Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Morris, William

(1834-1896) UK author, poet, artist and designer, associated with the Preraphaelites but best-remembered in general for furniture, wallpaper and fabric designs. Much of his many-sided working life was spent reacting against or retreating from a perceived debasement of Victorian popular taste by mass-production techniques in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Outrage at the demolition and philistine restoration of historic buildings led him into politics – specifically, revolutionary Marxist socialism. Like most pioneer fantasists WM has been criticized as escapist, but in fact his lesser works are marked by insufficient Escapism, by lack of full engagement with the imagined world. Thus his immense poetry cycles, looking far back to mythic times, are technically proficient but now seem curiously bloodless and remote. The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (coll 1858) reworks some of the Arthur themes, though its best poems are snapshot accounts of tragic incidents in a brutal and materialist Middle Ages, while The Earthly Paradise (coll 1868-1870 3 vols) deals extensively in Greek Myth – incorporating for example WM's The Life and Death of Jason (1867), which alone runs to an exhausting 10,000 lines. Still longer is Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (1876).

WM's first prose fantasy of any note is the short, confused "The Hollow Land" (1856 Oxford and Cambridge Magazine): an unjust knight enters an earthly paradise, and then departs in a striking disjunction that leaves him aged (clothes decayed, helmet full of earth and worms); he finally regains the Land through devotion to pictorial art.

The first step towards the characteristic large-scale fantasies which have had such influence on the genre – and, indirectly, on sf – is The House of the Wolfings (1889). Here the setting is quasi-historical: a European Saxon community is resisting the decadent advances of late-Imperial Rome. The romantic-supernatural story contains a large admixture of verse. What later critics were to call "the Teutonic thing" or "the Northern thing" continued in The Roots of the Mountains (1890), another tale of a tribal community whose historical context is less definite.

The Story of the Glittering Plain, or The Land of Living Men (1890) is the first of WM's novels to be fantasy in something like the modern sense. Despite Nordic names and emblems the setting has an Otherworld hue; elements of Fairytale morality are present. The Glittering Plain is a supposed Utopia, difficult to attain, whose inhabitants enjoy Immortality. Hallblithe, the hero, reaches it by sea with ominous ease and soon finds counterbalancing dystopian qualities: moral aridity and a deviously manipulative king. With this shift in Perception, the land transforms from goal to prison; the urge is to leave, which is not permitted and will also cancel any rejuvenation (>>> Shangri-La). Although Hallblithe successfully returns to his homeland and wife-to-be, the subtle, continuing, unharrowed Wrongness of the Plain makes the story seem incomplete.

WM's prose style, based largely on Thomas Malory's, was now well developed. An effect of period freshness is given by long streams of conjunction-linked descriptive phrases and clauses built from relatively simple words – though not all readers can tolerate the earlier speeches' high medieval syntax. Later this would be slightly but usefully toned down.

In The Wood Beyond the World (1894) a sea voyage again separates the more fantastic realms from the hero Walter's mundane home town, though the land of the Wood sends visions even there – of the land's witchy Mistress, her enslaved Maid, and a hideous, savagely energetic Dwarf servitor. This is a summoning: when a storm blows his ship to unknown shores, Walter defies all advice and reason, abandons his fellows, and sets off through mountains and wastes to the Wood where he can meet the mysterious three . . . an unwelcome fourth being the Mistress's current paramour, whom she wishes Walter to replace and who like Walter has his eye on the Maid. After some mild titillation, the stage seems set for triangular games of love and power. But, perhaps too rapidly, Walter and the Maid escape with the aid of her own small magics, leaving the others variously dead. The happy ending is a distinct non sequitur, involving a hitherto unmentioned City which needs a king and has vowed to appoint the first outsider to arrive – i.e., Walter.

WM's acknowledged masterpiece is The Well at the World's End (1896), presenting a unified fantasy geography (which is a clear forerunner of J R R Tolkien's kind of Secondary World) rather than conventionally setting a Dream- or magical land on unknown shores of the real world's sea. The lofty Diction has been smoothed nearer to transparency, minor characters possess personalities and motivations aside from their roles in the story, and the previous two books' flat backdrop becomes a functioning medieval society.

A brief synopsis suggests fairytale simplicity: Ralph – youngest son of the minor king of Upmeads – sets out to win fame, after long effort achieves the ultimate goal of drinking from the youth-giving and life-prolonging Well at the World's End (> Fountain of Youth), and, with various evil lords overthrown, returns home with a worthy consort. There are many complications; for example, Ralph's idyll with another and much older woman (restored by the Well), whose own inset story of past Bondage to a Witch is a recurring WM theme.

Meanwhile the landscape is unrolled with painterly delight and an endearing, rain-washed clarity. It is a long, varied haul from Upmeads to the furthest point where merchants care to travel, and then onward to the ultimate-sounding Utterness and Utterbol (whose Lord is a memorably unpleasant tyrant). But beyond again is the cloud-piercing mountain range called the Wall of the World, on whose far side lie numinous regions. Conventional Magic is shown as chancy and elusive; however, in the approaches to the "Ocean Sea" and the Well, the scenery itself carries an increasing magical charge. In the heart of the Thirsty Desert, with its thickening litter of corpses who lacked the proper Talisman, we find the venomous pool surrounding the leafless Dry Tree . . . which has been so often mentioned and invoked as a symbol in the earlier narrative that the name itself has gained power.

The homeward journey to Upmeads after the drink of life is something of a triumphal progress. Wrongness and injustice are everywhere corrected – or are found already corrected, Ralph's outward trip having often proved catalytic. Thus the Lord of Utterbol was dealt with by a bondsman Ralph acquired in battle and then abandoned for the Quest of the Well. Finally Ralph is able to cash in on the very first favour owed him since his travels began, to aid a military action which redeems embattled Uplands itself. This closing of the circle produces a deeply childlike satisfaction; J R R Tolkien followed WM's example in the post-climactic chapters of LOTR.

The final two WM fantasy novels were posthumously published. Each in its own way steps back from that mesmeric unfolding of invented landscape in The Well at the World's End. The Islands of The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897) lie on a great lake and provide "marvellous" tableaux and encounters rather than seeming part of any unified world, while The Sundering Flood (1897) is set in a rather small and closely mapped medieval realm whose "flood" is a mere river.

A central device in The Water of the Wondrous Isles is the Sending Boat, a Spirit-driven barge which, propitiated with blood and a spell, follows a set course over the lake. This is the escape route taken by the heroine Birdalone, kidnapped and enslaved since childhood by a Shapeshifting witch who punishes disobedience with Transformation into dumb-animal form. The theme of young women's enforced servitude to witches seems something of a WM Maggot; it features twice in this book. The lake and its Archipelago of five isles are indeed magical, but on the lake's far shore the story lapses into faintly ridiculous excesses of Chivalry. Three Knights whose ladies are imprisoned on one island have taken decisive rescue action by spending several presumed years constructing a lakeside castle, and the ladies' tokens which Birdalone brings from isle to castle lead to rhapsodies extending courtly love into something like clothes fetishism. (It is a refreshing complication that one knight switches his attentions to Birdalone.) There is an interestingly perverse episode where the knights, though falling slowly into the seductive toils of a Witch-Queen, repeatedly search her island for their women – who all along are cursed with Invisibility and chained to pillars as impotent observers in the bad Queen's hall.

This book's fantastical isles were surely in C S Lewis's mind during the writing of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952). Repeated visits apparently lead to Thinning: the last Sending Boat journey finds several of the isles now mundanely populated (a puzzle, since the Water seems otherwise unnavigable), and the daemonic ferry fails at last with the witch's offstage death.

In The Sundering Flood the fantasy elements seem dispensable: the hero's and heroine's childhood dealings with Dwarf folk (so-called, but actually more like brownies) are of little import, the hero could as plausibly have become a renowned soldier without his ageless warrior Mentor and magic Sword Board-cleaver, and so on. As a Plot Device, the supposedly impassable "flood" dividing the young lovers offends common sense: spears and even clothing can be thrown across it, yet no one thinks of ropes. In keeping with the author's socialist inclinations, the final struggle is of the "Small Crafts and the lesser commons" (aided by good knights) against a corrupt monarchy, which is abolished. It reads well despite structural longueurs, but is not a magical novel.

WM's principal fantasy heritage is the indefinitely extensible Quest in which the Landscape itself plays a major character part; the sense of protracted journeying is buttressed by sheer length of narrative. He also gently subverted the contemporary tendency to idealize the "parfit gentil knight" – working back towards older root texts in which heroes can have ordinary human quirks and foibles in between the extreme poles of tragic flawedness and icy perfection. Thus, more than once and without particular moral alarm, a WM hero sleeps with another woman before attaining true marital bliss. Though this permissiveness does not quite extend to heroines, WM shows a basic honesty and uncoyness about Sex (a notable exception being the knightly woman-worship of The Water of the Wondrous Isles).

C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien both acknowledged the influence of WM: Lewis wrote appreciatively, "No mountains in literature are as far away as distant mountains in Morris" – an effect of panoramic vastness to which Tolkien is frequently seen to aspire (one thinks also of Aslan's Country in Lewis). When the occasional oddities of WM's diction fade in the mind, that huge vista remains.

Also crucial to the work of his last years was his overseeing of the elaborate fine-art printing of the Kelmscott Press, which issued a variety of medieval Taproot Texts. [DRL]

other works: A Dream of John Ball, and A King's Lesson (coll 1888; A Dream of John Ball reissued alone 1915 US), part verse, a medieval dream tale involving prophecies of the future of socialism; News from Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest (1890 US; rev 1891 UK), utopian socialist sf; Child Christopher (1895); The Collected Works of William Morris (1910-1915 24 vols) ed May Morris (WM's daughter), supplemented by her William Morris, Artist, Writer, Socialist (1936 2 vols); The Letters of William Morris to his Family and Friends (1950) ed Philip Henderson.

as translator: Aeneid (1875); Three Northern Love Stories (1875), from the Icelandic, with E Magnusson; Odyssey (1887).

further reading: Life of William Morris (1889) by J W Mackail; "William Morris" in Rehabilitations and Other Essays (1939) by C S Lewis; William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955) by E P Thompson; William Morris: His Life, Work and Friends (1967) by Philip Henderson; The Work of William Morris (1967) by Paul Thompson.

William Morris

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This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.