Introduction to "The Lady of the Land"
The Medieval Tale for June
Florence S. Boos
In "The Lady of the Land," a mariner explores an island, where he meets a beautiful young woman in a deserted palace. She informs him that her father, a thaumaturgist and domestic tyrant, dedicated her at birth to the virgin-goddess Diana (compare the fathers of Danae and Psyche), and she violated this 'vow' as an adult by taking a lover. In retaliation, the angry goddess murdered her companion as they embraced, and transformed her into a loathsome dragon for all but one day each year. She can now be released from this spell only by someone willing to kiss her head in its repellent dragon form, which she now pleads with him to do.
Eager to oblige but overconfident, the mariner returns the next day and is overcome by terror and revulsion. He strikes wildly at the hideous visage, and flees in remorse. The dragon weeps, gnashes a stone, and returns in misery to the sea, and her failed liberator dies raving in delirium.
Morris adds to this episode from Mandeville's Travels (chapter 16) a lengthy description of the castle's decayed luxury, and he also deepens the mariner's emotions and hopes. Mandeville's lady makes the status-conscious pre-condition that her wooer become a knight before he revisits her in her dragon-state, but Morris's Lady is not so demanding, and her urgent need for rescue gives substance to the mariner's task.
Morris also emphasizes the mariner's pathetic final end, in pointed contrast with Mandeville's blandly conventional prophecy that "when there shall come a knight who is bold enough to kiss her, he . . . shall turn the damsel into her right form and natural shape, and he shall be lord of all the countries and isles abovesaid."
One might well question the point of this austere and censorious early tale, since eager sexuality and love-at-first-sight are virtual cliches of male heroism in The Earthly Paradise, and the pathetic mariner's love seems quite sincere. His only conspicuous flaw is youthful callowness, which emerges from time to time in his glibly expressed hopes for ease and sexual satisfaction, and he is never given a second chance. He is the only Earthly Paradise protagonist, in fact, who is utterly undone by one moment of cowardice.
Similarly, the Lady's yearning for any man able to release her from this curse may make her less "modest" than other heroines in Morris's tales, but she is a pathetically oppressed figure, and the only incarcerated Earthly Paradise heroine who is not rescued.
The reader is clearly meant to sympathize with the disappointed 'dragon,' and the pathos of the mariner's end also confers on him a fragil but genuine dignity:
The final response of the auditors adds resonance to the narrator's question. Many younger people contemn the mariner ("A little thing the man had had to do"), but the older hearers are painfully aware the "thing" was not so "little." Conscious of their own past failures, they
Both here and in "The Writing on the Image," Morris took tales which bore prescriptive warnings--against the perils of curiosity in the latter, against shallow overconfidence in the former--and subverted part of their original moralism, but not all. The resulting ironies in this tale briefly evoke Morris's recurrent preoccupations with the ambiguities of identity and moral courage.
See Bellas, 214-23; Boos, 94-96; Calhoun, 161, 168-71; Kirchhoff (1990), 168-71; Oberg, 43, 55, 65; Silver, 67, 72-73.
An early draft is in Fittwilliam Library EP25, and the fair copy for the printer in Huntington Library MS 6418. Several descriptions are more sensuously phrased in the Fitzwilliam draft, which also lacks the published version's episode in which the Lady gives the mariner a gem as a love-token.
"The Lady of the Land" is included as the first medieval tale after "The Wanderers' Prologue" in May Morris's list of early manuscript books.