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19.06.07 Felce, William Morris and the Icelandic Sagas

19.06.07 Felce, William Morris and the Icelandic Sagas

It will have occured to many translators, at least after the rise of skepticism in the humanities, that every translation is also an interpretation. The same, to a slightly lesser degree, applies to scholarly editions; if there is any critical apparatus in the edition, there will always be instances where both editor and translator must decide what they think the text means and thus interpretation has begun. The meeting between William Morris and the Icelandic sagas was even more complicated than this since Morris was, with every bone in his body, a creative person whose interpretation of medieval texts would inevitably become a part of his own artistic imagination. The sagas are among the most powerful works of art created by medieval civilization and thus an encounter between a nineteenth-century genius and compelling old works of art was bound to create a remarkable polyphony no less interesting than the original works themselves.

Ian Felce's William Morris and the Icelandic Sagas is the most careful examination to date of this cultural moment. It is thus an important addition to the burgeoning scholarship of the nineteenth-century reception of Old Norse culture and the sagas, which, in English, is best represented by Andrew Wawn, whose studies have been an obvious (and acknowledged) inspiration for Felce. Since William Morris was obsessed with both the sagas, Old Norse culture in general, and Iceland itself, the material is abundant. Felce provides a detailed examination of both Morris' saga-inspired poems, such as "The Lovers of Gudrun" and Sigurd the Volsung, and his translations, where he joined forces with Eiríkur Magnússon, of such saga texts as Heimskringla, Grettis saga, and Gunnlaugs saga. Felce's focus is on Morris' "Norse" period from 1868 to 1876 when his interest in the sagas reached its zenith, which was also an ideologically transformational period for him.

Felce discusses at length the creative misreadings that characterise much of Morris' translation work and poetry, finding similar impulses underlying both, whether it be in his creative reimagination of the love triangle of the Laxdæla saga or how in his translations he obfuscates much of the coarse material of his sagas, such as sodomy accusations, mentions of Grettir Ásmundarson's genitals, and his possible rape of a servant girl. Where other translators of his time often chose to simply leave out these offending passages, Morris excises them through creative language in order to eventually leave his characters with more dignity according to his own ethos.

One of the most interesting parts of Felce's book concerns Morris' evolution of a new ideology of manliness, drawing on the link between courage and incapacitation in the growth of the hero. Felce connects subtly this idea with events from Morris' own life, which was going through a turbulent period in the early 1870s and during which he voyaged twice to Iceland. As Felce remarks: "Morris rejected the courage of heroism based on the idea of inviolability in favour of a new ideal in which the felt experience of vulnerability and fallibility was integral to a manly life" (110).

Another important part of Felce's study focuses on Morris' literalness in his Old Norse translations, where he sometimes seems to prioritise etymological relationships, similar sounds, or preserving the syntax of the original to more closely capture the meaning of the text. At the time, he was accused of translating the sagas into a sort of pseudo Middle-English. This practice was very deliberate, as witnessed by the emendations Morris makes to Eiríkur Magnússon's original drafts of the translation of Heimskringla, but its purpose was nevertheless somewhat opaque. Morris' translations sometimes create an alienation effect, though Felce warns against the idea that the intention was to "create a jarring encounter for the reader" (132). Though it might seem paradoxical, the purpose seems to have been to establish a sense of kinship between Morris' modern English readers and their Norse "ancestors."

In the last years of his life, Morris wrote his famous "prose romances," including The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World's End, which are nowadays seen as important precursors for twentieth-century fantasty fiction. Felce argues convincingly that these works were partly inspired by his earlier Old Norse engagement, during which time he developed his personal ideal of heroism that owed much to the sagas.

Dr. Felce's book is concise and it can occasionally feel episodic in that the author is, in each part, dealing with a particular aspect of Morris' engangement with Old Norse culture. It is, however, an astute, subtle, and intelligent study that will have much significance for any future student of the work of William Morris or the nineteenth-century reception of the Icelandic sagas.