William Morris Archive

Peter Wright

Several of Morris's later romances have close to their beginning an episode in which their protagonists are exposed to an incursion, sometimes virtually an irruption, into their settled state within their society, which invites, allures, or compels them to undertake individually a quest whose fulfilment produces a deeper involvement with what has been foreshadowed by the components of that disturbance. (In the earlier romances concerned with imagined Germanic peoples, that irruption consists of an attack, actual or threatened, on those peoples by ill-conditioned strangers from which their society as a whole must be preserved.) Thus in The Story of the Glittering Plain, even before he hears of the abduction of his betrothed maiden whom he must seek to rescue, Hallblithe is faced with the three ancient riders crying out, 'ls this the Land?' His brief reply to them foreshadows his fuller reaction to the unchanging happiness of the Land of Living Men which they are seeking, when he has finally been lured to it. In The Wood beyond the World it is Walter's threefold vision of the hideous dwarf, the maiden, and the 'tall and stately' lady (sent by her, as we learn in Chapter XXIV) that chiefly draws him from the world of merchant cities into the wilderness where he will actually encounter those three characters.

In The Well at the World's End it is in only the third chapter that Ralph, seeking adventure in flight from his home, first hears almost incidentally from his godmother of the WELL, often honoured then and later by capitals, which gives power over the hearts of men, and the next day learns from the maiden of Bourton Abbas of its power also to relieve sorrow. We hear already too in those chapters of the Dry Tree standing on the way to the Well, and meet the vigorous warrior who repeatedly, and apparently inexplicably, greets Ralph with the phrases, 'The first time', 'The second time', and so on (though this last foreshadowing is not fully developed later). For much of the immediately ensuing story the narrative is distracted by Ralph's almost obsessive longing for the Lady whom he has delivered from captivity, but the Well (and the Dry Tree) are kept before our attention by occasional references, especially by that Lady's promise to guide Ralph on the journey to it. We are thus prepared, when he has so suddenly (and for the reader unexpectedly) lost her in death, for the goal of his travel to be gradually transferred to the Well itself, along with the maiden promised as his new companion on that way. Similarly in The Sundering Flood it soon becomes clear that Osberne and Elfhild cannot meet in the flesh to fulfil their love unless, by good or evil fortune, they are obliged to depart from their homes.

The main exception comes in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, in whose opening chapters the main theme is the rivalry over Birdalone’s future between the witch and Habundia. Morris was probably in this romance initially most concerned to develop an innocent maiden's experience of subjection to an evil mistress more fully than he had had room to do in the tale of the Lady's youth in The Well, so that it is only with Birdalone's undertaking in Part 2 a mission to help the captive maidens being reunited with their lovers that such a forward-leading element is introduced into that romance. In other unfinished tales there is also such an element. In ‘Kilian of the Closes’ its protagonist is clearly intended to battle against oppression, and to seek to achieve or recover his love. Even in shorter tales, scarcely begun, perilous futures are foretold for the children of kings, though Morris had probably not clearly worked out how King Peacock's newborn son was to be saved from the Long Dale and the Little Cavern by the Cloud and the Sunburst, or with ‘The Folk of the Mountain Door’ how its king's child was to be delivered from the dangers riddlingly prophesied by his Folk's ancestors.

Giles differs from these stories in that its development is mainly driven from behind by a peril to be escaped rather than forward by an objective to be sought. When Giles and Joyeuse have acknowledged their mutual attraction, when she has been rescued from the Lady after her brief recapture, and when the lovers have arrived at the outlaws' stronghold of Owl-nook, the existing energies of the story are largely exhausted. There seems little need for Giles and his beloved to depart so hastily from that refuge into the perilous Blue Mountains. The Lady and her followers have been cast into an enchanted sleep which leaves them unaware who has delivered her prey, or whither they have gone, and Giles has killed their bloodhounds. So he and Joyeuse could easily delay for a time at Owl-nook (which seems secure enough, several days' ride through the forest, and out of reach of retaliation by the oppressive lords and city rulers at whose expense its people, sometimes assisted by Giles, 'drive the spoil'). The lovers could then test the ‘lore' of the Howlets' Wise Woman about the route of their intended journey, or consult the priest newly installed by the remarkably pious outlaws, who 'knows many tales' of the mountains. What rumours the outlaw maiden Judith herself reports of them, of the trouble-fortelling White Rider, the happiness-denying Coal-Blue Halls, and the love-destroying City of Women, is rather deterrent than alluring for further travel. Judith has already admitted that the few men who have explored them have disappeared or returned 'moody and downcast'. In effect the subjects of the story, so far revealed, have been used up, without leaving any substantial material requiring its continuance.

Instead we should enjoy 'Giles' as an example of a Morrisian 'long short-story', in which its author has been delighted to develop with variations some of the favourite motifs of his other romances. In Giles we have a typical Morrisian hero, brave and attractive to all women, but unlike Kilian, another heir of a declining knightly house, more eager for adventure, as befits his youth, and resourceful in undertaking it. To Joyeuse Morris has given a touch of poetic imagination beyond his other heroines and also a capacity for ironic repartee in her relations with her lover. The tale also allows Morris to portray more fully than elsewhere direct confrontations between his two kinds of women, the somewhat dominant 'mistress' and the tenderer 'maiden', in which the maiden may be reckoned to have won the honours morally. At Owl-nook we meet one of Morris's bands of good-hearted outlaws, of whose leader Robin Rend-Shield we perhaps hear too briefly. (Morris possibly made up for this when telling of Jack of the Tofts in his tale of Christopher and Goldilind.) In the first part of the story the gradual approach of danger from behind is well presented. In the later pages covering the ride through the forest to Owl-nook, Morris has indulged himself in describing the fresh and lively converse between Giles and the two maidens, united in kindly affection, but perhaps half-aware that they might potentially be rivals for his love. Perhaps Morris did not wish to develop this theme during a longer stay at Owl-nook (where Judith already mourns Giles' departure), or any possible attachment between Robin and Joyeuse: in his other romances the hero's friend too often likes his beloved too well. This would be another reason for drawing the story to a close by despatching the lovers rapidly into a barely specified future.