Sunday, 28 March 2010

Man of the North


Yesterday's Guardian has a feature, by Fiona MacCarthy, on William Morris as 'Man of the North', illustrated by a nice sunny picture of Jökulsárlón without the tourists (see right for my cloudier equivalent). The feature is occasioned by a new four-part sequence for chorus and orchestra by composer Ian McQueen, Earthly Paradise, in which apparently 'Morris's Icelandic journeys are a recurring theme' and which premieres at the Barbican on 10 April (and a re-release of MacCarthy's biography of Morris in July). MacCarthy notes that 'his journals ... are precious and unique because they are so simply and beautifully written with the informed sense of wonder of a deeply learned and sophisticated man'. I would certainly second that. Anyone who has been put off by Morris's medievalist poetry and prose should forget those and read the journals instead. Here's an extract in which Morris describes Borg, home of both Egill Skalla-Grímsson and Snorri Sturluson:
I turned away, and mounted the 'Burg' under which the house stands, a straight grey cliff grass-clad at top, sloping gradually down toward the lower land on one side. There are plenty of flowers in the grass at the top, clover and gentian chiefly, and I sat there in excited mood for some time; of all the great historical steads I had seen this seemed to me the most striking after Lithend; yet for some reason or other I find it hard to describe: southward lay the firth, quite calm and bright, those great mountains reflected in it with all detail, and over their shoulders the bright white jokuls are to be seen from here: the great circule of mountains is very awful and mysterious under a beautiful peaceful sky: they come nearly to the firth-side at the mouth of it, but from their outmost buttress a long low spit of land runs out into the sea, and beyond this is a line of skerries, beyond which one can see the surf breaking at the deep sea's end; a creek runs up from the firth toward Borg and a little stream falling through the rock ledge, of which this cliff is the highest end, goes into it. Eastward the country, ending with the low hills broken by Baula, looks little different hence to what it did from horseback, the plain somewhat flatter and the hills somewhat higher, that is all. Burgfirth, I may mention in case you forget it, or are hazy about your saga geography, is one of the great centres of story in Iceland... [William Morris, Icelandic Journals, 1969, pp. 153-4]
This is very much the artist's eye taking everything in, but written in such an engaging way that it is hard to put down. There are lots of little comic details about the travails of camping and riding on horseback to vary the pace, here the intrepid travellers are heading north to Grímstunga:

as we rode now we could not see a rod in front of us, the rain, or hail, or sleet, for it was now one, now the other of these, did not fall, we could see no drops, but it was driven in a level sheet into our faces, so that one had to shut one eye altogether, and flap one's hat over the other. Magnússon and Evans stood it best, working hard at driving the horses; Faulkner, worried by his short sight, and I by my milksopishness, tailed; I was fortunately mounted on Falki, who was very swift and surefooted, and so got on somehow; but I did at last in the early part of the day fairly go to sleep as I rode, and fall to dreaming of people at home: from which I was woke up by a halt, and Magnússon coming to me and telling me that my little haversack was missing: now in the said haversack I had the notes of this present journal; pipe, spare spectacles, drawing materials (if they were any use) and other things I particularly didn't want to lose, so I hope to be forgiven if I confess that I lost my temper, and threatened to kill Eyvindr, to whom I had given it at Búðará: he, poor fellow, answered not, but caught an empty horse, and set off through the storm (we had ridden then some three hours) to look for it and on we went. [p. 87]
It all ends happily when the travellers arrive at Grímstunga, where they dry out, 'began to feel that we had feet and hands again', and get coffee, brandy, and real beds to sleep in. Eyvindr duly appears with the haversack and is forgiven, Morris 'thanked him with effusion', but doesn't appear to have apologised, only 'hope[d] he will forget my threat of this morning'.

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