William Morris Archive

Grace J. Calder

WILLIAM MORRIS was the foremost English translator and interpreter of Old Norse literature in the nineteenth century.Between 1869 and 1876 he published an extraordinary quantity of work based on the Scandinavian. With characteristic enthusiam and energy he studied Icelandic and with his teacher, Eiríkr Magnússon, plunged into the reading and translating of the Icelandic sagas.

The Story of Kormak the Son of Ogmund is Morris' and Magnússon's translation of Kormáks saga. It is now printed for the first time – from the text of Morris' calligraphic manuscript, made probably in 1871. The earliest of known English translations, though the last to be published,2 it stands chronologically about midway down the list of works produced in the fruitful period Morris devoted to Old Norse literature.

In the midst of translating the sagas Morris made lengthy journeys through Iceland in 1871 and 1873, exploring the land where the men and women of the Heroic Age lived, and becoming acquainted with their plucky descendants. The importance of Iceland to Morris can hardly be over-estimated. Its literature inspired his greatest writings, its social organization influenced his theories on modern society, and the character of its people set him an example of courage to emulate in his private life. During the very period when he was occupying himself with Old Norse translations and calligraphy his marriage was foundering. His letters show that the Icelandic moral code helped him find the strength to bear this misfortune. The Story of Kormak is thus a key to a chapter of Morris' life that all-important to his literary career and crucial in his personal history.

Morris and Magnússon left no known comment on Kormáks saga or their translation. The first five sections of the present introduction, therefore, identify the poet Kormak and Kormáks saga, the place The Story of Kormak in the list of Morris' 'over fifty poems and prose pieces … connected with the Scandinavian',3 show its significance and that of Icelandic life and literature in the private life of Morris, explain the methods of the translators, and touch on the critical reception of Morris' saga-translations as a whole. The remaining sections discuss the historical background, the content, and the art of the Icelandic original.

I. The poet Kormak and Kormák's saga

Kormak was a skald who lived in the tenth century- the best of the Icelandic love poets and, like Hallfred and Gunnlaug, remembered both for the romantic story of his life and for the poetry attributed to him. All three practised as court poets abroad. Kormak was the panegyrist of Earl Sigurd Hakanson and King Harald Greycloak of Norway. His name, his dark skin and pale complexion, and his passionate temperament all point to Irish ancestry.

Kormáks saga, written probably in the early thirteenth century, is one of the oldest of the Family Sagas.4 It is a short biographic tale about the poet-warrior and his unfulfilled love of the beautiful Steingerd. He fell in love at first sight-and was betrothed, but a strange indifference prevented his appearing on the day set for the wedding. Steingerd's kinsmen married her off to Bersi without delay, and later she took a second husband. From time to time Kormak appeared on the scene; ready to challenge or taunt her husbands, but never availed himself of opportunities to possess the woman he loved. At times Steingerd seemed willing to have him, but Kormak's inability to act always set at naught his desire for his beloved. His frustration in love fulfilled the prediction made by a witch at the time of his wooing: 'Thou shalt never have any joy of thy Steingerd.' The narrative serves as framework for some eighty occasional poems, of which about sixty are judged to be the genuine work of Kormak.

The saga is preserved in the great vellum manuscript Mö∂ruvallabók, written in the first half of the fourteenth century and now in the Amamagnaean Collection, Copenhagen.5 Thomas Bartholin, the royal historiographer of Denmark who owned this codex in the late seventeenth century, described its contents as 'particulares Islandiae historiae and among these a delightful one, namely Kormak's saga, which is quite a store-house of antiquities'.6 With much adventure and local colour, the story illustrates life in the Young Colony of Iceland: the family, government, law and justice, medicine, and the occupations of the people on land and sea. It contains a virtual anthology of pagan folklore, certain of its superstitious beliefs and practices being unique in saga literature.

Kormáks saga may well be called a 'store-house of antiquities', yet it has a hero who could be the subject of a modern novel or drama. His prowess in war and in poetry wins our admiration; his unfulfilled love moves our pity. Kormak is no stereotype but a complex personality, whose failure in love psychologists have studied as a case history.7 We may accept the explanation of folklore, that a witch cursed him, or interpret his behaviour in terms of modem psychology. It has been suggested, too, that poetic temperament caused Kormak to shun the realities of married life and yet find inspiration for the poetry of a lifetime in the woman he did not marry.8 The love story unfolds in the poems of the saga, themselves the source of the biography, and some of the best erotic verse that has come down to us from the Old North. The richness of its historical and legendary lore, the psychological problem of its main character, and the quality of its verse make the work delightful to the modem reader.


1  Morris was born in 1834 and died in 1896. 

2  See Bibliographical Note, p. 46.

3  Karl Litzenberg, 'William Morris and Scandinavian Literature: a Bibliogrpahical Essay', SS, XIII (1935). 95.

4  These 'deal with persons and events from the period about 900-IIOO, i.e. from the settlement of Iceland to the beginning of Icelandic historiography', Sigurður Nordal, The Historical Element in the Family Sagas, W. P. Ker Memorial Lecture, 1954 (Glasgow, 1957), p. 11. 'Iceland's chief contribution to the literature of the world,' G. Turville-Petre, Origins of Icelandic Literature (Oxford, 1953), p. 230. 

5  ð ruvallabók (Codex Modruvallensis), Facsimile, MS. No. 132 fol. in the Amamagnaean Collection, with an [English] Introduction by Einar Ól. Sveinsson(Copenhagen, 1933), ff. 120-9.

6  ð ruvallabók, p. 23.

7  The Sagas of Kormak and The Sworn Brothers, translated from the Old Icelandic with Introduction and Notes by Lee M. Hollander (ASF, 1949), pp. 1-7. Hollander, Monatshefte, XXXV (1943), 107-15.

8  Einar Ól. Sveinsson, ed. Kormáks saga, in Islenzk Fornrit, VIII (Reykjavík, 1939), lxxxi; Möðruvallabók Facsimile, p. 15.