Introduction to "The Doom of King Acrisius"
The Classical Tale for April
Florence S. Boos
"The Doom of King Acrisius" unfolds into two separate tales of love and deliverance. The first might be called "Danae and Jove" by analogy with "Cupid and Psyche," the classical tale for May, and the second, "Perseus in Seriphos" by analogy with "Bellerophon in Lycia," the classical tale for February.
King Acrisius's "doom" in the first subtale is a prophecy that he will be killed by the progeny of his daughter Danae. Acrisius tries to avert his fate by immuring Danae in a tower, but she is 'rescued' from the tower by a Jovian rape that Morris recasts as a "gentle suiting": Danae is tenderly encircled by an aura of sunbeams and "gently ... smitten on the breast," after which Jove then appears, dressed in gold, to announce the birth of a son. Biblical echoes later abound as Danae flees with her infant son, the future hero Perseus.
The second subtale is devoted to the grown Perseus and Andromeda. Danae eventually finds refuge in Seriphos, where King Polydectes wishes to marry the still-handsome mother. Polydectes fears his prospective stepson, however, and malevolently sends the youth off with instructions to behead the Medusa. The goddess Athena, impressed by Perseus's courage and devotion, helps Perseus to outwit the gnomic Graiae, Medusa's sisters, and learn from them the location of Medusa's abode. After Perseus mercifully kills the wretched Medusa, he neatly packages her head for the journey home, and rescues a grateful Andromeda from a dragon's jaws on the way.
Acrisius's "doom" is finally accomplished when Perseus visits the neighboring king of Thessaly. When the king presses Perseus to join a game of stone-casting, he throws a rock which accidentally strikes and kills an elderly bystander. When this turns out to be Acrisius, who had vainly hoped to defeat the prophecy by fleeing his native land, Perseus assumes his vacant throne, and like Michael of "The Man Born to Be King," becomes a model ruler.
The narrator of "The Doom of King Acrisius" introduces his tale with a modest warning that his additions may have marred its quality: "Surely I fear me, midst the ancient gold / Base metal ye will light on here and there . . . ."
The "ancient gold" of Morris's sources for this tale included Lemprière's Dictionary, Apollodorus's Bibliotheca and Ovid's Metamorphoses, to which Morris added several elements from William Caxton's medieval account in The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy. Among the latter are Caxton's partial humanization of Jove, and his extension of the Danae episode, emphasis on Acrisius's distress, and portrayal of Danae as unaware of her impending doom.
Morris further adds to these sources an intervention by Venus, and makes Danae a more introspective and psychologically plausible heroine. In Ovid, the gods enable Perseus to defeat the dragon by giving him the ability to fly. Morris's Perseus, like Caxton's, relies only on his ability to fight. Morris also inserts several characteristic reflections on the evanescent prior "golden age," and omits some Ovidian marvels and sanguinary details (in Ovid's text, for example, snakes are engendered by drops of blood from Medusa's severed head). He likewise makes Perseus somewhat more merciful to the vanquished, intensifies the account of the lovers' first meeting, and expands the narrative's empathetic range. Even Medusa becomes a sympathetic figure in Morris's version of the tale.
"The Doom of King Acrisius"'s division into de facto subtales may illustrate Morris's early reluctance to acknowledge how many changes would be required to reconcile the internal responses of his revised protagonists with their unchanged outer fates. Morris had a natural talent for short monologues as well as full sequential narratives, and his characters are not thinly drawn, but he sometimes infuses characters with an emotional depth which clashes with the constraints imposed by his sources.
Morris often solved this problem later by highlighting incidents he wished to deepen and elaborate in this way from longer and more diffuse plots--in "The Lovers of Gudrun" and "Bellerophon in Lycia," for example, and other tales which focus on a single voyage, point a particular moral, or test a single love. In "The Doom of King Acrisius," the king's guilty attempt to avert his fate divides the tale neatly into the two subplots mentioned above, but Morris's interest in the second eventually overpowers the first.
The auditors' mood shifts slightly at the conclusion of this tale, the sequence's first legend of active heroism. Prompted perhaps by its victories over "mighty monsters," they sense ". . . dim foreshadowings of what yet might come /When they perforce must leave that new-gained home."
See Bellas, 57-74; Boos, 76-82; Calhoun, 134-37; Oberg, 4143; Silver, 73.
In addition to the usual fair copy in Huntington Library 4618, a rough early draft is found in Huntington Library 6462. The tale is included in May Morris's list of quarto manuscript drafts, where it precedes "The Proud King."