As ever, dear readers, welcome.
Tolkien was clearly very annoyed at a certain dictator in June, 1941. As he wrote to his son, Michael, currently a cadet at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst:
“I have spent most of my life, since I was your age, studying Germanic matters (in the general sense that includes England and Scandinavia). There is a great deal more force (and truth) than ignorant people imagine in the ‘Germanic’ ideal. I was much attracted by it as a undergraduate…in reaction against the ‘Classics’…I suppose I know better than most what is the truth about this ‘Nordic’ nonsense. Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler…Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.” (letter to Michael Tolkien, 9 June, 1941, Letters, 55-56)
As others have commented, much of this “northern spirit” came to Tolkien from the work of a writer of the previous generation, William Morris (1834-1896),
a creative whirlwind of a man, who did everything from designing wallpaper to being an active advocate for socialism to creating a number of long works in poetry and prose which encompassed much of the West’s older tale-telling tradition, including the voyage of Jason for the Golden Fleece (1867),
and part of the Arthurian tradition in the early The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems (1858),
my personal favorite, with a tricky, defiant queen so different from the mournful figure of Tennyson’s (1809-1892) poem, published in the first version of his Idylls of the King (1858).
(If you’d like to read how Morris saw Guenevere, here’s a LINK: https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/morris-defence-of-guenevere This is from the wonderful University of Rochester (US) Camelot Project. If you’re interested in any aspect of King Arthur, and don’t know this site, you should: https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot-project )
According to Carpenter’s biography, Tolkien first came to know Morris’ works as an Oxford undergraduate, having spent money from an English prize on books, including Morris’ The Life and Death of Jason, The House of the Wolfings, and his translation of the Voelsungasaga (Carpenter, 77-78). This clearly inspired JRRT, as he was soon at work on a sort of imitation-Morris, as he wrote to his fiancée, Edith:
“Amongst other work I am trying to turn one of the stories [from another favorite work, Elias Loennrot’s compilation of Finnish folk material, Kalevala]—which is really a very great story and most tragic—into a short story somewhat on the lines of Morris’ romances with chunks of poetry in between…” (letter to Edith Bratt, October, 1914, Letters, 7)
And the influence of Morris will turn up again, even as late as The Lord of the Rings. In a 1960 letter to Professor L.W. Foster, Tolkien says:
“The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme. They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains.” (letter to L.W. Foster, 31 December, 1960, Letters, 303)
Morris had himself come to that same northern spirit via the literature of Old Norse, which he acquired originally through translations like George W. Dasent’s (1817-1896) Popular Tales from the Norse (1859—a translation of the first great collection of Norwegian folktales, Asbjornsen and Moe’s Norske Folkeeventyr) and his 1861 translation of “The Story of Burnt Njal”. (You can read the 1888 edition of Popular Tales here: https://archive.org/details/3edpopulartalesf00daseuoft and the original 1861 Burnt Njal—in 2 volumes—here https://archive.org/details/storyofburntnjal01daseuoft/page/n11/mode/2up ; https://archive.org/details/storyofburntnjal02daseuoft/page/n9/mode/2up ) In 1868, he began a regular study of the modern form of Old Norse, Icelandic, with Eirikur Magnusson (1833-1913),
himself from Iceland and a translator of its literature. With Magnusson’s tutoring, Morris began producing his own English versions of Icelandic texts, their first collaboration being The Story of Grettir the Strong, 1869, which you can read here: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/gre/index.htm
By 1871, Morris was on his way to Iceland.
In fact, Morris visited Iceland twice, keeping journals of both trips, which you can read here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/collected/The_collected_works_of_William_Morris_vol08.pdf His initial visit was so striking that he set down his first impressions in verse—here’s the opening stanza–
“Iceland First Seen
Lo from our loitering ship a new land at last to be seen;
Toothed rocks down the side of the firth on the east guard a weary wide lea,
And black slope the hill-sides above, striped adown with their desolate green:
And a peak rises up on the west from the meeting of cloud and of sea,
Foursquare from base unto point like the building of Gods that have been, 5
The last of that waste of the mountains all cloud-wreathed and snow-flecked and grey,
And bright with the dawn that began just now at the ending of day.” (published in Poems by the Way, 1891—you can read the whole poem here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/collected/The_collected_works_of_William_Morris_vol09.pdf on pages 125-126. This and the previous volume are from the posthumously published collected works, with introductions to the volumes by Morris’ daughter, May (1862-1938), a talented and engaging writer in her own right, as well as a great craftswoman.
You can find the whole set at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/collected/index.htm )
Morris’ mode of travel while in Iceland was on the back of one of the sturdy little Icelandic horses—
(This is a joking caricature by Morris’ one-time friend, D.G. Rossetti, 1828-1882—not a portrait from the life, as it’s dated “1870”—before Morris’ trip—but perhaps a foreshadowing?)
He hoped to bring one home with him, but his first choice, “Falki” went lame and so his second choice, whom he named “Mouse”, returned to England with Morris and spent many years living with the family. There’s a lovely description of him in May’s introduction to her father’s Iceland journals, pages xxviii-xxix.
And Mouse is the real reason for this posting. New books sometimes seem to fall out of the air as, about two weeks ago, this one did—
Although its title is All the Horses of Iceland, almost none of it takes place there, in fact, but the hero, Eyvind, a medieval Icelandic trader, brings back a spirit horse from his travels across Central Asia and—but I’m not one for spoilers, as I hate them myself. This is a quiet little book (just over 100 pages), but thoughtful and beautifully written and I’ve already bought two other books by the author, Sarah Tolmie,
because I enjoyed the first so much.
But what about Tolkien and that “northern spirit”? Well, here’s a last quotation and the writing of it must have given JRRT great satisfaction:
“I am very pleased to know that an Icelandic translation of The Hobbit is in preparation. I had long hoped that some of my work might be translated into Icelandic, a language which I think would fit it better than any other I have any adequate knowedge of.” (letter to the wonderfully-named Ungfru Adalsteinsdottir, 5 June, 1973, Letters, 430)
Thanks, as ever, for reading,
Stay spirited (but not haunted),
And remember that there’s always
J.W. Mackail (1859-1945) was Morris’ first biographer and, in my opinion, even after over a century of Morris scholarship, still illuminating and a pleasure to read. The two volumes of his biography are available for you here: https://archive.org/details/lifeofwilliammor01mack/page/n9/mode/2up ; https://archive.org/details/lifeofwilliammor0002mack/page/n11/mode/2up )