William Morris Archive

The Medieval Tale for August

Florence S. Boos 


[634] "The Story of Ogier the Dane" is fittingly told at the end of nature's fullest and most restorative season, and is introduced as one that well fits the "ancient longings" of its auditors. Ogier (Holger in Danish) is the only medieval protagonist whose fay does not desert him, though his contacts with her are interrupted by two lengthy lives on earth. "The Story of Ogier" is also the only medieval tale so far in which a mortal puts on immortality. As usual in Morris's work, however, desire and sorrow are intermixed, and "Ogier" both stirs its auditors' deepest and oldest desires and troubles them with the counterfactual nature of its beauty.

The tale begins as Ogier's birth has brought his mother's death, and his father the king sits inconsolable beside the bier. Near dawn, his vigil yields to a trance-like sleep, and six female beings enter the room and confer on the infant Ogier six gifts: courage and goodness, strength, success, gentility, sexual attractiveness, and, most significant of all, love of the sixth and most beautiful fairy "within the happy country where I dwell."

The narration swiftly bypasses Ogier's (first) heroic life of battles and triumphs, and presents him next as a hundred-year-old man, shipwrecked and alone on a deserted island. Ogier is happily married, and deeply regrets that his beloved wife will not be with him when he dies. He manages a certain detachment as he spends a last night on earth, and at dawn awakes refreshed to a vision of light. A boat approaches over the water and carries him to a fair garden, where Morgan le Fay, the fairy who had pledged her love, gives him a ring which confers perpetual youth. Appreciative, he nonetheless remains somewhat alienated: "to the deeds that he was (635) wont to do / Did his desires still turn." In fact, he later learns that he must return to earth and perform such deeds as God's agent of salvation for the French people.

When he does, however, Ogier is deprived of all his memory of both natural and supernatural pasts: he reads chronicles of events and persons once familiar with incomprehension, and is troubled by a platonic confusion about his identity and position in time. As the "Ancient Knight," he wins the love of the soon-to-be-widowed Queen and saves Paris in battle, but before the marriage can occur, he is revisited by Morgan le Fay, who gives him a crown which again confers memory and immortality. Oppressed by this superimposition of timelessness on two earthly lives, Ogier is somewhat mollified by her assurance, "love, I am not changed." At this point, the narrator himself cannot describe their departure for Avallon, for "they were gone, / How I know not...."

Ogier has thus experienced two genuine mortal loves and one immortal one, and has returned once to the Cave, to jeopardize his existence in fulfillment of duty. The shifts in awareness and loyalty from wife to fay to Queen are presented as honest confusions. Ogier is disoriented, not unfaithful, and the narrative's sense of powerful emotions which shift beneath conscious will only adds to its dream-like quality.


Some of Morris's deepest preoccupations with discontinuity, change, and regeneration after loss are exemplified by the way in which he reshaped his immediate source, Louis Elisabeth de la Vergne, Comte de Tressan's "Ogier le Danois" in Corps d'extraits de Romans de Chevalerie (1782).

Perhaps Morris was attracted by de la Vergne de Tressan's use of "Avalon" as a garden refuge beyond time, and his juxtapositions of timeless love with unexpected reencounters with oneself in other times. Tennyson had used the theme of the return to life after one hundred years in his 1842 "The Day Dream," and Edward Burne-Jones did so again in "The Briar Rose" series of paintings (1871-90). In Morris's "Ogier," such dream-like intermittence of [636] consciousness is used to make plausible an allegory of love beyond time and space.

In de la Vergne de Tressan's version, six benign fairies, among them "Morgane," also attend the infant Ogier, but Ogier's rather belligerent father, Geoffroy de Danmarke, later sends the boy as a hostage to Charlemagne's court. As an adolescent, Ogier engages in a brief and idyllic romance "dans la forêt des Ardennes" with the gentle Belicène, but Charlemagne abruptly separates the young lovers. Ogier—who has renounced the throne of Danmarke—then undertakes a long career as one of Charlemagne's principal warriors, aided from time to time in his endeavors by his relative "duc Naymes de Bavière," by the noble "Sarrasin" Caraheu, whose life he saves in an early engagement, and by his enchanted sword "Courtain," a gift from Caraheu.

Ogier had hoped to marry Belicène after his first skirmish, but learns to his great sorrow that she has died giving birth to their son Baudoin, and Belicène's mother Béline raises the boy to adolescence. Charlemagne's cowardly son Chariot later kills Baudoin in a fit of pique, and Ogier's grief-stricken pursuit of the cowering Chariot incurs Charlemagne's rage, but Naymes and other friends help save him from Charlemagne's wrath, and he 'redeems' himself in single combat against another evil "Sarrasin." He later distinguishes himself further in a long series of crusade-like exploits, with the faithful Caraheu and Caraheu's companion Gloriande at his side.

At length, however, Morgane claims Ogier for herself, lures him to Avalon, and enmeshes him in an amatory spell which preserves his youth but clouds his memory. The spell falters after two hundred years, and Ogier returns briefly to France to save Hugues Capet from yet more evil "Sarrasins," but Morgane manages to recapture him, and "le brave Ogier rentre pour toujours dans le premier enchantement."

In de la Vergne de Tressan's version, the rejuvenating-ring episode (lines 1185-1239 in Morris's text) occurs in an animated conversation with an aged countess, who knows the ancient chronicles and is moved by Ogier's wistful memories of Belicène. (637) When the countess grasps his hand in sympathy, the ring falls into her hand, and she slips it on her finger "de vieille galanterie pour Ogier," and is astonished to see him wither as she regains "la fraîcheur, les grâces, et la folie de la jeunesse." The Queen has observed all this and she sternly orders the rather pathetic Countess to return the ring.

Only in this scene and Ogier's youthful tryst with Belicène does de la Vergne de Tressan's tale approach the psychological depth of Morris's poem. Morris's hero is a much more reflective figure than his prototype in "Ogier le Danois": he often meditates, earnestly and alone, on the puzzling horizons of his conflicting experiences, and his moments of introspection are miniatures of Morris's best work.

Critical Remarks:

The structure of "Ogier the Dane" embodies to an unusual degree Morris's fascination with the alternating polarities of escape and confinement, leisure and struggle, rest and labor. Ogier's fate lies somewhere midway between that of The Earthly Paradise's seekers after good fortune, and those who receive it unsought: he is assured future love and immortality, but predestined to struggle almost endlessly toward these ends, with uncertain memory and little foreknowledge of his eventual fate. In the tale, he experiences two such struggles, in (at least) two separate lifetimes. This dual validation exacts its cost in the dissociation and discontinuity from which Ogier suffers—disorienting shifts in time, place, and identity, and recurrent severance from his past loves and desires. Ogier achieves an idealized union of human and immortal love, but only at the cost of great fragmentation of the heroic identity which first faces death on a lonely shore.

"Ogier"'s afterlives also express a kind of poetic conjecture that the self emerges most clearly in the very process of failing and beginning anew, a process in which one may at the same time "feel one's own power," and accept death. Recreative glimpses of memory and history might also renew one's [638] participation in regenerative patterns of decay and renewal. The tale thus expresses Morris's faith that if the past is somehow reflected in the future, it is never utterly dead: some regeneration is inherent in all weakness and disability, and something survives the ravages of death.

See also Bellas, 237-52; Boos, 252-265; Calhoun, 151, 171, 175, 177; Kirchhoff (1990), 174-76; Oberg, 29, 53-54, 59-61; Silver, 66-68, 74.


No drafts survive; the fair copy for the printer is in Huntington Library MS 6418.