William Morris Archive

Peter Wright

The unfinished tale about Kilian1 is the only one of Morris's romances set within a medieval rather than an early Germanic world, which has as its protagonist not a man or woman just entering adulthood, but someone of 'more than thirty winters', living a life frustrated by the lack of resources for seeking the renown which his vigorous personality and family tradition mark out for him. He is not lacking in the means for satisfying the basic needs of life, but cannot compete among his equals by birth in combat, or seek the love of women of his own rank. Morris gives a vivid picture of his empty home, a house still strong for defence, but with its treasures swept away by the 'chapmen', and as its master's only helper an old servant, loyal but crusty, and often knowing better than Kilian what is for his good. He then begins his narrative on a night when an unexpected guest comes to offer Kilian an opportunity to exert his energies, and to hear in return an account of Kilian's strange emotional entanglement.

It is notable that so early in the story, after this introduction, most of the rest of what we read is retrospective narration, occasionally broken by responses from the narrator's hearer, such as Morris had not attempted so soon in previous romances, nor at such length. (The nearest, the Lady of Abundance's six-chapter account of her life in The Well at the World's End, is rather smaller in relation to the total length of that romance, and comes much later in its development.) Morris had indeed been adventurous in how he organised his tales in the early stories of the 1850s, letting us hear in ‘The Story of the Unknown Church' or 'A Dream' the voices of dead narrators; giving us in ‘Lindenborg Pool' the double consciousness of a modern homicide and a medieval priest; or in 'Frank's Sealed Letter' informing us only near the close that what has seemed an account of actual events was only an imagination of what might have happened if the narrator had made a particular choice. But in his later stories he had usually been more orthodox in the development of his tale, 'beginning at the beginning'. The way 'Kilian' is thus started may be one reason for its unfinished condition.

The tale so far as we have it has two themes, successively introduced. One, told by the guest Michael, is the contest between feudal aggression and burgher life, as exemplified in the unequal struggle between the Baron of the Seven Towers and the guildsmen of Whatham. Kilian is clearly intended to find a use for his valour in taking part in their deliverance. When Morris some time in 1896 abandoned this story and concentrated his failing energies on The Sundering Flood, he abandoned these characters, but not this theme: Osberne's exploits, in fighting for Eastcheaping against the Baron of Deepdale and later for the Lesser Crafts of the City of the Flood, could be a substitute for what Kilian might have achieved at Whatham, while Michael with his apparent faery blood could have contributed some skills of magic, like those employed by Steelhead, to the downfall of the Baron in this tale, which would appropriately be deeper and more humiliating as his conduct has been more insolent and brutal.

Here, as in his other later romances, Morris has depicted a political landscape in which such class struggle can most easily be imagined as occurring openly: it is most fully displayed in The Well at the World's End, with its small kingdoms like Upmeads;2 free pastoral peoples; towns of traders and craftsmen at odds with predatory neighbouring barons;3 and even (as in the Holy Roman Empire) an independent princely abbot at Higham-on-the-Way. Those countries do not have the over-arching royal authority which in England by the 11th century and in France from the mid 13th forestalled such direct confrontations of nobles and townsmen.4 Morris may have derived such a landscape from his reading of Carlyle's Frederick the Great, which May Morris tells us gave him 'great entertainment';5 its opening chapters covering the earlier history of the Mark of Brandenburg and the House of Hohenzollern presented a picture of a late medieval Germany in which such conflicts were common. It might also be imagined that Kilian here, and the knights, such as Sir Medard and Sir Godrick in The Sundering Flood, who fight on behalf of townsmen, represent in a medieval context those few 19th century middle-class people, such as Morris himself, who were willing to devote their wealth, their education, and their reputation to the cause of the working class.

Having told of the troubles of Whatham and recruited Kilian to fight for it. Michael manoeuvres him into confessing his recent immersion in love (almost as sudden and obsessive as that of Morris's younger lovers); which may indeed be the main object of his visit. His youthful beauty and his paling at the sign of the Cross and even at the thought of God, along with his promises to Kilian of great, but unspecified, benefits, which their object views with some disquiet, strongly suggest that he is not (at least fully) of human race, but of faery origin. The tale, thus provoked, of Kilian's love with its elements of marvel, which occupies about half of what Morris completed, providing the second theme, begins to draw the story in quite a different direction. Kilian's first encounter with his Lady in the woodland is almost certainly derived from the story in Boccaccio's Decameron (Day 5, Novel 8), in which Nastogio degli Onesti sees a naked lady pursued and savaged by two mastiffs followed by a mounted knight, though it has a quite different meaning. (In Boccaccio the ghostly lady is being punished for rejecting her lover.) We are never told (perhaps Morris had not himself discovered) whether the Lady's then appearance as the 'white hind' which Sir Gildard thinks he is hunting is voluntary or otherwise. (Morris probably knew of the legend of the French water spirit Melusine, obliged once a week to be half-transformed into a serpent.)

Kilian's later meetings with her reveal her as capable of capriciously producing illusions and also of revealing attractive visions, one within another, so that she too is likely to be one of the faery, (Kilian is misled by his assumption that such folk are 'wrought of blossoms and sunbeams' or compacted air into supposing otherwise.) Her otherworldly powers, overlaying an ornate fountain and an enchanted garden on the oaks and beeches of the wildwood, suggest that she is in an unsatisfactory, unequal position in relation to the lover whom she has chosen to summon, not unlike the Lady of Abundance with Ralph in The Well at the World's End. Michael is presumably her brother, mentioned only in passing, who has come to 'check out' her lover and make sure that he has not yet gone too far, physically, in his relations with her. (It is a little careless of Kilian, who should understand heraldry, not to have noticed that his guest has on his clothing the same golden boughs as are borne by the Lady's messenger).

We are thus involved in a story of the type of the 'fairy bride or mistress', as with John and the swan maiden in 'The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon', in which their intercourse is subject to the observance of some prohibition, apparently easy enough to keep, in this case not even to touch the Lady until he has drunk of the water of the Fountain of Thirst, or evil will come of it. (That drinking also conveniently abates the lover's desire.) The normal pattern of such tales is that the lover will, often inadvertently or under compulsion, break that prohibition, and must then repent and suffer a prolonged separation before any potential reunion. Kilian has in the opening pages the 'look of lacking' of those who love, but though discontented he does not seem there to be feeling the anguish which such a separation might produce. He himself declares that he has not been over-intimate with the Lady, nor apparently has he reached any similar crisis in his dealings with her. Yet Morris has given himself over half a year to cover between the May of their first meetings and the March of those opening pages, which apparently requires a substantial continuation of the narrative told to Michael. In effect he has delightedly run ahead with the theme of the ‘fairy bride’, apparently without determining how it is to be bent round to join up with the social context of the earlier part. It may also be a little hard to see how the exploits that Kilian will perform in defence of Whatham, however valiant, will be of a nature appropriate to provide reparation for any breach of that bride's prohibition. Altogether it is not surprising that Morris did not persevere with a narrative involving such complexities.



1.  Oddly Morris chose as his hero's name neither a standard medieval one, nor one of Teutonic origin, but that of an early medieval Irish missionary bishop in Central Germany.

2.  Morris was well-acquainted with the petty kingdoms of folk-tale in the Grimms' collection, or those, mainly Scandinavian in origin, translated by Benjamin Thorpe or G. W. Dasent, whose rulers’ main function is to be the well-endowed parents of princesses whom the hero may woo; but in his romances he provides much greater social and political variety.

3.  g. The Well at the World's End, Book 2, chap. 17; Book 4, chap. 13.

4.  In The Well, the lands further east beyond the mountains exemplify other earlier and later social phases imagined in Marxist theory: at first city-states, under often despotic lords, whose countryside is cultivated by thralls furnished by a vigorous slave trade [Book 2, chaps. 19, 24-25], then at Goldburg [Book 2, chap. 27] by nominally free workmen driven, as in capitalist society, by hunger to toil cheaply for heedless masters.