Few talents dominated Victorian England like William Morris (1834 -1896). Known primarily today as a designer and creator of wall coverings, fabrics, books, stained glass, and furniture, he is also revered as an early and ardent Socialist, deeply concerned with the appalling conditions facing most 19th century working men, women, and children. A rejection of cheap, machine-made gimcrackery drove young Morris, along with his close friend, the slightly older Dante Gabriel Rossetti (one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) to join with other passionate young artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and form a company to design and hand-create household and church furnishings. Much of their work harkened back to these young artists’ conception of the mediaeval period, a time when all furniture and fabrics were hand-created and great pride was taken in fine work. But one of the creative outlets dearest to the great man’s heart was poetry.
Morris was appalled by the pollution, over-crowding, and exploitation seen everywhere in contemporary Britain. His personal antidote was the distant past. When Morris sat down to write poetry – and a favourite place for him to do so was at his tapestry loom, whilst weaving – he wrote of ancient times. Like the majority of the physical output of Morris & Company, Morris’ poetry harkened back to an era of knights in armour engaged in valorous and selfless acts of courage, lovely yet mysterious damsels, clanging swords, and heartfelt devotion to beauty, God, and honour. He took a great personal interest in history, and it is no wonder then that he was attracted to that “island of fire and ice”, Iceland. This was a place untouched by the hand of industrialism, where people still lived in a truly medieval fashion. Morris began, in 1868, to read the Icelandic Sagas in the original Icelandic Norse, helped by his Icelandic friend Eiríkr Magnússon. The Sagas were collected in the early 13th century by Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), who feared these oral tales might be lost if not written down. The Sagas comprise 49 tales of the founding and settlement of Iceland, and are the richest source we have of early Norse history, religion, and mores.
The more Morris read, the more he realized that the Norse religion was actually the ancient faith of his own people; that the Angles and Saxons who had conquered and populated Britain in the 5th century shared the same heathen Gods as the Scandinavian Vikings who would later attempt to wrest that land from them in the 9th and 10th centuries. The simplicity and directness of Icelandic laws, with all gathering during the summer at the sacred law-mound at Thingvellir, recalled to his mind a purer, more democratic form of governance than the corruption of Parliament. Even the very poverty of the people seemed to elevate them in his estimation; a hardy agrarian and sea-faring existence in which nothing was wasted and simple joys cherished.
Morris was entranced, and with Magnússon set out to Iceland via the Diana, a wooden, fortnightly mail steamer in the summer of 1871. The journey was, in the words of J.W. Mackail, Morris’ friend and first biographer, of “an importance in Morris’ life which can hardly be over-estimated, and which, even to those who knew him well, was not wholly intelligible.”
He marvelled at the quality of the late evening light, “light enough to see to read; wonderfully clear, but not like daylight, for there were no shadows at all.” Never much of an outdoorsman, he found camping at night and riding everyday across the sere and mysterious landscape vivifying: “…yet it is an awful place: set aside the hope that the unseen sea gives you here, and the strange threatening change of the spiky blue mountains beyond the firth, and the rest seems emptiness and nothing else: a piece of turf under your feet, and the sky overhead, that’s all: whatever solace your life is to have here must come out of yourself or these old stories, not over hopeful themselves.”
Morris was most impressed with the hardy little Icelandic horses and their distinctive rolling gait known as the tolt, and hoped to bring one he rode, “Falcon”, home with him: “he ambles beautifully, fast and deliciously soft; he is about thirteen hands high.” But Falcon went lame and Morris returned with a grey he had also ridden, “Mouse”, as a gift for his young daughters.
Although only the size of large ponies the Icelandic horses are intelligent and strong. May Morris later recalled her father’s gift: “He was gentle and quiet, though not without slyness: for I remember there was one gate-post against which, when I went out for a ride, he used often to try to rub me off his broad back. I’m ashamed for my horsemanship to think how often the rogue had his way. Father used to ride him about the country a good bit at first. Then I jogged about with him…He got enormously fat on our coarse thick plentiful English grass, with little to do, and I used to imagine him lonely, and yearning for the fun and hardships of his Iceland life…”
The weeks he had spent touring Iceland percolated in Morris’ brain, and his strong feelings for the country inspired him to deepen his own study of its literature and try to share it with others. He was diligent in his Icelandic studies, and could at length converse freely with his friend Magnússon. Morris now desired to take the prose version of the Vølsunga Saga he had translated with Magnússon’s help and turn it into English verse. It was more than an academic exercise. In Morris’
…how strange it seems to us, that the Volsung Tale, which is in fact an unversified poem, should never before have been translated into English. For 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 should it be to those that come after us no less than the Tale of Troy has been to us.
Published in November 1876 as Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (and Morris’ version is exactly contemporaneous with Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung), the poem is over 10,000 lines long, and as Morris alerts us above, is a verse rendering of a prose story. Although Morris’ version was admired by no less a literary light than George Bernard Shaw, its archaic language and rather ponderous pace and repetitive metre can make for challenging reading today. Yet there are passages of power and energy. Here is the hero Sigurd being presented with the magic sword by Regin, the weapon-smith:
“Hail, son of the Volsungs, the corner stone is laid, I have toiled and thou hast desired, and, lo, the fateful blade!” Then Sigurd saw it lying on the ashes slaked and pale, Like the sun and the lightening mingled mid the even’s cloudy bale: For ruddy and great were the hilts, and the edges fine and wan, And all adown to the blood-point a very flame there ran That swallowed the runes of wisdom wherewith its sides were scored.”
Sigurd the Volsung remained Morris’ favourite poem of all he had written. Although rarely read today, it proved a source of inspiration for JRR Tolkien, and even opening the book at random will reward the curious with a glimmer of why Morris felt compelled to re-tell this “grandest tale that ever was told.”