“Here is the next man to Thiodolf! here is one who will not fall till some one thrusts him over, here is Thorolf of the Wolfings! Stand fast and shield you, and smite, though Thiodolf be gone untimely to the Gods!”
Romney and Ryan are Romulus and Remus, the incarnation of the Roman Slave Masters of the risen Stupid Drunk Neo-Confederate South.
The book is the story of how the Wolfings fight, and eventually destroy, the invading Roman legions. But here Morris faced a problem: while he could try to reconstruct the society of these early people, their history is almost unknown, and what is known is known largely from the Roman side. Rather than attempt to force the story into a known historical context (in which case it would have had to be the story of the destruction of the legions of Varus in AD 9 by Arminius, leader of the Cherusci) Morris preferred to preserve his freedom of invention. His solution was brilliantly simple: the story is one told by the descendants of the Wolfings many years later, and as with the Saga of the Volsungs, events have become garbled with retelling.
So none gave back a foot, and fierce was the fight about the wedge- array; and the men of Otter–but there was no Otter there, and many another man was gone, and Arinbiorn the Old led them–these stormed on so fiercely that they cleft their way through all and joined themselves to their kindred, and the battle was renewed in the Wolfing meadow. But the Romans had this gain, that Thiodolf’s men had let go their occasion for falling on the Romans with their line spread out so that every man might use his weapons; yet were the Goths strong both in valiancy and in numbers, nor might the Romans break into their array, and as aforesaid the Romans were the fewer, for it was less than half of their host that had pursued the Goths when they had been thrust back from their fierce onset: nor did more than the half seem needed, so many of them had fallen along with Otter the War-duke and Sweinbiorn of the Bearings, that they seemed to the Romans but a feeble band easy to overcome.
So fought they in the Wolfing meadow in the fifth hour after high- noon, and neither yielded to the other: but while these things were a-doing, men laid Thiodolf adown aloof from the battle under a doddered oak half a furlong from where the fight was a-doing, round whose bole clung flocks of wool from the sheep that drew around it in the hot summer-tide and rubbed themselves against it, and the ground was trodden bare of grass round the bole, and close to the trunk was worn into a kind of trench. There then they laid Thiodolf, and they wondered that no blood came from him, and that there was no sign of a shot-weapon in his body.
But as for him, when he fell, all memory of the battle and what had gone before it faded from his mind, and he passed into sweet and pleasant dreams wherein he was a lad again in the days before he had fought with the three Hun-Kings in the hazelled field. And in these dreams he was doing after the manner of young lads, sporting in the meadows, backing unbroken colts, swimming in the river, going a- hunting with the elder carles. And especially he deemed that he was in the company of one old man who had taught him both wood-craft and the handling of weapons: and fair at first was his dream of his doings with this man; he was with him in the forge smithying a sword- blade, and hammering into its steel the thin golden wires; and fishing with an angle along with him by the eddies of Mirkwood-water; and sitting with him in an ingle of the Hall, the old man telling a tale of an ancient warrior of the Wolfings hight Thiodolf also: then suddenly and without going there, they were in a little clearing of the woods resting after hunting, a roe-deer with an arrow in her lying at their feet, and the old man was talking, and telling Thiodolf in what wise it was best to go about to get the wind of a hart; but all the while there was going on the thunder of a great gale of wind through the woodland boughs, even as the drone of a bag- pipe cleaves to the tune. Presently Thiodolf arose and would go about his hunting again, and stooped to take up his spear, and even therewith the old man’s speech stayed, and Thiodolf looked up, and lo, his face was white like stone, and he touched him, and he was hard as flint, and like the image of an ancient god as to his face and hands, though the wind stirred his hair and his raiment, as they did before. Therewith a great pang smote Thiodolf in his dream, and he felt as if he also were stiffening into stone, and he strove and struggled, and lo, the wild-wood was gone, and a white light empty of all vision was before him, and as he moved his head this became the Wolfing meadow, as he had known it so long, and thereat a soft pleasure and joy took hold of him, till again he looked, and saw there no longer the kine and sheep, and the herd-women tending them, but the rush and turmoil of that fierce battle, the confused thundering noise of which was going up to the heavens; for indeed he was now fully awake again.
So he stood up and looked about; and around him was a ring of the sorrowful faces of the warriors, who had deemed that he was hurt deadly, though no hurt could they find upon him. But the Dwarf- wrought Hauberk lay upon the ground beside him; for they had taken it off him to look for his hurts.
So he looked into their faces and said: “What aileth you, ye men? I am alive and unhurt; what hath betided?”
And one said: “Art thou verily alive, or a man come back from the dead? We saw thee fall as thou wentest leading us against the foe as if thou hadst been smitten by a thunder-bolt, and we deemed thee dead or grievously hurt. Now the carles are fighting stoutly, and all is well since thou livest yet.”
So he said: “Give me the point and edges that I know, that I may smite myself therewith and not the foemen; for I have feared and blenched from the battle.”
Said an old warrior: “If that be so, Thiodolf, wilt thou blench twice? Is not once enough? Now let us go back to the hard handplay, and if thou wilt, smite thyself after the battle, when we have once more had a man’s help of thee.”
Therewith he held out Throng-plough to him by the point, and Thiodolf took hold of the hilts and handled it and said: “Let us hasten, while the Gods will have it so, and while they are still suffering me to strike a stroke for the kindred.”
And therewith he brandished Throng-plough, and went forth toward the battle, and the heart grew hot within him, and the joy of waking life came back to him, the joy which but erewhile he had given to a mere dream.
But the old man who had rebuked him stooped down and lifted the Hauberk from the ground, and cried out after him, “O Thiodolf, and wilt thou go naked into so strong a fight? and thou with this so goodly sword-rampart?”
Thiodolf stayed a moment, and even therewith they looked, and lo! the Romans giving back before the Goths and the Goths following up the chase, but slowly and steadily. Then Thiodolf heeded nothing save the battle, but ran forward hastily, and those warriors followed him, the old man last of all holding the Hauberk in his hand, and muttering:
“So fares hot blood to the glooming and the world beneath the grass;
And the fruit of the Wolfings’ orchard in a flash from the world must
Men say that the tree shall blossom in the garden of the folk,
And the new twig thrust him forward from the place where the old one
And all be well as aforetime: but old and old I grow,
And I doubt me if such another the folk to come shall know.”
And he still hurried forward as fast as his old body might go, so that he might wrap the safeguard of the Hauberk round Thiodolf’s body.
William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson
The Story of the Volsungs (Volsunga Saga), with Excerpts from the Poetic Edda
In one big page
The Eddas and the Volsunga Saga first became known outside Iceland in the 19th century. As knowledge of them spread there was an excited realization that many of the personalities and events they referred to did not come from Icelandic or Norse history, but from the Europe of the dark ages. The death of Attila the Hun (‘Atli’ in the saga), the 5th century defeat of the Burgundians and their king Gundahar (‘Gunnar’), the death of Eormenric (‘Jormunrek’) king of the Goths – all were real, documented events, miraculously preserved in the saga through oral transmission. Scholars – including all the early marxists – pored over both the Volsunga saga and the Eddas searching for clues to germanic pre-history. The combination of real history with pure myth – malicious dwarfs, dragons, magic potions, and even an early version of the story of sleeping beauty – made it appear that the Germanic peoples, like the Greeks, had their own equivalent of the ‘Tale of Troy’, destined to be retold forever.
Morris and his Icelandic friend Eirikr Magnusson were the first to translate the Volsunga saga into English; Morris was so enthused by it that he went on to create his own epic retelling of the story, Sigurd the Volsung. Since Morris translated the story there have been five more English translations. The advantage of Morris’s version is that it is designed to be read, rather than to be a source for philologists: the original (prose) saga had been presumably been created from earlier verse sources similar to those in the Edda; where the verses from the Edda are appropriate or add to the story, Morris inserted them into the prose (the Eddas are also sometimes used to silently correct the text of the saga itself; eg, the name of the dwarf Andvari’s father is restored from ‘Odin’ to ‘Oin’), and the whole is rendered into Morris’s ‘heroic’ prose. This makes for a translation which gives the story far more atmosphere than the rather flat modern translations. To take a random selection — where a modern version of the remaking of the sword that was broken begins:
Regin now made a sword. He gave it to Sigurd, who took it and said “This is your smithying, Regin.” Sigurd struck the anvil and the sword broke.
So Regin makes a sword, and gives it into Sigurd’s hands. He took the sword and said – “Behold thy smithying, Regin!” and therewith smote it into the anvil, and the sword brake.
In the twentieth century the appeal of the Volsunga saga began to fade slightly; the limits of the information the saga contained about the Germanic dark ages were better understood, and the apparently more realistic family sagas of Iceland became more fashionable. Some, like Tolkien, were still inspired by it, but Wagner’s Ring Cycle had made the whole thing seem faintly ridiculous (neither Morris nor Tolkien had a high opinion of Wagner). But for those still reading it for pleasure and interest rather than for scholarly text analysis, Morris’s translation is probably the most read of all the versions, if only because the extension of copyright means that Morris’s translation alone is free to be distributed on the internet.
But The House of the Wolfings is not a static picture. The tribe (of which the Wolfings are one of the principal clans) arrived in the German forests not so long ago, and are now locked in war with the Romans – of whom by contrast it is said that
[their] thralls and … unhappy freemen do all tilling and herding and all deeds of craftmanship, and above these are men whom they call masters and lords who do nought … like curs fallen away from kind.
The book is the story of how the Wolfings fight, and eventually destroy, the invading Roman legions. But here Morris faced a problem: while he could try to reconstruct the society of these early people, their history is almost unknown, and what is known is known largely from the Roman side. Rather than attempt to force the story into a known historical context (in which case it would have had to be the story of the destruction of the legions of Varus in AD 9 by Arminius, leader of the Cherusci) Morris preferred to preserve his freedom of invention. His solution was brilliantly simple: the story is one told by the descendants of the Wolfings many years later, and as with the Saga of the Volsungs, events have become garbled with retelling. The people are consistently referred to as Goths, but this seems to have become a generic term, since the Teutones who invaded Italy in 109 BC have also become ‘Goths’, so that the actual identity of the tribe is left vague. The hero, Thiodolf, remembers killing three Hunnish kings in battle, yet the story is clearly set long before the arrival of the Huns in Western Europe, at a time when the Romans were only beginning to
… stay the spreading of their dominion, or even to draw in its boundaries somewhat.
Just as importantly this device allows Morris to intertwine a mythical element with the story. Thiodolf’s lover is not human, but one of the Vala, who has given up her immortality for love. Afraid that he may die in battle she tries to save his life with a dwarfish coat of mail. The coat of mail is magic; but it is also cursed, and it is only towards the end of the story that Thiodolf fully understands that it can only save his life at the cost of betraying others:
This mail is for the ransom of a man and the ruin of a folk
And in this society, if the folk is ruined the individual is also ruined.
Eiríkr or Eiríkur Magnússon (1 February 1833 – 24 January 1913) was an Icelandic scholar who was Librarian at the University of Cambridge, taught Old Norse to William Morris, translated numerous Icelandic sagas into English in collaboration with him, and played an important role in the movement to study the history and literature of the Norsemen in Victorian England.
Born in Berufjörður in the east of Iceland, Eiríkr was sent to England in 1862 by the Icelandic Bible Society, and his first translations there were of mediaeval Christian texts.
In 1871, with the assistance of Sir Henry Holland and of Alexander Beresford-Hope, MP for Cambridge, he became a librarian at the University of Cambridge, where he worked until the end of 1909. In 1893 he also became lecturer in Icelandic.
Eiríkr lectured and organised famine relief for Iceland in 1875 and 1882 and fell out with Guðbrandur Vigfússon, a fellow Icelandic scholar who was at Oxford and had been his friend, over that and his preference for modernised Icelandic in translating the Bible; Guðbrandur was a purist.
Like many Icelandic scholars in Britain at the time, Eiríkr gave Icelandic lessons as a source of income; his first pupil was probably Sir Edmund Head in 1863, and he taught some by post. Another was George E.J. Powell, who had supported him financially when he first came to England and with whom he translated Jón Arnason’s Icelandic folktales and worked on a translation of Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings that remained unpublished.
Most famously, he taught William Morris and collaborated with him on translating a number of sagas. Within a year of Morris beginning his studies with Eiríkr, their Story of Grettir the Strong was published (1869). In 1870 they published the first English translation of Völsungasaga. Between 1891 and 1905 they published a six-volume Saga Library, which included Heimskringla and the first English translations of Hávarðar saga Ísfirðings, Hænsa-Þóris saga and Eyrbyggja Saga. Eiríkr defended Morris against York Powell’s criticism of his archaic style. He also accompanied Morris to Iceland and introduced him to friends there. Volume 6 of the Saga Library, volume 4 of the Heimskringla, is an index that is entirely Eiríkr’s work, published in 1905 after Morris’s death.
Eiríkr was married to Sigríður Sæmundsen, a descendent of Egill Skallagrímsson.