William Morris : Dreamer of Dreams


Ian Covell

Ian Covell

William Morris : Dreamer of Dreams

The book is very old, its hard red cover scuffed by the years, the edges of the pages unevenly cut, almost ragged. Idly, ignoring the spine, you turn to the title page.

The Sundering Flood by William Morris.

Its date of publication is at the bottom of the page in Roman numerals. Painstakingly you work it out. 1898. Very old, a first edition perhaps? Almost you replace it on its shelf, you haven’t heard the author’s name before. You relent, flick onward to the opening page of the story and read its first line. You frown, read the line again, then the next line, and the next. Breaking off you realise that you have read almost half a page. The shopkeeper is at your side, he asks if you want the book. You turn and ask its price. It seems reasonable - the book is old, you may never see it again.

At home you crack the book open and begin to read again. Some of the words are unfamiliar, archaic has English changed so much in a hundred years? ­ but you can place their meaning from their context. The story beguiles you, draws you in. Inside yourself, as you heard it in the bookshop, the prose sings...

Hours later, as you lay the book down and begin your search for the rest of his work, the questions begin: who was William Morris? Why did he write such works? Are there themes in his work? Did his work alter as he grew older?

One central truth is already obvious to you.

William Morris was an artist.

This essay will show some aspects of the man and his work, his beliefs, and what may have shaped them; but everything will be pervaded by that single fact: William Morris was an artist.

Who Was William Morris?

Morris was born one hundred and fifty years ago on the 24th of March 1834, and he died just before the twentieth century began. In his prime, he was a stocky and robust man with a neat black beard and a loud voice.

The eldest son of a wealthy London stockbroker, he lived until the age of thirteen with his parents and his brothers and sisters in a large country house set in its own grounds close to Epping Forest. When his father died in 1847, the family moved house. Morris then attended a school in Marlborough, among the Wiltshire Downs. When he was eighteen he went to Oxford University.

Early in 1856, he became acquainted with the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was a member of the then-fading Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists and writers.

Rossetti’s life was complex and tragic, and that tragedy extended to his friends. He had been born on the 12th of May 1828 and christened Charles Dante, a name he later changed. He founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. In the 1850s he met and painted two principal models: Jane Burden and Elizabeth Siddal. Rossetti married Elizabeth Siddal in 1860. Two years later, she died of an overdose of laudanum. Into her coffin Rossetti placed the exquisite poems he had written for her. In 1869 the coffin was opened and the poems retrieved; they were published the next year. These dates are somewhat echoed in his relationship with Morris and, perhaps more tragically, with Jane Burden, the model he did not marry but whom Morris did.

In 1856 Morris began to submit stories and poems to The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. Most of the stories had a fantastic element or perspective (eg, narration by the dead), and contained some of his prolific verse (*1).

His poetry was to bring him great public acclaim in later years, and he would be offered the post of Poet Laureate after Tennyson died in 1892.

1858 brought his long poem, The Defence of Guenevere, which was dedicated to Rossetti. This poem, strangely foreshadowing personal events, shows Guenevere’s passion as a revolt against the strictures of society ­ her affair is colourful and vivid where licensed marriage is dull and grey.

On 24th April 1859 Morris married Jane Burden, the daughter of an Oxford groom. Jane had been the model for many Pre-Raphaelite paintings, meeting Rossetti when she was seventeen, and being painted by him ten days later. Her languid, withdrawn beauty was perfectly suited to the Pre-Raphaelites’ subject matter ­ or vice versa. Jane and Elizabeth’s influences on the PRB may have shaped their subject matter. Jane’s personality is an enigma unresolved in any biography of William Morris: letters between herself and Rossetti were due to be unsealed in 1989, and may reveal more about her, and her relationships.

For his marriage, Morris designed and constructed the famous Red House ­ so named because it was built of red brick, against the fashion of the time. It was sited in an orchard. With friends he began to fill the Red House with specially designed furniture, tapestries, and so on. They later expanded this enterprise and began to produce many items for the public: furniture (for example the Morris Chair), jewellery, stained glass windows and wallpaper. Many of the hand-printed wallpapers are still being made today precisely to the designs of Morris. The work of the Morris Company was a deliberate revolt against what they saw as the ‘shoddy’ work on the market. The Company’s products, then as now, were admired and much sought after, becoming a matter of regret to Morris in his socialist years.

By the late 1860s public acclaim had come to Morris, but his private life was a failure. Despite the birth of their daughters, Jane and May in 1861 and 1862, the relationship between Morris and Jane Burden had failed. The reason why is questionable. It could be that Jane came to believe too much in the PRB adoration of her as one of their indolent, gorgeous, unattainable women. Some have speculated that her marriage cut her off from her working class roots and the PRB’s adulation isolated her further from the class which she had reached. More prosaically, it could be that Morris had learned that the woman beneath the ideal image was not to his liking.

Poems and letters of the time confirm estrangement and disappointment within the marriage, which reached bitter depths in later years. Morris’s stories and poems of the time include several about two men in love with the same woman. Contrary to the social (Victorian) teachings of his time, the husband in each case showed acceptance, and little anguish. (*2),

From the late 1860s onward, a few years after Rossetti’s wife died, Jane was often seen with Rossetti at parties and receptions and other places. They made a gorgeous and lauded couple.

After an epic poem, “The Life And Death Of Jason”, in 1867, Morris began to publish the work that brought him popular acclaim. The Earthly Paradise (1868-70), a collection of stories in verse - based on classical and medieval sources - established him as a major poet. Many of his later books would carry the legend “by the author of The Earthly Paradise”, and though few today have read it all, the poem’s preface is often quoted.

With Eirikr Magnusson, he published the first of his translated Icelandic sagas, Grettir’s Saga (1869), It was deliberately written in romantic rather than realistic language: already Morris was dissatisfied with the limitations of contemporary English. (In the same year, Rossetti retrieved his poems.)

Having accepted whatever personal situation there was, Morris and Rossetti together took a lease on Kelmscott Manor in 1871. In that year, too, Morris left England to voyage to Iceland. Rossetti and Jane were left with the children at Kelmscott.

Morris loved Iceland, more for what it had been than what it was now. The contrast was absolute, between the colourful ancient sagas and the greyness of the modern landscape. Morris’s own major tales are set in the vivid and colourful past; the present was cold and austere; a grey future seemed probable.

Morris and Rossetti grew estranged over the next few years, a breach deepened by Rossetti’s addiction to laudunum. Rossetti stayed at the Manor much longer than was planned, and even after he left in 1874, Jane visited him until his death on the ninth of April 1882.

Morris’s second visit to Iceland in 1873 may have been prompted by a need to escape from an increasingly painful and embarrassing predicament.

Throughout the 1870s he produced a string of translations and poems. At the same time he became interested in the cause of Socialism. He helped to form the Socialist League, and was at one point arrested and committed for trial after a demonstration. Morris used his public popularity in court in defence of himself and his colleagues. He wrote essays, pamphlets and speeches as well as songs and verse. The Socialist League would disintegrate for various reasons in 1891, and simultaneously Morris’s hitherto robust health would collapse. He would never again be fully healthy and would die of a diabetic condition five years later.

His political beliefs were bound up with his art: under the Victorian system, colour and individuality were leeched from life. Now a committed socialist, it bothered Morris that only the well-off could afford the work he produced.

In 1878 he had moved his family to Kelmscott House. As many have said, the book he later wrote, News From Nowhere, essentially depicts a journey from one Kelmscott to the other.

In 1886 a spurt of fiction writing began that would be slowed, but not stopped, by his illness, and which would occupy the remainder of his life. Some of his more politically committed novels are still acclaimed today by critics: others ­ the main subject of this essay ­ originated a new genre in fiction: the prose fantasy romance.

Serialised between November 1886 and January 1887, A Dream of John Ball was a tale of England’s past, the past as Morris imagined it: vibrant, individual, heroic, romantic. Morris knew that feudal times were not like this, but he was an artist, and his tale of the progenitive socialist John Ball is intended to affect as well as to inform the reader.

In the same year as the book of John Ball, Morris published the short story “An Old Story Retold/The King’s Lesson”, which draws a sharp comparison between nobles and the peasants to whom they feel superior. At the end of this tale, the King and his nobles recognise themselves as the thieves of honest men’s labour, with the King the greatest thief of all. If the peasants banded together and swept the nobility away, their lives would be made perfect. Writing as he was during the reign of Queen Victoria, such a judgement of royalty could probably only have been published as fiction. Morris’s view of life and people was to grow even more contrary to the prevailing beliefs of his time.

There followed two connected novels, The House of the Wolflings (1888) and The Roots of the Mountains (1889), which are basically historical works that gradually admit the existence of a reality beyond the real, presaging the works to come.

Morris’s next long work, as Brian Ash (*3) and others have pointed out, was a direct rebuttal of the famous work Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy. Morris had been asked to lecture on the book some years before. His subsequent rebuttal, a utopian science fiction dream of the possible future was serialised in 1890, and achieved book form in the same year. The book was News From Nowhere. Narrated by ‘William Morris’, this acclaimed, if didactic, novel is a dream in which the narrator wakes to find himself transported to a communist/communal future in which happiness and sharing abound. The idyllic situation descends to melancholy when ‘Morris’ learns he cannot fit into the society and is expelled back to his own time.

In the spring of 1890 he wrote a directly fantastic romance: The Story of the Glittering Plain. Serialised initially in four parts, it would be the first book printed by another famous Morris creation: The Kelmscott Press. Books published by the Kelmscott Press (there were to be53 titles in 66 volumes in the years 1891 to 1898) have been called the most beautiful books ever printed, and the Kelmscott Chaucer is justly famous.

It was 1891, the Socialist League and Morris’s health collapsed. As he was recovering, he wrote, “in odd moments”, his prose romances, as well as translating and printing other romances and works.

William Morris was asked to become Poet Laureate in 1892. He declined; perhaps because, as some have suggested, he knew how little time he had left and preferred to devote the time to his own thoughts and creations. Perhaps ethical or political considerations stopped him.

His health was poor, Jane did not like the friends he had amassed. His daughters, especially May (who in some ways was as artistic as Morris) were supportive, but his life had few comforts in it. In such an atmosphere, the prose fantasy romances were written in the last five years of his life.

There is a question mark on the order of writing.  It is known that Morris began his longest novel, The Well at the World’s End, in 1892, but whether it was finished the next year or remained unfinished until 1896 is unclear.  Robert Mathews suggests (*4) that the critical reaction to The Story of the Glittering Plain convinced Morris to delay publication of the longer, more complex work, and to instead publish the seemingly simple The Wood Beyond the World, then Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair, before World’s End.

In the summer of 1896 Morris undertook a sea voyage to Norway.

On the 3rd of October 1896 William Morris died at the age of 63.

From his deathbed he had been dictating the final, and most directly symbolic, of his prose romances: (The Story of) The Sundering Flood. He finished it only days before his death, and it was published in 1898.

Years after his death, his daughter May edited and published The Collected Works of William Morris. They took five years (1910-1915) to publish and ran to 24 volumes.

William Morris, entering the last years of his life, began to produce a series of original novels at an astounding rate. Although constantly ill and finally dying, he attempted with his remaining strength to get just one more of those novels written before his death. The novels were important to him. The question is - Why?

Why Did Morris Write Fantasy?

The major part of Morris’s fiction is fantasy. From the first short stories until almost the day he died, Morris deliberately avoided realistic dramas. The prose romances of his final years are the culmination of his interest in the strange, the more than real.

E.P.Thompson asked bluntly (*5) what many admirers of Morris asked about the seemingly lightweight fantasies: had Morris gone soft in the head? The answer, Thompson replies, is “no”, and he endeavoured to explain why.

For Richard Mathews, Morris’s reasons for writing fantasy could be encapsulated in one sentence: Morris used the form to avoid merely repeating or imitating real scenes, determined to use his verbal talent to create a new form of fiction (*6) .

This point had been made clear by Morris himself in several places:

“...I suppose, indeed, that nobody will be inclined to deny that the end proposed by a work of art is always to please the person whose senses are to be made conscious of it. It was done for someone who was to be made happier by it; his idle or restful mood was to be amused by it, so that the vacancy which is the besetting evil of that mood might give place to pleasant contemplation, dreaming, or what you will; and by this means he would not so soon be driven into his workful or energetic mood; he would have more enjoyment, and better.” (*7)

E.P.Thompson would say (*8) that the motive behind the later romances was “pure self-indulgence in pleasurable reverie or dream “..."in which neither Morris’s intellect nor his deeper feelings are engaged" ­ which seems to be a misinterpretation of Morris’s own words. The important phrase, to my mind, is not ‘pleasant contemplation’ but ‘a work of art’ .

In a lecture, Morris said:

“...if anyone is really moved by the spirit to treat modern subjects, let him do so.. but... I don’t think he has a right... to lay any blame on his brother artist who turns back again to the life of past times; or who, shall we rather say, since his imagination must have some garb or another, naturally takes the raiment of some period in which the surroundings of life were not ugly but beautiful...” (*9)

Other voices would argue this point, inside his fiction:

“It is true that in the nineteenth century, when there was so little art and so much talk about it, there was a theory that art and imaginative literature ought to deal with contemporary life; but they never did so; for, if there was any pretence of it, the author always took care... to disguise, or exaggerate, or idealise, and in some way or another may make it strange... It is the childlike part of us that produces works of imagination.” (*10)

Morris intended that his writings, fiction and non-fiction, should affect his readers. He used the unreal, the more than real, to show other ways of living ­ exampling more colourful landscapes and possibilities to that general reader in the middle class Victorian home, amidst the dark satanic mills grinding out mass-produced goods along with conformist behaviour.

Morris also believed that modern English was a debasement of the language in past centuries when, it seemed, everyone was capable of poetry. The romances are the reinstatement, the restatement, of that artistic language.

Thus, there are various explanations as to why he wrote fantasy: they may be artistry, or a revolt against Victorian literature and its style.

Perhaps, others say, they were written as a personal catharsis; certainly the opening chapter of The Wood Beyond the World and various other pieces seem directly analogous to his tragic personal life. In short, they may have been written as a form of escape. Still other critics have suggested that the romances are dramatised attacks on Victorian politics, or Victorian morality.

I think that G.D.H.Cole came closest to Morris’s real purpose when he wrote the introduction to a collection of Morris’s writings (*11). To lead into this explanation, I shall quote Morris. In the ‘Apology’, the preface to his melancholic long poem The Earthly Paradise , Morris had written the famous lines:

“Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
Let it suffice me that my murmuring rhyme,
Beats with light wing against the ivory gate,
Telling a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay,
Lulled by the singer of an empty day.”

In his lecture, “How we live and how we might live” (reprinted in his book, Signs of Change), Morris said:

“...I will now let my claims for decent life stand as I have made them. To sum them up in brief, they are: first, a healthy body; second, an active mind in sympathy with the past, the present and the future; thirdly, occupation fit enough for a healthy body and an active mind; and fourthly, a beautiful world to live in.”

Dreamlike tales underlaid with his claims for a decent life ­ these are his fantasies, his prose romances.

His entire writing is designed to arouse the reader in different ways. In the essays he showed what was happening now, how it arose, how it might be changed for the better. In his fiction, these changes are complete, and he writes about the resultant worlds.

Although the content of the stories would change down the years, from the sad and bloody short stories to the final romances where opposites are resolved and combined, the intent never faltered.

They are the dreams of an artist, works of art.

They are attempts by an artist to create works of art, relying only on his own abilities and dreams, ignoring the detailed research of history or even of myth, to create a wholly credible new world based upon romantic ideas.

This interpretation illuminates the strangeness of stories such as his short nightmare “The Hollow Land”, but in addition, it gives the clearest explanation of his driving need to write those last romances.

In his introduction to William Morris ­ Selected Writings (1934), G.D.H.Cole said that Morris needed to transfer the pictures in his mind into objects that other people could see and experience.

Just as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had created bright, detailed paintings which burst with incipient life, so Morris’s novels are a series of marvelously drawn paintings.

At any point in his novels, should the action be stopped for a second, the frame seen by the reader contains life ready to fling itself forward again when the arrested moment is released: the characters, their backgrounds, and their motives are clear to the reader, awaiting only the moving eye.

What Was He Really Writing?

Morris’s fiction has been interpreted in several ways.

To some people, there is no doubt they are political lessons. This is obviously true about A Dream of John Ball and News From Nowhere, for example. This belief in an underlying political or social message may be due to a generalised certainty, common until quite recently, that fiction has no purpose unless it imparts a message. With the availability of his more overtly political works and the general scarcity of the prose romances, this interpretation seems to have gained a good deal of credence down the years: Morris’s “major” work was political. therefore all of Morris’s work must bear traces of polemical thought.

Mathews can affirm (*12) that they are not directly political allegories (*13) but he also says that readers should not see them as mere ornamental art, no reader should neglect the political aspects that undoubtedly exist. He cited May Morris’s comment that “from now until his strength failed, Art and Socialism cannot be spoken of apart”.

It isn’t strange to detect elements of political and social thought in the novels: every author writes from what he believes he knows about life. Yet it is significant that E.P.Thompson should chide Morris for not concentrating on the possible social themes of The Roots of the Mountains while also noting that it is here (in Thompson’s opinion) at which Morris’s fiction begins to devolve into “wish fulfillment” (*14).

Should the political aspects of the works be taken as the most important part of the fantasies? Mathews and Thompson have, I would suggest, looked too deep and missed the primary effect the books achieve: Memorable Beauty.

Others say Morris’s work bears psychological interpretation. Mathews mentions Max Wickert’s assertion that Morris cannot be fully understood without using modern psychological techniques (*15). Mathews, agreeing with Wickert, makes some astounding analyses of the fantasy works, codifying elements of each book so it can be read almost as a map of Morris’s psyche. There are points where Mathews seems to go a little too far (as when he views three characters as forming the secular trinity of the Christian church (*16)) but for the most part the analyses ring true.

It is not enough that the works can be codified to reveal Morris’s "real" meaning, because our theories of psychology were not formulated in Morris’s day.

William Morris drew naturally upon his capacity for dream ­ his subconscious ­ so the psychological probing fits the facts but doesn’t explain Morris’s impetus or intention.

Morris’s psyche seems evident in the themes he chose: the reconciliation of sexual opposites, the way in which the divided fantasy world seems to reconcile in parallel with the harmony that grows between hero and heroine. The worlds are substantially altered between the quest’s beginning and its end, or perhaps it is only the major characters and our perception of them that changes. Inside the books, few reasons are advanced for the great changes: perhaps Morris believed that once the central sexual conflict was resolved, the world would and should mirror that resolution.

It seems that when Morris became too ill to rely solely on his creative talent he turned to direct myth-making, and the result, The Sundering Flood, is an interesting failure. Though meaningful and culminating some aspects of Morris’s work, it is static, almost without life. Morris would have revised it if he had lived.

To a lesser extent, this is true of the novel Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair, which is based on a thirteenth century romance, Havelok the Dane (also part of the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet). Though it is an interesting work, and beautifully written, there is little of the colour or singing prose that make his other works incomparable. It is clear that though other works could inspire Morris, he was at his best when he allowed his mind free rein in plot as well as language.

Mathews sees Child Christopher as a Christianity-based allegory, a conclusion which leads him to interpret perhaps more than the book warrants: for example, he investigates each syllable of the title and the original title page and motifs (*17).

The people in Morris’s fiction are recognisably human, they have faults and virtues, they make mistakes or they have insights that lead towards truth. They argue and reconcile, use words or communicate with silence.

Morris intended to create a feeling of dreamy unreality, but only in setting, not in character.

The language of the characters fits the land they inhabit (this is why it is almost impossible to directly translate his prose into contemporary English -- the conversations, the descriptions, flow into and out of each other seamlessly; they are aspects of the same thing: the scene Morris was painting with words), but their motives and reactions, their difficulties and lessons are real and human.

This solidity of character applied increasingly to women. In the first short stories, women were adornment, something to which his protagonists aspired just before fate cut them down. Important women appear in The House of the Wolflings, and become central in The Roots of the Mountains, where they give impetus to the plot and shape it by direct action.

Morris had once admired the ethic of the Pre-Raphaelites, in which women were seen as passive and indolently gorgeous. This description is not applicable to the women of the later fantasies who are intelligent (often scheming ruthlessly), determined and physically capable. They are also highly passionate.

With The Water of the Wondrous Isles, the process was complete. Birdalone’s book is the life story of a woman from birth: growth, maturation, and acceptance of being a woman, becoming a person.

(It is interesting to wonder how many other writers of Morris’s time portrayed women in such a way -- or in how many the favoured term of endearment between a man and woman in love should be ‘Friend’ or ‘Speech Friend’.)

As Richard Mathews demonstrates, the underpinning of the novels is the reconciliation between the sexes, in which each gains or attains some characteristic of the other and thus is made whole.

The prose romances are love stories between equals.

About The Tales

To some extent, Morris’s romances follow a certain pattern: hero and heroine start from home, go through various adventures and experiences, and then return home.

This schematic applies to much fiction because the pattern allows the exploration of character and relationships ­ good fantasy is better than most fiction because it concentrates on character stripped of social conventions.

Long before Morris, mystical tales and chansons de geste had used quests, discoveries, strange lands, and strange peoples. The originality brought by Morris was to strip away all reference to ‘real’ history and all notion of ordained fate: his plots are moved solely by the acts and will of his characters.

E.P.Thompson would misunderstand this in his comment that though The House of the Wolflings and The Roots of the Mountains are motivated by such actions, the final romances are motivated by “tricks" of magic or sorcerous creatures (*18). This comment ignores the fact that Morris’s characters are part of their landscape, they are not simply people transported from our world to a world of magic, they were born there, they belong. The magic, sorcery and beauty is intrinsic to the landscape and characters. Given this, the narrative flows naturally through characters endowed with, or affected by, magic. Human characters, but not of our world. Morris is perfectly consistent with the possibilities of those other worlds -- the craftsman creating with the artist’s eye.

Morris turned from the real world, in which machinery and convention were overtaking sensibility and life, to portray worlds of clear air and water, which are drenched with bursting colourful life. He peopled these worlds with leaders and warlords, robbers and farmers, witches and thralls, heroes and heroines.

The water-coloured worlds are based on the experiences of his lifetime: he knew ­ having studied politics, history and craftsmanship, as well as spending his formative years in the countryside of the mid-nineteenth century ­ what changes the absence of technology would make.

With each succeeding tale his sureness in character and incident would grow.

The early stories, in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, differ in tone and content to the last novels. Their theme is death, and love in death. Several are narrated by the dead ­ “The Story Of The Unknown Church"is told by an artist whose self-avowed task is to construct a beautiful tomb for dead lovers, and “Golden Wings” concerns a warrior whose motive-less murders culminate in the most gruesome and graphic murder of all: his own.

Again and again in the stories, lovers are separated by circumstance, finally to meet just as death enters; death as church bells ringing in “A Dream”, death as the cessation of movement in “Svend And His Brethren”.

Of the other stories collected in Golden Wings, “Gerda’s Lovers” is about two men in love with the same woman, and at its end the loved join the dead. “The Hollow Land” is extraordinarily violent, without motive, and seems to be a dream of love in death and after it. Even the non-fantastic tale, “Frank’s Sealed Letter”, is about disappointment and betrayal in love which can have only one resolution: death.

These are adolescent daydreams of attraction, love and sacrifice. Morris was probably influenced by the romances he had read (Malory, etc) in which passion must always be repaid with death.

The stories are written in ordinary prose with embellishments of poetry and turns of phrase.

The House of the Wolflings and The Roots of the Mountains are concerned more with communities than with individuals. Morris said House was “meant to illustrate the melting of the individual into the society of the tribes”. In Roots, the blending of two opposed tribes is paralleled by the marriages of individuals from each tribe; originally the plot was designed to kill the Bride character, but Morris altered this and she is united in marriage. E.P.Thompson saw Morris’s reasoning as a ‘rationalisation’ which, along with other compromises, reduces this book and later ones to the level of wishful fantasy. I would suggest it is a natural progression in Morris’s thinking. All societies are based on people, and it is the action of individuals which can shape society or history.

(These books show, I think, one way in which Morris could have advanced fantasy even further but did not: the naming of names. Morris used names compounded from the names of objects ­ ‘Hall-Sun’, ‘Wood-sun’, ‘Face-of-God’, ‘Sun-Beam’, ‘Bow-May’. Perhaps the readers of his time would not have accepted the creation of totally original names, or Morris may not have considered it (especially if the names are meant as symbolically as Mathews detects). In the final novels, for the most part, these invented names would yield to prosaic ones; thus, a Ralph and Ursula would seek The Wood Beyond the World, and Arthur would meet Birdalone in The Waters of the Wondrous Isles.)

Morris’s next book, News From Nowhere, is inventive and fantastic but not really part of his prose fantasy works. A lesson in social engineering, an admitted dream of both the author and the book’s narrator.

The Glittering Plain is a rambling, discursive and tricky book. It is set in a land of confederated tribes, without a king, where nothing is what it seems. Activated by dreams, it is sustained by lies. Its central theme is of immortality offered but denied because of love. The book appeals more to emotion than to logic, though its dreamy plot does make sense. The heroine is kidnapped because the Undying King desires her. People lie to the pursuing hero because they fear the King’s power. (There seems to be a vein of humour at the basis of the book. The heroine is called The Hostage, and she is imprisoned on the Isle Of Ransom, so the solution to her disappearance is always before the hero’s eyes yet he ignores it.)

The Well at the World’s End, Morris’s longest and most complex book, took at least a year, and perhaps four years, to write.

Once more the central concept is the search for immortality -- or an unguessably long life, which amounts to the same thing. Seemingly a selfish motive, Richard Mathews points out that the searchers, having to educate and prove themselves in many ways before they can find the well, will contribute to society because of their long life (*19).

The narrative focuses on Ralph, one of four sons of a king. The story begins with Ralph’s deceit. He draws lots with his brothers on who should stay behind in the kingdom. Though Ralph loses, he steals away in the night. There now begins a journey of redemption that will reach one climax at the Well, fulfillment in the wilderness, and at the end, a return. It is Ralph’s quest for love and maturity, acceptance and understanding.

Elements of the book are probably symbolic ­ the Lady and the House of Abundance; the deadly and false pool which in its poisonous stillness recalls Morris’s early short story “Lindenborg Pool"; the Innocent Folk ­ but Ralph’s quest, growth and relationships are realistically depicted. He makes mistakes, loses those he loves, overcomes the barriers set against him, finally to emerge, confirmed in his love, as a whole human being.

This wholeness is in partnership with the heroine, Ursula. Her own tale is also one of growth, though the reader is told little beyond what she imparts to Ralph. She is, at the beginning, more committed to the quest than Ralph (and they part for that reason) she and Ralph have to discover a new way of responding to people before they can return.

The next novel, The Wood Beyond the World, begins with a sordid and painful marriage depicted in such beautiful language that its agony only becomes clear when the hero takes action. In earlier romances and myths, such pained marriages had been seen as high drama or just ignored; this marriage is simply bitter and real, a disquieting opening for the tale that follows.

Again the plot moves by dreams, by deceit and by compromise. Loyalty is a matter of faith (though the loyalest of all is the most hideous of killers), and morality is a matter of circumstance. Although the book is slim, and perhaps also contains Morris’s brightest vision, it is steeped in dark betrayal.

The key to the book is faithlessness, and one lesson the hero learns is that there are times when powerful evil can only be overcome by immoral methods, the illusion of faith.

This time, the hero and heroine do not return to their homes, not ever.

Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair follows the plot of its thirteenth century original, though Morris ties his characters more closely to the landscape.

These landscapes of Morris, the woods and wells, mountains and shores that recur through his work, are important keys to the man. Cities exist, but it is only outside cities that a man or woman comes to know their self. In direct contact with nature and subject to nature’s, rather than man’s, laws the inner self becomes clear.

Richard Mathews sees the quest for water as the hero’s search for the feminine aspects of his psyche. Since water is equivalent to femininity, the drinking of the water becomes the completion of the process: androgynous or even hermaphroditic, a whole person results. For Morris’s women, this reconciliation of sexual polarities in the psyche is achieved by donning male clothing and behaviour; several of the heroines are mistaken for men as they pursue their destiny.

His next book, the densest he wrote, combines these elements. Even the title is evocative: The Water of the Wondrous Isles. The central character in this 150,000 word novel is a woman, Birdalone. Kidnapped and enslaved by a witch in her childhood, her subsequent escape and travails in the outside world can be seen as the maturing of a woman.

To Richard Mathews, her escape is overtly symbolically: the boat that can transport her from her prison island is controlled only by the passenger ‘giving blood’: that is, by symbolically becoming a woman. That blood is important as a symbol is shown by the book’s strange ending.

Birdalone is determined, capable, self-willed, passionate and forgiving.

Mathews says the novel is obviously about women’s liberation (*20). In Morris’s time such a view of women was atypical; Morris had not only transcended the Pre-Raphaelite view of women, he had also gone outside his own society’s view.

The novel abounds with directly symbolic places ­ the Isle of the Young and the Isle of the Old, the Isles of Kings and Queens (sterile sexuality) ­ but they are almost incidental. The novel is complex and unpredictable in plot and relationships, packed with a tension that is sustained until the final resolution (this time, not complete for everyone).

I have never been able to finish The Waters of the Wondrous Isles without a strange sense of absolute inner peace, yet the ending is more equivocal than any other work: perfect harmony does not exist, though perfect acceptance does.

Morris dictated a great deal of the final novel on his death bed, completing the draft only a few days before his death. Richard Mathews says that The Sundering Flood is the crystallisation of the thematic conclusions of his major fiction (*21). Yet for me, it is perhaps too crystal clear, too conclusive; it seems too carefully planned, as if Morris was engaged in deliberately creating a new myth by neglecting a full exploration of character.

The schism at the book’s centre ­ the Sundering Flood ­ is echoed and paralleled in the separation of peoples, of individuals, of the sexes. For Morris, that schism had to be breached, yet in Flood’s case this drive towards harmony doesn’t convince, the book is too simplistic.

Where would Morris have gone next? The twentieth century was almost upon his world, industrialisation had never slowed, the countryside was vanishing beneath infernal mills and roads and increasingly ugly housing estates. There was no great social revolution until war decimated the population. His last few years had been embittered by his wife’s attitude to his friends, and the collapse of the League and his health.

What would he have done next?

I think that The Waters of the Wondrous Isles hints at what he was beginning to attempt, but perhaps he would have left even fiction behind within another book or two.

I have not quoted directly from the tales. It is as difficult to example them by one passage as it is to choose one detail from a painting and from that detail give an impression of the whole work. The detail I chose would probably not be the detail you chose, because, like paintings, the book affects you and I in different ways.

His stories range from gorgeous descriptions of landscape and the changing seasons, to the intimacy of conversation and inner thought. He flowed from point to point, creating a total reality by using language in a way few people have managed.

A passage taken from The Wood Beyond the World:

“He spake not, and she was a little while before she came to herself again; then she opened her eyes, and looked upon Walter and smiled kindly on him, as though to ask his pardon for having scared him.

Then she rose up in her place, and stood before him; and they were nigh together, for the stream betwixt them was little...”

This is the smallest of incidents, a brief moment in the meeting between Walter and the Maid. There is no mention of the season or circumstance or the relationship between them: it is an example of style but not an example of content.

How much is one author influenced by another?

C.S.Lewis said how much he adored the works of William Morris (in his memoir Surprised by Joy) and later wrote The Chronicles of Narnia set in a landscape of magic, symbolism and religious thought. These works are not directly comparable to Morris, though elements are held in common.

J.R.R.Tolkien acknowledged his debt to William Morris, even claiming that The House of the Wolflings greatly influenced his trilogy The Lord of the Rings. It seems more probable that the influence was from The Well at the World’s End, but this does show the problem of determining influence.

Some people ­ most especially Lin Carter in his fine studies of the fantasy field ­ have shown how influence proliferates. One author may be inspired by another, yet never know that author is emulating the work of a third author. Or an author can admire another’s work but any resultant influence is almost undetectable until it is acknowledged.

One question is, was Morris himself influenced in his fantasies? He had read the sagas and the romances such as Morte D’Arthur, and probably others in the well-stocked libraries of Oxford or his own home. He knew the writer Ruskin, he was acquainted with George MacDonald who wrote a series of juvenile fantasies as well as stranger books such as Lilith and Phantastes. At the time, translated fairy tales were common, Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and others.

After Morris, fantasy began to cascade down the years. Dunsany, Eddison, Tolkien, Lewis, etc. It is certain that nobody ever copied Morris, though many seem to have abstracted elements to their own work ­ Tolkien and Eddison with language, for example. Some created worlds that exampled political or social or religious beliefs they held or were exploring, others emphasised character above such details. Few writers have managed to combine poetry with insight, or to leaven concern with humour.

Are all tales set in a medieval landscape attributable to a reading of Morris? Until quite recently, Morris’s fantasies were hard to acquire even when their existence was known. Probably the influence on authors down the decades has become less and less easy to unravel or quantify.

Morris wrote of people in fantastic worldscapes where magic was possible, though not always sought.

The cumulative effect of his books is to make the reader retain pleasure in the nostalgic memory of a world they never inhabited ­ a world which only existed in another man s mind, yet which he was artist enough to make real for them. This memory of a vanished beauty and peace exists in the works of Jack Finney and Richard Wilson. His reverence for the land and bucolic life is part of the work of Clifford D. Simak. His expansive worldscapes lead to Tolkien and McKillip and Moorcock.

At the fount of true fantasy, the well beyond the world from which our modern genre flows, stands William Morris. From him the genre flows down different streams, and authors dip water from the streams to nurture another book or series of books.

E.P.Thompson knew, if only for a moment, what the fantasies were about:

“Where, in The Earthly Paradise, pleasure had always seemed an uneasy dream on the edge of a bitter reality, we are (in the prose romances) always on the edge of awakening to the freshness and fulfillment of life... This freshness, this sense of growth in the June English countryside, of the continuity of life, is the reality beneath the romance. This is the Morris whom Yeats knew and described as ‘the Happiest of Poets’ ...” (*22)

Freshness, growth, awakening, fulfillment.

“Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
Let it suffice me...”

Notes and References

*1: Morris found writing poetry was so easy he “on occasion (wrote) upward of 700 lines in a night”. (E.P.Thompson’s William Morris : Romantic to Revolutionary, 1955).

*2: James Redmond, in the notes to News From Nowhere (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970) points out that the contrast between the “respectable commercial marriage bed” and “natural and healthy love” is part of the charter of the Socialist League, a charter Morris proposed for adoption in 1855, which is dependent upon sexual freedom. A letter to Charles Faulkner in 1886 (quoted in E.P.Thompson, page 819) advocated open marriage where friendship is coupled with desire but where partners should be free to look elsewhere if the marriage became distasteful.

*3: Brian Ash, Face of the Future, 1975, page 100.

*4: Richard Mathews, Worlds Beyond the World : The Fantastic Vision of William Morris, 1978, page 43.

*5: E.P.Thompson, page 787.

*6: R. Mathews, page 61.

*7: ‘The Aims of Art’, included in Signs of Change.

*8: E.P.Thompson, page 785.

*9: Quoted in E.P.Thompson, from a lecture defending the Pre-Raphaelites.

*10: News From Nowhere.

*11: William Morris : Selected Writings, edited by G.D.H.Cole, 1934.

*12: R.Mathews, page 22.

*13: When one critic detected a socialist allegory in The Wood Beyond the World, Morris replied “it is meant for a tale pure and simple, with nothing didactic about it”.

*14: E.P.Thompson, page 785.

*15: R.Mathews, page 33.

*16: R.Mathews, page 38.

*17: R.Mathews, page 50.

*18: E.P.Thompson, page 785.

*19: R.Mathews, page 42.

*20: R.Mathews, page 51.

*21: R.Mathews, page 57.

*22: E.P.Thompson, page 788.

Copyright Ian Covell © 1986, first published in The Crystal Ship 11.

Illustrations: All illustrations in Ian’s article
emanate in some form from the mind of William Morris.

Last revised: 2 March, 2006

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