William Morris Archive

The Classical Tale for January

Florence S. Boos


[498] Morris followed "The Golden Apples," The Earthly Paradise's shortest classical tale, with its two longest, "Bellerophon at Argos" (for January) and "Bellerophon in Lycia" (for February). In these he recast classical accounts of heroic atonement as psychological studies of despair and tempered redemption.

As King Proetus of Argos rides forth one day with a hunting party, a distraught stranger appears on horseback and confesses that he is the refugee Corinthian prince Hipponous, now Bellerophon ("slayer of Beller"). When the king offers shelter and befriends him, Bellerophon tells him what has happened. He had sought out his brother Beller in the woods to warn him that he had dreamt he was destined to murder him, but fulfilled the ominous prophecy when he mistakenly aimed his dart at what appeared to be a wolf, and has been driven from his homeland by dread and guilt.

To cheer Bellerophon, Proetus invites him to his court, and Bellerophon eventually becomes a trusted friend, beloved by all for his kindly acts. His efforts at redemption disintegrate, however, when the king's ruthless and predatory wife Sthenoboea "needs must find/ Something that drew her to his wide grey eyes" (11. 648-49). Shortly before Bellerophon is scheduled to depart on a diplomatic mission, Sthenoboea declares her passion in the palace garden. When Bellerophon courteously rejects her, Sthenoboea dishevels herself, accuses him of attempted rape, and calls on Proteus to punish him. Suspicious of her, but anxious for his 'honor' and reputation, Proetus redirects Bellerophon to Sthenoboea's homeland Lycia with a sealed warrant for his death. Sthenoboea, consumed with self-loathing, then runs from the palace to a nearby cliff, berates herself and rends her garments. A fisherman hears her declaim that:

... I have loved one man alone,
And unto him the worst deed have I done
Of all the ill deeds I have done on earth.
I curse men not, although midst mocks and mirth
They say: Rejoice, for Stenoboea is dead. (11. 2255-59)

When she throws herself into the waters below, the troubled fisherman weeps for her, but he and his wife decide to keep their counsel, and he throws the Queen's jewelled belt into the sea. [499] Sthenoboea has accurately predicted the public reaction to her death, and the old couple carry their knowledge of her last moments to their graves.

In its internal auditors, this narrative arouses "shades of their own dead hopes, and buried pain" (1. 15). They had thought emotions "[m]ade but for them" when they were younger, but they see now that their brief life-narratives are drawing to an end, and seek comfort in deeper awareness of the vulnerability and humanity they have shared.


Bellerophon—usually depicted in tandem with his air-support, the winged horse Pegasus—appeared in Pindar's "Olympian Ode XIII," and Sthenoboea appeared in a lost tragedy of Euripides and Aristophanes's Frogs. Two immediate sources existed for Morris's two tales of Bellerophon, this one and "Bellerophon in Lycia": Lemprière's entry in the Classical Dictionary, and Book 6 of the Iliad, lines 177-252. The Biblical tale of Potiphar's wife, in which a would-be seductress maligns someone who resists her, may also have served as a collateral source, for Charles Wells recast the tale of Potiphar's wife in his 1829 play Joseph and his Brethren, and D. G. Rossetti, an admirer of Wells's play, may well have called it to Morris's attention.

In his entry, Lemprière called the Queen "Antaea or Stenoboee," but Morris used the standard Attic form of "Sthenoboea" ("strong cry"). Unlike Morris, Lemprière did not absolve Hipponous/Bellerophon of Beller's death, but the Iliad's Bellerophon is similarly above reproach ("The gods gave him beauty and the fine, gallant traits that go with men"), and its Antea fails because "she could never seduce the man's strong will, his seasoned, firm resolve."

Morris also assimilated certain aspects of his tale to rough counterparts in the Laxdaela Saga, his prototype for "The Lovers of Gudrun." Guðrun also goads her husband to attack his closest friend and her former lover, and her laconic confession that "I did the worst to him I loved the most" (1. 4903) echoes Sthenoboea's more elaborate admission that "I have loved one man alone/ And unto him the worst deed I have done. . . " (11. 2255-56). "The Lovers of Gudrun"'s principal protagonists also experience a variety of foreboding dreams, and its bonders and humble [500] witnesses to violent death balance empathy with awareness of the social gulf that separates them from their masters.

Morris, of course, made Antaea/Stenoboee's seduction-attempt—a brief episode in Lemprière's redaction and the Iliad—into the centerpiece of a carefully constructed tale. In the process, he may have drawn not only on the story of Potiphar's wife, but also on the myth of Phaedra in Euripides's Hippolytos and Seneca's Phaedra (taught extensively in the schools), and the Troy-plot and the tales of Medea and Alcestis. In Euripides and Seneca's plays, Hippolytus is distinguished by his physical beauty and a certain indifference to others' passions. Seneca's Hippolytus is also a misogynist who actively loathes all womankind, but Euripides's counterpart dies a genuinely pathetic and moving death, deserted by Artemis but comforted by his father's remorse. In both plays the king takes swift vengeance, and never pauses to doubt the accusation.

In Euripides's version, however, Phaedra's sudden, overpowering, and shaming passion is forced on her (by a vindictive Aphrodite), and in both plays she is an essentially moral heroine whose actions are brutally distorted by external manipulation. Morris's cynical narcissist Sthenoboea, by contrast, clearly wills her desires, though a certain Senecan moral desolation lingers in the icy detachment of her final monologue.

Critical Remarks:

The psychological complexities of its principal and secondary characters make "Bellerophon at Argos" one of Morris's best-crafted tales. Only here and in the much later Water of the Wondrous Isles did one of Morris's protagonists encounter a truly predatory woman, and Sthenoboea is noticeably more malevolent than her later counterpart, The Water's "Lady of the Isle of Increase Unsought." Morris did create one other violently intense woman suicide—Sigurd the Volsung's Gudrun, who sets fire to the house of her husband and sons, and leaps chanting to her death from a nearby cliff—but Sthenoboea's unequivocal passion for mendacity and entrapment make her Morris's most clearly culpable female protagonist.

Paradoxically, her final monologue's lonely reflections on her emptiness of soul lead the reader beyond moral judgment into [501] forms of horror and pity that are mirrored in the empathy of the onlooking fisherman:

No friend, indeed, was lost to me that day; . . .
Yet o'er my heart a yearning passion swept,
And there where she had stood I lay and wept,
Worn as I am by care and toil and eld. (11. 2306-2311)

Several other aspects of the scene in which Sthenoboea taunts Proteus to kill Bellerophon are also absent from Morris's sources. Morris makes Proteus warily suspicious of Sthenoboea's motives, a pointed sign of estrangement, and he carefully explores Proteus's uneasy truce with Sthenoboea, and the disintegration of his friendship with Bellerophon.

Like Morris himself, Bellerophon also takes systematic interest in the lives of ordinary people, another trait that is conspicuously absent from Morris's sources. The tale's extended descriptions of the reactions of shipmen, servants, weaving-women and fishers to their overlords' idiosyncracies relativize the narrative in interesting ways. Morris took unusual care to juxtapose sensuous opulence to "patient toil" in passages such as the following incidental description of nightfall at Venus's temple:

Then faint and weary went, with footsteps slow,
The lover and beloved, to e'en such rest
As they might win; and soon the daisies, pressed
By oft-kissed dainty feet and panting side,
Now with the dew were growing satisfied,
And sick blind passion now no more might spoil
The place made beautiful by patient toil
Of many a man. (11. 1342-49)

Other passages—in which Sthenoboea rails at her servants, or Proteus's chamberlain observes his master's caprice—question aristocratic aspects of the tale's 'heroic' ethic in similarly pointed ways. Morris's psychological nuances and attention to "material culture" had already begun to infuse shades of muted realism into the legends he loved and to express in nascent ways his democratic views of art.

Striking parallels between Morris's recent life-experiences and the otherwise quite different plots and settings of "Bellerophon at Argos" and "The Lovers of Gudrun" also suggest that he sought to understand a would-be adulterous woman's frustration and despair, and explore the shattering effects of such stresses on an initially close male friendship.

[502] The two long Bellerophon tales resonate with these and other nuances, so much so that they might have fared better had they appeared in a separate single volume, after the format of The Life and Death of Jason. The widespread familiarity of the Jason-legend had obviously pleased Morris's contemporary audience, but "Bellerophon"'s complex blend of lovely surfaces, hard-beset idealism, and hidden emotional ironies better represented his mature views of reality, and well might hold the attention of a wider audience today.

See also Bellas, 166-75; Boos, 152-58; Calhoun, 206-208; Kirchhoff, 201, 202, 206-207; and Silver, 67, 74-75.


An early draft exists in the British Library Add. M. S. 45,301, and the final draft is in Huntington Library M. S. 6418.