Thursday, 24 January 2013
Eirikr Magnússon 100 years on
On this day one hundred years ago, Morris’s Icelandic teacher and co-translator of the sagas Eirikr Magnússon died in Cambridge, where he is buried in the Mill Road cemetery. Whether any events are being mounted in Iceland to commemorate this centenary, I do not know; there certainly aren’t any over here. So could we at least invent a new Morris-and-Iceland research project to celebrate the day?
I have a feeling that we should be taking a closer look at the work of some of Magnússon’s pupils. Shortly after Morris’s death, the early English and Shakespeare scholar Israel Gollancz published Hamlet in Iceland: Being the Icelandic Romantic Ambales Saga (1898), a book which is dedicated to Magnússon, who had taught him at Cambridge, and which traces ‘Iceland’s long and painful struggle for a Hamlet Saga’ (p.vii). This field of argument was later developed by another important Magnússon student, Bertha Phillpotts, who published The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama (1920) and Edda and Saga (1931). Of the latter, the English literary critic F.R. Leavis once remarked that ‘I and my wife are always pushing it’, and he explains its significance for them in English Literature in our Time and the University (1969): ‘Miss Phillpotts’ book (I wonder it is not used more by literary students) establishes that there was a second ritual origin of tragedy in the North, and that a continuity of dramatic tradition runs down through the Middle Ages to Shakespeare’ (p.162).
One imagines Morris, who himself tried to displace Greek and Roman epic by a Northern version of the form in Sigurd the Volsung, being wholly sympathetic to such arguments; and any Morris student who tracks through the detail of the case as developed by Eirikr Magnússon’s protégés would be doing us all a favour.