Before the Vikings converted to Christianity during the
Middle Ages, Scandinavia had their own uniquely thriving, vibrant, pagan
religion that was as harshly beautiful as the Nordic landscape to which it was
intimately connected. The centrepiece of that religion was their infamous
folklore and mythology, which has shaped our understanding of Viking life. The
Old Norse myths were predominantly circulated across Scandinavia orally,
through songs and poems performed by poets and skalds. Finally transformed into
a written text somewhere in the thirteenth century Iceland, The Saga of the Volsungs is arguably one
of the greatest mythic-legendary tales of early Scandinavia. Written in prose,
the epic saga tells the extraordinary story of Sigurd the Dragon slayer, recounting
“runic knowledge, princely jealousies, betrayal and unrequited love”1.
The story of Sigurd was a favourite subject for artists and storytellers in
medieval Scandinavia, but also for people in contemporary England, rather, the
world. Although the Vikings have been obsolete for hundreds of years, their
writing has continued to inspire readers right through to the twenty-first
century. Translated into numerous languages, it has become a primary source for
writers of fantasy, such as Tolkien in the twentieth century, and those
interested in oral legends and the mythic history of northern Europe.

One person deeply influenced by The Volsung Saga was William Morris. Morris, like many other
infamous authors, has dedicated much of his life to understanding and exploring
archaic Norse literature. His literary presentation of the original saga, Sigurd the Volsung2,
affords readers an opportunity to compare the original narrative to a versified
version of the material, one existing under the influences of two very
contrasting periods of time.

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Poem or Prose?

One of the most obvious differences between The Volsung Saga and Sigurd is the simple fact that Morris
converted the prose into a poem. An avid fan of Scandinavian folklore, Morris
translated the poem twice, firstly into prose, then in Sigurd. It is possible that Morris chose the medium of poetry as a
way of making the epic saga more accessible to nineteenth century readers.
Furthermore, the romanticism of the poem arguably affords the reader a more
enjoyable read, the original saga debatably monotonous and rigid in structure
and tone.

Morris does not attempt to reproduce the rhythm or metre of
the saga in his poem. The metre has been described by critics as dactylic, but
this arbitrary couplet-

And for all the words
of Volsung e’en so must the matter be,

And Siggeir the Goth
and Signy on the morn shall sail the sea

shows that the metre of the poem is iambic. Although florid
in its descriptiveness, the metre is consistent with the repetitious verse of The Volsung Saga. It is unsurprising
that Morris would mimic this aspect of the original Norse text, as the
monotonous and stylised metre reflects the patterning of Morris’s floral
wallpaper.

Morris’s attempt at accessibility for his readers would have
always made problems for the poet. A reader of Morris’s saga translations would
have to have some familiarity of the Old Norse saga to follow the florid
narrative. Morris tries to get around this by the added detail of setting and
descriptive writing that place the reader in the text.

Descriptive Writing

The setting of The
Volsung Saga is incredibly limited. Typical of folk literature, detail
deemed insignificant was often omitted, narrative being their primary focus, a
result of the texts original oral source. Through eliminating inconsequential details,
the text became more memorable, therefore enabling it to be passed down through
countless generations, whilst preserving the original narrative.

Morris, however, was much more conscious of the effect and
significance of inanimate life, and had a better awareness of the value of
setting in literary works. As previously stated, although Morris was obviously
devoted to the original text, he tended to romanticise the saga. This was a
result of two factors. Firstly, the audience that Morris was writing for would
have a different purpose for the text. Whilst the original oral was, in part,
for entertainment purposes, the re-telling of the saga, and its eventual
physical form, was as much a preservation of history, as many of the saga’s
historical episodes were traced back to actual events that took place in the
period of great folk migrations across Europe. Secondly, Morris’s retelling of
the Germanic epic derives much of its power from “exploiting the visual devices
which mark the drawings and paintings of Morris himself”3,
his writing being as intricate and elaborate as his material designs. This
allows the retelling of the saga to be studied, not only as a counterpart for
the original Scandinavian text, but a text conceived “through the imagination
of a conscious artist”4.

The first book of the poem, “Sigmund”, opens with an
imposing depiction of the Volsung hall and the Barnstock tree. He describes the
hall as-

“…waxen old,

Dukes were the
door-wards there, and the roofs were thatched with gold:

…silver nailed its
doors…”.

This is a great contrast to the Volsung Saga, where the hall is introduced simply as the King’s
making, an “excellent palace”5
built from the King’s ambition. In Morris’s version, however, the hall and the
oak are given larger symbolic overtones. A decorative artist, with a growing
interest in architecture, Morris would have wanted to draw attention to the
physical, realistic features of the poem. The hall represents the continuity of
the Volsung family; as they inevitably perish throughout the poem, the physical
settings of the action within move progressively away from the hall. The golden
roof and silver doors link imagistically with treasures in the rest of the
narrative, for example, Andvari’s ring. The Branstock fittingly represents the
Volsungs. Endowed with totemic significance, the oak represents the
forest-dwelling family. The Branstock tree forms the support and centre-piece
of Volsung’s Hall. The tree is not only a literal tree, but it becomes a
metaphor for the house of the Volsungs, with the sons of the King synonymous
with the branches of the oak.

Not only does Morris embellish his text at the mere
suggestion of a landscape in the original poem, he frequently creates his own.

“…And whiles is it
glassy and dark, and whiles is it white and dead,

And whiles is it grey
as the sea-mead, and whiles is it angry red;

And it shimmers under
the sunshine and grows black to the threat of the storm,

And dusk its gold
roof glimmers when the rain-clouds over it swarm.”

Although enjoyable, the language in this example is somewhat
vague and indistinct. His use of romanticism, whilst pleasing to read, loses
the tone of the North. Though Morris generally retained the same narrative as
the original text, the Scandinavian material is, at times, too heavily overlaid
with Romantic embroidery, and as a result, the unique tone of Northern folklore
is lost, with heroism being lost under romanticism.

This last quote from Morris’s Sigurd, exemplifies his visual aesthetic. Not only does Morris take
influence from his own art, but from other Pre-Raphaelite artists. Sossaman
states that Pre-Raphaelite artists were “obsessed with minute observation in
their work”6
and primarily employed the use of colour as a formal and emblematic, and used
the dichotomy between light and dark to serve as symbolic functions.

Morris makes very effective use of colour imagery throughout
his work, particularly his use of the colour gold. As seen previously, even “roofs
were thatched with gold” at the Volsung hall- gold becoming less of a colour
and more a symbol of treasure and precious metal. The excessive amount of both
people and objects being described as gold, is perhaps inevitable due to the
narrative of the poem. However, there are multiple connotations connected with
the colour, both two-fold and paradoxical. Morris describes Fafnir as stood “by
the heaped-up Elf-gold”, the gold a synonym for wealth and power. However,
after the murder of Reidmar, his blood “reddened the treasure”, highlighting
the dangerous consequences of extreme greed. The literal gold that Fafnir
hoards is rarely seen as a medium of exchange in the poem, suggesting that gold
is a metaphor for wealth, rather than wealth itself.

There are not only negative implications of the colour gold
in the poem. The eponymous hero is literally swathed in gold from birth:

“…As thither the
damsels came,

And amid the hands of
the foremost was the woven gold aflame…

Then she with the
golden burden to the kingly high-seat stepped.”

When applied to Sigurd, gold has only positive connotations,
a metaphor for his innate goodness and heroic persona. Before the ride to the
Glittering Heath, Morris emphasises the association between Sigurd and gold.
The “heavens glowed above him… and a golden man was he waxen”, not only
highlighting his goodness, but also portraying Sigurd as an ethereal figure,
one sent from heaven. Gold has a negative meaning when associated with Fafnir,
the “great fold-warden”. When Sigurd takes the most valuable items from Fafnir’s
hoard, Morris implies that his goodness will enable him to turn the gold, that
once represented lust and greed, to good purpose, by binding the “red rings”
until they “shine free and clear”. No other colour is mentioned as much as the
colour gold, thus the poem may be said to be “in gold” like a “tapestry wrought
in one dominant colour, or perhaps, as a musical composition written in a
particular key”7.

Morris’s retelling of Sigurd
the Volsung exemplifies the Pre-Raphaelite use of colour, and often uses
colour to establish emotion. Morris consistently references gold, red, blue and
green in his description of landscapes and in relation to character. One of the
most significant descriptions of landscape is when Sigurd goes to slay Fafnir
at Regin’s instruction. Here, he creates a vivid passage, using the dichotomy
between light and dark, but omits colour-

Was it the daylight
of Hell, or the night of the doorway of God?

But lo, at the last a
glimmer, and a light from the west there came…

And they grew and
brightened and gathered; and whiles together they ran

Like the moonwake
over the waters; and whiles they were scant and wan,

Some greater and some
lesser, like the boats of fishers laid

About the sea of
midnight; and a dusky dawn they made,

A faint and
glimmering twilight

The absence of colour establishes tension: Morris makes the
landscape cold and incongruous through natural imagery and unmethodical
colouration. This dramatizes Sigurd’s situation, discomforting the reader and
causing them to worry for Sigurd, something that is exclusive to Morris’s
retelling. The dichotomy of light and dark is almost an obsession for the poet.
For the chief sections of the poem, he uses seasons to indicate to the reader
the time passing. Like in the quote, Sigurd appears unable to travel or fight
without astral accompaniment, perhaps another implication that Sigurd is an
ethereal, God-like character.

Presentation of Sigurd

Morris emotionalises the characters from the original Norse
verse. Signy, for example, is generally unaltered, but is fully developed in
Morris’s retelling. Siggeir’s negative qualities, such as his greed and
duplicity, are more prominent, allowing Morris to add drama to the poem,
offering Siggeir as a typical villain, an antithesis to Sigurd. Sigurd, like
Siggeir, is not particularly altered, rather intensified. Unmistakeably heroic,
Sigurd dominates the saga. Although Morris is unafraid to omit narrative lines,
such as the characters of Sigi and Rerir and the deeds of Helgi, Sigurd is
presented in full.

We learn very little in the original text about any of the
character’s appearances, bar Sigurd, which the text dedicates a whole chapter
of detailed description to. Chapter 23, ‘Concerning Sigurd’s Appearance’, is
probably one of the most descriptive of the text. The author specifically
describes his ‘ornamented shield’ and ‘mail coat of gold’, presenting him as a
heroic, powerful character. It is worth noting that the description of Sigurd’s
shield, weapons and armour comes before the description of Sigurd’s body,
signifying the importance of the objects that define him as a heroic warrior.

Morris makes him even more golden and glorious across many
passages.

Lo now, as they stand
astonied, a wonder they behold,

 For a warrior cometh riding, and his gear is
all of gold;

And grey is his steed
and mighty beneath that lord of war,

 And a treasure of gold he beareth and the gems
of the ocean’s floor.

He embellishes the text to include details that are not in
the original text, such as “grey is his steed”, affording the reader a more
visual experience. His calling Sigurd ‘a wonder’ once again apotheosizes him
into a God, predicted by his sister Signy earlier on in the poem. This
consistent comparison of Sigurd to divinity changes the fate of the
protagonist. Sigurd, we see, is doomed to die because of the divinity he is
blessed with, rather than merely because he is cursed with a treasure.

In Sigurd, the
main heroine appears not in his ancient form, but in the Anglo-Saxon attitudes
that were present during the nineteenth century. As previously stated, Morris
emotionalises his characters, Sigurd being no exception. Morris develops a
highly emotional scene between Sigurd and Brynhild, to the extent that Sigurd
is barely recognisable from the Sigurd in the original text.

Then a flush cometh
over her visage and a sigh up-heaveth her breast,

And her eyelids
quiver and open, and she wakeneth into rest;

Wide-eyed on the
dawning she gazeth, too glad to change or smile,

And but little moveth
her body, nor speaketh she yet for a while…

…Then she turned and
gazed on Sigurd, and her eyes met the Volsung’s eyes.

And mighty and
measureless now did the tide of his love arise,

For their longing had
met and mingled, and he knew of her heart that she loved.

Morris’s lexical choices, such as ‘quiver’ and ‘flush’, and
Brynhild’s ‘heaveth breast’ create a sexual undertone to the poem. The
youthful, masculine warrior becomes not only a figure of inspiration as an
ideal male, but desirable to the female sex as well. The wording is delicate,
but strong. In the original text, the rigid, simplistic writing, by no means
lacking in passion, gives a far more virile, heroic impression of the two than
does Morris’s carefully wrought mass of more decorous details. The softening of
the hero at the end of Book Two in Morris’s poem is deliberate. Although some
critics would argue that this is a weakness in Morris’s poem, as it diminishes Sigurd
as a brave, strong warrior, it does not contradict the simplicity of the saga,
instead offering a warm contrast to the remainder of the poem and Book One.

Conclusion

Morris expands, adapts and transforms the original text of The Volsung Saga. Because of Morris’s devotion
to Norse literature and to the original saga, the narrative remains mainly the
same, with Morris’s individual florid writing style creating a unique dedication
to Norse folklore. As a Neo-Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite, the poem is expressed through
his own imagination and opinions. Sigurd leaves
nothing to interpretation, its excessive detail and embellishment of setting
only leaving contemporary readers with one question- has it lost or gained
through the transformation?

If we, as readers of Victorian poetry, judge Morris’s poem
as a piece of individual creative work, the text is of the highest standard.
With excellent tonality, detail, use of imagery and workmanship, the piece is
easily one of Morris’s greatest works, the culmination of a life-long attempt
to interpret Norse folklore.

 

 

1
Jesse Byock, The
Saga of the Volsungs: With an
Introduction, Notes and Glossary, Penguin Classics, 1999

2
Hereby known as Sigurd

3
Stephem Sossaman, William Morris’s Sigurd
the Volsung and the Pre-Raphaelite Visual Aesthetic, The Pre-Raphaelite
Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Rat and Mole Press, 1978, pp. 81-90

4
George McDowell, The Treatment of the Volsung Saga by William Morris, Scandinavian Studies and Notes, Vol. 7,
No. 6. 1923, pp. 151-168

5
Unknown, The Saga of the Volsungs: With an Introduction, Notes and Glossary,
Penguin Classics, 1999

6
Sossaman, p.85

7
Sossaman, p.89