The Strange Houses of William Morris

William Morris by George Frederic Watts

Fantasy is the literature of the impossible; fiction that deals in strange events, uniquely gifted people and bizarre or wonderful beasts that never existed and never could exist. Its impossibility marks it out as fiction, decisively turning its back on the real to take the path of visions, dreams and nightmares. Yet fantasy also aspires to bring the impossible into the sphere of material reality, through every artistic device at its disposal. No writer more vividly illustrates this aspiration than William Morris. Interior designer, poet, printer, craftsman, author of neo-medieval romances, political activist, purveyor of stained glass windows, he embodied the desire to bring an idealized past that never existed into material existence as the first step towards a better future. This desire to realize or make real the fantastic was his legacy to the fantasy tradition; and another of his legacies was his passion for strange houses, which in his hands became powerful political spaces where past, present and future intersect to work magical changes on the householders. Morris’s influence on actual houses, from the level of town planning to that of wallpaper, is widely accepted.[1] But his late romances give us a sense of what he wanted his houses to do – of the way he hoped they might change the world, like stained glass windows that effect real changes of colour in the landscapes we see through them. I’d like here to consider what his houses have to tell us about his dreams, as a prelude to thinking more about the place of houses in the fantasy tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Houses were much on people’s minds in the nineteenth century. The question of how to accommodate the industrial working classes, of how to make towns and cities capable of housing a healthy population, preoccupied politicians of all stamps, since the consequences of failing to do so were likely to be as devastating for the ruling classes as for unskilled labourers. Successive acts of parliament sought to impose better standards of construction and infrastructure on builders. Towns began to be planned instead of growing haphazardly. As a result, Victorian houses and streets were always changing. The suburbs expanded exponentially, as row upon row of identical terraced houses sprang up on the peripheries of London and Manchester and tenement blocks imposed an orderly grid system on the hills near Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. Coal dust turned the new facades soot-black within a year of their construction. People moved into these houses in their thousands, abandoning rural communities in quest of work. The dispersal of those rural communities, with the corresponding sense that the past was being lost for ever as the people who remembered songs and stories were scattered abroad, led to the urge to commemorate the past through an accumulation of curiosities and knickknacks.  The houses people lived in became indexes both of social transformation and of resistance to change; dynamic cultural hubs, whose occupants expressed their sense of loss, their present needs and their hopes for a better future by means of the things they gathered round them.

John Tenniel, Alice in the White Rabbit’s House

The various forms of pre-fantastic fiction acknowledge the house as the focal point for radical change. The most popular collection of fairy tales was the aptly-named Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm, in which a fisherman’s hovel gets turned into a palace and a cottage made from bread and cakes gets consumed by children who are soon in danger of being consumed themselves. Children’s stories such as Alice in Wonderland, The Water Babies, Mopsa the Fairy and The Cuckoo Clock take the house as the starting or end point for bizarre adventures among unheard-of creatures, quite different from the birds and beasts of oral tradition.Neo-Gothic narratives in the first half of the century are full of the ruins of buildings left over from the past, while by the century’s end they feature mysterious urban residences haunted by ancient vampires, long-dead ghosts, and immortal demonic women seeking a place for themselves among the streets of the modern metropolis.And at the end of the century, too, William Morris developed what could be called the romance of housing: a series of neo-medieval romances which take as their subject the quest for a place to settle down, tracing the epic journeys of their protagonists through a succession of buildings and towns as they search for the perfect combination of location, occupation and community that will permit them to live well.

For Morris the domestic house was a political space, and its function as an interface between the person and the world made any contribution to its improvement a political act. This is why his great utopia, News from Nowhere (1890), begins with the Victorian time-traveller, William Guest, observing how houses have changed in the future society to which he finds his way, taking this as the principal proof of humanity’s progress over the last two hundred years. It also explains why News from Nowhere contains a number of embarrassing pronouncements on the subject of women and housekeeping (‘don’t you know that it is a great pleasure to a woman to manage a house skillfully,’ an elderly utopian mansplains to the troubled Guest).[2] As an advocate of women’s suffrage Morris might have been expected to support the campaign to liberate women from bondage to housework, but if the house is the most significant unit in Morris’s utopia – the hub of skilled labour once industrial factories have been abolished – then the economics of the household is ‘deserving of respect’ (p. 94), as the utopian points out, on a level at least as elevated as any other occupation in the community. And the romances that followed News from Nowhere make a good case for the centrality of housekeeping to the sociopolitical wellbeing of any well-organized commonwealth.

Morris was as concerned with interior design and furnishings of houses as he was with the buildings themselves. His late essay on ‘Gothic Architecture’ (1893)[3] extends the definition of architecture to encompass everything that contributes to a householder’s practical and aesthetic needs:

A true architectural work […] is a building duly provided with all necessary furniture, decorated with all due ornament, according to the use, quality, and dignity of the building, from mere mouldings or abstract lines, to the great epical works of sculpture and painting, which, except as decorations of the nobler form of such buildings, cannot be produced at all. So looked on, a work of architecture is a harmonious co-operative work of art, inclusive of all the serious arts. (p. 331)

For Morris, the ‘due ornament’ of buildings is as ‘necessary’ as household furniture, and both form part of the collective work of art which is a house, which itself fulfils a function within the larger community as a form of expression as well as an essential residential unit. The details of the house and its contents articulate the kind of work that has gone into them, in the best examples expressing ‘the happy exercise of the energies of the most useful part of [a society’s] population’ (p. 331), and so passing judgment on that society as a whole. In addition, the house makes nonsense both of the notion of hierarchy in art and of the myth of the artist as a solitary genius. Each work of art in the domestic space, from walls and windows to cabinets and carpets, must necessarily complement all the other works of art that fulfill equally necessary functions around it – just as the structure of the building must accommodate the unique features of the landscape in which it is set. This series of relationships between each element of the all-inclusive Morrisian ‘architecture’ should ideally be what Morris calls ‘organic’ (pp. 332 and 337) – that is, flexibly responsive to the particular demands of their geographical and social context. He sees the Gothic arch as the supreme example of organicism, combining as it does beauty with functionality in such a way as to make it as decorative as it is robust. Classical architecture is, for Morris, no more than a slight advance on the child’s crude edifices of brick piled on brick; it pays no attention to location and obeys strict codes of practice laid down by pedants with scant regard for circumstance. Gothic architecture, by contrast, responds to the land in its mimicry of the shapes of trees and rock formations, and embraces the meticulous efforts of individual craftspeople, whose seamless fusion of decoration and purpose speak of the ‘freedom of hand and mind subordinated to the co-operative harmony which made the freedom possible’ (p. 339). This expression of freedom means that for Morris Gothic architecture is always in dialogue with both a flawed but intelligent past and a better future. It’s as modern as it is medieval, and anticipates the moment when the need for mass produced materials will be superseded by a recognition of the greater need for dignified labour and respect for the environment.

A similar passion for what Morris calls the harmonious architectural unit, whereby every detail complements the structure of the whole, underlies his founding of the Kelmscott Press, itself named after Morris’s famous house in the Cotswolds, Kelmscott Manor. The press dedicated itself to producing the kind of lovely books that would grace the modern Gothic house as Morris conceived it. Morris’s ‘Note on his Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press’[4] testifies to his care in choosing the best handmade paper, designing the most legible fonts, and considering the perfect layout of print and pictures on the page, each of which involved a careful study of the best practice as Morris saw it, along with a historical study of the material conditions which made that practice possible. The contents of each book were chosen with equal care, and while the most famous products of the press reprinted medieval texts from what Morris considered the golden age of Gothic art – the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – it was inevitable that a number of books should also house his romantic visions of an alternativeGothic past; a fourteenth century that never was, which points towards a desirable future in which society as a whole would become, in effect, a ‘harmonious architectural unit’. The most detailed of these romances of housing is The Water of the Wondrous Isles(1897), which can be read, like all his fiction from The House of the Wolfings(1889) onwards, as an extended meditation on the politics of domestic architecture.[5]

The story is simple enough. It tells of a young girl named Birdalone who is stolen from her mother by a witch and raised in a house on the edge of a wood as the witch’s slave. She escapes in a magic boat and sets out across the Water of the title, a vast freshwater lake dotted with mysterious ‘wonder isles’ full of enchanted buildings, where men and women exist in a condition of permanent stasis, frozen in time like forgotten works of art. At the other side she finds herself in a more conventional country, a land of castles, fields and towns where magic is not widely practised, but where crafts of all kinds are held in high esteem. After many twists and turns she finds a place to settle down – suitably enough, in the very town from which she was stolen as an infant. Here she becomes part of what is in effect a neo-medieval utopian community, an island of socio-political sanity in a sea of historical violence and oppression.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia

The simplicity of the plot, however, is deceptive. For one thing, this is a chivalric romance with a woman at the heart of it; if you like, the first work of high fantasy written for adults with a female lead. And the woman in question is highly unusual. Birdalone, whose name points both to her solitary state and to the desire for flocking together with others of her kind as birds do, is equally adept in the arts of the domestic worker, the agricultural labourer, the craftswoman and the hunter. She is beautiful, as the heroine of a romance must always be, but she is also strong, capable of swimming out to the little ‘eyots’ or rocky islands near the lakeshore where she lives, of running faster than most men, and of shooting with a bow as well as any trained archer. Her education in domesticity and agriculture at the hands of the witch is complemented by an alternative education in what Morris calls ‘wisdom’ – which includes magic and dressmaking – delivered secretly by a woman called Habundia, a faery ‘wood-wife’ who is effectively the tutelary spirit of the forest beside which the witch’s cottage stands. This intimacy with the wood’s guardian means that Birdalone is at home among the trees in a way that the witch can never be. Her house, in other words, extends well beyond the enclosing walls of her mistress’s dwelling, taking in all the different terrains and elements that make up the remote environment to which she has been abducted, and giving her an intimate practical knowledge of all the different processes that make life possible.

Edward Burne Jones, Frontispiece to The Wood Beyond the World

Morris describes the location where the child Birdalone grows up in meticulous detail, and in doing so helps us understand what makes his protagonist different from the men and women she meets on her travels. The proximity of the witch’s house to the woods and the lake, where Birdalone runs and swims when the witch does not need her, explains the unique combination of qualities she possesses. Raised to be a slave, Birdalone refuses to have her education curtailed by the limited expectations of what a slave must know in order to be useful. Raised a woman, she possesses the courage, practical skill and energetic adventurousness associated in a phallocentric culture with masculinity. Raised ‘wild’ thanks to her love of the woods and her ignorance of social conventions (she describes herself repeatedly as a ‘wild woman’ in the course of the book), she is also capable of civilizing wild things through her beauty, which is to a great extent a function of her intelligence and her social gifts of kindness and courtesy. Birdalone is in effect a miniature utopia in herself, capable of everything traditionally expected of a man or woman of any class, the ideal inhabitant of the ideal house; and the function of the romance is to find an ideal house for her to live in.

Most of Morris’s late romances have a there-and-back-again structure which anticipates the organizing principle of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair (1895) opens and closes in the forest city of Oakenrealm; The Well at the World’s End (1896) begins and ends in the ‘High House’ of Upmeads; The Sundering Flood (1897) in a more modest house at a place called Wethermel, next to a river that can’t be crossed. As we have seen, The Water of the Wondrous Isles is no exception. It begins in a dilapidated house at the edge of Utterhay, from which Birdalone is stolen; loiters for a time at the witch’s house; then passes on from house to house, from castle to town to city, before revisiting all these locations on its way back to the witch’s cottage, and then to Utterhay where it started. This process of return in fantasy fiction is often read as a conservative gesture, an expression of the middle-class desire for restoration of the status quo, but for Morris it serves a very different function. Birdalone’s return to the witch’s house sees her transformed by her adventures, an expert in many different models of cohabitation, and the added power this transformation lends her gives rise to a radical domestic transformation. The witch has died while she was away, and on her return the witch’s house – formerly known as the House of Captivity – is repurposed as the House of Love, since Birdalone brings home to it the man she has chosen for her mate. With his help she makes it a sanctuary of mutual desire and collaborative labour, dispelling the miasma of oppression which had clung to it throughout her early years.

Her eventual return to the town of Utterhay, where she started out, is equally transformative. She arrives there in the company of what Morris calls a ‘fellowship’ – resonant word for lovers of Tolkien. This is a group of equals, men and women, whom she has met on her travels and effectively rescued from a condition of stasis and segregation: the women from captivity to the witch’s sister on one of the ‘wonder isles’ in the mysterious lake; the men from a state of constant warfare with aggressive neighbours in the women’s absence. So large a fellowship cannot live in a place as small as the House of Love – they need a town to live in, with all the crafts, trades, friendships, entertainments and protective alliances it can provide. But they bring to the town what they learned in the witch’s cottage, above all the kind of wisdom Birdalone taught them there: an aptitude for combining things, activities and people which are traditionally considered to inhabit separate spheres.

Edward Burne Jones, Love Among the Ruins

The man she brought to the House of Love was a knight, whose usual home is a castle rather than a cottage, and whose usual mode is one of command. Birdalone found him in a state of despair, living insane and alone in the woods after having lost her, as he thought, for ever. She domesticated and civilized him, making him the worthy inhabitant of a miniature collaborative civitas or society and healing him both psychologically and physically in the process. And she also brought the faery wood-wife to the House on one occasion. Uneasy in human dwellings, drawing all her power from the natural world and profoundly at odds with human hierarchies, Habundia found herself shrinking to diminutive size as she stepped through the door, but Birdalone’s affection for her restored her to adult proportions, and in the process suggested that the wood-wife’s connection with the wilderness had been domesticated too: naturalized, one might say, to this particular human habitation, and thus shown to be compatible with living in houses everywhere if properly respected and embraced. The wood-wife does not go on to live in Utterhay like the rest of Birdalone’s fellowship; but she remains an integral part of the company, maintaining links with them through regular meetings in the woods throughout the year, and affirming as a result the new organic connection between the town and its environment.

William Morris, Strawberry Thief

Between Birdalone’s departure from the witch’s House of Captivity and her return to what is now the House of Love, she visits a range of houses which articulate in different ways the conditions of their inhabitants. The witch’s boat brings her first to the house of the witch’s despotic sister on the Isle of Increase Unsought: a magnificent structure ‘nobly builded’ (p. 82), which incorporates a prison called the Wailing Tower where Birdalone is jailed for a while before being freed by three female slaves. Birdalone calls this structure the House of Death, and its unsound social foundations are later confirmed when it collapses as soon as its owner has been deprived of her magic powers. The Isle of the Young and the Old is inhabited only by children and one old man, and its once magnificent house is now ‘ruined and broken’ (p. 124), bereft of the solicitous care of strong and intelligent men and women. The Isle of Queens contains a ‘great house, white and fair, as if it were new-builded, and all glorious with pinnacles, and tabernacles set with imagery’ (p. 131); but this house holds only women, and the women are as motionless and breathless as statues, so that this building too could be called a House of Death. The same name would apply to the ‘castle, white, high, and hugely builded’ (p. 136) that stands on the Isle of the Kings, which is full of the motionless bodies of ‘all-armed men’ (p. 138). Each of these buildings speaks of a society that segregates genders and generations, unable to achieve the organic synchrony of elements which is the objective of Morris’s ideal architecture. The final wondrous isle she visits is the Isle of Nothing, which expresses the barrenness of such segregation; Birdalone is nearly stranded there in permanent solitude, with nowhere to go that suits her needs as a free woman.

With the help of the wood-wife’s magic, Birdalone escapes from the Isle of Nothing and finds her way to more promising regions on the mainland. Here too, however, the segregation of genders is practised, with devastating consequences for the communities that practise it. The Castle of the Quest, which is the first place she comes to after her voyage across the Water, is a functional building designed by the three knights who loved and lost the three female slaves befriended by Birdalone on the Isle of Increase Unsought. It is ‘brand-new, and […] fair enough builded, part of stone and lime, part of framed work’ (p. 147), but it is out of bounds to women, and its situation is precarious, since its occupants are in constant conflict with the rapacious men of a nearby fortress called the Red Hold. Birdalone’s arrival triggers the end of segregation, first by providing the Castle of the Quest with its first female guest, then by setting its owners on the path to the Isle of Increase Unsought where their lovers are slaves. And while they are away she also begins the process of ending the conflict between the men of the Castle and the men of the Red Hold.

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

In each house she visits on her adventures she serves as a catalyst, breaking the tyranny of stasis and initiating a process of new growth.On being kidnapped, for example, by the henchman of the Red Hold’s ‘tyrant’, Birdalone has such an effect on her captor that he decides to take her to a secret house of his own where he hopes his violent master will never find them. The house is barely even a building – merely a ‘bower builded of turf and thatched with reed’ (p. 251), constructed, he tells her, ‘with mine own hands’ (p. 253) – but it embodies his better nature, since he has always retreated to it at times ‘when my heart was overmuch oppressed with black burdens of evil and turmoil, and have whiles prevailed against the evil, and whiles not’ (p. 254). On this occasion Birdalone’s company helps him prevail against evil; after staying with her there for two days, sustained by the sense of sharing the place he built with his own labour for the first time in his life, he agrees to take her home to the Castle of the Quest, and is only prevented from doing so by his death at the hands of his tyrannical master. Birdalone’s civilizing influence combines with the influence of his natural surroundings and the house he himself constructed in a potent fusion that finally fulfils that latent potential in Sir Thomas, turning him from banditry to a commitment to fellowship or mutual support, though at the cost of his life.

The combination of ingredients that enable Birdalone to heal Sir Thomas is exquisitely invoked in Morris’s account of their time together in the bower, hunting, eating, talking and engaging in crafts, in a kind of sensuous utopian ecosystem caught in time between periods of conflict:

So they gat them a roe and came back therewith to the bower, and the knight dight it and cooked it, and again they ate in fellowship and kindness; and Birdalone had been to the river and fetched thence store of blue-flowered mouse-ear, and of meadow-sweet, whereof was still some left from the early days of summer, and had made her garlands for her head and her loins; and the knight sat and worshipped her, yet he would not so much as touch her hand, sorely as he hungered for the beauty of her body. (pp. 260-1)

The organic interweaving of diverse ingredients represented here – company, food, deft manual or mental activity – is repeated time and again in other houses Birdalone visits: in the prison-chamber on the Isle of Increase Unsought, where Birdalone and her fellow inmates sit down to eat and talk while keeping a sharp ear open for the arrival of their captor, the witch’s sister; in the garden of the Castle of the Quest, where Birdalone first tells her story to the Knights who built it; in the forest cave which the faery wood-wife calls her ‘house’. In each case the concept of an ideal dwelling place is briefly invoked by the beauty of the location, which serves both as an oasis of calm and conversation and as a trigger for action, the sort of action that takes Birdalone and her friends or fellows closer to the ideal domicile they hope to construct by the end of their narrative. In many cases old houses are repurposed as part of the journey towards this utopian future. The Red Hold, for instance, becomes a possession of the Knights of the Quest after the defeat of its master, while the buildings on the ‘Wonder Isles’ of the enchanted Water have each been requisitioned by new inhabitants when Birdalone visits them for a second time on her journey back to Utterhay. The most radical repurposing is that of the witch’s house, the House of Captivity, which is rebranded as the House of Love. Each of these repurposed houses can be read as a blueprint for, or a stage in, the organic planning and construction over time of the ‘good and fair castle’ at Utterhay where Birdalone eventually makes her home.

The process of making a home for Birdalone is complemented in the romance by the process of providing that home with its most significant furnishings: the clothes its occupant will wear, the housing of the body. Birdalone begins her life as an abductee in the witch’s cottage wearing rags, her garments an index of the older woman’s neglect:

Lank and long is Birdalone the sweet, with legs that come forth bare and browned from under her scant grey coat and scantier smock beneath, which was all her raiment save when the time was bitter, and then, forsooth, it was a cloak of goat-skin that eked her attire: for the dame heeded little the clothing of her. (p. 18)

William Morris and Edward Burne Jones, The Flora Tapestry

As she grows to adulthood Birdalone becomes ashamed of her rags and sets about making good clothing for herself: first a pair of embroidered deerskin brogues, then a green gown decorated with roses, lilies and ‘a tall tree springing up from amidmost the hem of the skirt, and a hart on either side thereof, face to face of each other’ (p. 21), in token of her organic connection to the wilds. Meanwhile her body is subjected to radically different treatments by the witch and the faery wood-wife. The wood-wife is the first to describe Birdalone’s physical appearance to her in detail, confirming her beauty both as an essentially socialattribute and as a work of exquisite craftsmanship on the part of God – or of the artist William Morris: ‘Surely he who did thy carven chin had a mind to do a master-work and did no less. Great was the deftness of thy imaginer, and he would have all folk that see thee wonder at thy deep thinking and thy carefulness and thy kindness’ (p. 25). The social aspect of Birdalone’s beauty is reinforced by the fact that the wood-wife magically takes on the young woman’s appearance, providing her with company, in the form of a double, and a co-conspirator against the witch who is in effect another self – Cicero’s famous definition of the perfect friend. The witch, meanwhile, treats Birdalone’s bodily beauty as an investment, a means of gaining power over the men who will be attracted to it; and she asserts her ownership of this investment by briefly transforming the girl into a deer, as punishment for a display of independence. In response, the wood-wife gives Birdalone renewed ownership of her own appearance by providing her with a ring of invisibility – a means of disappearing from the gaze of hostile eyes – with whose help she learns the secret of the witch’s boat.  Not long afterwards Birdalone escapes in the boat, but not before the witch has stolen from her both the ring and her clothes. In token of her liberation from slavery and of her new birth, so to speak, through the symbolic medium of water, Birdalone sets out on her adventures naked as a baby, and must find clothes of her own as well as a home in the course of her quest.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of many portraits of Jane Morris

Birdalone’s next set of garments are symbolic of her first entry into a community. Naked she arrives at the Isle of Increase Unsought, where she is enslaved again by the witch’s sister; and the three slave women she meets here invest her with clothes of their own before helping her escape for a second time. The garments they provide are not just decorative coverings, however – they are also messages to their knightly lovers. Each has a story woven into it, so to speak, having been given to its owner by her fiancé, and Birdalone learns the narrative behind each item when she meets the bereft young men at the Castle of the Quest. At the Castle, too, she is provided with jewels and alternative garments to replace the borrowed items, and her first entrance wearing her newly-made aparrel marks the end of the second part of her adventure:

She was so clad, that she had on a green gown with broidered sleeves, and thereover a white cote-hardie welted with gold, and gold-embroidered; on her feet were gold shoon of window-work, pearled and gemmed; and on her head a rose garland; on her neck she bore the Golden Knight’s collar; her loins were girt with the Black Squire’s girdle; and on her wrist was the Green Knight’s ancient golden ring; and she carried in her arms Aurea’s gown and Viridis’ shift and Atra’s shoon. (p. 186)

The carefully listed garments here identify her as an integral part of the story of the three knights of the Castle of the Quest and their respective ladies. From a ragged slave and naked wanderer she has been transformed into the embodiment of fellowship, of collective enterprise and collaborative workmanship; and Morris’s craftsman’s eye for the technical details of her apparel (a cote-hardie welted with gold, gold shoes of window-work) invites the reader to recognize the way it speaks to her new condition, as a participant in and beneficiary of a community of ‘carefulness’ (to use the wood-wife’s word) – in other words of mutual support and affection.

Birdalone undergoes several more changes of costume as the romance goes on – most notably into two successive suits of armour, the first provided by herself (a light hauberk covered by a surcoat, a sallet or light helmet and long boots of deer-leather, p. 396), the second by the faery wood-wife (‘helm and hauberk, and leg and arm wards; and they were all of green, and shone but little, but were fashioned as no smith of man-folk could have done the like’, p. 517). The second of these warlike ensembles is identical to the outfit supplied by the wood-wife to Birdalone’s lover, Arthur, and her physical strength in bearing ‘such light gear’ in the final battle to rid the woods of brigands helps to underline her equality with men at that late stage in Morris’s narrative.

The most significant new garment she gets, however, is the richest and most conventionally feminine of all: a dress presented to her by the faery wood-wife Habundia, fashioned from the ‘web of the Faery’, whose shifting colours seem to summarize the difficulty, variety, strangeness and frequent beauty of her experiences over the book’s 500-odd pages:

And therewith she laid on Birdalone’s outstretched arms the raiment she had brought with her, and it was as if the sunbeam had thrust through the close leafage of the oak, and made its shadow nought a space about Birdalone, so gleamed and glowed in shifty brightness the broidery of the gown; and Birdalone let it fall to earth, and passed over her hands and arms the fine smock sewed in yellow and white silk, so that the web thereof seemed of mingled cream and curd; and she looked on the shoon that lay beside the gown, that were done so nicely and finely that the work was as the feather-robe of a beauteous bird, whereof one scarce can say whether it be bright or grey, thousand-hued or all simple of colour. (pp. 463-4)

It is this set of clothes, here summarized in one exuberant, breathless sentence, that ‘abashes’ the ‘captain of the porte’ of Utterhay when the fellowship approaches his gates in the penultimate chapter, convincing him that ‘he had to do with folk of the Faery’ (p. 545). The ‘gleaming-glittering’ web or fabric of the gown, then, could also be said to symbolize the dynamic web of comradeship based on collaborative action of which Birdalone has become the central emblem. And it brings us back to the question of impossibility in Morris’s late fantastic fiction.

William Morris, Blackthorn

It’s often said that magic is only peripheral to Morris’s romances, and that their author’s heart and soul is more invested in crafts, communities and personal courage than in manifestations of the supernatural. It would be better to say, I think, that magic is organically woven into these final books of his – made of the same whole cloth. Its operation seems so much a natural part of Morris’s narratives that one hardly notices when it is happening; or rather, he makes little distinction between events where magic is at work and events where the behaviour or work of ordinary human beings has an effect like magic. The difference between the embroidered gown Birdalone fashions for herself, for instance, and the ‘gleaming-glittering’ gown Habundia gives her, is one of degree rather than substance. Both are made of beautiful fabric, both are sumptuously decorated with exquisite handiwork, both offset the personality of the garment’s wearer. They symbolize different things – in the first case Birdalone’s independence and skill, in spite of enslavement, in the second Birdalone’s bond with her Faery mentor – but both are equally remarkable, the former perhaps more so than the latter, since the preservation of independence and the acquisition of skill under such conditions is more of a miracle than the collective capacity of the Faeries to produce fine craftsmanship.  In the same way, Birdalone’s bodily beauty seems no less magical in its effects than the acts of magic by which it is obscured. Her transformation by the witch into a ‘milk-white hind’ gives her a shape that perfectly represents what the witch wants her to be, but the witch also feels constrained to make her new form a beautiful one, since beauty of mind and body is the essence of what makes Birdalone herself.   For the same transgression the witch also threatens to make Birdalone invisible in a very particular way, making her ‘wander about seen by none but me’ (p. 45), and thus underscoring the witch’s possession of Birdalone’s special form of loveliness. In the following chapter, the wood-wife offers Birdalone a different gift of invisibility, which differs from the witch’s in its emphasis on Birdalone’s agency – Birdalone herself can choose when to use it, and can be seen (when she turns invisible) by no one at all, not even the wood-wife (p. 50). In this way she restores to Birdalone a sense of her own identity as distinct from and independent of her mistress’s power. In both cases, however, it’s Birdalone’s personal qualities which make it worthwhile exerting power over her, and which remain unaffected – indeed, are enhanced – by the magic worked on her. The power of magic in effect intensifies her power, making the reader increasingly aware as the tale goes on of her effect on others, which is all the more remarkable given that Morris is concerned to stress at every point that Birdalone is not a frequent user of magic, despite her education in the wood-wife’s knowledge.

John William Waterhouse, Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus

Magic, then, in Morris’s work, is a way of intensifying the personality of the user; the way it is used provides an index to the user’s desires and values. In the process it also provides a means for Morris to emphasize how power works at its best and worst, since magic is raw power. When used by the unscrupulous it demonstrates the effects of tyrannical power on its victims, which is to bereave them of their personal powers. The witch’s transformation of Birdalone into a milk white hind robs her of the capacity to think and speak, while the magic powers of the Tyrant of the Red Hold puts Sir Thomas to sleep, replicating the effects of the mysterious magic that binds the noblemen and ladies on the Isles of Kings and Queens in a deathly sleep, the residents of the Isle of the Old and Young in perpetual childishness.  Well used, on the other hand, magic invests people and things which have often been held in low esteem – friendship between women, items of clothing or personal jewellery, keepsakes, houses – with an efficacy that asserts their centrality to human experience. The wood-wife’s magic, for instance, strengthens her bonds with Birdalone, whether it is invested in a gown, a ring or a lock of her hair. It reinforces the qualities in Birdalone which attract the wood-wife to her, as we’ve seen with the ring of invisibility and the glittering-gleaming gown. And it leads her out of the states of entrapment to which she is so often subjected: for instance, when Habundia sends her image to Birdalone to lead her out of an imprisoning fog on the Island of Nothing, or when she supplies her friends with faery guides to lead them away from and back to the forest. Magic entraps, encloses and curtails, or else it liberates, comforts and affirms; but in every case the person who works it, and the person on whom it is worked, find their identities painted in bolder colours by its operations, much as the personality of the sitter is enhanced by the process of having their portrait painted.

The operation of magic in The Water of the Wondrous Isles is most beautifully demonstrated, perhaps, in the episode where the wood-wife enters the house of the witch at Birdalone’s invitation (Chapter XXI, pp. 468-71). Before entering it for the first and only time in the book, Habundia asks Birdalone if she knows anything about the method of the house’s construction: ‘belike [the witch] buried some human being at one of its four corners. Tell me, fair child, sawest thou ever here at night-tide the shape of a youngling crowned with a garland straying about the house?’ (p. 469). On Birdalone’s affirming that she has never seen any such ghostly apparition, the wood-wife suggests that ‘maybe thou hast hallowed it with the wisdom and love of thee’, and adds that the materials from which the house has been constructed are natural and local, thus linking it with the wood which is Habundia’s home: ‘it is all builded of trees and the grass of the earth; and thou art free to use them by my leave’ (p. 469). Habundia then enters the house and shrinks to the height of a very young child – infantilized, it would seem, by the lingering influence of the witch’s impulse to tyranny. But shortly afterwards the affection of Birdalone magically restores her to full size, in token of her power of ‘hallowing’ what was diminished and curtailed, and they go on to eat and drink together ‘a simple meal of bread and cheese and wood-berries, and […] milk withal’ (p. 470, a kind of communion supper in celebration of their equal power, their wholesome friendship. The meal consists both of the fruits of Birdalone’s labour – bread and cheese – and the fruits of the wood-wife’s wilderness, and forms one of the series of companionable meals in times of tribulation that punctuate the narrative from beginning to end.

The analogy with communion brings us to another function of magic in Morris’s work, which is to serve as a substitute for religion. Morris’s new Middle Ages are striking for one glaring absence – the lack in them of a powerful Christian church, the terrestrial aspect of the celestial House of God. There are priests in them – albeit very few in comparison with the religious orders of the real medieval period, as the briefest glance at the cast-list of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will demonstrate; but these priests have little to say about the God they serve, and the only priest in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, a man called Leonard, worships Birdalone far more intensely than he does any heavenly deity. His worship of her recalls the various points in Morris’s work where a woman takes on the role of goddess: the Lady and the Maid, for instance, in The Wood Beyond the World, who are worshipped as divine by the pagan Bear people, or the Lady of Abundance in The Well at the World’s End, who is seen by some as a goddess, by others as a demonic sorceress. Such forms of personal idolatry are always represented as problematic in the romances, although they also always elicit the narrator’s sympathy (like Sir Philip Sidney he seems to share his characters’ tendency to idolize his heroines).  Leonard in The Water of the Wondrous Islesends his life as a solitary hermit living near the Castle of the Quest where he first met Birdalone; the last we see of him is standing on the shore as Birdalone speeds away from him in her magic boat, the holy man ‘staring on her speechless with grief and blinded with his bitter tears’ till she vanishes from sight (p. 412). The authority of God’s House is replaced in Morris’s work by the various kinds of influence exerted by a succession of secular houses, just as the power of a centralized monarchy is replaced by a succession of local leaders – soldiers, merchants, craftspeople – who use these houses as their headquarters.  The removal of the central powers of church and state is what allows Birdalone to take her place in the narrative as the ideal householder, the lynchpin of the fellowship of co-habitants which transforms Utterhay in the end into a model dwelling-place.

Kelmscott Manor

William Morris repurposed houses throughout his career: most famously Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds and Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, London. In his late romances he repurposed the literary houses of the Middle Ages to accommodate his dreams of a fairer time to come. His own fictional houses were repurposed in their turn, most famously by Tolkien; and a concentration on the houses in Tolkien’s fiction may help us understand how the there-and-back-again structure of The Lord of the Rings involves the repurposing of the celebrated underground houses of the Shire as a quasi-socialist utopia along the lines of Morris’s. Frodo’s journey to destroy the Ring takes him through a series of houses as various as the residences Birdalone visits: from his hobbit hole at Bag End to the house of Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, from the Last Homely House at Rivendell to Galadriel’s woodland home, Lothlorien, a hideout in Ithilien, an Orcish stronghold in Mordor, and the splendid city of Minas Tirith, newly restored to the rule of an unusually democratic king.As with Birdalone, Frodo’s eventual return to Bag End gives him a new appreciation for the quasi-socialist, organic space of the Shire, whose landscape is restored and improved, after the physical and political ravages wrought on it by Saruman, with the help of the wood-wife Galadriel – who thereby becomes permanently linked with the fellowship of humans and hobbits which protects the Shire from the depredations of malicious outside forces. This transformed Shire seems to throw off the shackles of the class system that identified Frodo as Sam’s Master; by the end of the narrative it’s Sam who’s the elected master or Mayor of his home country.Later still, Sam’s mastery of the narrative of the Ring – embodied in his possession of the collectively-written Red Book, which contains the story as begun by Bilbo and continued by his nephew – gets handed on to his daughter, as if in belated recognition of the role of women in the processes of making history. The Red Book itself is a work of craftsmanship – incorporating calligraphy, cartography, illustration, linguistic and historical scholarship, verse-making – which evokes the richly designed volumes of the Kelmscott Press. Viewed in terms of his inheritance from Morris, Tolkien’s there-and-back-again structure looks far less conservative than it is often made out to be. It’s Gothic, yes, but Gothic repurposed for the twentieth century, a form of Gothic whose location in a deep past that never existed holds out hope for a possible future restructuring of old spaces and structures to the mutual benefit of all their inhabitants. Add to it Morris’s radical reinvention of women’s roles in such a future, as articulated in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, and you have a future that still looks well worth having, from the perspective of the twenty-first century.

The Brothers Hildebrandt, Bilbo at Rivendell

NOTES

[1] See Gordon E. Cherry, ‘The Town Planning Movement and the Late Victorian City’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Vol. 4, No. 2, The Victorian City (1979), pp. 306-319

[2] William Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (London: Penguin, 1993, rev. 1998), p. 94.

[3] Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, pp. 329-48.

[4] Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, pp. 385-90.

[5] References to The Water of the Wondrous Isles are taken from my copy of the 1909 edition (New York, London and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co.).

Change in William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World (1894)

In her fine biography of William Morris Fiona McCarthy claims that his late romances are unlike anything else written in the nineteenth century.[1] One could just as easily say that they’re unlike anything else written at any time, including the post-Tolkienian fantasy fiction with which they’re so often compared. They articulate radical attitudes to women, class and sexual desire in an archaic prose that seems to anchor them in what is often taken to be the conservative past of the medieval romances. Their strange plots repeatedly turn romance conventions on their heads while seeming to conform to them; and they convey a dreamlike atmosphere, largely again through Morris’s prose style, which resembles his verse in its tendency to treat all incidents – crises and pastoral interludes, loving conversations, quarrels and apparitions – with the same fluid smoothness, seldom varying its rhythm whatever emotional terrain it traverses, much as a dream tends to inhabit the same mood throughout its length no matter what bizarreries or horrors it conjures up. Many incidents in them are never explained, and as a consequence the onus rests on the reader to decipher their significance, to an extent that simply isn’t true of many other contemporary narratives. George MacDonald wrote that he intended his own fairy tales to awaken something in their readers, not to direct them;[2] and the same statement might well have been made by Morris, whose interest in dreams was as intense as MacDonald’s, and whose romances helped to stir modern fantasy into wakefulness.[3]

The Wood Beyond the World (1894) is as strange and enigmatic as any of these late romances. It takes us on what seems to be a journey through the mind of its central character, Golden Walter, in which he finds himself playing a range of contradictory roles in a narrative whose form and content violate expectations in a number of crucial ways. An examination of its experimental features may help to debunk the still persistent perception of fantasy and romance as fundamentally reactionary genres. It may help, too, to point up the extent to which they can sometimes match modernism in their readiness to reinvent the past with an eye to the challenges of the present and future. The book’s form has political implications, and it’s these political implications that I want to tease out in the reading that follows.

Before setting out, though, it’s worth pausing to take note of the remarkable range of medieval and early modern prose romances to which Morris had access, thanks to the tireless labour of Victorian scholars. Stimulated in part by the international success of Walter Scott’s historical novels – Waverley, Ivanhoe, The Monastery and the rest – nineteenth-century scholars worked to put into print a huge amount of prose fiction from the sixteenth century and before which had been in many cases unavailable since early modern times, or never printed at all. Bibliophiles like Henry Huth, editors like F. J. Furnivall, Edmund Gosse and Alexander Grosart, book clubs like the Chetham Society, the Hunterian Club and the Roxburghe Club, and book series like the Globe editions, ensured that prosperous readers like Morris had access through mid-to-late Victorian libraries and bookshops to a wider range of old prose romances in English (Malory, Boccaccio, Bandello, Marguerite de Navarre, Lyly, Sidney, Lodge, Greene, Cervantes, Rabelais, and of course Anonymous) than at any other time in history. As a result he must have known the sheer diversity of the genre, its stylistic and formal inventiveness, its frequent refusal to follow pre-existent patterns, its preoccupation with topics neglected in official discourse – above all with women, desire, and desiring women – and its wayward way with historical and geographical fact, to an extent that would have been impossible for writers before him, apart from Scott and a few of his fellow antiquaries. Morris writes, in other words, free from the presuppositions about ‘chivalric’ romance that may have been entertained by many of his readers, but also intensely conscious of those presuppositions and prejudices. He plays with them even as he flouts them, and this knowing playfulness with accurate and inaccurate perceptions of the past is one of the characteristics he confers on the best examples of the fantasy tradition that followed him.

The title of The Wood Beyond the World helps to highlight the impression it gives of opening a door from one space – the everyday, mercantile, urban space in which it begins – into another: the enchanted wood where the bulk of the action takes place. ‘Wood’ and ‘world’ are so nearly homonyms that it’s easy to imagine one as being buried or concealed within the other (as C. S. Lewis did later in The Magician’s Nephew [1955]). This effect is intensified by the recurrent visions that trouble the protagonist, Golden Walter, taking him far away from the familiar surroundings of his place of origin, Langton on Holm (whose name punningly refers both to its homeliness and to its location, a holm being an island in a river – as well as to its dullness, since Langton invokes the German langweilig, boring). Three times Walter sees two women and a dwarf processing through the familiar everyday landscape; on one occasion, they seem to be leaving his father’s house moments after they have boarded ship and set sail for distant lands (p. 9).[4] Each time the threefold apparition ends by vanishing without a trace, and each vision intensifies his desire to track down the originals of the figures in it, despite his fear that they may have been illusions, the seductive symptoms of a catastrophic breakdown in his mental faculties. When the third occurrence of the vision is witnessed by his father’s matter-of-fact scrivener, Arnold, Walter is half convinced that it has substance, but even then will only concede that ‘there was at least something before my eyes which grew not out of mine own brain’ (p. 19). The question of whether what he sees is inside or outside his head – or of how far what he sees with his material eyes is affected by his mental state – continues to disturb his mind for much of the narrative, raising the question of what space the door through which the visions proceed might open into.

The behaviour of the visions doesn’t conform, then, to everyday notions of cause and effect, and so anticipates the degree to which Walter’s quest for the originals will operate in defiance of conventional narrative logic. Another way in which these visions anticipate this defiance is in the protagonist’s inability to decide which of the women fascinates him most: ‘For he said to himself that he desired not either of the twain; nay, he might not tell which of the twain, the maiden or the stately queen, were clearest to his eyes; but sore he desired to see both of them again, and to know what they were’ (p. 10). The contradiction in the young man’s thinking here – he tells himself he does not desire either woman, yet ‘sore he desired to see both of them again’ – predicts the continued confusion over identity (his own, as well as those of the two women) which will be a marked feature of his later adventures. Confused identity is a familiar romance motif, but it doesn’t generally manifest itself at the point when the romance hero first sights his future lover. On these occasions it’s expected that the knight will fall head over heels in love with a single woman, and that he will know full well from the first that it’s love or desire that draws him to her. Walter’s confusion may arise from two causes. The first is that he is no knight, and therefore presumably not subject to the usual rules of chivalric fiction. The second is that the mental state he finds himself in when he sees the visions is a singularly unromantic one, and that this sets him at odds from the outset with the narrative trajectory of traditional romance.

Walter’s situation at the beginning of the narrative is, in fact, a mass of contradictions. His nickname refers both to his current prosperity and to the long line of his prosperous forebears: his father ‘was of the Lineage of the Goldings, therefore was he called Bartholomew Golden, and his son Golden Walter’ (p. 2). But his gilded past and glittering present serve as a mask for an unhappy marriage to a wife whose barefaced adultery effectively puts him in two minds:

he hated her for her untruth and her hatred of him; yet would the sound of her voice, as she came and went in the house, make his heart beat; and the sight of her stirred desire within him, so that he longed for her to be sweet and kind with him, and deemed that, might it be so, he should forget all the evil gone by. (p. 2)

This sentence pits a bevy of romance conventions against each other. The young man loves a young woman who doesn’t love him back, so that disparate ages and inter-generational conflict are not a factor in their relationship as they so often are in stories. They are married, rather than barred from marriage either by circumstance or their elders; love and hate are fused in Walter’s attitude to his spouse; and while he would seem to have obtained his ending before his adventures begin, it’s anything but a happy one. Summarized like this it’s easy to see why the situation might give rise to the threefold vision that haunts him: two women who are equally desirable, one a slave, the other her mistress, attended by a malicious servant whose grotesque appearance differs from Walter’s beauty as much as his marriage differs from the public appearance it presents to the world, or from marital ideals in general as promulgated by fairy tale and sentimental fiction. Both Walter and the Dwarf are linked with the colour yellow (the former is ‘yellow-haired’ [p. 1], the latter ‘clad in a rich coat of yellow silk’ [p. 7]), as if the latter is the mirror image of Walter’s self-disgust at his failure as a husband and lover.[5] Walter later tracks the Dwarf and his companions to a far-off place called the ‘Golden House’ whose name echoes his own sobriquet, and whose magnificent appearance recalls the opulent life he led in Langton. The Dwarf carries a bow, which makes him a malevolent adult version of the childish love-god, Cupid. There is a second male lover at the Golden House who competes with Walter for the attentions of the two women of the vision, just as his wife’s lover had earlier competed with him for her affections. The central plot of the romance, then, represents a twisted double of Walter’s marriage situation, as if it has been deliberately offered to him as a nightmarish alternative model of human desire and its workings to set alongside the idealized versions of love and marriage offered by traditional forms of fiction.

But the Golden House is only one of a series of unsettling doubles that punctuate the narrative. The first of these – the first that Walter becomes aware of – is a pair of ships in the harbour at Langton. One is a vessel boarded by the threefold vision when Walter first sees it (pp. 6-8); the other is his father’s vessel, which Walter boards before setting out on a long sea-voyage intended to free him from his loveless union. As the second ship casts off, Walter notes how the sailors repeat with unnerving precision the routines already carried out on board the ship he noticed earlier:

it all seemed but the double of what the other ship had done; and he thought of it as if the twain were as beads strung on one string and led away by it into the same place, and thence to go in the like order, and so on again and again, and never to draw nigher to each other. (p. 11)

Doubling here becomes a metaphor for the repetitive nature of routine itself: the daily comings and goings in the household of wives, lovers and husbands, as mentioned in Chapter I (‘as she came and went in the house’ [p. 2]); the mercantile traffic that follows identical routes from land to land in quest of profit; the daily routine of the marketplace; the cycles of history, which repeat the same triumphs and tragedies in successive generations. Walter’s fear is that routine will undermine any effort on his part at escape or innovation – new encounters, the resolution of past difficulties, liberation from his hostile partner – and that the two ships will instead follow the same preordained trajectory for ever without any significant variation, much as his marriage has followed the same routine of hatred and renewed desire throughout its duration without any sign of rapprochement or reconciliation between the spouses.

The structure of the adventures that follow both reaffirms this anxiety and works against it, as Walter moves from one location to the next, at each point confronting the notion of preordination or predestined activity, but at each stage also breaking the cycle, freeing himself from the chain of repetition, and bringing about new chapters in his own story and (finally) in the history of the lands he moves through. The Wood Beyond the World doesn’t follow the there-and-back-again format of Tolkienian fantasy or classic medieval romance (in this it differs from its successor, The Well at the World’s End [1896]); and its refusal to do so can be read as a sign of its radical agenda, that is, of Morris’s determination to liberate his protagonist and readers from the reactionary view that a romance ending should always restore the status quo established at the beginning – or indeed that the future can be confidently predicted on the basis of the past, a foundational principle of conservatism as well as of the capitalist marketplace with which Walter’s family is affiliated.

The notion of predetermination is worth considering further, since it’s a concept that gets taken up by the later fantasy tradition, and one that’s cleverly problematized in Morris’s book. The repeated vision may suggest to the reader, on the basis of previous experience, that there is some sort of destiny or fate that links Walter with the women he keeps seeing. Walter, however, sees the vision as liberating him from his apparent destiny, which is to remain unhappily married and to follow in his father’s footsteps as a merchant and local dignitary. This becomes clear when he sees the vision for the third and final time, in the nameless city to which his vessel conveys him on his father’s business. Just before this third encounter he learns from his father’s scrivener that the old man has been killed by his wife’s relatives, the Reddings, in revenge for sending her home in disgrace after his son’s departure. The news at once prompts Walter to get ready for the voyage back to Langton, where he expects to ‘enter into the strife with the Reddings and quell them, or die else’ (p. 18) – that is, to carry on the feud for the foreseeable future, in an ugly variation on the routine he has so far been slave to. His duty seems clear, along with the two equally unattractive endings available to him: death at the hands of or victory over his father’s killers. But his third sighting of the women and the Dwarf negates his view that these are his only options. He yearns to follow the women instead, as a third way (like the third way shown to Thomas the Rhymer in the ballad) whose uncertain outcome will free him from the familial duties by which he feels bound. The archaic term ‘boun’ is used by Morris to describe the destination of the ships that conduct the business of the Langton merchants (p. 13), as if to stress the limitations of the mobility they seem to offer. Sure enough, the next stage of Walter’s liberation from his past can only come when his ship is driven off its ‘bounden’ course. Shortly after his departure for Langton, the new vessel in which he finds himself – again, symbolically, one of his father’s – becomes ‘unboun’, so to speak, from its route, when a sudden storm drives it to the shore of an unknown island. As it turns out, this is the country where the women and the Dwarf dwell in the Wood Beyond the World, a place beyond all known maps, and beyond reach, too, of the business transactions often referred to in medieval texts as worldly affairs (as against spiritual ones). Walter’s pursuit of the women, then, takes him away from his destiny, not towards a predestined or ‘bounden’ ending. It therefore seems entirely appropriate that the experiences he has with the women should defy expectation, literary or otherwise.

Before he reaches the Golden House, Walter’s arrival at the unknown island sets up another set of expectations that appears to bind him to a specific course of action. He and his ship’s company, which includes the scrivener Arnold, meet an old man who lives by himself on a farm in an otherwise unpopulated part of the unknown country. The man tells Walter how he ended up in this lonely state, and as he does so the young man becomes convinced that the route the old man took to his youthful adventures – through a gap or ‘rift’ in the nearby mountains – will also take him, Walter, to the women in his vision. The problem is that the old man deems his adventures to have brought about only ‘evil’ (p. 35), and to have set him on course for his eventual seclusion; he therefore does all he can to dissuade his young visitor from following the same course of action, and the prophetic terms he uses, together with the image we may still hold in our minds of the beads forever following each other along the same piece of string, make his forebodings plausible. As Walter sets out for the gap in the mountains, then, the reader may well assume that he is condemning himself to an ‘evil’ outcome, and perhaps to lifelong loneliness on the farm where he met the hermit. The reader is, however, given a number of clues that this is not in fact the case. For one thing the old man was a knight in his youth, as opposed to a bourgeois merchant, so that his destiny might be expected to be of a different kind from Walter’s (knights are destined to rule where merchants trade; errant knights may expect to end up on a preordained patch of land, while the fortunes of merchants fluctuate with the market, making their eventual destinies less certain). For another, the old man killed his predecessor on the farm before setting out on his journey, whereas Walter does not. In fact, the old man’s knightly status and his manner of acquiring his land would seem to be connected. In killing his predecessor the old man describes himself as succeeding to the dead man’s property ‘as though this were a lordly manor, with a fair castle thereon, and all well stocked and plenished’ (p. 34). Walter, by contrast, is un-lordly in his origins, non-violent in his habits and above all unconcerned with his inheritance, since his quest for the women diverts him from the legal process of succeeding his father in his ‘goodly house’ in Langton (p. 9), just as it involves parting company with his father’s legal representative, the scrivener Arnold. Morris has, however, planted in our minds the possibility of ‘evil’ presiding over Walter’s journey, and as a result the reader can’t be assured of the happy outcome of this romance until she’s reached the final page.

The gap in the mountains leads Walter, of course, to the titular Wood Beyond the World: an idealized setting redolent of fertility and wealth, presided over by the Golden House, a building ‘carved all about with knots and imagery’ which Walter considers ‘beyond compare of all the houses of the world’ (pp. 72-3). At the same time, the setting is dominated by ambiguities of many kinds. Walter approaches the House by way of a series of encounters: with the Dwarf, with the younger of the two women known as the Maid, and finally with the ruling Lady, whom he meets in the House itself with her current lover, a young man wearing a royal ‘chaplet of gems’ as a sign of his rank (though he looks in Walter’s eyes ‘nowise […] chieftain-like’ [p. 74], so that his appearance is itself contradictory). Each meeting feeds Walter with preconceptions about the meetings to come. The Dwarf, who occupies an ambiguous halfway house between human and animal (he even moves in a fusion of styles, ‘whiles walking upright […] whiles bounding and rolling like a ball […] whiles scuttling along on all-fours like an evil beast’ [p. 56]), convinces Walter that the Maid is a kind of monster (a ‘Wretch’ or ‘Thing’ [pp. 54-5]), whose hidden ‘knife’ may not be trusted. When he meets the Maid she fills him with anxiety first about the Dwarf, who becomes ‘that one’ (p. 60), a nameless monstrosity too horrible to be mentioned, and then about the Lady, whose identity seems somehow multiple: an ‘evil mistress’ who ‘by some creatures’ is ‘accounted for a god, and as a god is heried [worshipped]; and surely never god is crueller nor colder than she’ (p. 65). The encounter with the Lady and her royal lover suggests that the reference to her as being ‘accounted for a god’ may be the familiar hyperbole of Petrarchan love discourse; her coldness to Walter on his first arrival reads like a conventional game of desire as practised in the early modern romances of Lyly, Greene and Gascoigne, and it’s only the Maid’s words that suggest there may be something more sinister afoot. This perception is intensified if the reader remembers what Walter learned from the old man at the farm: that his neighbours, the stone age ‘Bear-folk’, worship a bloodthirsty female deity (p. 29) who demands human ‘blood-offerings’ from them (p. 40). The Lady, then, like the Dwarf and the Maid, may be mixed in the reader’s mind of compound elements, human, bestial and supernatural, and this mixture puts us perpetually in two minds as to which of these elements will become foregrounded in any given episode set in the Wood of ‘lies’, as the Maid calls it.

One can see by now why Morris, like his successor Tolkien, was averse to the notion that he might have written allegories (as McCarthy tells us, he reacted angrily when an editor suggested that The Wood was a socialist allegory of labour’s struggle with capitalism). Allegories such as Bunyan’s hugely popular Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) assigned singular, limited roles to each of their characters; the identities and moral standing of Worldly Wiseman, Little-Faith, Hopeful and the rest are obvious at once from their names. Walter’s meeting with the Maid, on the other hand, is all about uncertainty; not least, the Maid’s uncertainty as to Walter’s own nature, her uncertainty as to whether the Lady lured him to the Wood for some dark purpose, her cogitations as to how to proceed, and finally her uncertainty about what Walter will think of her if she succeeds in carrying out the plan she finally comes up with. The reader doesn’t share in all these uncertainties; by this stage of the narrative, for instance, we may well have decided that Walter is an upright citizen, exactly as Morris describes him in the opening paragraph (‘rather wiser than foolisher than young men are mostly wont; a valiant youth, and a kind’ [p. 1]). The Maid’s fears spring in part from her status as a slave, a condition of which we’re constantly reminded by references to the steel ring on her ankle: subject to the whims of a volatile mistress, unsure as to whether any given situation is an ingenious trap devised to remind her of her servitude. And one element of this trap consists of the Maid’s concerns about Walter’s potential attitude to her, conditioned as she assumes it is by romance conventions concerning female behaviour. Should she display excessive wisdom or courage – qualities associated with Walter’s character as a man in the opening pages – she fears that he may judge her to be as the Dwarf described her: a dangerous monster forever set apart from the rest of her sex, a kind of inverted Blessed Virgin. Walter does indeed doubt the Maid at various points in their subsequent adventures – not surprisingly, really, since he has only known her for a short time, and has already been betrayed once by a woman he loved. But then, he also begins to doubt himself, largely thanks to his ambivalent attitudes to the Maid and the Lady. Identities in the Wood seem not to be fixed, and it’s the complexity of the women’s roles there, in particular, that points up its refusal to be bound by allegorical or romance regulations.

The Maid lays out the rules of the game she will play – a deadly serious game of the sort played by slaves conspiring to win their freedom – when she first meets Walter. ‘Thou hast cast thy love,’ she tells him, ‘upon one [i.e. the Maid herself] who will be true to thee, whatsoever may befall; yet is she a guileful creature, and might not help it her life long [in other words, her cunning has been forced on her by lifelong captivity], and now for thy very sake must needs be more guileful now than ever before. And as for me, the guileful,’ she continues,

my love have I cast upon a lovely man, and one true and simple, and a stout-heart; but at such a pinch is he, that if he withstand all temptation, his withstanding may belike undo both him and me. Therefore swear we both of us, that by both of us shall all guile and all falling away be forgiven on the day when we shall be free to love each other as our hearts will. (pp. 69-70)

Such a speech spoken by a woman to a man is more or less unprecedented in the annals of romance, at least in my limited experience.[6] For medieval and early modern writers an admission of guile would invariably be tantamount to an admission of guilt, and the guileful woman would quickly betray her true colours by seeking to beguile or bamboozle her lover (as Lucilla does, for instance, in Lyly’s Euphues [1578]).[7] At the same time, the Maid also professes truthfulness in the sense of fidelity (she will ‘be true to thee, whatsoever may befall’), and so insists that a consistent set of values will underpin her deviousness. She then sets up a clear distinction between herself and Walter. He is ‘true and simple’ by nature, she says, but must cultivate deviousness if he is to survive; he must strategically give way to ‘temptation’ if either or both of them are not to be destroyed by the ‘evil mistress’. So far so Machiavellian; this might be Lady Macbeth enjoining her husband to ‘Look like th’innocent flower, / But be the serpent under it’, with the crucial difference that the Maid is enjoining Walter to seem duplicitous, even to be duplicitous, but to cultivate a secret simplicity in his intentions and commitments. This troubling advice comes hard on an earlier reversal of Walter’s preconceptions about romance behaviour, where the young man promised to deliver the Maid from her enslaving mistress and she retorted that ‘it is more like [i.e. more likely] that I shall deliver thee’ (p. 67). On their first encounter, in fact, the Maid seeks to instruct Walter in a new kind of narrative, where the knight is less effective in a crisis than the damsel in distress, where lying may be necessary rather than immoral, and where trust and forgiveness are bestowed with difficulty rather than with the ease that so often characterizes their attainment in chivalric romance. Walter is not a rapid learner; he promptly agrees with everything the Maid has said on the grounds that she is his ‘Hallow’ (p. 70), that is, his saint, which makes her sound dangerously perfect, in direct contradiction to everything she has just told him about herself. But the Maid has given him a key to interpreting or reading her subsequent actions which promises to convert him to her way of thinking, should he choose to accept it, before the story’s end.

Most strikingly, her advice closes with an insistence that both of these would-be lovers learn to cultivate a commitment to change rather than consistency if their relationship is to flourish. The Maid has learned to change guilefully in order to protect herself from the Lady’s cruelty. She can also change her own and other people’s physical appearance, which is a skill the Lady does not possess (perhaps she does not need it, being a slave-owner rather than a slave). Walter must learn to change (from simplicity to duplicity, from fidelity to promiscuity, from the assumption of male dominance to reliance on a woman) in order to protect himself and the Maid. And both must promise to change again, for one last time, when the need for changefulness is over. Her insistence ‘that by both of us shall all guile and all falling away be forgiven on the day when we shall be free to love each other as our hearts will’ could be taken as Morris’s manifesto: his romances recognize the need for compromise in adversity, acknowledging partial or apparent complicity with the dominant power as a necessary part of the struggle for freedom from it, as against the idealistic purism of traditional chivalric codes. At the same time, the original principles of chivalric romance remain important to him: fidelity (to those who are worthy of it), simplicity (a clear set of social and moral values underlying one’s actions), and devotion to truth (even when one is forced to lie in the interests of self-preservation). He wants his readers to recall traditional chivalric romance even as they recognize the various departures from it in his narrative. There’s an idealism here, in other words, concerning the possibility of keeping faith in the worst of circumstances, which the Maid is concerned to assert even as she spurns the kind of idealism based on arbitrarily-assigned gender roles that has dominated past narratives of this kind.

Sustaining this clandestine idealism proves as difficult as one might expect in the adventures that follow. Walter continually doubts the Maid’s fidelity, distrustful of her increasing intimacy with the King’s Son even as he self-consciously fulfills his own obligation to be physically intimate with the Lady. His relationship with the Maid is complicated by the fact that he finds the Lady equally attractive, as also by the fact that he is continually mistaking the one for the other, so that at times the only distinction between them seems to be the ring of steel on the Maid’s ankle which marks her out as the Lady’s property. Even when the Maid eventually frees them from the Lady’s power – by magically disguising the King’s Son as Walter and luring him to the site of an assignation, where the Lady kills him in a jealous rage after being tipped off by the Dwarf – Walter suspects her of excessive intelligence and courage (or deviousness and boldness), exactly as she predicted he would. Changing attitudes to gender prove as difficult in Morris’s romance world as they were in the actual struggle for women’s equality in which Morris took such a marked if problematic interest.[8]

The confusions of identity that occur in the Wood are exacerbated by the uncertainty as to how terms are used and phenomena explained. We’ve already noted how the term ‘yellow’ occurs in the descriptions both of Walter and of the Dwarf – that is, of the most ‘virtuous’ and ‘vicious’ male figures in the narrative – and how the sobriquet ‘golden’ applies at once to Walter, his father, and the enchanted House where Walter finds himself after abandoning his father’s ship. Similarly, the term ‘Enemy’ gets regularly applied to different inhabitants of the Wood, Maid, Dwarf and Lady; and its capitalized initial ‘E’ aligns it with the names denoting qualities in allegories like The Pilgrim’s Progress, as if to point up the danger of assuming a stable correspondence between signifier and signified. We’ve seen, too, how the origins of the visions Walter sees are never confirmed (were they sent by Lady, Maid, or some other influence?); so that it’s hardly surprising we never learn their purpose either (were they devised by the Lady to ensnare a new lover, by the Maid to procure a rescuer, by destiny to ensure that the story unfolds as it does?). Another incident that never gets explained is Walter’s killing of a lion on a hunting expedition with the Lady. Was the lion conjured up by the Lady as a test of Walter’s mettle? This would explain the fact that it is yellow, like her servant the Dwarf who shares so many of its properties, and that its body disappears, leaving no trace, after its killing. But if so, why does the Lady associate it with her Enemy (presumably the Maid), and react to its appearance with seeming terror? The Maid asserts that since the Lady is a liar her behaviour and words on this occasion cannot be trusted; but of course the Maid too is a mistress of false appearances, as her final plot against the Lady demonstrates. Finally, the Maid mistakes Walter for the King’s Son on at least one occasion, and the Lady mistakes him for her royal lover when she stabs the latter (using a knife of the kind the Maid carries about with her – as she claims, for purposes of self-defence and possibly suicide, though the Dwarf identifies it as the sign of the Maid’s monstrosity). The Lady commits suicide, in the end, just as the Maid proposed to do if her bid for freedom failed. Walter, meanwhile, ends up as a serial adulterer (he is successively unfaithful to his wife, the Maid and the Lady), a bigamist (he marries the Maid while still, apparently, married to his wife in Langholm), a voyeur (he is always spying on the Lady and the Maid, like the Dwarf he hates), a killer (he stabs the Dwarf to protect the Maid from his arrows), and a liar, and hence in some sense akin to the Lady, the Maid, the Dwarf and the King’s Son. The Wood, then, is a veritable labyrinth of resemblances and echoes, with each of its inhabitants repeatedly usurping the other’s role and partner in a dance of power that renders any notion of any one of them having a unique destiny, or preordained moral function, profoundly questionable.

It seems appropriate, then, that Walter’s moment of triumph in this romance is not an act of prowess (his killing of the Dwarf is a botched job at best, and he does little to rescue the Maid from her captivity) but instead an acceptance of his own complicity with the faults of which he suspects her. Having engineered the death of the Lady and the King’s Son, the Maid approaches the difficult task of explaining to Water what she has done – the chief difficulty being that she has behaved like the wicked witch of conventional romance – with hesitation; a hesitation that seems fully justified when Walter allows himself to half believe the Dwarf’s account of what has happened before he has even heard the Maid’s side of the story. It’s at this point, however, that Walter suddenly recalls the lesson in reading that the Maid taught him when they first met. The lesson involved pointing out to him how each of them must behave if they are to stand a chance of escaping from the Lady’s clutches; and how they must act in similar ways, and accept equal responsibility for their own and each other’s actions, if they are to have any chance of developing an adult relationship after their escape. Her lesson taught him, in fact, to rid himself of the double standards applied to men and women in fiction; and he shows he has learned the lesson when he affirms, as the Maid hesitates to speak freely to him, that he too has been guilty of any crimes she may confess in her account of the Lady’s death:

Yea, said he, and true it is that if thou hast slain, I have done no less, and if thou hast lied, even so have I; and if thou hast played the wanton, as I deem not that thou hast, I full surely have so done. So now thou shalt pardon me, and when thy spirit has come back to thee, thou shalt tell me thy tale in all friendship, and in all loving-kindness will I hearken the same. (pp. 157-8)

This statement of pardon before the Maid has told her tale certifies that Walter has learned to read in a new way, with an egalitarianism or ‘loving-kindness’ regarding gender (and ‘kindness’ suggests similarity or kinship in medieval English) that’s pretty much alien to the romance tradition, which tended to apply such different standards to men and women, especially in sexual matters [though this isn’t altogether true of Philip Sidney or Mary Wroth]. This is not to say that these standards have yet been fully naturalized either in Walter or in Morris’s readers. Morris is careful, for instance, to ensure that the Maid remains what her title suggests, a virgin, so as not to alienate his more conservative readers. But the passage, like the romance as a whole, also asserts the possibility of accepting an authoritative, cunning, powerful, active and passionately desiring female figure into the storytelling tradition, and in doing so paves the way for the yet more powerful women of Morris’s later romances, The Well at the World’s End and The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897).[9]

Walter doesn’t remain entirely convinced by his own rhetoric of loving-kindness. His assertion of trust in the Maid is sorely strained when she later takes on the Lady’s former role as goddess of the Bear folk, and he fears that she will take the opportunity to have him sacrificed like previous visitors to the Bear country. Later a similar fear afflicts him when he is seized, stripped, washed and fed by the people of a city called Stark-wall, and again presumes that these are preparations for ritual murder to appease some sanguinary deity. As it turns out, however, both acts of sacrifice are averted thanks to the equal commitment of the Maid and Walter to changing things for the better. The Maid uses her power as a substitute goddess to dissuade the Bear folk from the practice of human sacrifice rather than to encourage it (though she also instructs them to enslave weak or sickly strangers instead of sacrificing them; the historical moment would not yet seem to have come for the total erasure of slavery). Similarly, Walter’s ordeal in Stark-wall turns out to be a test of his fitness to be crowned king – a test he passes with ease; and he immediately uses his newfound power to institute change, inviting the Maid to be crowned as his Queen while symbolically inviting her to choose the clothes in which she will be installed alongside him. Again the change he implements is not as radical as it might be; it seems clear that the Queen doesn’t wield the same authority in Stark-wall as her husband. But their personalities and experience ensure that they make a difference in the World beyond the Wood (as the Lady at one stage calls it), extending the principles of loving-kindness beyond the charmed circle of their marriage.

Walter’s legacy, like his reformation of Stark-wall, is finally limited. When he dies he leaves behind ‘no needy’ subjects, but the quasi-democratic practice whereby he was crowned king after emerging ‘poor and lonely from out of the Mountains’ (p. 250) is forgotten, to be replaced, one guesses, by patrilineal succession. And the Maid’s actions, too, leave an ambiguous legacy. The skills she taught the Bear folk in her capacity as their goddess – which include tillage as well as relative kindness to strangers – eventually give rise to warfare between them and their neighbours, the people of Stark-wall, though ‘that was a long while after the Maid had passed away’ (p. 250). And after her coronation she continues to suffer from what sounds like post traumatic stress disorder, since under certain circumstances ‘her heart waxed cold with fear, and it almost seemed to her that her Mistress was alive again, and that she was escaping from her and plotting against her once more’ (pp. 249-50). Like all the great socialist writers, Morris was no glib optimist; he harboured no illusion that the changes he advocated through his experimental ‘plotting’ would come into being any time soon, or that the damage inflicted by the past would leave no trace on the psychology of its victims and their descendants. Change, nevertheless, lay at the heart of his literary programme, and he had the vision to trace the roots of potential change in the language and artistry of the past, as a miner traces a vein of ore through the rock of bygone ages.

Morris’s attitude to change is perhaps best exemplified in The Wood Beyond the World in his attitude to religion. Medieval Catholicism is more prominent in this text than it became in his later romances; in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, for instance, it has more or less disappeared, as I recall, whereas in the Wood his characters are constantly invoking the name of God or the Blessed Virgin. At the same time religion is firmly rooted in human urges. We have seen how the Maid becomes Walter’s ‘Hallow’ or saint when he pledges his love to her; and later, one of the residents of Stark-wall predicts that her name will be hallowed in future generations ‘little less than they hallow the name of the Mother of God’ (p. 244). Yet only shortly before this scene she was associated with a harsher religion, that of the Bear folk, who had been instructed by her predecessor, the Lady, to sacrifice strangers to appease their goddess. And when Walter first encountered the people of Stark-wall he suspected them of practising the same religion: ‘Surely all this [ritual],’ he comments, ‘looks toward the knife and the altar for me’ (p. 229); an opinion that’s rendered plausible by an elderly citizen’s reference to the ‘God-folk’ they formerly worshipped (p. 233), who seem to be equivalent to their ‘Fathers’ or male ancestors (p. 235). Like the characters in his romance, then, Morris’s gods blend qualities traditionally associated with human beings, beasts and deities; they can be gentle and supportive or fatal to strangers; they can wield power with arbitrary violence or dispense blessings on their followers freely, as the Maid-goddess does on the Bear folk when she makes believe to bring them much-needed rain without recourse to the usual murderous rituals, or when she sends the people of Stark-wall to teach them husbandry. This combination of qualities is most disturbingly embodied in the Lady, who is referred to by the Dwarf as a creator (‘it is like that she made me, as she made the Bear men’ [p. 55]), and who veers between disdain for and erotic dalliance with her human subjects. For Morris, religions give rise to both purposeless violence and altruistic acts of generosity, and the way he mixes pagan and Christian elements in his story suggests that he holds this to be true of all religions, ancient and modern. As a result what might be termed missionary work, such as the Maid’s among the Bear-folk, doesn’t have an unambiguously positive effect on its recipients, and certainly not an enduring one. The measure of any given civilization, he implies, is the social and political impact of its religious beliefs, and these beliefs are generated by its living mortal citizens rather than by any external influence or pre-planned programme, divine or otherwise.

It’s hardly surprising, then, if religious language gradually dropped away from his romances as an irrelevance. His concern was with constructing earthly paradises, not heavenly ones, as the title of his most celebrated book of poems affirmed.[10] And paradise, like hell, inhabits people’s minds and bodies, as it inhabits the Maid’s body in the brief period of history when she inhabits Stark-wall. ‘It seemed to me as she went past,’ says one of the citizens at her coronation, ‘as though paradise had come anigh to our city, and that all the air breathed of it’ (p. 244). The Wood Beyond the World was also described as a paradise, though a deadly one that killed the wanderer who entered it without due caution. Distinguishing one kind of paradise from the other is a task Morris leaves to his readers; and his romance provides an invaluable guide to that difficult process.

[1] Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for our Time (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 634.

[2] George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination’ (1893), in The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. U.C. Knoeplmacher (London: Penguin Books, 1999), pp. 5-10. See especially pp. 9-10: ‘It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning […] If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it’.

[3] See e.g. his utopian dream-vision narrative The Dream of John Ball (1888).

[4] All quotations are taken from William Morris, The Wood Beyond the World (London etc.: Longmans, Green and Co., 1904).

[5] It’s important to note here, and to condemn, the racism and disability discrimination involved in Morris’s depiction of the Dwarf. In certain ways he was distinctly a white male able-bodied writer of his time.

[6] There may well be equivalent speeches in Sidney’s two highly sophisticated romances named Arcadia, the Old and the New (c.1580 and c. 1586), and in Mary Wroth’s Urania (1621).

[7] See my analysis of the duplicitous language of Lyly’s Euphues in Elizabethan Fictions: Espionage, Counter-espionage and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), chapter 5.

[8] On Morris’s and the contemporary women’s movement see Ruth Kinna, ‘Socialist Fellowship and the Woman Question’, in Writing on the Image: Reading William Morris, ed. David Latham, (Toronto etc.: University of Toronto Press, 2007), chapter 13, pp. 183-96. See also the essays by Florence S. Boos and Jane Thomas in the same collection.

[9] For a fine analysis of Morris’s most powerful and complex romance heroine see Florence S. Boos, ‘The Water of the Wondrous Isles: Morris’s Socialist “New Woman” Romance’: http://morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu/WaterWondrousIntro.html

[10] Morris’s major anthology poem The Earthly Paradise was published between 1868 and 1870.

William Morris, The Well at the World’s End (1896)

And now I’ve finished the epic journey from Upmeads to Utterbol, as recounted in The Well at the World’s End.

UnknownFor a long time this was a book I shunned because of its style. I didn’t like what I took to be the fake medievalism of it, preferring T. H. White’s decision to modernize comprehensively, or Tolkien’s ingenious technique of seguing into medieval language by careful stages. But the language of fantasy has interested me for a while now, and the various revivals of early English in major fantasy texts – from William Hope Hodgson’s bizarre take on it in The Night Land, with its endless and inexplicable use of infinitives, to E. R. Eddison’s baroque mannerisms in The Worm Ouroboros – now seem to me to be an important part of their ingenuity and charm. Morris is an expert user of late Middle English, steeped in Chaucer and Malory (as his Kelmscott editions of those writers show), and one of the reasons he chose it for his romances may have been to make a point about how he was disrupting both Victorian and Medieval conventions as he wrote. For instance, he would have known that the second person singular, ‘thou’, was used in Medieval times to signify familiarity, and never for formally addressing one’s social superiors. So when woodsmen, bandits, shepherds, merchants and craftsmen persistently address Ralph of Upmeads as ‘thou’ they are asserting the dignity of their social positions by addressing him as an equal. And he would have known that Ralph’s habit of addressing men and women of all classes with the elaborate tropes of chivalric courtesy – along with his decision to marry a cross-dressing innkeeper’s daughter rather than a princess – signals his acquiescence with their egalitarian assumptions. At the same time, Morris’s use of outmoded language meant he could imitate certain Medieval attitudes to gender and sexuality rather than Victorian ones – Malorian attitudes in particular. As Helen Cooper has shown, Malory didn’t tend to condemn women for showing desire – witness the fair Maid of Astolat, or Lancelot’s lover Eleanor, or even Guinevere. That Morris recognised Malory’s interest in and sympathy for women is demonstrated by one of his earliest poems, ‘The Defence of Guenevere’, which takes a radically different view of Lancelot’s royal mistress than Tennyson did in The Idylls of the King. So the choice of Medieval language may have been partly intended to liberate Morris to write about desiring women without arousing the wrath or distaste of his contemporaries; and he seized this opportunity in The Well at the World’s End in a big way.

That’s what struck me this time I read it – I think because between this reading and the last I’d read Morris’s brilliant feminist fantasy, The Water of the Wondrous Isles. That book has a female protagonist – the first and last in epic fantasy before the work of Patricia McKillip in the early 70s, I think, though I’d be happy to be proved wrong (it partly depends on your definition of epic fantasy, of course). So I knew he was a champion of women’s empowerment, in theory at least, and that he could write magnificently about female desire. Re-reading the Well, I was bowled over by the centrality of women to it. In fact, for most of the romance the male protagonist, Ralph, does almost nothing of his own volition – he’s sent out on his quest by one woman, furthered in it by another, and enabled to complete it by a third, and he encounters numerous other remarkable women along the way. And Morris’s representation of them follows the path he trod in ‘The Defence of Guinevere’, making heroines of women who in other writers’ hands – writers of both sexes – in the 1890s would have been dismissed or condemned without a moment’s hesitation.

The first is Ralph’s ‘gossip’ or godmother: a merchant’s wife old enough to be his mother, gifted with second sight, and deeply in love with her godson – while fully conscious of the impossibility of that love being consummated, given the disparity between their ages (disparity of stations is barely mentioned), and the fact that she already has a loving husband. Her love for him is clearly sexual in nature, yet it is neither condemned not mocked by Ralph or the narrator. More remarkably still, the woman’s husband is fully aware of it, and doesn’t suffer from jealousy; instead he does everything in his power to satisfy his wife’s wish to spend time in Ralph’s company and to ensure the young man’s wellbeing. I can’t think of a three-way relationship quite like this in literature – let alone Victorian literature, which would tend to make the desiring older woman either comic or monstrous.

The second woman is even more remarkable as a heroine figure. She’s richly ambiguous, being adored by men and loathed by women – largely because women know that no man, including their lovers and partners, can resist her. Like the merchant’s wife she’s much older than Ralph and married to another man, but this doesn’t stop her choosing to become his lover. She has magical powers, has ruled as a queen and leads a band of outlaws like Robin Hood’s; she is also a kind of goddess figure to an isolated community, their ‘Lady of Abundance’ whose appearances are said to bring fertility to the land. She is loathed by many of the clergy, though many others desire her as much as their secular male counterparts. Each of these things individually would have earned her the name of a wicked enchantress in another narrative. In this one, she remains the presiding genius of the book, even after her death; the standard against which every other character is measured. One way in which she serves as such a standard is the extent to which she has been slandered and abused in the course of her long life; the impression one gets is that she has been driven to acts of violence and treachery by the violence and treachery of the men who surround her – so she is a living witness to the corruption of the violent, patriarchal world through which Ralph is travelling. But remarkably, she also becomes the architect of its transformation. Both before and after her death (sorry for the spoiler) she sets Ralph on the track to the Well, and to the relationship with a third woman that will make a decent man of him.

The third woman, the cross-dressing Ursula, could be said to be a safer alternative than the Lady of Abundance as a lifelong companion for Ralph to settle down with. Given that she is effectively bequeathed to Ralph by the dying Lady, one would expect her to be a feeble, conventional being, fit only to be rescued from frequent deadly perils and comforted in adversity. One would expect her to be dully chaste, bereft of desire except of the most decorous kind, and to be willing to submit to Ralph in every situation. In fact, she’s nothing of the kind. She dresses in armour, watches over the sleeping Ralph with her sword unsheathed, frees herself from the tyranny of Utterbol (Ralph never even gets there, despite his plan to free her), and saves Ralph’s life when they reach the terrible Dry Tree. After the couple drink from the Well she settles into a more conventional role – she is even rescued at one point by Ralph, though this rescue seems to be symbolically accomplished for the sole purpose of atoning for the fact that he earlier failed to rescue the Lady. But Ursula travels side by side with him as he returns to root out the would-be conquerors of Upmeads, refusing to stay in safety when he goes to war; and the equality of their partnership continues to be implied to the end of the book. She is also repeatedly mistaken for the Lady, which confirms that she is the inheritrix of the Lady’s powers – of active desire as well as of foresight.

The conclusion one reaches, after reading The Well at the World’s End, is that Morris wants his readers to understand that a society is only ever as civilized as the way it treats its women. The tyrannies Ralph encounters are defined as such by the women who live under them: the captive women in the Burg of the Four Friths, the merchant towns that collude with Ursula’s enslavement, the unhappy Queen of Utterbol and her devious maid Agatha, both of whom have had their personalities deformed by the aggressive patriarchal culture they find themselves in – a point driven home by the fact that both succeed in redeeming themselves when they’re freed from oppression. Women, Morris implies, deserve to share power with men in exactly the way that men deserve to share power with each other. The climactic battle of the book is fought not by a single mighty leader, as so many history books imply, but by an egalitarian army made up of farmers, shepherds and outlaws; Ralph barely lifts a finger in it. He is a catalyst, not an agent; and what he brings about is health, the healthy society that drinks, like Ursula, from the same Well as he does.

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Of course, The Well at the World’s End was a big influence on Tolkien – like a lot of Morris’s work (The House of the Wulfings is often mentioned). Names echo across both books (Gandolf; Silverfax); and it’s structurally very close, with a There-and-Back-Again plot that closes with a Scouring of the Shire. But it’s also radically different from The Lord of the Rings because of the women who drive it, and because of its fascination with ambiguous, redeemable characters; there’s no equivalent here of a one-dimensional orc. And its There-and-Back-Again plot isn’t a return to the status quo, but a radical cleansing, a democratizing of the past as a blueprint for a better future. That’s why Morris had to write fantasy at the end of his life; because no society had ever quite succeeded in doing what he wanted it to do. And it’s interesting to consider whether some aspect of this radically democratizing impulse was retained in Tolkien’s post-Morrisian vision.