“The Worship of Courage”: William Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung and Victorian Medievalism

  • Richard Frith


“It is the central work of my fathers life,” wrote William Morris’s daughter and editor May in 1911, referring to his epic poem The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (1876). “It is the work that, first and last—putting aside the eagerness of the moment which sometimes gives all precedence to the work in hand—he held most highly and wished to be remembered by.”1 Today William Morris is remembered for many things, but Sigurd is rarely one of the foremost of them. The poem’s very title is apt to engender amused smiles, even among Victorianists: the Story of Who the What? Such reactions reflect, first of all, a scholarly indifference to Victorian interest in the Old North. Yet, as Andrew Wawn’s groundbreaking study The Vikings and the Victorians (2000) has demonstrated, this interest was surprisingly widespread, and constitutes an important element of the many-sided phenomenon that is the Medieval Revival.2 English people’s fascination with medieval Scandinavia spawned novels, plays, poems, and scholarly works, and became a remarkably popular movement, with antiquarian societies all over the country facilitating and encouraging the study of the Viking past. Their preoccupation was founded to a significant extent on contemporary racial theory, and the idea, frequently reiterated in nineteenth-century works on the subject, that the Saxon and Nordic peoples belonged to the same Germanic family, that the Odin of the Norsemen was essentially identical with the Woden of the English, and that the modern Englishman therefore had a kind of hereditary claim on the literature and mythology of the Old North.


Rocky Desert Medieval Literature Antiquarian Society Unpublished Lecture Great Tale 
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© Lorretta M. Holloway and Jennifer A. Palmgren 2005

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  • Richard Frith

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