Wonder in Iceland: How to See Iceland through William Morris’s Eyes


Photo of Traditional Icelandic Turf Houses by Tiberio Frascari

Traditional Icelandic Turf Houses by Tiberio Frascari

Icelanders love their literature. The BBC recently reported that 1 in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. Books are also the best possible Icelandic Christmas gift—physical ones, not ebooks—according to a recent NPR story. Today, the Icelandic literary scene is well-populated with respected writers, festivals and retreats, but outside Iceland, the nation’s literary fame is largely attributed to the Medieval sagas. These stories about the lives of the early settlers of Iceland were first handed down orally before being committed to writing and they are what brought William Morris to Iceland. Morris considered himself to be a ‘pilgrim of the holy places of Iceland’ on his travels there.

William Morris went to Iceland twice, once in 1871 and once in 1873. On both trips, which took place in summer and early autumn, Morris’s party was led by Icelandic guides who took them to see various important sites of the sagas. He travelled with Eirikr Magnusson, his Icelandic friend and collaborator on an extensive collection of saga translations. They rode on Icelandic horses through the interior of the country and either camped or stayed in traditional Icelandic homes, a route that was little known to nineteenth-century tourists and often very tough going according to Morris’s journals. By 1871, Morris spoke Icelandic and had published translations of Grettis Saga and Völsunga Saga as well as a number of other pieces of Icelandic poetry.

William Morris’s Journals of Travel in Iceland is far from the most riveting of reads in the adventure travel genre, though to be fair it was never meant to be published. During his life only the journal of his first trip to Iceland was printed—once—for presentation to his friend Georgiana Burne-Jones, wife of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and artist in her own right.  Within the journals themselves, there are no extended personal anecdotes, no build up of suspense or danger to drive the narrative along and the journal of the second tour is far from finished, disintegrating into an abbreviated list of places seen, food eaten and pipes smoked before bed—well before the end of Morris’s time in Iceland.

In all honesty, I wouldn’t recommend reading the journals for anything other than research purposes. Morris’s completed, polished works are difficult enough to get through (an opinion I developed after years of teaching News from Nowhere to students who simply could not find a way to engage with it). Unfinished lists by a relatively dull writer are an unnecessary evil in my view. Luckily, reader, I have worked my way through the entire slew so you do not have to. And, I can report that even if they are an incredibly dull read, the journals do put forward a number of fascinating concepts that were to have an acute influence on Morris’s work for the rest of his life, concepts that (for me at least) make the experience of visiting Iceland all the more interesting.

Wonder, Medieval and Contemporary

One of these is the idea of wonder. Wonder as a concept was not new in Morris’s day, but rather had a prominent history in travel writing of the Medieval period. Being a member of the Pre-raphaelite circle, by the time Morris travelled to Iceland he had already spent years studying Medieval architecture, learning to illuminate manuscripts in the Medieval style and collaborating with Eiríkr Magnússon on the translation of Icelandic sagas. Morris therefore must have been familiar with the Medieval concept of wonder in travel writing, where it was generally evoked as an emotional response to the surprisingly new as well as a stimulus to intellectual engagement with the new.

Photo of Seljalandsfoss by Moyan Brenn

Seljalandsfoss by Moyan Brenn

 

I first learned about William Morris’s interest in wonder from my friend and former colleague Pippa Bennett, who published an article on this in the Journal of William Morris Studies. In it, she describes wonder as an experience that allows ‘the adventurous traveller to make direct contact with the marvellous and the extraordinary in an essentially privileged place’, which was then ‘articulated in terms of both aspiration and destination’. In other words, wonder was an intense experience, unique to a particular locale, that would have a lasting intellectual effect on the individual.

Iceland is and remains a destination worthy of inspiring wonder. The island largely consists of newly formed volcanic material with far reaching lava fields, glaciers banked by iceberg-filled lagoons, bizarre rock formations, boiling mud, and black volcanic beaches that are pounded by every big storm crossing the North Atlantic. It’s also a trendy place for filming big-budget productions, recently serving as the backdrop for Prometheus, Game of Thrones and Star Wars: Episode VII. I think there is little wonder that Iceland has inspired so much literary writing and storytelling.

Photo of Reynisfjara by Moyan Brenn

Reynisfjara by Moyan Brenn

How Morris Experienced Wonder in Iceland

Wonder was not entirely a pleasant experience for Morris when he was in Iceland. His most common descriptors for the landscape are ‘terrible’, ‘awful’ and ‘desolate’. He frequently complains of a ‘downhearted’ feeling in the journals and wanders off to be by himself. It is often at these moments that Morris offers some reflection on the journey and his perception of Iceland, though at other times he simply admits that he’s homesick and (not in so many words) unnerved by his experiences in this strange land.

We might be tempted to attribute some of this dreariness to the personal circumstances that led to the timing of his first trip. Morris had left his wife Jane and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, unofficial leader of the the Pre-Raphaelite circle, to cohabit without his presence at Kelmscott Manor in order for them to determine whether they wished to seriously pursue their romantic attachment. But I think Morris deserves to be given more credit. He would hardly be the first Englishman to be deeply affected by a landscape and to reveal this in his writing, a technique made famous by the Romantic poets several decades earlier.

In an early passage, Morris describes an Icelandic morning:

it was a most beautiful morning with those light gleaming white clouds in the blue sky that make it look so distant; I went into the little grass-garth at the back of the house and watching the fowls scratching about, felt a queer feeling something akin to disappointment of how like the world was all over after all: though indeed when I lifted my eyes the scene before me was strange enough: Ingolfsfell, a great chest-shaped mountain, rose over the lower slopes that bounded the plain many miles to the north . . . then further east and a long way off, rose the great cone of Hekla; east of that again, and much nearer, Three-corner, looking like a huge church with a transept then east yet the hills ran up into the glacier ranges that trended south-east till Eyjafell ended them just over the sea: the whole plain dotted over with steads was quivering like a mirage, that ran together and looked like trees at the feet of the hills, or nearer to us like sheets of water: over Ingolfsfell lay, just as if it were painted, a feint [sic] rainbow (though the day was so clear and bright) but the distant mountains were astonishingly clear.

Photo of Hekla

Hekla

Here Morris moves from the mundane (and similar round the world) scene of fowls scratching in a yard to the astounding, mesmerizing landscape of Iceland. I can say from experience that this landscape does indeed hold the gaze of the viewer. It would take a very determined disinterest to fail to be drawn in to staring at the amazing scenes to be found in Iceland. Morris is clearly deeply affected by the landscape here, but he does not follow through to stating what emotion the landscape evokes in him, though it is clear he no longer feels disappointment. His concern about ‘how like the world was all over’ has also been thoroughly undermined.

There is, in fact, an overall progression within the journals, where Morris moves from simple wonder to coming to conclusions as a result of the experience.  In a passage where Morris briefly seeks out solitude and rest, he writes:

the others outstripped me soon, so feeling tired and a little downhearted with the savagery of the place, I sat down as soon as I was clear of the wood on the bare shale of the steep slope that overlooked the valley, and turned to the mountain that rose over the bounding wall of rocks, the same scarped flat-topped mountain I have spoken of before: I could see its whole dismal length now, crowned with overhanging glaciers from which the water dripped in numberless falls that seemed to go nowhere; I suppose they were a long way off, but the air was so clear they seemed so close that one felt it strange that they should be so noiseless: at right angles to this mountain was the still higher wall that closed the valley, which as aforesaid had never changed or opened out as such places generally do; below was the flat black plain space of the valley, and all about it every kind of distortion and disruption, and the labyrinth of the furious brimstone-laden Mark-fleet winding amidst it lay between us and anything like smoothness: surely it was what I ‘came out for to see’, yet for the moment I felt cowed, and as if I should never get back again: yet with that came a feeling of exaltation too, and I seemed to understand how people under all disadvantages should find their imaginations kindle amid such scenes.

Photo of Markfleet

Markfleet

Morris’s brief, solitary pause follows the common pattern he has established: he feels ‘downhearted’, so takes a moment alone, then becomes distracted by the landscape and experiences wonder. Here the scene is much less uplifting than the previous, which ends with the description of a rainbow and bright, clear sky. In contrast, the descriptions Morris always gives of Markfleet in both of his journals evokes images of a scene transported from some of the deepest levels of hell. In other words, this more productive experience of wonder has been inspired by a frightening, dismal landscape.

Morris’s experience of both feeling ‘cowed’ and ‘exalted’ leads him to an important conclusion: that this amazing, overwhelming landscape is a source of inspiration so strong that ‘imaginations’ would ‘kindle amid such scenes’ regardless of how difficult life in Iceland could be. By extension, Morris presumably insinuates that the sagas were a product of such inspiration.

How We Can Experience Wonder in Iceland

Iceland is doubtlessly a place that inspires. Even if the intention isn’t to use Iceland itself as the subject of or a backdrop for a piece of writing, we can follow Morris’s lead by allowing the bizarre scenery of this beautiful island to work its magic on us. Iceland is the sort of place that can take you out of yourself and possibly out of the rabbit holes you’ve been following, whether they are writing related or not.

I have only spent a few days in Iceland when I was there last month and those days were largely spent in Reykjavik and indoors due to some difficult weather. I did not experience wonder as Morris describes on my trip, but I did have a disorienting moment when looking at a glacial lagoon at twilight. It was one of those moments where the scene is so surreal you feel it can’t be real and attempting to reconcile it into reality makes you a bit lightheaded. Disappointingly, I did not feel compelled to rethink my beliefs about imagination and creative work or socialism and other political systems, as did Morris.

Photo of Glacial Lagoon by Martyn Smith

Glacial Lagoon by Martyn Smith

However, I am determined to go back and spend more time in Iceland, not least because the idea of finding a situation intense enough for wonder to take over, undermine my assumptions and press me to come to new conclusions is extremely tempting. If Morris’s narrative is anything to go by, solitude and much time spent outdoors are necessary.

Readers, are you tempted to try to follow in Morris’s footsteps? Have you already experienced wonder in Iceland or elsewhere? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Photo Credits

Traditional Icelandic Turf Houses by Tiberio Frascari. Reproduced under a CC license.

Seljalandsfoss by Moyan Brenn. Reproduced under a CC license.

Reynisfjara by Moyan Brenn. Reproduced under a CC license.