Would Chronsfolk like to discuss their reading of the Late Victorian fantasist William Morris? For many of us, Morris will always be associated with the Ballantine fantasy series: My favorite book by Morris, however, is his delectable account of his Icelandic travels. I paste below an article on same that I wrote for the excellent Tolkien newsletter Beyond Bree. http://www.cep.unt.edu/bree.html WILLIAM MORRIS AT HOME AND ABROAD by Dale Nelson William Morris is probably best known to Americans for two things: the series of romances he wrote relatively late in life, from The House of the Wolfings (1888) to The Sundering Flood (1896) and including The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End; and his association with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an artistic fellowship whose sad-eyed women remain iconic to this day. When he was 37 years old, he found a retreat located in characteristic English countryside. Kelmscott Manor, at the “meeting-point more or less of Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire,” was “almost as near to the Thames as [Morris] could get without floating on it. …Flat meadows, large skies, long roads. …June and hay and clear water in the fords were at the center of Morris’s teaching intellectually [as a socialist] and emotionally” (Grigson). When Morris and poet and PRB painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti took a three-year lease on the property – a Tudor house and 68 acres -- in June 1871, for £75 per year, Morris’s circumstances were far from tranquil. The Morris family had been living in London, where William and Jane Morris’s children Mary (May) and Jenny were troubled by coughs from the polluted air. He knew that his wife had been illicitly involved with Rossetti for several years. There was buzz about Jane and Rossetti and the compliant husband in London circles. Morris’s trip to Iceland provided a temporary escape from personal and social tensions that were bound to arise, even if Morris would have wished to be judged by “progressive” ideas about marriage and love. He left Jane, the girls, and Rossetti installed at Kelmscott and departed from England for a month and half, almost as soon as the property was leased. A few months after Morris’s return, Rossetti had a “mental breakdown,” Linda Parry remarks. Eventually he seemed to Morris to be planted at the Manor, and Morris felt constrained to stay away. Rossetti, a drug addict, became delusional, and a huge scene with some anglers and Rossetti in a rage occurred. At last he went back to London, and in 1874 Kelmscott became more truly the Morris country home, even if William often was compelled by business to remain in London, three and a half hours’ journey away by train and pony-and-trap, and even though Jane continued to see Rossetti.* In all, Kelmscott Manor was home for Morris for the last 25 years of his life. His imagination was stimulated by it; it possessed, he said, “a melancholy born of beauty.” His writing and his artistic designs reflected his feeling for the birds, plants, and riparian terrain. He liked to think how the same Thames that flowed past the Manor connected him with his more luxurious London residence. He last saw the Manor in April 1896; he died in London, but is buried in the churchyard of Kelmscott, as is Jane, who died in 1914. The daughters stayed on after their mother’s death; the severely epileptic Jenny died in 1935, and May died in 1938. Jonathan Howard notes that May directed notable changes in the property, even though she wished it to be a shrine to her father. She left it to Oxford University, which eventually decided that the property was not manageable under the conditions of May’s will, and so it passed to the Society of Antiquaries in 1962. William Morris’s Kelmscott provides detailed accounts of how the house and grounds have changed in many ways since Morris’s time. While some changes may be questioned if the top priority is keeping the house as close as possible to what Morris knew, much renovation seems to have been unavoidable. Moisture, rot and insects had damaged the house. Howard says that Morris held that “truthful alteration” was more desirable than “sham restoration,” so many of the changes might well have met with his approval. Interest in Morris’s life and works has drawn many visitors since the 1960s. They are accommodated by parking facilities that Morris could not have envisaged, as well as exhibit display spots the need for which he might have anticipated, given his vocation as designer-businessman who relied much on showrooms. Hal Moggridge suggests that those responsible today for the Manor mean to evoke the imaginative world of Morris, e.g. by planting flowers that inspired Morris wallpaper, even if this means departing from the closest possible replication of the genuine late Victorian appearance of the house and grounds. William Morris’s Kelmscott contains interesting and attractive old and recent photographs that will serve the armchair visitor well. Much of the book is made up of fairly technical discussions of the soil and history of the region, an area that really does seem to be quintessentially English, prior to Morris’s arrival. Morris loved his country home, but he craved also something entirely wilder, more rigorous, alien. Morris went to the west of Iceland to see its “holy places,” by which he meant not relics of medieval Christianity but locales associated with the sagas. He would explore Iceland with Eiríkr Magnússon, with whom he’d been studying Icelandic and the sagas; Charles Faulkner, an old friend and fellow socialist; and W. H. Evans, a military officer who’d been planning an Icelandic trip of his own, but would bring to the Morris venture some campaigning smarts and some money. Morris would be the chief cook. Morris’s voyage on the 240-ton Danish mail boat Diana took not quite a week (Granton, Scotland, to Reykjavik by way of the Faroe Islands). Before embarking, Morris had his hair cut in Edinburgh “in terror of the dreaded animal of the dreaded animal,” hoping that with short hair he wouldn’t be bothered by lice in Iceland. He went ashore at Reykjavik on July 14, and would leave Iceland on Sept. 1. Evans and Morris had bought supplies for their proposed tour of Iceland, but received a message from the shipper informing them that a parcel of bologna sausage had not been sent, and a parcel chosen by someone else sent in its place. What, they wondered, would prove to be its contents? Morris whimsically suggested “as the wildest possible idea” that it would contain “fragrant Floriline and hair-brushes.” The great moment for unpacking the parcel arrived and they opened it outdoors. Whatever it was, it was protectively wrapped in shavings, brown paper, and waterproof paper – more than one layer. “And here it is,”Morris writes in his journal: boxes of Floriline and bottles of scent. Haymakers stared, “amazed and half-frightened,” and people ran out of their houses, because of the spectacle of the Englishmen roaring with laughter. Their six-week tour, riding ponies or walking, however, soon confronted them with “huge waste of black sand” and “awful dead grey waste of lava.” The somberness of the landscapes they beheld, however, didn’t disgust Morris. “[A]s almost always was the case in Iceland, there was nothing mean or prosaic to jar upon one in spite of the grisly desolation,” he said of the Bergthorsknoll area. At Thorsmark he felt “cowed”: “the air was so clear [that numberless waterfalls from glaciers] seemed so close that one felt it strange that they should be noiseless.” Another “strange sight”: on August 10, “a huge eagle … flew across and across our path, always followed by a raven that seemed teazing [sic] and buffeting him” – perhaps seeming to Morris like an omen from some old Norse tale. The travelers encountered stiff wind, such as that blowing on Aug. 13, the noise of which was “entangled in the ridges and peaks” of the cliffs of Troll’s Neck, on “a wonder of a day.” Sometimes they had to swim their ponies across creeks and streams, for example on Aug. 16 at Buðir, where there were a few houses and a church, “on the top of whose cross [sat] a raven gravely watching our arrival.” Rain often fell, and there was snow on August 1. Morris did indeed get to see many saga sites. At Hitardal on Aug. 18, they saw a site associated with Grettir, hero of one of the finest sagas. Morris wrote, “We ride along the slopes still heading up the valley, and presently we see ahead of us a spur rushing at right angles out from the mountains, a great ruin spoiling the far green slopes; it is a huge slip of black shale, very steep, and crested by thin jagged rocks, like palings set awry, in one of which is a distinct round hole through which the sky shows: under these palings on top of the grey ruin was Grettir’s-lair, and it was down this slip he rattled after the braggart Gisli. It was such a savage dreadful place, that it quite gave a new turn in my mind to the whole story, and transfigured Grettir into an awful and monstrous being, like one of the early giants of the world.” The 5’6” Morris seems to have been a sturdy traveler, although he was teased by the priest at Reykholt for being “’so fat.’” Faulkner had some unspecified trouble that required time resting at a house while the others explored (possibly a bad flare-up of hemorrhoids, from so many hours jogging along in the saddle). At Ingialdsholl, Magnússon warned Morris about the danger of rocks falling from the nearby cliffs, after they had already gone halfway along the beach. Morris, Samwise-like, brought along a pannikin and lost it, but an honest Icelander brought it back; the same thing happened when he lost a slipper. Staying at a bonder’s house, Morris was drinking coffee when Magnússon accidentally set off his gun, “sending the charge some six inches from the bonder’s head through the beam above the door: Magnússon turned as white as a sheet, and I daresay I did too; but nobody was killed, and the bonder laughed uproariously, and so we made the best of it.” In geyser country Morris wondered if there was any reason a new one shouldn’t burst forth under their tent. At Kalmanstunga on July 30 he created the ultimate rare item for a Morris collector: there was a heap of stones at the entrance to a valley, and it was the custom for those who passed it to “write a joke or a scrap of doggerel” and leave it under a stone for the amusement of the next visitor to the region, “which office I fulfilled for our company.” One can only wonder what he wrote. Morris played a lot of whist and generally got along well with his companions, although he quarreled with Faulkner on one occasion in their tent. “I who upon my honour was lying awake, heard him snoring violently, but bore it well for a time, till it rose to a snuffling climax, and I thought I should go mad, and shouted out.” Faulkner asked him what was wrong this time. Morris: You were snoring like the devil. Faulkner: I have been awake for half an hour. Morris: You must have been snoring awake then, and I wish the Devil you wouldn’t. Faulkner: It so happens that I particularly noticed that I was awake, for I was thinking that the wind was getting up and that it might rain in the night, and that I had better move the things from the tent-walls. Morris: Why did you snore then? [etc.] The Icelanders were generally hospitable, even disconcertingly so as Faulkner found when, “after their ancient custom,” a woman helped him off not only with his boots but his breeches (or so, Morris says, the “legend” has it). Morris was thrown off-balance by an exchange he recorded in which his knowledge of spoken Icelandic was at issue. Magnússon (speaking to a “grey-headed big carle”): This man [Morris] can talk Icelandic, you see. Carle: Does he? I have heard him talk a great deal, and I don’t know what he has been saying. Morris: Don’t you understand this? Carle: Yes. Morris: Isn’t it Icelandic then? Carle: Well, I don’t know; in all tongues there must be some words like other tongues, and perhaps these are some of those. Morris found the stark landscape to be relieved by wild flowers – blue gentians, white clover, angelica, bladder campion, stonecrop. Mostly he writes, though, of boulders, lava, caves, waterfalls, streams, mountains, and the sea. It may be that his descriptions influenced some passages in The Hobbit, as Marjorie Burns surmises in the fourth chapter of Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The Icelanders had not forgotten the sagas; one of their hosts told Morris that at his stead “they always read over his stock of them every winter.” Morris concluded his journal by saying that he had been “very happy” in Iceland, “ a “marvellous, beautiful and solemn place.” He brought back a shaggy pony, Mouse, for his daughters. MacCarthy says Mouse “got fat and lazy on his diet of lush Kelmscott grass.” Works Cited Crossley, Alan, Tom Hassall and Peter Salway. William Morris’s Kelmscott: Landscape and History. Bollington, Macclesfield, England: Windgather Press, 2007. Contains Chapter 8, “The Morris Family and Kelmscott” by Linda Parry, Chapter 10, “Kelmscott Manor as William Morris Never Knew It” by Jonathan Howard, and Chapter 11, “The Restoration of Kelmscott Manor Gradens” by Hal Moggridge. Grigson, Geoffrey. “The River-Land of William Morris. Country Life 29 May 1958: 1172-1174. MacCarthy, Fiona. William Morris: A Life for Our Time. New York: Knopf, 1995. Morris, William. Icelandic Journals. (reprint) New York: Praeger, 1970. *Jane’s affair with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt began in the 1880s.