William Morris Archive

The Romance of William Morris, Sigurd the Volsung

Bibliographic Citation

Carole Silver , “The Romance of William Morris, Sigurd the Volsung,” William Morris Archive, accessed April 17, 2024, http://morrisarchive.lib.uiowa.edu/items/show/1204.


The Romance of William Morris, Sigurd the Volsung


Carole Silver




Ohio University Press


pp. 111-119


Sigurd the Volsung


Sigurd, published in 1876 and acclaimed by Bernard Shaw as "the greatest epic since Homer," transcends its sources and becomes an original poem. Although it is based mainly on the Volsunga Saga with an ending derived from the Nibelungenlied, Sigurd is a new and rich reinterpretation of medieval materials. But, in response to what Morris considered Richard Wagner's outrageous liberties with "the Great Story of the North," and because of his own reverence for his sources, he denied how fully he had altered and reshaped them. "I stick very closely to the Volsunga in my poem of Sigurd," he insists in a letter of 1876; "it is in fact the same story, modern amplification and sentiment excepted. I have invented nothing but detail."

Morris is quite inaccurate, for to amplify, to add modern sentiment and new detail--much of it derived from his two Icelandic journeys--and to reshape and restructure his primary materials, is to create a new literary work. To unify his epic, he eliminates the saga account of the genesis of the House of the Volsungs and begins his poem with Sigurd's immediate ancestors, including only those who illustrate facets of the hero's character or whose adventures illuminate the epic's central themes. To insure continuity, he omits incidents such as those of the conflict between Sigmund's son, Helgi, and King Hunding and of Sigurd's revenge for the slaying of his father, Sigmund. To gain dramatic impact, he ends his poem with Gudrun's plunge into the sea and ignores her rescue by and marriage to Jonakr, and the dismal fates of their offspring. In all, he de-emphasizes the saga's concentration on the annihilation of "the whole root and stem of the Giukings" (7:396) to center his epic on key characters and to expand his treatment of cosmic, social, and personal issues.

Modern amplification permits him to add dimensions to lesser figures, often treating them as "typical" characters. Andvari becomes a personification of blind greed; Regin, portrayed as more than a malignant dwarf, becomes a complex Faust figure and a power-mad political tyrant. Sigurd slays him because Regin plans to become master of the world. Gunnar and Atli are made into symbols of the lust for gold and power; Gunnar's motivations for Sigurd's murder are both sexual jealousy and an overweening desire to become "sole King in the world-throne, unequalled, unconstrained" (12:216), and Atli is impelled to murder the Niblungs by the mere mention of the treasure they possess.

In general, therefore, Morris sharpens moral distinctions which had been either unstressed or simply intimated in the saga. Like Wagner, he heightens the contrasts between good and evil, between those heroes who are ideal warriors and social saviors and their base opponents. His purpose is to suggest the Volsunga's broad cosmic and social implications and, thus, to note its relevance to his own era.

Modern sentiment causes him to make his epic palatable to a middle-class Victorian audience by not presenting what they might consider crude supernaturalism, grotesque horror, or indications of unworthy motivations on the parts of the heroic figures. Morris's Signy does not sew her children's gloves to their hands to test their courage, nor does she have Sigmund kill them when they prove cowardly. Brynhild, enraged, does not snort venom or flash fire, and Gudrun does not give Atli their children's hearts to eat. Ignoring the saga accounts of Sigurd's greed, Morris does not portray him as avaricious. His Sigurd does not kill Fafnir primarily to gain his hoard, nor does he justify his action by stating that "every brave and true man will fain have his hand on wealth till that last day [of death]"(7:331). He sincerely repents his broken troth to Brynhild and he neither attempts to seduce her nor proposes to her a menage a trois with Gunnar.

However, Morris's most significant alterations consist of his unification and repatterning of materials from his sources and his addition of thematic imagery to them. These result in a poem quite different from its sources. J. W. Blench has shown how Morris adds symmetry to the events of the to the events of the Volsunga, creating in "Sigmund" (Book I) a prologue in the form of a narrative gene­alogy and in "Gudrun" (Book IV), an epilogue, and thus placing the tragic story of Sigurd and Brynhild at the center of his poem. Furthermore, Morris creates greater unity within the poem by developing parallel episodes and settings, by utilizing fore­shadowings to connect the four separate books of the epic, and by developing a series of thematic images which help to amplify his major themes. Each of the four books, for example, begins with a descriptive passage emphasizing the qualities and values of the realm in which the actions will begin. In addition, each book, with the exception of "Regin" (Book II), which emphasizes hope and promise, culminates with a disaster to a society which has figured in it. As Dennis Balch comments, Morris stresses the "wavelike pattern of repeated catastrophe" that will end with Ragnarok and regeneration.

Events and characters presented at the beginning of the poem skillfully foreshadow those which appear at the end. The first two books, centering on the dawn and the day of life, and on the truly heroic society, anticipate the tragedies of the third and fourth books, the accounts of the social twilight and night of the world. The figure of Signy, a psychic Valkyrie bound to a husband she hates and on whom she takes vengeance, anticipates the characters of Brynhild and Gudrun. When Signy and Sigmund join in passion, they blend her wisdom with his valor, much as Brynhild and Sigurd will do. When Signy stands before the burning hall of Siggeir, a hall she has destroyed, she anticipates Gudrun standing before the hall of Atli which she has set ablaze. The wicked Borghild handing the cup of poison to Sinfiotli (the son of Sigmund and Signy) and thus killing him, foreshadows Grimhild's psychological destruction of Sigurd through the magic cup of forgetfulness which she offers him. Two repetitions of Sigurd's approach to Hindfell, two meetings with Brynhild in her palace at Lymdale, and two parallel oaths of love, sworn ironically to two different women, serve to link the middle books of the poem.

Each book contains at least one account of a scop or hero singing and harping; the subject of their songs is cosmic process, the changes by which an earlier world has been born and destroyed, and the growth and decline of the world of the poem. At Signy's wedding, a scop sings of the Norse genesis and, at Sigurd's birth, of the deeds and heroic ancestry of Sigmund, his father. Heimir, the king of Lymdale, sings of the future and of Sigurd's own deeds before the hero goes to meet the Niblungs, while Sigurd, arriving at their hall, sings of the glory of his ancestors. The songs culminate in the two sung by Gunnar in the fourth book: his battle song in Atli's hall--which describes the Niblungs' deeds and predicts the coming of Ragnarok--and his death song in the pit of adders--a harping that concentrates less on death than on the beginning of the world--thus returning the reader to the song of genesis which has opened the epic.

The sustained and reiterated imagery of harping and singing, of ruined and deserted halls, of the tree and the flame, and, most important, of the process of the days and seasons moving the world toward Ragnarok further amplifies and unifies the poem. All the thematic imagery is directed, in various ways, to the exploration of one major concept--that of change and process.

Images of the building and destroying of halls, which Jessie Kocmonova indicates are symbols of the unity of the folk, clearly represent the rise and fall of given clan or tribal cultures. The poem moves from the building of the Volsung hall, the "candle in the dark" (12:1), to the extinction by fire of the evil but magnificent hall of Atli. As power moves from the Volsungs to the Niblungs to Atli's people, the nature and values of each group are figured in descriptions of the halls they build. Subsequent images of the halls (transformed, deserted, or destroyed) show the process of the change or deterioration of given cultures.

The tree and the fire are also utilized to suggest the power of change. Images of a tree, which becomes both the hall and the torch that consumes it, are implied throughout the poem. Bran­stock, the tree that is the center of the Volsung hall and is akin to Yggdrasil, the tree of life, becomes the torch that sets the heroic world ablaze. Hiordis's epic simile comparing the "Volsung dwelling" (12:58) to a noble tree that is first laid low but then transformed into a great ship of conquest and glory almost epitomizes the first half of the poem. Images of fire not only link the first and fourth book of the poem to the central books which deal with Sigurd but also prefigure the conflagration and rebirth implicit in Ragnarok.

In all, the decline and death of the heroic world becomes an underlying theme of the poem. From the first page of Sigurd, images of the "last of the latter days" (12: 1), the "Day of Doom" (12:7), proliferate. The flames of Ragnarok illuminate the burning of Siggeir's hall, the ring of fire surrounding Brynhild on Hyndfell, and the flaming pyre that consumes her body and Sigurd's. The Norse apocalypse is again prefigured in repeated images, those of the seasons moving to the three-year-long winter that precedes the end of the world and those of the dawn moving to the darkness of the night of death. Even the beasts who participate in the poem's events are visualized as prefigurations of the mythic monsters who will combat the gods and heroes in the last battle. Fafnir and the great serpent who kills Gunnar are types of the Midgard Serpent; the she-wolf who devours Sigmund's brothers is an embodiment of the wolf, Fenrir, who will swallow the sun.

Morris's symbolism is enriched by his knowledge of the work of Max Müller, the German mythologist popular in England. Müller had interpreted the legend of Sigurd as a solar myth, specifically as an explanation of the death of the sun either at the end of the day or at the close of the sunny season. To him, Sigurd was a sun deity, Brynhild represented either the spring or the fertile earth, and Gudrun personified the late summer or the earth at harvest time. Envisioning Gunnar as a symbol of darkness and winter, Müller interpreted his marriage to Brynhild as a rape of spring and his murder of Sigurd as the killing of the sun--specifically, the winter solstice. That Morris knew Müller's thesis--at least in broad outline--seems clear, and Morris's use of it helps him to create a cosmic myth that is also a warning to his own society.

Morris traces the movement from dawn to darkness in communities and in morality in the four books into which he divides his epic. He begins Sigurd in the bright world of the Volsungs, a realm of justice and equality which reflects his idea of the heroic age he had begun to prefer to the chivalric. In a society based on the gens or clan and on the concept of communal work, Morris found the highest values of saga life intact. The first book depicts the spring of the world. Thus, it moves from the season of spring--the May evening when Siggeir's emissary arrives to ask for Signy's hand, to her wedding on Midsummer Day, to the autumn when her father and brothers are murdered by Siggeir, to the winter when Sigmund and Sinfiotli are buried alive, to the promise of spring's return, when Hiordis, pregnant with Sigurd, is rescued by King Elf. Set in the earliest of the societies Morris describes, the first book of Sigurd centers on dawn and stresses the hope implicit in the beginning of day. The Volsung line appears destroyed, but is not; Sigmund, "the best of the trees of the garden" (12:8) is felled, but will blossom again through Sigurd, his last seed. Significantly, Sigmund waits until sunrise to die; his passing occurs as the first sunbeams bathe his eyes, and Sigurd is born at dawn, with his eyes looking straight at the sun of an April morning.

Sigurd, whose nativity begins the second book, brings daylight to his world. His birth, ending "the dark tide," is proclaimed as the "Dawn of the Day" (12:65, 66), and his name itself means "dawn" or "daylight." Although, like his father, he is called a "mighty tree" (12:73), he is repeatedly depicted as a figure representing the light and the summer sun. He is reared in the utopian world of Elf, but, when he reaches adolescence, he can no more be confined in the pastoral world which fostered him than "the hazel copse may hold / The sun of the earliest dawning" (12:70). Before embarking on his initiatory adventures, Sigurd appears to King Gripir shining like "the earliest sun's uprising" (12:98). Ruddy, bright-eyed, and golden-haired, arrayed in flashing armor, he is later seen by the people of Lymdale as Balder, the summer sun god, come to earth. He appears to Regin, who recognizes him as "the sun of summer" (12:158) with his presence blazing like "the heart of the sun" (12: 103). At the end of the second book, his life-giving power arouses and wins the sleeping Brynhild. In an analogy to the sun's awakening of the earth from the slumber of night or winter, he woos her with the promise of love and fertility.

The second book of Sigurd, the book of day and summer, ends with a joyous love scene which stretches from dawn to night. But Sigurd and Brynhild must enter the shadowy vale of the Niblungs, where they will undergo the "dimming of the day" (12:306). At the center of the third book are the Niblungs, who are the "Cloudy People" (12:306) in more than name alone. Their dark hair, pale complexions, and somber coal-blue armor are the external evidences of their clouded moral nature; they are overcast by pride, jealousy, and greed. In the third book, a book of twilight and autumn, part of the action is set in the evening or in the grayness before dawn. Sigurd weds Gudrun in the autumn and joins the midwinter wars of the Niblung lords; his death comes as he closes his eyes at the first faint glimmer of dawn.

It is Atli, "the king that knows not ruth" (12:235), and his morally darkened land which Morris uses to depict the night and the winter of earth in the fourth book of the epic. In a series of scenes, now chiefly confined to artificially lit interiors or moonlit nights, the "Cloudy People," who have destroyed the daylight represented by Sigurd, are themselves destroyed by Atli's dark­ness. In turn, Atli and his land are consumed by the light of fire, for the poem culminates with a symbolic blaze. The flames with which Gudrun destroys Atli's palace symbolize those of Ragnarok, the final conflagration that will destroy the heroic world and the gods themselves.

To Morris, the Volsunga Saga was the world's great tale "Of utter love defeated utterly, / Of grief too strong to give Love time to die! " and, in his own epic, he emphasizes the destruction wrought by the frustration of passion and by jealousy and self­ishness in love. While the first book concentrates on the familial and communal love of the Volsungs, the theme of the renuncia­tion of erotic passion is introduced. Signy sacrifices her chance of love and marries King Siggeir to strengthen and aid her family. Her incestuous relationship with Sigmund is not at all motivated by passion, but is, instead, a rational act calculated to avenge her family and make way for Ragnarok, "the uttermost ending of earth, / And the day when death should be dead, and the new sun's nightless birth" (12:28). Hiordis's choice of the aged Sigmund over the young Lyngi is not impelled by love; instead, she chooses fame and praise over what, to her, seem the transient joys of desire. Through these sacrifices of personal desire, the Volsung line and the values it represents are preserved.

In contrast, the second book shows the beauty of erotic love through the relationship of Sigurd and Brynhild, and the third book demonstrates the destructive aspects of passion. The initial relationship of Sigurd and Brynhild represents the bond appro­priate to loving friends and equals. It is symbolized by sunlight, and the hero swears his troth by the sun itself: "the sun shall die in the heavens and the day no more be fair, / If I seek not love in Lymdale and the house that fostered thee" (12:130). Brynhild replies with a similar oath, and the troth-swearing is repeated when the lovers meet in Lymdale. However, the oath becomes ironic when Sigurd swears it a third time, this time to Gudrun. The magic potion which Grimhild, the Niblung Queen, administers to him makes him not only forget Brynhild but also his own identity and the heroic values which are part of it. His drinking of it, described as the first death he dies, is a correlative to his new and less worthy attraction to Gudrun. This love is not the blending of wisdom and valor that characterizes the ideal relationship, but is based on Gudrun's mute adoration of Sigurd and on his pity for her and awareness of her pain. Their marriage, founded not on ignoble emotions but on less than ideal grounds, destroys not only themselves and Brynhild but the entire society of the Niblungs. Sigurd's death is actually precipitated by Andvari's ring, the stolen token which bears a "thrice-cursed burden of greed" (12:210). Given to Gudrun as a love gift by Sigurd, the ring forces Brynhild to recognize that she has been betrayed. Sigurd's death is hastened by the sexual jealousy between Gudrun and Brynhild which erupts when Gudrun, "her face yet dreamy with the love of yesternight" (12:206), encounters the frustrated and frigid Brynhild at the river. The death is cemented by Gunnar's greed and jealousy as his desire for the gold mingles with his rage at his sense of Brynhild's love and hate for Sigurd.

Indeed, Brynhild's great love and hatred for Sigurd sets blood brother against blood brother and makes Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm Sigurd's murderers. For Sigurd and Brynhild, death is a savior of love and a release from death in life. But, for the Niblungs, it is the destroyer of the sacred bond of kinship and the goad to vengeance. Gudrun's love for the dead Sigurd leads her to destroy her brothers and her own house. In turn, her love for them, which she can feel only when they too are slain, drives her to kill their murderer, her second husband, Atli. Finally, the destructive force of passion drives her to attempt her own destruction.

Thus, fatal and flawed passion is a partial cause of the break­down of personal, social, and cosmic order. Not only are the ties of kinship and blood brotherhood dissevered but also right relationship--social love in its broadest form--is destroyed. With the death of Sigurd, a great line of heroes ends; with the deaths of the Niblung lords, a society vanishes. Finally, with the destruction of Atli and his followers, power itself dissolves. Only lesser men remain on a disordered earth and they await a cosmic end. The failure of personal love and of fellowship leads from the morning of the world to the long night before Ragnarok.

Morris's epic is dominated by those who are fated to love and to suffer. Sigurd, Brynhild, Gunnar, and, above all, Gudrun bear the changeless eyes and faces and undergo the death in life that remain Morris's constant symbols. Yet, all are now depicted as strong and proud, silent and stoical in their pain. Thus, the overall effect is different: Morris's emphasis is no longer on the pains of eros but on the courage to endure them. To Morris, Norse sagas demonstrate "the worship of Courage," and he extends this philosophy even to fatal disappointments in love. Man must "do the deed and abide it" (12:127), demonstrating his heroic endurance and bearing his pain with fortitude. Moreover, Morris insists that individuals must try to show an altruistic tenderness for all mankind--to blend their private desires with public benevolence. Linking erotic passion and an ideal of fellowship, Morris declares that the good days of earth are forged by "daring deeds ... and the eager hearts of love" (12:126); in an indifferent cosmos, these are man's only weapons.

Similarly, Morris's attitude towards fate is focused upon courageous acceptance of what is destined and what is doomed to change rather than upon pessimism or the abandonment of will. Emphasizing confrontation rather than evasion, Morris explains that Signy foreknows the disaster her marriage will bring, but chooses heroically to fulfill the will of the Norns. Volsung and Sinfiotli, Hogni and Gunnar know of, but refuse to avoid, their destined deaths. Morris's Sigurd follows his saga prototype in nobly accepting his destiny, and even Regin, the questioning sceptic, recognizes and obeys the power of fate. Only Grimhild attempts to evade the Norns, and her hubris is a factor in the destruction of those around her.

In addition, Morris emphasizes the calm, unfrightened acceptance of the end of life. The heroic ethic, laughing death to scorn, is manifested by Sigurd, as well as by Gunnar and Hogni at Atli's court. Brynhild's suicide is as much a matter of choice as of despair; there is nothing weak in her decision to end her death in life. Yet death is no longer imbued with the sinister attractiveness it held in The Earthly Paradise and in Love is Enough. It is simply an end, one that even the gods must face, and as such it is neither to be unduly desired or to be unfittingly avoided. Life counts. The heroism with which one lives it, despite the pains of love and fate, is what gives man his only immortality, his remembrance in the minds of other men.

In all, Morris's new treatment of his themes in Sigurd demonstrates his ability to break through his personal problems and recommit himself to the world of men. Dorothy Hoare sees Morris's selection of saga as a choice of escape from life. But, to those acquainted with the body of his works, it is obvious that Sigurd signals not escape but recommitment. Saga values, particularly those of courage, fellowship, and fortitude, suggest to him a way of approaching not only his own problems but also those of England. The "simple, straightforward response to life in saga" becomes his new personal and social ideal. His acceptance of the grimness of the saga world implies his growing willingness to face the darker aspects of man's life. Thus, Sigurd postulates an alternative to being an "idle singer," that of becoming, as Sigurd does, a champion of justice and equality, "a straightener of the crooked" (12:206). On a personal level, the poem marks Morris's turning from passivity to action: it an­nounces the beginning of his personal crusade to set the crooked straight--through social and political activism and through the communism of Karl Marx.