William Morris Archive

The Classical Tale for December 

Florence S. Boos


In "The Golden Apples," The Earthly Paradise's shortest classical tale, two strangely assured strangers, Hercules of Thebes and the sea-god Nereus, identify themselves as "The Strong Man" and "The Shepherd of the Shore" and request passage on a ship bound for Tyre. They then guide the sailors to a walled garden in a land of densely forested mountains, where Hercules finds a serpent guardian and Hesperus's three daughters. The latter warn him that theft of the apples they guard will bring the thief a "deathless life forlorn" (1. 326), but he brushes aside their warning, dispatches the serpent, and seizes their treasure.

Hercules then bestows on the three sisters a slightly incongruous blessing, gives them a girdle (to mark "how the Theban man, /The son of Jove, came o'er the waters wan" 11. 391-92), and gratuitously adds that his gift will endure when their beauty and happiness have faded. Their leavetaking is understandably cool.

When he finally returns to the ship, his fellow-traveller, the shape-changing, old sea-god Nereus, tells the sailors that he is now released from his obligation to Hercules, and flies away in the shape of a bird. The duly sobered sailors then convey Hercules the rest of the way to Tyre, offer sacrifices at Nereus's temple, and try to describe to others the wonders they have seen.


Morris used Lemprière's Classical Dictionary as his chief source for this tale, but may also have drawn on assorted classical sources, among them legends of Heracles and Hercules in Apollodorus's Bibliotheca, II, v. ii. The legendary Heracles (Latin: Hercules) was an illegitimate son of Zeus. Hera, jealous of her husband's progeny, caused him to fall into a fit of madness in which he killed his children and, by some accounts, his first wife. As expiation he was ordered to perform twelve "labors" by the Mycenean King Eurystheus.

Like Tennyson in "The Hesperides" (1832), Morris concentrated on the twelfth and last of Hercules's principal "labors," but Tennyson had dwelt on the garden's pristine beauty and had drawn suggestive parallels between Hercules's theft of the apples and the biblical Fall. Morris, by contrast, transformed Hercules into a reflective counterpart of Tennyson's Ulysses, another aging but indefatigable traveller, and recast his final "labor" as an allegory of the need to fulfill life's allotted roles.

Critical Remarks:

It is possible that Morris shortened and simplified this tale to fit space constraints. He had, after all, represented the decline and fall of another 'heroic' voyager in The Life and Death of Jason, and may have considered The Earthly Paradise's longer redactions of ardent-love-and-heroic-adventure-legends more than sufficient to the task at hand.

In any event, the reader learns nothing about Hercules's other labors or his disastrous marriages to Megara and Deianira in "The Golden Apples," one of The Earthly Paradise's least emotionally complicated tales. Instead, Morris varied his sources to make Hercules play a more tranquil variant of its sailor-wanderer role--as a muscular visionary who harrows the known world to accomplish divinely mandated aims. Hercules's alleged ideal of self­sacrificing service to others may also have attracted Morris, for he is the only non-romantic hero of a classical tale.

To smooth his plot, Morris also downplayed the three maiden-guardians' reactions to the theft and the results of the dragon's curse, and cast Hercules's brief encounter with the serpent as a swift symbolic conflict without complex emotional or eschatological overtones. Isolated approaches to such mysteries emerge in passages such as the tale's mesmeric descriptions of passage over the sea into the unknown ("Westward, scarce knowing night from day, they drave /Through sea and sky grown one" 11. 141-42).

See also Bellas, 159-65; Boos, 149-52; Calhoun, 203-206; Kirchhoff, 198-201; Oberg, 48-49.


"The Golden Apples" is one of four classical tales for which no extant early draft has been found. The final autograph is in Huntington Library M. S. 6418.