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

  • Richard Frith

Abstract

“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.

Keywords

Rocky Desert Medieval Literature Antiquarian Society Unpublished Lecture Great Tale 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    William Morris, The Collected Works of William Morris, ed. May Morris, 24 vols. (London: Longmans, 1910–1915), 12:xxiii. Hereafter cited in the text in the form, CW, 12:xxiii.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    William Morris, William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, ed. May Morris, 2 vols. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1936), 1:292.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Alice Chandler, A Dream of Order, The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), 1.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    For a guide to the uses of these labels, and their attendant perplexities, see Ruth Z. Temple, “Truth in Labelling: Pre-Raphaelitism, Aestheticism, Decadence Fin de Siècle,” English Literature in Transition 17 (1974): 203–214.Google Scholar
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    See Buchanan, “The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr. D. G. Rosetti,” Contemporary Review 18 (1871): 334–337, 347.Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    William Morris, The Collected Letters of William Morris, ed. Norman Kelvin, 5 vols. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984–1996) 1:99, 100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 11.
    Cited in J. W Mackail, The Life of William Morris, 2 vols. (London; New York: Longmans, Green, 1899), 1:334.Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    Stephen A. Mitchell, Heroic Sagas and Ballads (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991), 114.Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    See Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians (Cambridge: Brewer, 2000), 283–311.Google Scholar
  10. 16.
    William Morris, The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, ed. Eugene D. Lemire (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969), 190.Google Scholar
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    Herbert F. Tucker, “All for the Tale: The Epic Macropoetics of Morris’s Sigurd of Volsung,” Victorian Poetry 34 (1996): 386.Google Scholar
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    Peter Faulkner, ed., William Morris: The Critical Heritage (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), 262.Google Scholar
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    Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero Worship, and Heroic in History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 41.Google Scholar
  14. 25.
    J. M. S. Tompkins, William Morris: An Approach to the Poetry (London: Woolf, 1988), 237–238.Google Scholar
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    Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (London: Faber, 1994), 290.Google Scholar
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    See Chandler, A Dream of Order, 232–233; Raymond Chapman, The Sense of the Past in Victorian Literature (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1986), 72–73;Google Scholar
  17. Kevin L. Morris, The Image of the Middle Ages in Romantic Victorian Literature (London: Croom Helm, 1984), 168.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Lorretta M. Holloway and Jennifer A. Palmgren 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard Frith

There are no affiliations available

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