, after waking Brynhild, Sigurd rides away to the realm of King Giuki, it is said to lie, like that of the Burgundians whose fate was a source for the latter part of the tale, 'south of the Rhine', [Ch. 25] in which also, at the close of the tale, Sigurd's golden treasure is said by Gunnar to lie concealed. [Ch. 38] The Huns ruled by Atli are presumably the historic Huns, although there is no hint of any difference of race or culture between them and the other peoples handled in Volsunga, unlike that which in The Roots of the Mountains Morris has taken care to describe, especially in chs. XV, XXII, between the Burgdalers and their allies, and their enemies,the Dusky Folk. Atli is indeed greedy for wealth and power, but no more than some other rulers in the Saga, although Morris has [used a hint in an Eddic poem] to make him more oppressive to his people [p. 287] and, following the destruction of the Niblungs, has presented him as a more haughty and despotic monarch [pp. 338-40] than the kings portrayed earlier in the story.

However, through most of his epic Morris has given the peoples in it a new geographic setting with only the most tenuous links with any known part of Europe. The opening book, as Tompkins has noted,21 seems to be set in a world of islands between which kings and their warbands journey by ship. Later books have a more Continental framework. To challenge Fafnir on his Glittering Heath, Sigurd must ride westward through a range of great mountains, unmentioned in the Saga, whose nature, shaped by ice and volcanic 'fireblasts’, [pp. 116] Morris has derived from his recent travels in Iceland. When Sigurd rides onward 'somewhat south' [p. 134] it is through a similarly wide and desolate landscape. Each side of those mountains Morris has placed contrasting peaceful, almost pastoral realms. Even though when King Elf encounters Hiordis on the 'Isle-Realm', he has supposedly 'sailed from war­ faring’, [p.63] his homeland in which Sigurd is nourished seems to lie far away from the lands of violent struggle where most of the tale is set, and Regin can taunt the young hero with the unlikelihood of bis winning glory while dwelling in a 'narrow' land, whose people's 'hearts are dull with peace'. [p 77] Likewise in Lymdale (whose Norse name, Hlymdale, ironically means 'Tumult-dale’)22 although Morris assures us that its people can fight bravely enough at need, in his epic their valour is mostly exercised in hunting in its woodlands, [pp. 158-9] where they welcome Sigurd. (Morris may have drawn this character of his Lymdalers from the Saga's speaking of the 'shafting of their arrows, and...flying of their falcons'. [Ch. 23, at end]) When, after pledging himself there to Brynhild, Sigurd rides on, still westward, [p. 170] it is to meet. far off across a 'wide plain', another 'huge' range of snow-covered mountains, their sides again scarred by ancient fires, upon a ridge at whose side stands the 'burg' of the Niblungs. The river which he must cross to reach it, [p. 171] and in which Brynhild and Gudrun are later bathing when they have their fatal quarrel, is perhaps a last reminiscence of the Rhine in the traditional story. Moms has, however, supplied the Niblungs with a coast from which. allied with Sigurd they may sail to combat other 'numberless' isle-dwellers with 'uncouth' tongues, and the ships of Viking-like pirates. [pp. 180-1, 184-5]

Following Sigurd's slaying the tale again turns eastwards towards Atli's lands. though still on no maps known to European geographers. But here the strange lands of which Morris tells owe something to Volsunga and its poetic sources. When the Niblungs take or send Gudrun to her second wedding to King Atli the Saga tells us [Ch. 33 at end] that her escort spent on the way, apparently from her refuge with Thora to his home, 'four days a-riding, and other four a-shipboard, and yet four more again by land and road’.23 Morris has enlarged these travels, when describing those of Atli's envoys [p. 277], of Gudrun to her wedding [p. 286], and finally of her doomed brothers to Atli's burg [p. 308-9] to involve three days journeying from the borders of Atli's kingdom (after already passing through it for three or four days) through the 'mirk-wood', ten days across a great sea (apparently not interrupted by any land), and three more to the Niblungs' realm. The Niblungs are such good mariners that they cover the sea-voyage by sail in only six-seven days.24 (Where within the map of Europe might one find such a wide sea?) When they reach Atli's burg they find it by an inner sea at the foot of another mountain-range [p. 309] that sea is perhaps suggested by the one into which Gudrun, after destroying Atli and his people, casts herself [Ch. 40] before floating ashore in King Jonak's land, in the conclusion which Morris discarded.

E. Into the Epic Mode

In order to raise the Saga story to the dignity and scale of epic Morris expanded and elaborated it with many of the stylistic characters of the classical epics of Homer, particularly, and of Vergil. His recent translation of the Aeneid, published in 1875, had probably helped revive whatever awareness of the epic manner he had obtained when studying at Marlborough and Oxford. It is not clear how much of the Homeric epics he had read in Greek since then. But memory enabled him, perhaps half-consciously, to include in his own poem several of those ennobling forms that later students of such epic have concluded to have been regularly used when 'primary epics' were originally composed for oral performance, and which were later deliberately imitated by the civilised authors who produced epics as the supreme form of poetry.

For his metre Morris discarded the five-stress line, which, whether in blank verse or in couplets or stanzas, had normally been employed in English epic since the 17th century, and which he had himself used in his previous narrative poetry. He selected instead a longer line, closer in its spaciousness to the ancient hexameter, but based on anapaests rather than dactyls.25 Essentially it is an adaptation of the traditional ballad metre of 'fours and threes', but combined into a single line, and avoiding the stiffness of ordinary 'fourteeners' by allowing, especially between the three or four stresses of the first half of the line (one of which may be lighter) more than one unstressed syllable. That first half is often varied with a weak ending, but the second, which carries the rhyme, is invariably weighted. Such interpolated syllables provide a freer movement for the verse than appears in the 'trial run' of his recent Aeneid translation where regular 'fourteeners' are much more strictly used.26 It was also in the Aeneid that he had begun to develop the predominantly Teutonic vocabulary, suitable to his heroic subject, used in Sigurd. That stylised language permits the inclusion of words that had passed from Latin into English through medieval French, but largely omits the Latinisms that have entered the English language since the Renaissance.27 Morris's chosen language may be reckoned as an equivalent to the highly eclectic one, incorporating words and grammatical forms from several Greek dialects besides the basic Ionic one, that Homer uses. Such a relatively archaic form of speech suggests that the poet is addressing his audience from within an earlier frame of social life and feeling, closer to the time of his heroes, while the exclusion of more recent verbal innovations helps exclude from readers' immediate consideration most aspects, social or psychological, peculiar to the Victorian age in which Morris was actually writing.

The imitation of classical epic is most obvious in Morris's frequent use of the 'long-tailed' simile, developed beyond the needs of resemblance into providing individual pictures, which was copied from Homer by later Greek and Latin authors of epic and their Renaissance followers, and in the application, though more sparingly than in Homer and with more variation, of recurring epithets and descriptions for those people and objects often mentioned in the poem. Thus Odin, though among divinities in 'God­ home' he may be called 'Allfather', when he comes disguised among men, is commonly 'one-eyed and seeming ancient', while in the later part of the poem we find the 'golden Sigurd' contrasted with the 'Cloudy People', the Niblungs. The armour that Sigurd wins from Fafnir's hoard is (with minor variants) almost from its earliest mention [pp. 83, 97, 133] 'the Hauberk all of Gold That has not its like in the Heavens nor has Earth of its fellow told', and the wondrous helmet from Andvari's hoard that Fafner (himself sometimes the 'Gold-wallower') also loses to the hero may be 'the Helm of Awing' or 'Dread'. [e.g. pp. 93, 99, 133] Some of the repeated phrases are borrowed from the type of 'kenning' frequently used in Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry: thus the sea may be the 'swan's bath' or 'Aegir's acre' while ivory appears as 'the sea-beast's tooth'. Gold (as in ballads) is ruddy, or may be styled 'the Candle of the Deep' or (after successive episodes in the myth about Andvari's treasure) the 'Ransom of Odin' or the 'Bed of Fafuir' or of 'the Serpent', while the Valkyries are often called 'Odin's Choosers'. Swords are 'Dwarf-wrought’ or are styled 'fallow blades' and warships often 'golden dragons', or later [pp. 149, 152] 'Swans of the Goths'. Morris also adopts a habit of frequently making up new, sometimes half-metaphorical, compounds of ancient-sounding words, so that swords appear as 'war-wands' or 'blood-reeds', and fighting becomes a 'battle-acre' in which 'spear-woods' or 'spear-hedges' of warriors clash, and cliffs are 'rock-walls'.

As for Morris's Homeric similes, they are freely scattered through his poem from its earliest pages, though perhaps more extensively developed as it proceeds. Some help to carry the moral development of the tale as in that seven-line on the passing from darkness to light [p. 104] (not unlike Satan's first view of the new-created world in Paradise Lost, Book III) which follows Hiordis giving the fragments of Sigmund's sword to her son; or the twelve lines on the alarm of 'summer feasters' at the sudden approach of storm, [p. 188–9] which signal the bewitching of Sigurd by Grimhild's magic drink; or, more briefly, the comparison (p. 225) of Grimhild's final interposition between Sigurd and Brynhild to a tempest-foretelling 'rainless cloud' briefly veiling the sun. Perhaps the most elaborate is the long one which provides a farewell to Sigmund, when the 'noble oak of the forest', though its felling is regretted, nevertheless with its shaping into a splendid warship, serves as an image of the transformation of heroic exploit into heroic legend, such as is attempted in Morris's own poem. Such use of the Homeric simile was not of course peculiar to Morris. Matthew Arnold had included many such images in Sohrab and Rustum, mostly talcing their subjects, when concerned with human activities, appropriately to his story, from accounts of travel in the East. Morris too takes care, in order to preserve the archaic atmosphere of his epic, when his similes concern not natural phenomena, but human society, to cite the type of activity that might occur in his imagined heroic age. Only occasionally does he descend in time even to the later Middle Ages,as when a comparison alludes [e.g. pp. 217, 249, 257] to stone effigies on tombs in (presumably Gothic) churches, or [pp. 178, 306] to the steeples and rung bells of medieval cities. Arnold once allows himself28 a reference to a probably Victorian lady watching, in a room with glazed windows, through silk curtains the 'poor drudge' who lights her fire. Morris's fire-fighting maiden is given a much more archaic context.

Morris makes less use of the Homeric practice of repetition, with appropriate alteration, of portions of verse dealing with the same matter, though it appears for instance in Gudrun's accounts of her dreams in Book III, [pp. 150, 155] or, more briefly, in the mutual pledging of Sigurd and Brynhild, first on the mountain and then in her hall in Lymdale, [pp. 146, 166-7] or the contrary vows [pp. 196-7] which bind him to Gudrun. Morris, using a freer metre than Homer, does not need to adopt the description, in blocks of virtually identical lines, of such frequently repeated activities as putting on armour, cooking and serving meals, or launching a ship, which besides its convenience for the epic poet's composing practice, helps, along with those similes that refer to daily life, to give the audience a sense of the everyday background to the heroic deeds which are the poet's principal subject. But a matching effect may be thought to derive from the substantially (though not verbatim) similar descriptions in Sigurd of kings' halls with their 'carven pillars' and 'roof-trees', their walls hung with shields or precious hangings,their rulers set in high-seats, and the hawks or eagles crying from their roofs; or of a hero's journeys through rugged mountain passes shaped by fire and ice [e.g. pp. 116, 170–1]. The occasional, though again varied, references to shepherds and ploughmen and the reapers of harvest at work in the 'acres' and 'meads' around kingly halls may serve a like purpose.

The greater space provided by the scale of epic also enables Morris, besides giving much fuller descriptions of battles and other important episodes (as when Brynhild, brought into the Niblung hall encounters the successive greetings of its inmates matched with their characters, culminating in that which reveals both to her and to Sigurd the fatal breach between them), to go beyond the brevity with which, in typical Icelandic sagas, characters show their feelings only by publicly observed acts and often starkly short utterances. His people have room to display their characters and reveal their motives in long speeches, and even have their private emotions reported at considerable length, as when Morris deals with the strange inner experience of Sigurd as he exchanges appearances with Gunnar [pp. 21, 1–13] The extensive epic manner has also allowed Morris to incorporate into his narrative the kind of emblematic landscape or 'soul-scape·, that had not been part of the epic tradition, but was devised by earlier poets of the English romantic school when composing narratives, especially mythological ones, to suggest through an elaboration of details of some natural or human environment, the meaning of an episode in their stories, the natures or desires of their protagonists, or the mutual relations of some of their personages. Thus in Book 11 the long description of Sigurd's riding to the Glittering Heath through a rocky landscape of terror, enlarged from a single sentence of Volsunga, explores the opposing natures of the sunlit young hero and the darkened Dwarf who is guiding him. When Morris comes to relate his hero's slaying in Book III, he carefully builds up the tension that must attend that perilous deed by letting us watch the Niblung kings seated in their hall with their swords across their knees through the night until dawn, to be finally joined by the ghostly white figure of Brynhild, while the appointed slayer thrice delays before accomplishing his task. The pathos that accompanies the deaths of Sigurd and Brynhild and the frustration of the hopes that had rested on them is emphasised, at the end of that book, by making the last man to behold their bodies before the fire consumes them an old man near his own death, while the light of Sigurd's sword which he is to lay between them causes affright, portending future trouble, to those gazing from the distant mountains.

F. The Gods and the Dwarfs

The epic treatment of such a heroic theme for a modern readership, even in the archaic mode in which Morris cast Sigurd, could not simply concern itself with the victories, or the final tragic fate, of a single hero. It must have some bearing on the more general destinies of mankind, and by implication on how men can or should act so as to live well So it was that Morris remodelled the mythical background of his tale to provide such a bearing, especially in his handling of the story of Regin, of how his kin obtained the treasure which Sigurd was next to win, and of the motivation and result of the alliance between him and the young hero. In Volsunga [Ch. 14], as in the parallel versions in Snorri and the Eddic poems, Regin's father Reidmar and his sons are simply men, though possessed of substantial magical powers. It is Morris who has chosen to make them representatives of an ancient race of Dwarfs who are antagonists of the Gods of Valhalla, and desirous of achieving a different destiny for the dwellers upon Middle Earth than that intended by those Gods. He has altered the Northern myths in two ways. In the Eddie poems as in Snorri, the dwarfs are indeed greatly skilled in metal work, and so are called on to make for the Gods useful and beautiful treasures, especially weapons (hence the frequent appearance in Sigurd of 'dwarf-wrought' swords), but only minor players, and subordinate in their activities to those Gods. It is the 'Giants' (the Jotuns) who are the regular opponents of the Gods and of their domination of the world that they have organised, if not created. It is those Giants who sometimes plot to deprive the Gods of their power, and against whom Thor's great hammer is often wielded. Partly perhaps so as not to confuse his readers with a concern with the physical size of such 'Giants', and partly because those tales of conflict between Gods and (often simple-minded) Giants mostly have as their protagonist Thor who has little connection with the Volsungs, Morris adopted a transformed kind of Dwarf as a foil to the Gods and their chosen champion Sigurd. He has developed his new mythical narrative in Regin's account of the nature of his race, and in the successive descriptions of that Dwarf’s intentions for exploiting the power that the recovery of his ancestral wisdom will give him over the human race, plans of which there is no hint in the Saga.

In Volsunga the slaying of the dragon, and the taking of its treasure is for Regin the recovery of what he has unjustly been deprived of, while for Sigurd it is simply a heroic exploit which will win him renown and the wealth that befits him. Morris's Regin is rather more sinister. We learn [pp. 84-6; cf. p. 89] that his kind were not born (as Snorri tells us) like maggots out of the flesh of the primeval giant Ymir, but occupied the earth before the Gods began to intervene in it,29   and then enjoyed a long­ lasting life in which to pursue the satisfaction of their desires without feeling any clear distinction between good and evil. They were troubled by the appearance on earth of men, 'the short, lived thralls of the Gods', and by being induced to assume, instead of their previous capacity to be transformed into beasts,30  a human-like shape such as the Gods themselves had taken on,31 and the passions that went with it. So, although Regin speaks of his murdered brother Otter as 'a king of the free and careless' whom a God must resent, [p. 87] he also admits that their father had taught his sons to be 'evil and wise' for the sake of power, suggesting that those brothers' assumption of the three characters of warrior, hunter, and smith has also led to a diminishment of their natures. [p. 85] (Later, too, Regin notes that Fafnir, dwelling alone on his Glittering Heath, has preserved most of his primeval powers, embodied in the heart which his brother plans to devour, [p. 129] whereas Regin, having come to live among men has dissipated his share in them.) By contrast the Gods have devised for men, their creatures, a life which although short and perilous, and finally mortal, is nevertheless, even through its precariousness, a source of greater delight than the dwarfs' less fully conscious existence.32 

When Odin and his companions are entrapped in Reidmar's hall their 'host' briefly envisages [p. 90] using their plight to end the power of those new Gods over the earth, so that while they 'sit in [their] changeless mirth ' in some heavenly home (like the deities of Epicureanism)

'There shall be no more kings ...

And the world shall laugh and long not, ... nor fashion the tale'

Reidmar 's sons even threaten to rule men 'with bitter- heavy rods, / And make them beasts beneath us.’

It is only Reidmar's greed for gold that induces him to abandon that project of restoring an age of 'prelapsarian' happiness, at least for Dwarfs. In enlisting Sigurd to slay the dragon Fafner, Regin is likewise aiming to use the young hero as a tool to recover the dwarfs' ancient dominion, when [pp. 99–100] his 'hand [should] be as the spring' and he should receive in his 'house in the heavens' as 'the God of all that is' the 'love and the longing of folk' 'freed from the yoke' and 'there shall be no more dying '. However, the apparent paradise that Regin projects for his future subjects seems to involve a considerable passiveness among them, since there would be 'no deed in the wide world done, But the deed that [his] heart would fashion'. It is the ambitious Dwarf s slaying by Sigurd that preserves the possibility of continued heroic endeavour for the human race, even at the price of suffering and death. Morris had not changed his opinion of the relative value of mere happiness, however prolonged, as compared with a life of effort and struggle when, over a decade later, in The Story of the Glittering Plain [Ch. XI] he makes Hallblithe reproach the rejuvenated Sea Eagle for sacrificing the glory, and even the violence, of a warrior's career for a continued, but potentially wearisome, enjoyment of pleasure. The way, in that tale, the Acre of the Undying is dominated by a King empowered by enchantment to control a people devoted to such a life without action suggests how a world in which Regin had achieved his aims might have developed. It might indeed appear to some critics of Morris's ideal society in News from Nowhere that it is only skill in the exercise of craftsmanship and delight in physical work, that distinguish the less than desirable human existence intended by Regin from that portrayed for that future England.33 In practical terms the possibility, sometimes feared by Morris in his later years, that the working class might be beguiled by a mere alleviation of their impoverished misery into accepting a continuation of a class-divided society, instead of achieving through revolution a society of equals in which all its members could fully develop their capacities, could form a parallel to the mythical Dwarf-ruled world.

    G. The Sun and the Clouds

    The first half of Sigurd, after describing the overcoming, through Regin's slaying, of a grave danger to human flourishing, culminates in the encounter of two heroic beings, which if consummated might inaugurate a new epoch for humanity.In the next book Morris has again adapted the original tale of one hero's achievements and disaster to suggest, with a new group of images and actions developed around him, that his epic is now concerned with the thwarting of a potential deliverer.34 He had probably found in Grimm's Teutonic Mythology, the last of his list of great books of 1886, hints of the speculations by German students of ancient Germanic myth that the relation between Sigurd and his Nibelung in-laws might be an example of a struggle between a solar hero and the clouds and darkness opposed to him.35 Morris could himself easily associate the Nibelung name with the Greek Nephele and the German Nebel. both meaning 'cloud'. Hence the second half of Morris's epic is partly structured around a comparison of two types of heroism, one linked to Sigurd with his golden hair and golden armour as described in Volsunga, Ch. 22, the other, to which he eventually succumbs, with the 'Cloudy People' with their black hair and ‘coal-blue gear', which, for instance, Hogni [p. 210] insists shall be worn by Brynhild 'successful suitor. (Sigurd's temporary transformation into Gunnar's shape might be reckoned a symbol of bis eventually fatal involvement with the Niblungs' kind of manhood.) That contrast of emblematic colours is inserted by Morris with no basis in the Saga.

    Earlier in the poem Sigurd, when confronting Regin, had hardly looked beyond a traditional sort of heroic achievement, aimed at winning glory through deeds of valour, without little regard for futurity. Though aware of the malignity of the Dwarf’s designs, Sigurd seems at times almost willing to be treated as a weapon in his hand. [e.g. pp. 105, 118-19] It is following the hero’s encounter with Brynhild on her fire-encircled mound that he begins to develop a wider sense of what heroism might be devoted to. The wisdom in which his beloved then instructs him, in place of the Saga's power-giving runes and practical advice, [pp. 142-6] has little to say of a Nordic hero's usual quest for fame through deeds of violence, except in urging Sigurd to oppose wrong. When they meet again in Lymdale they look forward [p. 167] to winning 'fame accomplished' both for themselves and their 'crowned children' in Later generations by helping 'the earth-folk's need' and advancing 'the day of better things'. The practical result is the substantial change in the kind of 'warfaring' in which Sigurd engages in the first days after he comes to the Niblungs. In Volsunga we hear briefly [e.g. Ch. 26, 29] that in alliance they have slain kings and won their treasures. Morris in contrast [pp. 177-85] has Sigurd and the Niblungs, in episodes entirely invented by Morris, defeating first a host of 'slaves of the kings’, who apparently oppress both cities and the tillers of the earth, then one of treacherous 'isle-folk ', and finally a fleet of Viking pirates. Those who then praise Sigurd's victory celebrate 'the tyrant laid alow And the golden thieves' abasement.' Thereafter we hear little of Sigurd engaging in any fighting. His achievements are concerned rather with deeds of peace: he wins acclaim and affection by showing wisdom and justice in the Doom-ring, especially to the poor. [e.g. p. 205; cf. his oath when he weds Gudrun, compared with Gunnar's at that feast: pp. 200-1]. Even amidst the distress that he feels when he understands how he and Brynhild have been parted by guile he remains [pp. 232–3] 'the straightener of the crooked' 'Whose ear is dull to no man that his helping shall beseech.' Morris was already coming to understand that a good society could not be established just by improvements in design such as he had been practising since the 1860s, but would require some deeper social transformation. The bitterness with which in 1876, not long after Sigurd was published, he attacked the social constituency which he considered to be behind Disraeli's policy of war in the East can hardly have been the growth of a few months, but looked back to the social concerns that he had shown in some writings of the 1850s, such as the opening of 'Svend and his Brethren'. But at the time of Sigurd he had not yet grasped the necessity of collective action to achieve such changes, but was content to rely on the leadership of a single charismatic hero, Sigurd in the imagined world of the Saga, Gladstone, perhaps, in the actual England of the 1870s. 

    In contrast the heroism of the Niblungs is closer to the conventional one of the Saga age, having a fiercer and more militaristic character, involving, when we first hear of them, [p. 148] very frequent and intense engagement and delight in fighting, Even in peacetime they wear arms to plough and reap their fields. Their more martial ways are perhaps symbolised by the massive stonework of the walls of their 'burg' and the hall within it, in comparison with the timber fabric of the kingly halls mentioned earlier in Sigurd, especially that of the Volsungs with the Branstock growing at its heart. Through most of the second half of the poem they are led by heroes, the sons of King Guiki, who, though briefly guided by Sigurd at his best into fighting for causes concerned with the common good, down to that of the humblest members of society, later revert to being chiefly driven by a desire for the glory to be won by warriors showing their courage, and reckon the splendour of their wealth chiefly as a sign of having attained it. Guttorm, the youngest brother, is so enthusiastic for fighting that he will pursue it far from home, providing a simpler version of the ferocity which in Book I had made Sinfiotli unfit to be his father Sigmund's true heir. Gunnar, though nobler and more generous, proves willing, when he seeks to wed Brynhild, to accept the credit for what another man had achieved. His dismay at that deception being uncovered, added to his jealousy of possibly too intimate relations between his bride and his friend, helps lead him to murder his brother-in-arms. Between them stands Hogni, gifted with clear insight, at times almost mockingly expressed, into the dangers which his elder brother's ambition and their mother's plotting may bring upon their dynasty, whether through the slaying of Sigurd, or the accepting of Atli's suit for their sister or of his bidding them to be his guests. Nevertheless he is bound by pride in his kindred and his innate courage to stand by them in facing whatever disaster may be in store. 

    But the Niblungs' ambition and desire for glory is most fully embodied in their mother Grimhild,36 whom Morris, building on a few instances of her deeds in Volsunga, has made the prime agent in the destruction of Sigurd, and through him of his beloved Brynhild. In the Saga she is credited [Ch. 26] with making and serving the magic drink which induces Sigurd to transfer his love from Brynhild to Gudrun and that [Ch. 33] which leads Gudrun to abandon her resentment at Sigurd's death and accept Atli's hand. The drink [Ch. 30] which makes Guttorm prepared to slay Sigurd is apparently ascribed to his brothers, though their mother adds 'heavy words'. In Morris's narrative she is also called on [pp. 206-8] to help bewitch the initially reluctant Gunnar with another magic cup into desiring to wed Brynhild, and clearly provides the spells which transform Sigurd into his shape to make that wooing succeed. [Compare Ch. 27 and pp. 21-12]. Following Brynhild's settling with the Giukings it is Grimhild [pp. 229-30] whose whispered malice, also inserted by Morris, increases Gunnar's existing jealousy of a nobler hero with warnings of possible danger from a rival who knows too much of the truth of his supposed success, and incites him to desire to win Sigurd's treasure. One might say that Morris has given to Grimhild the part which Wagner, following the Nibelungenlied, assigned to his Hagen in bringing about the catastrophe of his story. But Grimhild may be a little more disinterested than that Hagen, whose main aim is to win the power of the Ring for himself: probably not even for the father Alberich who has set him on. Grimhild in contrast is concerned for the power and glory of the kingly house whose heads are her offspring. She seems willing that good shall be done provided that the honour for it will go to those offspring, and urges on Sigurd's wedding [pp. 187–8] to her daughter chiefly to increase their power and glory, expecting to do better than the Gods in ordering human life, and sometimes (e.g. p. 255) hoping to outwit their justice by stratagems. She almost seems to be seeking, like Regin, to act as an earthly providence, and by not too dissimilar means: it may be significant that she is the only character who in the second half of the epic effectively wields powers of enchantment. Whereas, after Gudrun's wedding to Atli, Grimhild disappears from the Sage narrative, Morris has [pp. 305–7] imagined for her a doom that might be thought a fitting penalty for her 'over wise' ambition for her family. After bidding a proud farewell to her sons on their way to disaster she dies in despair, cursing the Gods who have rejected her offer of her children to be among their most valiant supporters in their last battle.

    The final book of Morris's poem tells a part of the story in which the less perfect form of heroism displayed by the Niblungs and their kings may appear worthy of admiration by comparison with baser motives. Atli's reason for attacking those whom he has invited to be his guests is even cruder than that which in Book I had driven King Siggeir to a similar treachery. Siggeir, although Signy already senses [pp. 3-4] that he is unwrothy of his proposed marriage to her, is provoked to seek the Volsungs' destruction because his honour is impaired when Sigmund refuses him the sword that Odin has apparently brought to his wedding [pp. 7-10] Atli, however, deprived of any ground in honour to harm the Niblungs by Morris's cutting out his kinship to Brynhild, whose fate he might otherwise have resented, is moved almost entirely by his greed for wealth and power (fanned by the repeated urgings by Gudrun which Morris has added to the Saga narrative [pp. 287–8] to try to extort the treasure once Sigurd's from his guests. His ignoble nature is revealed even by the humble attire in which he first comes to speak with the Niblungs in his hall. According to the conventional assessment of Nordic heroism, previously exemplified in Book 1 when all King Volsung's sons insist on accompanying their father into possible danger [pp. 14-15], the readers of Morris's concluding episodes have reason to respect the courage with which, ignoring Hogni's more cautious counsels, the whole Niblung host sets out, though warmed by alarming omens in their queens' dreams, and, in Morris's version [pp. 293–4], by distorted visions seen by those outside the fatal feast, to encounter a peril from which they already suspect [p. 295] they may not return, but leave their halls to ruin. Likewise in Atli's hall Gunnar and Hogni remain undaunted by the threats and the apparently overpowering numbers with which they are faced, and, even when subjected to captivity and insult, die steadily rather than yield to Atli's demands. Against such a background of avarice and insolent tyranny, even the more self-regarding and applause­seeking kind of traditional heroism can shine with a relative brightness.


    Quotations from Volsunga Saga are usually taken from Morris's translation, which has been compared with a recent one by J. L. Byock (1990; Penguin Classics 1999). Citations of chapter numbers in square brackets, both within the text of the introduction, and within the notes, as [Ch. 10] are of those in Morris's version, which differ from those in other translations simply of the prose of the saga, since he incorporated within it some verses from the Eddic poems. Citations of page numbers in the Introduction in the same square brackets, e.g. [p. 40] are to the pages of the version of Sigurd regularly printed in Morris's lifetime, from 1875 to the 1890s, not to more recent editions.

    The Eddic poems relating to the Volsung story are quoted, where possible, in Morris’s versions appended to that of Volsunga Saga, which, however, like more recent literary versions such as W. H. Auden's, in Norse Poems (1981–3) sometimes pass over some stanzas having missing, or too many, lines. The titles of those poems are, however, cited by the standard Norse ones, as given in the well annotated edition and translation by H. A. Bellows (1923 & 1957), whose stanza numbers are also used. Titles of sagas named after individuals are cited as, e.g. 'Grettir's Saga'; 'Kormak's Saga', but for those named after families or places the usual Norse name is, for brevity, used: e.g. 'Volsunga Saga'; 'Laxdaela Saga'. (Volsunga Saga will usually be called simply 'Volsunga'.) The 'Prose Edda' of Snorri Sturluson has been consulted in the translations of J. I.Young (1954) and J. L. Byock (Penguin Classics, 2005)].

    Norse names are given in the form customary in English writing, and used by Morris, without the final 'r' attached to many of them, for nominatives, after some consonants; so 'Sigurd'; 'Thor'; not 'Sigurdr; Thorr'. Baldor/er (and similar names such as Gripir) has however been allowed the two syllables usual for his name since Matthew Arnold's 'Balder Dead', and not styled 'Bald'. When referring specifically to characters in the German Nibelungenlied, or in Wagner, the Germanic form of their name has been used:e.g. Siegfried = Sigurd; Gunther = Gunnar; Wotan = Odin.

    For clarity a distinction will be made that Morris did not actually use in the poem: King Giuki, his spouse and children will be called Giukungs, and the people that they ruled and the warriors whom they led Niblungs. Traditions and customs of the continental German speaking lands will be referred to as Germanic, those from Scandinavian countries,including Iceland, as Nordic, and characteristics common to both, as Teutonic.


    Bk. - Book

    ch. - chapter

    Ch. - chapter of Morris’ translation

    p., pp. - page(s)

    st. - stanza

    v., vv. - line(s) of verse

    vol. - volume

    VS (in notes) - Volsunga Saga


    Burrows, Edda

    Coll. Letters

    Coll. Works

    Critical Heritage

    Morris, Artist, Writer, Socialist

    Tompkins, Morris Poetry


    1. Wm. Morris, Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs (1870), Intro. p. - —

    2. Coll. Letters, vol. I, pp. 89, 98-9.

    3. Ibid. vol. IV, p. 206.

    4. See Oxford Companion to German Literature (1976 edn., ed. H. & M. Garland), s. nn. Hebbel; Jordan; Melt; Raupach.

    5. Coll. Letters, vol. I, pp. 98—9. vol. IV, p. 206. [cf. Story of Volsungs, Intro. pp.—].

    6. Accounts in English of the medieval sources in which the Volsung story is told, and discussions of how its different parts may have been brought together can be found in A. T. Hatto's translation of the Nibelungenlied (Penguin Classics, 1963-4), esp. App. 4, and in D. Cooke, I Saw the World End: a study of Wagner's Ring (1979), esp. pp. 81-131.

    7. Chk British Library Cat.

    8. Wagner's treatment of the legends is discussed in detail in D.Cooke, I Saw the World End, down to the Walkure; and for his later dramas in N. Benvenga, Kingdom on the Rhine (1982); also by R. W. Gutman, in his introduction of 1962 to Morris's translation of Volsunga.

    9. e.g. Critical Heritage, pp. 154-5. 157-8, 160.

    10. Cf. Reginsmol: Burrows, Edda, pp. 365-9.

    11. The Codex Regius, containing those poems, was discovered in Iceland about 1640, and placed in the Royal Library in Copenhagen about 1662: hence its name. It was returned to Iceland in 1971.

    12. Gripisspa: Burrows, Edda, pp. 340–55.

    13. Cf. Tompkins, Morris Poetry, p. 252

    14. 1. 2. A more detailed draft, closer to the Saga, is given in William Morris, Writer, Artist, Socialist, vol I, pp. 484-8, in which Brynhild explains how she earned her punishment by reversing the doom expected by Odin, and giving the young king Agnar, who as yet has won little glory, life and victory over the aged and long-glorious Helmgunnar, whose death takes him to Agnar's intended place in Odin's hall, and how the God, meeting her after the battle and setting the doom for her misplaced sympathy, but finally accepting with a 'smile ... kind and fair' her resolve, though thus banished, to 'bear Earth's kings on [her] boaom'.

    15. In that version it is hinted [Ch. 32; cf. Sigurthakvitha en Skamma, st. 35-6] that the 'great king Who sat amid gold', riding on Grani/Greyfell (i.e. Sigurd) was pointed out to Brynhild as her intended husband Gunnar, presumably a rationalised version of their magical mutual transformation in the older tale.

    16. In Morris's version a trout. [p. 87]

    17. See Atlavitha, st. 22-5; Atlamal, st. 54-6: Bellows, Edda, pp. 490-2, 519-20.

    18. Cf. Sigurdarkvitha en Skamma, st. 12: Bellows,Edda, p. 424.

    19. e.g. Ch. 32; Sigurdarkvitha en Skamma, st. 4, 18; Bellows, Edda, pp. 422, 426.

    20. See notes on p. 10, vv. 12-13.

    21. Tompkins, Morris Poetry, p. --.

    22. Bellows, Edda, p. 444, n. 6.

    23. This is probably inspired by Guthrunarvitha, st. 36 (in Bellows, Edda, p. 462) where the party spends a week passing in wagons over cold land, a second week on shipboard, and a third over waterless land. The voyage in the middle week could be by river, recalling the journeys in the German epic version of the newly wedded Kriemhild and later of her brothers from their Rhineland home down to, across, and along the Danube to King Etzel's city, imagined as in Hungary: see Nibelungenlied, tr. Hatto, chs. 20-1, 25. The factual geography of that poem is discussed, ibid. App. 5 (pp. 396-400), while the Nibelungs' difficulty in crossing the overflowing Danube, in ch. 25, may reflect an older tradition of a longer voyage.

    24. In Atlamal, st. 34 (Bellows, Edda, pp. 511-12) they row so hard that they break their rowlocks. (Early medieval ships could, with favourable winds, cover some forty miles a day.)

    25. The metre of Sigurd, and its likely origins, is analysed by George Sainsbury in his History of English Prosody, copied in May Morris, WM Artist, Writer, Socialist, vol. I, pp. 476-8.

    26. It is not clear whether Morris was aware of Matthew Arnold's objections, in his lectures on translating Homer, to the use of 'ballad rhythms' for that purpose in English versions from Chapman to F.W. Newman. But Morris's improved form of such a metre, with more varied rhythms, and replacing the 'weak endings' which make Newman's long lines seem to hobble with stressed ones, might be considered a practical rejoinder to Arnold's strictures.

    27. The language of Love is Enough of 1872 is also sparing in using post-16th-century words, its few Latinisms confined to the heroic couplets spoken by Love, but its medievalising speech is derived rather from the Froissart and Malory whom Morris had loved since the 1850s than on the starker manner that he found in the Sagas.

    28. Sohrab and Rustum, lines 302–8.

    29. Morris has given his Gods a greater, almost providential, concern with the practical, and moral, management of the world [cf. p. 86, lines 14-17] than is suggested in the Eddic tales, in which those Gods, having once created the first ancestors of humanity, show little interest in the fare of their descendants, beyond gathering the bravest warriors to share in their defence at their Day of Doom, and occasionally visiting princely households to test their knowledge of myth, sometimes with fatal results for those so tested:e.g. the end of Grimnismal (Bellows, Edda, p. 106.) Morris knew, of course, that such gods were in practice the objects of prayer, worship, and sacrifice by the Northern peoples, who expected suitable benefits in return :cf. Heimskringl a, vol. 4 (Saga Library Vol. 6), pp. 304-6. But such connections hardly appear in the myths.

    30. Cf. pp. 85, 86-7 Modern readers, with probably 'Green' sensibilities, may perhaps feel some sympathy with Reidmar when Morris makes him lament that Loki's killing of his son Otter has 'bereft him' of his 'wold ' and 'every highway wet' but should not forget that Otter, though he knows 'what joy ' the wood-beasts' hearts had, largely used his shape-changing in hunting and fishing.

    31. There are hints in Morris's verses (e.g. p. 87, line 12; p. 88, lines 19-20; p.94, line 12) that his Gods can also put off their human shapes when they need to exercise their full divine power.

    32. A similar contrast is drawn in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (Act II. Scene IV, lines 32-42) between the state of 'earth's primal spirits' under the 'sway' of Saturn, when, although they have 'the calm joy of flowers', Saturn refuses to them 'The birthright of their being, knowledge, power' .....Self­ empire and the majesty of love', and the freedom which Prometheus was subsequently to demand for men from Jupiter.

    33. There is a curious parallel between Regin's proposed, ostensibly benevolent. domination of humanity and the social conditions imagined in Dostoevsky's fable (written not long after Sigurd) about Christ and the Grand Inquisitor [The Brothers Karamazov, Bk 5, Ch. 5], in which the people have been persuaded to renounce freedom of will and of conscience and the bread of heaven promised by Christ, in return for earthly bread and a tranquillity produced through miracle-backed authority.

    34. This aspect of Sigurd as a potential, but failed, redeemer is extensively treated, along with the Biblical allusions which reveal it, in J. M. S. Tompkins, WM. Approach to the Poetry, pp. 244 -64. This section of the introduction is to be concerned mainly w ith the alterations and additions that Morris made to the Saga to enable it to carry such a wider meaning.

    35. Coll. Letters, ed. Colvin, vol. ii, p. 517; cf. N. Benvenga, Kingdom on the Rhine (1982). pp. 160-5.

    36. Grimhild's character as a witch crafty in spinning fates for her kin and those entangled with them is carefully analysed by Jane Ennis in JWMS 8.7 (Autumn 1989), pp. 13–23.