All Stories, auld author

Auld Author

My favourite forgotten book: The House of the Wolfings by William Morris – Reviewed by Michael Bloor

These days, poor old Morris (1834-96) must be swirling like a dervish in that quiet Oxfordshire churchyard. These days, the sad truth is that the great pioneer socialist writer, printer and publisher is largely remembered as a designer of curtains and wallpapers.

Morris was born into a wealthy Victorian family, educated at Marlborough College and Oxford University, and intended for the priesthood. Like any educated Victorian gentleman, he was saturated in the Greek and Roman classics. Indeed, many of his early (and very popular) poems were re-tellings of classical stories. A visit as a young man to the great gothic cathedrals of France led to him turn away from a career in the church and to start (but not complete) an apprenticeship as an architect. He became an expert on medieval art and literature; he learned weaving and dyeing, manuscript illumination and bookbinding. He designed typefaces as well as fabrics. And he hated the squalor and misery he saw around him in mid-Victorian Britain. So, he eventually threw himself into the new-minted socialist movement.

In his day, he was mainly famous as a poet – he refused the post of Poet Laureate, in succession to Tennyson. And in his day also, he was notorious for being one of the leaders of the Trafalgar Square ‘Bloody Sunday’ demonstration of the unemployed in 1887 (broken up by police and soldiers with fixed bayonets and live ammunition), and for his speech at the graveside of the demonstrator who died, trampled by a police horse. He was a scholar of the medieval chronicles and the first translator of many of the Icelandic sagas. More than just a translator, he was a voluble enthusiast: he argued that the Volsunga Saga should be as famous to us as the tales of Troy.

He’s not out of print. His Collected Works, edited by his daughter, May Morris, are available in 24 volumes from Cambridge University Press (if you have a spare £500). And Wayne State University Press published a further ten previously uncollected speeches, edited by Eugene Lemire, in 1969. But the only one of his books that remains popular today is his vision of a future socialist society, ‘News from Nowhere,’ available in the Penguin Classics series.

The Penguin ‘News from Nowhere’ is OK, I’m not knocking it; it’s even got one of his textile designs on the front cover. I just think it’s a shame that the string of prose romances that he wrote in the last years of his life are now so little read. The House of the Wolfings, the first (and the best) of the bunch, was published in 1888.

Morris wrote them largely for his own enjoyment; he’s supposed to have written much of the second romance, ‘The Roots of the Mountains,’ to while away the time on a long train journey to speak to the socialists in Aberdeen. The romances had a wide audience when they were published. Oscar Wilde wrote a laudatory review of The House of the Wolfings. W.B. Yeats and J.R.R. Tolkien were among those who were greatly influenced by the stories.

The House of the Wolfings is set in a great forested area of central Europe in the days of Imperial Rome. The Wolfings were imagined as one of a number of clans constituting a Gothic tribe dwelling in The Mark, a territory of cleared areas in the great forest. The story concerns the successful resistance of the peoples of the Mark to a Roman invasion. Thiodolf, a Wolfing Warrior, is chosen as the War Duke to lead the Markmen in battle. His secret lover is Wood-Sun, living alone in the forest, ‘a daughter of the Gods […] and a Chooser of the Slain.’ She foresees his death in battle and shows him a magical, dwarf-wrought, metal-ringed hawberk (later to be pinched by Tolkien), which she begs him to wear for protection. He doesn’t fancy it, but is sweet-talked into pulling it on. The hawberk causes him to swoon at critical junctures in the battle, with potentially disastrous consequences. He takes it off, turns the tide of battle, and is slain. But thanks to his sacrifice, the Romans are defeated and driven off.

It’s beautifully written in an antique style, with critical parts of the dialogues declaimed as poetry, as in some of the Icelandic sagas. Though the bits and pieces of prophecy and magic fit perfectly naturally into the Early Medieval setting, they have served as one of the precursors of some pretty awful modern fantasy novels. I don’t blame Morris for that. Instead, I think the book is an extraordinary achievement, documenting Morris’s intellectual journey.

William Morris was a Victorian gentleman raised on a diet of classical heroes in a century that saw a long, long procession of British Imperialist wars of conquest against indigenous societies in Africa, India, Afghanistan and the Far East. Here was a gentleman who championed the folk assemblies of the Mark against the hierarchical slave society of Imperial Rome, who preferred the domestic carvings of medieval carpenters and masons to the arts patronage of the idle rich, and who would give the victory over the drilled professional soldiers to a band of part-time warrior-farmers, warrior-smiths, and warrior-herdsmen, fighting for their way of life.

The choices that Morris made, and celebrated in such chiming prose, seem easier to us now, a hundred and thirty-odd years on. But such bold, bright, revolutionary writing deserves to be still read.

Michael Bloor

Image by Davie Bicker from Pixabay  – A Goblet sheet or parchment and quill pen on a black background.

12 thoughts on “Auld Author”

  1. Hi there Mick!
    What can I say?
    Your essay is written in the same way as your stories, informative, interesting and your writing is as infectious and addictive as ever!
    A wonderful start to the new feature.
    All the very best my fine friend.


    1. Thanks Hugh. Of course, my main task was to try and explain why I think Morris was one of the good guys and why The House of the Wolfings is a rewarding and uplifting read. But it’s tricky to manage to be mildly entertaining at the same time. As always, your encouragement is very much appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael
    Your fine article has had the desired effect–at least here. I am going to seek out Mr. Morris, and I think you will convince others to do likewise.
    Beautifully done.


  3. Morris was focussed, he didn’t waste any time, politics, poetry, etc., it would have taken a lot of research to write those stories of resistance to Rome, and Romance…. to build the authentic settings and the historical background. That’s also interesting that he was of the upper classes and became a socialist. That seems to be a major development in Britain in those Victorian days, for educated people with a conscience.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Harrison, you’re quite right that his work displayed a great deal of specialised knowledge of the Early & Late Medieval periods. One of the biographies mentioned that he was a respected authority on medieval manuscripts, consulted about their collection by Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

    Liked by 1 person

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