Morris and the Sagas
This is quite an endorsement on Andrew Lang’s part—in an essay on sagas in general. After all, William Morris was not the first Englishman to translate sagas, nor the only one doing so at the end of the nineteenth century. Morris was, however, the most famous of England’s nineteenth-century translators; he was also the most prolific. Together with Magnússon, Morris translated over thirty sagas in all; and working on his own, Morris retold sagas or segments of sagas in more modern forms—most notably Sigurd the Volsung, a verse rendition of Volsunga saga, and The Lovers of Gudrun, based on Laxdœle saga. Beyond this, Morris wrote essays and poetry based on Iceland; he translated Old Icelandic verse; and his 1871 and 1873 journeys to Iceland and Iceland’s saga sites were published under the title Icelandic Journals.
By themselves these accomplishments are impressive enough, but they represent only a small part of what William Morris undertook and what William Morris achieved. By the time he met Eiríkr Magnússon in 1868 and the two of them began translating together, Morris was already a businessman, a designer, an artist, a poet, an essayist, and a writer of short romances. From there he went on to become a printer, a lecturer, an expert on dyes and dyeing, a translator of other ancient literatures, and a promoter of various causes: the arts and crafts movement, for example, and socialism and the working man. Even then Morris kept up his translations of Old Icelandic, publishing a volume of The Saga Library each year from 1891 to 1895, the year before his death.
Proud as Morris was of his Celtic blood, the building up of our modern race owes so much to the far North that one accepts without surprise the phenomenon of a many-sided nature like this going out in profound sympathy to the story of our Northern forefathers . . . . These men of the North, reared in a land where every day brings adventure and struggle for the right to live, imagined their heroes grim and gigantic and meet to fight the forces of Nature, striding the pathless wastes of ice and wading the grey rivers. (William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, I, 445-6)
It is important to realize that William Morris was by no means alone in his idealism of the North. Morris lived and wrote during a period when England’s fascination with all things northern had been growing for over two centuries. Translations of Old Icelandic, also called Old Norse, began to appear in Europe and England in the mid seventeenth century (in Latin initially) and continued to appear throughout the eighteenth century—the age we call the Neoclassical Period and tend to think of as focused solely on the Classics and the Classical south. It was during this period that Thomas Gray published “The Fatal Sisters,” a poem that depicts the Valkyries of Norse mythology weaving a web of battle gore. Gray’s 1768 rendition of these “Sisters” was still thrilling readers in Morris’s century.
By the end of the eighteenth century, journeys to Iceland were on the increase and becoming something of a fad; even Dr. Samuel Johnson, that most representative of eighteenth-century figures, once hoped to make the journey. And by the start of the nineteenth century, interest in the sagas—with their legendized tales of individual men and women—began to replace the eighteenth century’s emphasis on mythology. Writers of poetry, plays, and novels borrowed increasingly from a romanticized Old North. The most famous of these writers, Sir Walter Scott, not only drew upon the north for his own fiction but wrote and published an 1814 abstract of Eyrbyggja saga (later translated in full by Morris and Magnússon).
By 1834, the year Morris was born, more and more of the English were looking to the Viking world, studying Old Icelandic and imitating its tales or avidly reading what others brought out in print. George Stephens’ Frithiof’s saga (the first complete translation of a saga to be published in English) appeared in 1839; Samuel Laing’s Chronicle of the Kings of Norway appeared in 1844, and George Dasent’s The Story of Burnt Njal, a project of nearly twenty years, was published in 1861.(1)
This Scandinavian appeal is easy to understand. The North—particularly Iceland’s north—had much the English would like to have had themselves: vast regions of untamed land, a home-grown mythology, an extensive heroic literature, an unadulterated language, a purity of race, and a tradition of recordkeeping that has allowed Icelanders to trace family lines back to the days of Iceland’s settlement and sometimes earlier. Though it was not possible for the English to claim a similar purity of language or race, they could at least play up their Viking connection, and they did so with considerable success. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it was not only acceptable but popular for the English to think of themselves as hereditary northerners, as a people only incidentally removed from a Viking past. In the vigorous north (the English assured themselves) lay England’s true beginnings, and from a Viking “infusion of Northern blood” came England’s best qualities (Dasent, “The Norsemen in Iceland,” 166). Like the Vikings before them, the English now ruled the seas, wielding a commercial and military strength that extended far from their homeland shores. Sentiment of this sort allowed Thomas Carlyle to speak of England’s industrial leaders as modern versions of Viking conquerors, as “Sons of the icy North” and “Sons of the Jötun-land; the land of Difficulties Conquered” (“Captains of Industry,” 287).
Along with this insistence on England’s northernness came an inevitable lessening of praise for the south. Warmer, more southerly countries—whose histories and literatures had previously done much to shape England’s thought—began to be spoken of as un-English, as too luxurious, as lacking in vigor or will. (“Languid” is the term John Ruskin applies.) This shift away from the south in favor of the north lies at the base of Charles Kingsley’s 1854 “Ode to the North-East Wind,” a poem that dismisses the “hot,” “listless,” “gaudy” south and its “soft South-wester” (a mere “ladies’ breeze”) to embrace the invigorating, hero-making Viking wind as England’s own.
Given all this, it is no surprise Morris’s own appreciation of the North came easily and remained a consistent theme throughout his writing career. Early during his time at Oxford he wrote “The Rising of the Mosque in the Place of the Temple of Solomon.”(2) Lines from that poem are an excellent match for Kingsley’s south-rejecting ode.
While he was still a student at Oxford, Morris extended his “historical reading” by including translations from Old Norse literature, “a good corrective,” he claimed, “to the maundering side of mediaevalism” (Letters, II, 229). He also wrote a series of romance tales for the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. Several of these tales (“Gertha’s Lovers,” “Svend and His Brethren,” “Lindenborg Pool,” “The Hollow Land”) already showed a northern propensity. One, “Lindenborg Pool,” openly acknowledges inspiration from Benjamin Thorpe’s mid-century Northern Mythology.