Friday, 9 August 2013

Odin's Sword, or the Enigma of the Gift

In a 1942 anthology for schools called The Narrative Art in Verse, we find Morris represented by two pages excerpted from early in Sigurd the Volsung and entitled ‘Odin’s Sword’. The one-eyed Norse god strides into the Volsung hall, buries his sword deep into the Branstock tree in the middle of the hall, and challenges the warriors to draw it out if they can. The passage concludes: ‘For they knew that the gift was Odin’s, a sword for the world to praise’. Is this a well-chosen snippet from Morris’s great epic or not?

Well, yes; but perhaps not for the reasons the editor, N.L. Clay, has in mind. In The Water of the Wondrous Isles one of the minor characters cries: ‘The Gift? ... what meaneth that?’; and the Odin’s sword episode suggests some answers to this question. The gift here is also a test, clearly; many warriors try and fail to pull it from the tree before Sigmund finally succeeds in doing so. But such a gift is also a curse (quite as much as Andvari’s Ring, the more ‘official’ curse in this text). For the Goth king Siggeir is so humiliated by his failure to draw the sword from the tree and so envious of it that just a couple of months later he unleashes the terrible vengeance that almost destroys the Volsungs entirely.

So a gift is a test is a curse. A rich complex of ideas is tangled together here, and the question this passage then begs is: is it always so in Morris, are gifts always ambivalent in this way, as destructive as they are honorific? My schools anthology excerpt may indeed ‘tell a story in verse, with manly sentiment’, in the editor’s words, but it also raises some searching questions about gift-giving across Morris’s oeuvre.


Kotick said...

Don't miss Marcus Waithe's good pages on the notion of the gift in 'News from Nowhere' (using Marcel Mauss as a theoretical basis) in his excellent book 'William Morris's Utopia of Strangers' (2006), pp.156-61.

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks for that reminder of Waithe's excellent book. It's a nice Morrisian touch that Mauss's famous 'Essai sur le Don' actually begins with a long quotation from the Scandinavian Edda.

Paul Leduc Browne said...

That the gift has these two sides is well documented in the literature - but also in the very fact that the German noun 'Gift' means 'poison.'