The Literary Pilgrimage


Why do we travel?

Reader’s of the New York Times will recognize that phrase as a published feature in which travelers express their reasons through both words and photos. There are as many different reasons to travel, as there are different travel destinations.

William Morris, the pioneering leader of the British arts and crafts movement, traveled too. Not very often, in fact, but in 1871 and again in 1873, he went to Iceland.

His firm, Morris and Company, produced wallpaper, fabrics, carpets, stained glass, tiles, tapestry, and furniture, and he sold them from his shop in Oxford Street, London. Morris was well known as a poet, and later in his life, a political activist.

Morris had a keen interest in Iceland and the Vikings, as he saw the Viking as a hard working, “iron-willed Socialist,” a political label that also fit Morris. He took thrice-weekly Icelandic lessons from Eiríkur Magnússon, the Icelandic scholar and his co-translator who lived in London at the time.

Once he learned enough of the language, Morris is said to have translated the sagas into his own words. In reality, Magnússon provided literal translations, from which Morris produced his highly personalized new work. These translations became very popular with educated, Victorian-era British readers.

Two sagas, the Laxdaela Saga and the Völsunga Saga, became part of The Earthly Paradise, a book Morris published in 1869.

Fortuitously, Magnússon had to return to Iceland, prompting him to leave London and his Iceland-loving student. Magnússon, however, encouraged Morris to return with him to Iceland and visit the locations where the sagas took place.

Morris took the bait.

It was Thursday, July 6 of 1871, when Morris, Magnússon, and his firm’s bookkeeper Charles Faulkner, hopped on a train and traveled to Granton, Scotland.

There they boarded the steamer DIANA and headed west over the choppy Atlantic. Morris became ill more than once it seems before landing on terra firma at the Reykjavík harbor.

At the time of this adventure, 1871, Iceland had just about doubled its population to 70,000 from a low point of about 37,000 in 1710.

About 2,000 souls lived in Reykjavík, the rest were scattered throughout the countryside. Literacy was widespread, as the sagas and poetry were means of entertainment at this time.

His co-designer at the firm, Edward Burne-Jones, described the physical Morris as an “unnaturally and unnecessarily curly being.” Transported by pony, their routes also “curled,” taking Morris and crew to the actual locations of his translated sagas. Their ponies were actually Icelandic horses whose small size is often confused with a pony.

The first trip lasted six weeks. They went from Reykjavík to the northern sea, circled the Snaefellness peninsula, and then returned to Reykjavík via the Geysir hot springs and Thingvellir, the site where Iceland’s parliament, Althingi, was founded in 930 AD. It is the world’s oldest operating democratic parliament.

Morris must have been in heaven.

The second trip, only two weeks in duration, also began in Reykjavík, but ventured northeast across unexplored wastelands of the interior, passing by the waterfall at Dettifoss, and then west to the port at Akureyri.

A farmer living in the region where Njáls Saga took place, who got to know Morris during his travels, referred to him as ferdaskáld , the traveling poet. Quite a compliment for a man described by some as “plump, unfit, and relatively untraveled.”

What began as an intimate relationship with the Icelandic people through the written word had become for Morris a literary pilgrimage into the landscapes, sunsets and the lava flows of his heroes.

Between his saga translations and his Icelandic Journals, Morris opened people’s eyes to Iceland, which he described in the last entry of the 1871 journal as a “marvelous, beautiful, and solemn place.”

Morris would never return to Iceland. His life’s work would focus on poetry, his family and his firm. However, Iceland would not be forgotten.

His high regard for Iceland and its inhabitants became clear when he, along with Magnússon, lead the Famine Relief Appeal in England in 1882.

Iceland required relief not for monetary implosion but for famine caused by nine months of bad weather, starvation of one-third of the sheep herd (80,000) and the spread of measles that left the rural population destitute. Their combined efforts led to 350 tons of food and many tons of hay arriving in Iceland to combat the humanitarian disaster.

The relationship between Iceland and Morris was reciprocal. Both gave and received. Moreover, both were better because of it.

Perhaps that’s why we travel.

Larry Mishkar – [email protected]

Larry is filling in for Alana Odegard.

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.