Introducing William Morris: the grandfather of fantasy

By Andreas Gerster
Socialism, writing poetry and prose, painting, printing, publishing, stained glass and textile design, and translating Old Norse, Latin, and Greek would be a rather broad job description for most people, but it was all in a day’s work for William Morris. Not exactly one of your canonical authors, Morris was one of those rare multi-talented geniuses, who seem to be able to do just about anything, not just with moderate success, but with brilliance. You might be asking yourself at this point why you’ve never heard of the man. To students of literature he is perhaps best known for his utopian novel News From Nowhere, in which he describes the blissful state of the world after socialism’s triumph.

However, Morris did not write only about socialist utopias, though his socialism did influence everything he did. The nineteenth century was well under way and the Industrial Revolution in full swing. The steady decline of rural life and the poverty and misery of cities caused by the Industrial Revolution disgusted Morris. His socialism was partly a response to these circumstances. His whole life seems to have been against the times, a profound longing for the good old days before machines ruled the world and men were expected to behave like machines. Lin Carter, in her introduction to The Wood Beyond the World, described him as “a political utopian and pioneer socialist, he strove to arrest the tides of change. Failing in this, he bent his extraordinary energies to becoming a sort of one-man Renaissance”.
Morris was primarily associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement especially with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a close friend, who later had an affair with Morris’ wife and shared the movement’s Renaissance ideals and fascination with anything medieval. His so-called “prose romances” grew out of that fascination, trying to capture the essence of medievalism. Their quaint and pseudo-archaic language, medieval fantasy worlds as settings and narratives in the style of medieval romances went on to influence writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other classic fantasy authors, even down to the maps of fantasy worlds (some of Morris’ prose romances contain maps).
Morris is credited with being the first author to invent a non-allegorical imaginary world with supernatural elements, and thus his prose romances can be considered precursors of the modern fantasy genre. I can warmly recommend this grandfather of fantasy to any fan of the genre. His style and imagination remain engaging and lucid even for modern readers, while his aestheticised medieval fantasy world invites the imagination to sojourn. His best known prose romances are The Well at the World’s End, The Water of the Wondrous Isles and The Wood Beyond the World.
Morris’ contribution to literature is not limited solely to fantasy. He resurrected heroic poetry in the Germanic style, in The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains, mixing prose and verse, dramatising the resistance of Germanic tribes to Roman encroachment. Moreover, he wrote a number of narrative poems such as the well-known The Haystack in the Floods, a grimly realistic narrative about the fate of two lovers, set in the Hundred Years’ War in France. Its in medias res beginning is often quoted (W. Morris The Haystack in the Floods):
Had she come all the way for this,
To part at last without a kiss?
Yea, had she borne the dirt and rain
That her own eyes might see him slain
Beside the haystack in the floods?
His largest narrative poetry project a true epic was The Earthly Paradise. Published in monthly instalments, it contained a lyric fitting the season, a classical and also a medieval tale in verse. This anthology was framed by a narrative about a band of wanderers seeking the earthly paradise. His reworking of classical Greek myth and medieval fairy tales in rhyming couplets is a delightful romp through narratives deeply rooted in European culture.
Morris’ one-man Renaissance did not remain merely intellectual: he was an idealist of the best sort, putting his ideals into practice. In all his artistic endeavours he was drawn to the medieval way of doing things. Not only the style of his writing, but also the production itself was to be done medievally. In the same way as he taught himself tapestry weaving and other medieval crafts, he reinvented printing, inspired by the style of beautiful medieval manuscripts. His work was not only to remain untainted by the ideas behind the Industrial Revolution intellectually, the very books themselves were not to be tainted physically by industrialised production. To achieve this aim he started Kelmscott Press. The result was pure craftsmanship. The books printed at Kelmscott had beautiful and intricate borders, individually carved capital letters, and illustrations, often done by Morris himself. His reprinting of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has been called a masterpiece of printed art.
Despite his many artistic and literary accomplishments, why is William Morris so undervalued in literary studies, remaining one of those authors on the margins of the canon? Why are many of his works hard to come by? Why, despite the potential popular appeal of his prose romances, does he remain so unknown? I suggest these three questions are related. Literature that is not valued by literary studies usually does not survive the corroding ravages of time and becomes a sort of eccentric antiquarian interest. Perhaps the declining interest in Morris is due to his earnestness (although he does show occasional humour), which is rather out of sync with many of today’s writers’ much lauded self-irony. Whilst Morris was a man who lived against the grain of his time, he was at the same time firmly rooted in it. He was reasonably popular in his day, and especially after his death there was a massive interest in his work. He managed to be relevant in his time without agreeing with its mainstream opinions, and I think he remains relevant to this day, precisely because he has something to say. In post-modern literary criticism, often lost in an almost nauseous self-reflexivity and referentiality, Morris does not fit the mould, making him a breath of fresh air.

One thought on “Introducing William Morris: the grandfather of fantasy

  1. Pingback: Introducing George MacDonald: myth-making fantasy author | The Zurich English Student

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