Introduction to Three Northern Love Stories
Morris originally intended to publish Gunnlaug the Worm-tongue and Raven the Skald (Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu), Frithiof the Bold (Friðþjófs saga hins frækna), and Viglund the Fair (Víglundar saga) as a collection of three stories; but his publisher, Ellis and White, wanted something larger and more substantial, something that could be sold at a higher price. From this came the “other tales” of the title, so called to distinguish them from the three longer “stories.”
In a letter from Morris to Henry Buxton Forman (December, 1873), Morris explains the rationale: In order “to thicken” the book, he would add “Hroi the Fool,” “Hogni and Hedin,” and “Thorstein Staff-smitten.”1 The first of these, says Morris, is “a pretty edition of a ‘sharper’ story” and the second “a dark and strange legend of remote times.” The third is a tale “smelling strong of the soil of Iceland, like the Gunnlaug” (Letters, I, 206). Unlike the Morris and Magnússon translation of Grettir the Strong (1869), these stories and tales are short enough and straightforward enough that synopses were not included. There is, however, a one-page chronology of key events in Gunnlaug, as well as endnotes giving a short, variant translation of Hogni and Hedinn. Another small addition appears within the Viglund text, the melody sung by Ketilrid in Chapter Eleven.2
Two of the sagas (Gunnlaug and Frithiof) had previously been published in periodicals,3 Gunnlaug in the January 1869 issue of The Fortnightly Review (as The Saga of Gunnlaug the Worm-tongue and Rafn the Skald) and The Story of Frithiof the Bold—in two parts, in the March and April 1871 issues of Dark Blue under Morris’s name alone.4 Both sagas were revised for Three Northern Love Stories.
The price of the book—over ten shillings—was hefty for Morris’s reading audience, and the book was not republished until 1901. Nonetheless, the theme of love in the ancient North was an appealing one, and praise for the translations ran high. An 1875 unsigned review in The Athenaeum is indicative, claiming “too high praise cannot be spoken” of the book, both for its “grace” and “vigour” of language and its “fidelity” to what is depicted. The writer continues on:
The language and sentiment of this anonymous review may seem excessive to modern readers; nonetheless there is truth in what the reviewer claims. The stories and tales Morris chose for this collection are “rich” in “romantic” and “historic interest.” They are both “simple” and “vigorous”; and the primary players do move through their “warrings and wooings” with “unaffected dignity.”
By 1890 Morris was considering “breaking up the vol: of Three Northern Love Stories” and placing them within The Saga Library, “as to get the stories into more suitable gatherings.” The Story of Gunnlaug the Worm-tongue would perhaps accompany The Story of the Heath-slayings; and, if not placed there, Morris intended “Gisli & Viga Glum for G’s companions” (Letters III, 227). Neither occurred. The Story of the Heath-slayings ultimately appeared as an appendix to The Story of the Ere-dwellers in Saga Library I. The other two, Gísla saga and Víga-Glúms saga, were never published by Morris.
1. The essentials of Frithiof and Ingibiorg’s story had already been made popular in England through George Stephen’s 1839 translations of both the saga and Bishop Esaias Tegnér’s 1825 verse rendition in Swedish.
2. This is amended on the title page of Three Northern Love Stories, where Magnússon’s name comes first. An 1879 letter also gives Magnússon the greater credit (Letters, I, 513).
3. “The Tale of Roi the Fool” (Hróa páttr heimska) comes from the late fourteenth-century Flateyjarbók, as does “The Tale of Hogni and Hedinn” (Heðins saga ok Högna, also known as Sörla þáttr). “The Tale of Thorstein Staff-smitten” (Þorsteins þáttr stangarhöggs) is a thirteenth-century tale. Þáttr (pl. þættir) is the Old Icelandic term for a short prose narrative.
4. This melody was introduced by Morris and does not appear in the Icelandic version used by the translators. See Anderson, pages 192-193.
Anderson, Karl O. E. “Scandinavian Elements in the Works of William Morris.” Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1940. Available in the William Morris Archives.
Cook, Robert G. The Character of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue.” Scandinavian Studies 43:1 (winter, 1971) 1-21.
Faulkner, Peter. Editor of William Morris: The Critical Heritage. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
Foote, Peter G. Introduction to The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue. Translated by Randolph Quirk. London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, Johannesburg, Toronto, and New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1957.
Kershaw, Nora. “The Tháttr of Sörli” (called “The Tale of Hogni and Hedinn” in the Morris and Magnússon translation). In Stories and Ballads of the Far Past, translated with introductions. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1921.
Miller, William Ian. Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1990. (Chapter Two contains an excellent analysis of “Thorstein Staff-smitten.”)
Morris, William. The Collected Letters of William Morris. 4 vols. Edited by Norman Kelvin. Princeton, Princeton University press: 1984-1996.
Rowe, Elizabeth Ashman and Joseph Harris. “Short Prose Narrative (þáttr).” In A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture. Edited by Rory McTurk, 462-78. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.