The William Morris Thread

Discussion in 'Classic SF&F' started by Extollager, Jan 30, 2012.

  1.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

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    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:

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    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).

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    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.



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    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.”

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    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.
  2.  
    Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Active Member

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    Thanks for sharing that Extollager.

    I have never read any William Morris but I have heard him mentioned a few times. I'm not sure where best to start though...
  3.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

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    Fried Egg, Morris wrote four main fantastic romances:

    The Wood Beyond the World
    The Well at the World's End
    The Water of the Wondrous Isles
    The Sundering Flood

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    I think works such as The Glittering Plain are regarded as lesser efforts. He also wrote two romances that are, I gather, more historical than fantastic, The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains.

    My impression is that most fantasy readers would recommend The Well at the World's End as the greatest and, thus, the one to start with. I've read it but it's due for a rereading. I'd certainly be up for it if some Chronsfolk want to go ahead with it!
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    Likewise with The Wood. I haven't read Sundering Flood yet. From some notes I wrote for myself last summer, here are some comments on The Water of the Wondrous Isles:

    William Morris, The Water of the Wondrous Isles, read 21 June-1 July 2011


    Comments 1 July:

    This is the first new (to me) long fantasy novel that I have read to the end in many years, I suppose. (I’ve never yet managed to finish Hodgson’s The Night Land.)

    In the first Part, Chap. 13, there is a ring that confers invisibility, and almost nothing is done with it. In Part 5, Chapter 3, the doom-ring at the head of the vale reminded me of Erech in The Return of the King.

    It was interesting that Birdalone’s unwillingness to stay in the Castle of the Quest, from restlessness, resulted in the death of one of the knights (Aurea’s), though in Part 3, Chapter 9, she had “yeasaid” Arthur when he recommended that she not go far from the castle. In Part 5, Chapter 7, Arthur says what happened was just “the hand of Weird” (fate) and she is not at fault. Moreover Arthur falls in love with Birdalone despite the attachment between him and Atra, who at the end of the book is consoled as she learns the wisdom of the wood-wife Habundia (a faery, it seems).

    An undeniable ingredient in the charm of this long fantasy (which took a bit of effort to finish, long as it is) is the consistent atmosphere of sexuality. It never seems coarsely lewd, but the reader is frequently reminded of the heroine’s legs, etc. Much of the time in the earlier part of the story she is naked. We are made well aware in the course of the book of how she grows from being a slender teenaged girl to a shapely woman. There are remarkably many references to her bathing. If one tries the thought experiment of removing the erotic flavor, one senses much of the atmosphere of the story would disappear.

    When Atra and Viridis are talking to Birdalone about their loves, Viridis’ “eyes gleamed midst the flushing of her cheeks, and she said: Sister, sister! Even in such wise, and no other, as they desire us do we desire them; it is no mere good will toward them [the men] from us, but longing and hot love.” I don’t think it is quite clear that the three women and the three knights have been physical lovers, but I suppose they have. For all the medieval setting of the story, it shows virtually no Christian sense of sexual ethics. However there are occasional brief references to canons, prayer, saints, etc.

    Simply as fantasy, it was impressive, seeming fresh yet familiar, and I felt that Morris pretty much accomplished what he wanted to do, never hurrying an episode. The archaisms didn’t seem forced/overdone. It was a sustained and realized fantasy. However, I suppose the book is pretty much a “daydream,” not simply because of the enchanted isles theme -- the Isle of Increase Unsought, the Isle of the Young and the Old, the Isle of the Queens, the Isle of the Kings, the Isle of Nothing, and the boat that is moved by a “wight” that is prompted by blood smeared on the boat and a rhyme, and the witch, etc. ---- but because it is free from various complications of reality; food does sometimes seem more or less to “appear” so that the characters can enjoy it in a woodland dwelling at the end or the like -- and there’s the relaxation of morality or, Morris might say, the substitution of an ethic that would supposedly suffice among people of kind hearts and friendliness, etc.

    One would not guess on the evidence of this book that the author was a socialist, but might guess that he had a beautiful wife who was unfaithful to him and whose unfaithfulness he just lived with.

    Comments 2 July:

    I wonder if this book helped to inspire The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader." More of the bulk of Lewis's book than Morris's concerns actually moving from island to island, I think, but certainly the watery element is dominant in the Morris book too.



    However, Habundia is a forest-spirit figure. Somewhere she even says that she doesn't have power over the waters or something to that effect.

    I'm inclined to say that much of the sexual feeling in the book reminds me of an adolescent's awareness, the awareness of girls' hair, eyes, limbs, the sweetness thereof and the longing therefor. I don't think that this was nothing but lust. One test for this is that I think much of the color and sweetness would have gone out of the world if I had somehow just shut that awareness off. As Lewis points out in his Morris essay, this eros-feeling does not promise transports, ecstasy. It is appetitive, not mystical (not Dantean).

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    I said above that a real element of the book is that it is the story simply of Birdalone's bodily changes, from being a girl, a teenaged girl, to a fully-grown woman, and in one place (Part 6, Chapter 24) the Wood-Woman appears to Birdalone in a form that shows Birdalone -- as the Woman tells her -- how she shall look when, happy years having intervened between now and then, she is fifty. Morris: "a woman stricken in years, but slim and trim and upright." But Birdalone tells the Woman she would prefer to see her in her more usual shape, of Birdalone as a girl, "for I love thee not so much as now thou art."

    So there is in this book an unemphatic, I would not say Tragic, awareness of mortality. Beauty attracts us, but it doesn't last.

    I thought at points as I read this that I likely wouldn't read it again, but I'm not sure I won't.
  4.  
    Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Active Member

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    I'm definitely tempted to get hold of "The Well at the World's End". I just need to decide whether to get hold of the old Ballantine editions or the new Wildside Press editions...
  5.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

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    Has anyone been intending to read The Well at the World's End?

    This edition didn't even get the title right:
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    Then there's this:
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    (I'd go with the old Ballantine pair, pictured in an earlier message, if they're not too expensive.)
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2012
  6.  
    Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Active Member

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    I've decided to go for "The Wood Beyond the World" instead as D_Davis is about to read it too...
  7.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

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    I'm on board for that. I'll post notes here.
  8.  
    D_Davis

    D_Davis New Member

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    Yep. I'll probably be starting it this weekend.

    It'll be a completely new experience for me - looking forward to it.
  9.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

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    I read The Wood Beyond the World over the past couple of days, so here are some thoughts about it -- which people who mean to read it soon might want to skip till they've read it (or skip entirely!).

    1.You could say that the organizing principle of the story is Difficulties With Girls -- well, two women and one girl.

    [a]There's the subject of what Morris (who has no sense of the Christian sacraments so far as I know, let alone a sense of marriage as having a spiritual as distinct from psychological and physical element) would regard as conventional marriage. Walter married a beautiful woman but she became emotionally and physically unfaithful to him. Apparently in Morris's "medieval" fantasy world (more about this in #2 below), there's no ecclesiastical or civil recourse for the innocent party in a broken marriage. Walter leaves.

    There's the subject of sexuality and power. The Lady of the Wood Beyond the World uses her apparently timeless sexual allure to dominate a series of lovers or to try to, Walter being the third.

    [c] There's the subject of Morris's ideal of sexual relations, which appears to be that the lovers are friends who find the other person a happy sexual partner. Marriage as ecclesiastical or civil ceremony appears to exist in the city in which Walter and the Maid (she has no name; when they've consummated their relationship, she becomes the Queen), but Morris presents it in an absolutely minimal way. His focus is on the freely-chosen union of two equals; so far as one can tell, they did not make "conventional" marital vows.

    Walter has to trust the Maid, and she urges him to prove trustworthy. She works out their deliverance to a much greater degree than he does; Walter typically reacts rather than acts. I think this works well for the story's literary purposes. It lets us identify with Walter as a mortal wanderer into what Tolkien calls Faerie. Tolkien said that the wanderer in Faerie must be alert and not ask too many questions. (See the second paragraph of "On Fairy-Stories.")

    2.Morris is credited by Lin Carter with creating the imaginary world fantasy. I'm not sure how he defines "imaginary world." Clearly Morris means the story to occur in some version of medieval Europe, since he refers to "Christendom," etc. On the other hand there are no references to political units such as, e.g., Franks, English, etc. (There is a reference to Saracens, the people of Mahound or Mawmet.) There are absolutely no references to historical kings or popes.

    3.The explicitly fantastic element is used effectively; Morris does not pile on wonders for their own sake. The Wood Beyond the World is a place, like Dunsany's Faerie in "The Kith of the Elf-folk" as I recall, or as in Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major (a story that has some affinities with Morris's Wood) that you can get to simply by walking there. In the Wood, Walter encounters illusions (the "lion") and a goblin/dwarf, who is not "explained" but simply seems to come with the territory. The Maid appears to command an art greater than that of the Lady, in that the Maid actually does revive the flowers she wears, and (apparently) causes rain to come to the parched Bear-folk. However, she is not the goddess that they take her to be.

    4.The mildly archaic style is easy to read. The only word I looked up was his use of bent, which I take to refer to a curved topographical form. The style is integral to the faerie-quality of the story.

    I'd read this story twice before, both times in the Seventies, and I think I may have enjoyed it the most this time.
  10.  
    Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Active Member

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    I've just started reading "The Wood Beyond the World" this morning and so will refrain from reading the above post until I've finished.

    I shall report back soon.
  11.  
    D_Davis

    D_Davis New Member

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    I got about 10-15 pages into this and had to put it down. I just couldn't stand the style he used.

    I'm usually a pretty big fan of affected styles, but for me this was like reading Shakespeare. I had to read passages over and over again just to understand what was going on, and once I did understand it I realized that it wasn't really worth the effort. With something like Michael Cisco's The Great Lover, a book in which I would sometimes spend hours reading the same few pages over and over again, I would be rewarded with great insight about humanity and love and passion, while marveling at Cisco's experimental voice and style, but with this Morris book I was just reading a nice little fairy tale, and so I didn't feel compelled to put in the effort.

    I realize that this could all be because of the mood I'm in right now, and I plan on giving the book another chance later this month.
  12.  
    Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Active Member

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    I'm about 40 pages in and while the prose is deeply antiquated, I'm finding it too much of a problem as yet. I would say that the story's only just starting to get interesting though...
  13.  
    Fried Egg

    Fried Egg Active Member

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    The more I read of this book, the more the prose style has grown on me. As is usually the case with affected styles, one needs to get into the rhythm of it before one can begin to enjoy it. Now I am finding it quite a pleasure to read.

    It is quite peculiar in other ways though, no speech marks to denote the dialogue, nor paragraph breaks separating who is speaking make it a little difficult to follow. The frequent summary captions that break up the narrative, sometimes even mid-paragraph are quite odd too.
  14.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

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    Morris must be trying to evoke something antiquarian with those captions, as Coleridge was with his exquisite captions added to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
  15.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

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    Incidentally, what do readers think of these matters? --

    1.Carole Silver's observation that Walter is a merchant's son -- not a prince or knight, on the one hand, nor, on the other, a peasant boy who wins the princess as in so many fairy tales

    2.Charlotte Oberg's idea that a key theme is liberation from tyranny -- for Walter, for the Maid -- and the establishment of a millenarian kingdom

    3.Silver's observation that Walter is the only character with a Christian name

    I appreciated Silver's connecting the Lady in Morris's romance with Acrasia in Spenser's Faerie Queene -- a wonderful work that some regard as the last great medieval work, others as something like the first great modern work set in an imaginary medieval period -- but I don't know if others here have read the latter work. I only got into it when I was in my forties or so! It's become one of the great "discoveries" of my own middle ages!
  16.  
    dask

    dask dark and stormy knight

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    I tried reading THE SUNDERING FLOOD a few months ago but had to lay it aside. The langauge was a jungle too thick for my machete.:eek:
  17.  
    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Not been able to reread this, and therefore not able to contribute anything worthwhile to the thread, but...

    I would add that this sort of thing was extremely common in many older books; the "argument" of a passage being summed up marginally, for the benefit of readers, scholars, etc., wishing to find a particular passage or quotation. It is in the manner of the KJV, for instance, where one sees it at the head of each chapter; one also sees it in various treatises (or discourses) as well. For example, such marginal notations were used in Reginald Scot's The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584; marginal notations and "arguments"), Nicolas Remy's Demonolatry (1595; headnotes), or Sir Thomas Browne's works, such as Hydriotaphia, Urne-Buriall and The Garden of Cyrus (1658).

    Essentially, it is a part of Morris' "distancing" technique, his attempts to recapture the look and feel of books and manuscripts of an era similar to what he is depicting; and he carried this out with astonishing fidelity. Recall that he published many of these works himself, through his Kelmscott Press, in exquisite volumes with artwork and typography carefully designed by himself and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites, so that these prose romances worked not only on the level of the text itself, but the para-textual level as well, which together were calculated to transport the reader back into a much older (even if imaginary) world closer to that for which Morris had such affection and fascination.

    (Several years ago, when there was an exhibition of the works of the Pre-Raphaelites up at UT, I had the good fortune to be able to examine many of these things at some leisure, from the paintings of Burne-Jones to several of the originals of Morris' books, and it was quite a heady experience.)

    If you can find copies of the old Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy series, they did something very close to a facsimile reprint of at least a couple of his prose works, as I recall (The Glittering Plain being one); these should give you an idea. They also did a selection of his shorter works in the field, Golden Wings and Other Fantasy Stories....

    Incidentally... I've not gone back to look at the various posts, but I believe The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains were mentioned earlier. These are not quite like his other prose romances, but are heavily based on such things as The Volsunga Saga, of which he also did a quite enjoyable translation, usually published along with a selection of songs from the Elder Edda (the latter in verse)....

    (On The House of the Wolfings, etc., you may find this of interest):

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_House_of_the_Wolfings

    I would also add that, though in some ways "historical novels", these are still very much fantasy novels, just "low-magic". But this was quite common in earlier fantasy, even in much of the best; and one can see examples of it, for instance, in Leslie Berringer's Neustrian trilogy of novels, Gerfalcon, Joris of the Rock, and Shy Leopardess....
  18.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

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    I offered some topics for discussion in #15 above.

    But really, who cares?

    I think the topics may be worth discussing. But I have just been reviewing "on Stories," an essay by C. S. Lewis that I wish everyone would read, and it's pertinent for discussing Morris (whom Lewis mentions, along with H. G. Wells, Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus, the eerie tales of de la Mare, Rider Haggard, and others).

    Lewis tries to get us to see that, often, what we may think is the attraction of Romance -- stirring adventures, near escapes from death, etc. -- are not exactly what may be making certain works so effective upon our imaginations. (An earlier version of this paper was called "The Kappa Element in Romance" -- the "hidden element.") He tries to awaken us to this by giving various examples. In The War of the Worlds, it's not simply that people are endangered, it's that they are endangered by creatures from Outside the earth. And so on.

    Exciting adventures may cause a "rapid flutter of the nerves," but the best imaginative fiction may exert "a hushing spell on the imagination." (I think this may be close to what J. R. R. Tolkien called "Enchantment.")

    To have a story at all, you have to have a sequence of events (=plot), but the thing may well not be "sequential" at all, but rather a state of being or a quality. That being so, readings after the first, when we satisfy the mere "narrative lust" -- to find out what happened next -- may be better. What do you think? It seems to me there are many rereaders here, rereaders of Tolkien or Lovecraft or maybe William Morris.

    Lewis writes, "In inferior romances, such as the American magazines of 'scientifiction,' supply, we often come across a really suggestive idea. But the author has no expedient for keeping the story on the move except that of putting his hero into violent danger. In the hurry and scurry of his escapes the poetry of the basic idea is lost."

    The plot is "really a net whereby to catch something else" that we glimpse in just the title The Well at the World's End or the name "Atlantis." "We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied."

    People are having problems with Morris's style, but surely it is integral to what he is doing. Yes, it does come between the reader and the plot, or may do so, but then the plot may only be part of what the romance has to offer.

    I think I may remember things such as this when plot details are being forgotten: a lovely slender virgin girl in a thicket of a remote wood; a grotesque, Caliban-like creature glimpsed lurking in the bushes; a clarity of color and atmosphere; a sense of stillness; a perilous Lady. To be sure, Morris tells a story about them, but to a considerable degree, just to present them, in a "realized" way, is much.

    Similarly with Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major, another story of wanderings in Faerie (or what Ursula Le Guin calls Elfland in "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie"*): one might discuss the story as being "about" the passing on and the loss of a gift, etc. but much of what is offered is just the being-in-Faerie state.

    *I think she, Lewis, and Tolkien are quite close together in their apprehensions of the matter.


    By the way, Silver or Oberg was the commenter who suggested the Caliban idea to me. I would suggest, then, that Shakespeare's Tempest is a Faerie work, with its own affinities to the Morris and Tolkien works mentioned here.
  19.  
    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Had I the time to indulge in such a conversation at present, I'd very much like to. As it is, I'm having to post anything whatsoever very much "on the fly" right now, so....:(

    This echoes something HPL once said. I don't recall the quote verbatim, but essentially he made the comment that, concerning so many of the things he read in the pulps, given their magnificent ideas, "now if only someone would actually write the stories!"

    I'm not at all sure that you need "a sequence of events", as such; it depends on one's criteria for what makes a story, and what constitutes a story rather than a narrative (and vice versa). Certainly there are some fine stories which either don't have such a sequence of events, or where such is quite minimal. These are often records of impressions, moods, states of mind, etc., and can vary from some of Ballard's "condensed novels", or Aldiss' Report on Probability A (or even one or two of Moorcock's Cornelius stories) to such things as Balzac's Seraphita, The Wild Ass's Skin, or some of the tales of H. H. Ewers, to name only a few. (The New Wave writers experimented quite a bit with this sort of thing, producing some fascinating, if somtimes flawed, works, such as Langdon Jones' "The Hall of Machines" or Tom Disch's "The Squirrel Cage".) At any rate, I would say that, with the "meatiest" of literature, it really is the second (and following) readings which are better, in the sense of more enriching.

    They may be less "exciting" on the primary, emotional or adrenal level, but they are often much more "exciting" in that they stimulate the mind much more; and, not infrequently, a reading less intent on the "action" of the plot will also allow much more emotional impact, both in the sense of more intense and also much more nuanced and varied.

    I would agree that it is this "realization" of a concept, an image, an emotion, an impression, or what have you, which is the genuine achievement (at least, in most cases), and those who do achieve this create lasting art, because they bequeath something truly fresh, original, and individual to the world; something it has not had before because it is the product of a very individualistic Weltanschauung which no one else could have created (though they may, once it has been accomplished, imitate it to one degree or another -- which is quite a different, and almost always inferior, thing).*

    I would tend to agree with the similarities between those mentioned; and I think this is an important point when considering them as part of a particular tradition.

    Tolkien's essay, of course, stresses this very tendency; and, indeed, he is right (as is Lovecraft): If one is to truly convey the "other" in any deep or meaningful fashion, then the "plot" of a piece is of almost negligible importance; it is that crystallization of "a certain type of human mood", that fleeting mental picture or impression which we often call the numinous or the sublime, being able to transfer (even if in a less-than-perfect manner) to the reader that glimpse of "otherwhere and otherwhen", which makes for enduring art. Otherwise, what you have is simply an adventure tale with fantastic elements; certainly something which can be enjoyed and even reread with pleasure, but not something which, on its own, evokes that delicate yet permanent emotional response that becomes a part of our own psyche.


    *This does not refer to a type of story, or following an established pattern, which can indeed still leave room for individuality and even genius; rather it refers to the attempts to recapture in all essential details the vision of the original writer (or artist), at the expense of one's own.
  20.  
    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

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    I offered some "topics for discussion" in #15 and then asked, in #18, who cares? -- meaning that I don't think the questions lead to answers that highlight why we read Morris's fantasy.

    I have to run with this a little. I think a lot of the criticism that's published, and probably a lot of the class discussion that goes on in universities, is somehow actually beside the point as to why we read many great works of imagination. Students and professors read Shakespeare's Tempest (banned a few days ago from Texas high schools, as I understand) or Conrad's Heart of Darkness with the idea that they are "about" colonialism. So people read them with this foregone conclusion in mind and -- yep! They are about colonialism!

    Well, it may well be that this is an angle that has merit. I can hardly imagine teaching Heart of Darkness without reference to King Leopold etc.

    But I really wonder if a lot of what it is that fascinates readers who are fascinated by these works is not their susceptibility to ritual denunciations of colonialism or what have you, but the fact, I will propose, that they have something in the nature of journeys to Faerie about them.

    So here is an idea for any of us who's interested and has the time -- I haven't tested this myself -- but I strongly suspect that it would be worthwhile to put, side by side, two long stories written almost at the same time, Heart of Darkness and Machen's "The White People." And to explore whether much of their fascination is due to the journey into an "alien" world that has a malign attraction for someone. They are, perhaps, tales of a malign realm akin to Faerie.

    Faerie itself I don't see as simply a wicked realm... though it is perilous!

    No time now to bake these thoughts more thoroughly, so here they are, half-baked.

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