William Morris Archive

The Medieval Tale for January

Florence S. Boos


[568] "The Ring Given to Venus" is a myth of male maturation. Its protagonist, Laurence, a prosperous citizen of a troubled realm, has returned home to marry after living abroad. Before the ceremony takes place, however, he pauses too long by a statue of Venus and heedlessly slips his wedding ring on the statue's finger.

Venus herself then appears in a "cold" erotic mist, takes the ring, and renders him impotent when he later tries to consummate his marriage. The distraught Laurence consults his father-in-law, who takes him to visit his old friend Dan Palumbus, a semi-reformed priest/sorcerer who has developed misgivings about such machinations. Palumbus gives Laurence a scroll and sends him on a journey to the underworld, via a deserted marsh at the edge of the windswept night sea.

Arrived at this littoral simulacrum of Hades, Laurence encounters a ghostly cinematic procession of Venus's followers, led by Venus herself and the procession's lord, an impressive-looking old reprobate called the Master of the Underworld. Laurence overcomes his fear, vigorously hands the Master his scroll (boldness would seem to be the right mode of address for decayed princes of darkness), and demands the ring's return.

The Master snarls with rage but does not question Laurence's claim, and the young man soon finds himself alone in the dawn, a traditional symbol of returning reason. Venus, appropriately distanced, makes a farewell mist-appearance to drop the ring at his feet. Laurence returns with relief to the world of day, where he takes a friendly pleasure in the natural beauties and human activities he encounters—the first interest in the lives and occupations of his future subjects he has shown. He also thinks about his wife with interest as he crosses the threshold of his new home.

Shortly afterward Dan Palumbus dies, and the newly-elevated King Laurence, now happily married, orders an effigy and ornament for his tomb. He also takes care in later life to remember and interpret what he has seen and narrates it to those who wish to hear.


[569] In his redaction of "The Ring Given to Venus," Morris drastically softened the severity and orthodoxy of his primary source, a very brief tale set in the middle of the eleventh century, found in William of Malmesbury's De Gestis Regum Anglorum (trans. Sharp, Bk. II, Chapter 15, pp. 232-34). Malmesbury adduces it as an exemplum of the evils of sorcery, and mentions Palumbus by name, but introduces Laurence's counterpart as a nameless "citizen of this place [Rome], youthful, rich, and of senatorial rank."

Venus's "embrace" in Malmesbury's tale also lacks Morris's quasi-seductive elaboration, for the hapless bridegroom feels only "something dense and cloudlike," which orders him to "[e]mbrace me, since you wedded me today; I am Venus, on whose finger you put the ring; I have it, nor will I restore it." Malmesbury's noticeably more venal Palumbus also demands "[t]hat . . . the young man ... fill his purse most plentifully," and suggests none of the fasting and prayer Morris's reluctant recluse imposes on the anxious Laurence. Malmesbury's description of the underground pageant is also much sparser—the Lord of the Underworld, for example, simply restores the ring "with great reluctance."

More strikingly, Palumbus's end in Malmesbury's tale is gratuitously and grotesquely horrible: he belatedly attempts to atone for his sorceries by "voluntarily cutting off all his limbs," and confesses hideous crimes to the Pope and Roman people before he dies. Morris's assurances of ultimate salvation for his quasi-Faustian magus reflects a more genial and eclectic tolerance for assorted heresies, and transforms Malmesbury's rigoristic homily into a sympathetic portrayal of sexual maturation and the via media.

Morris's attention may have been first drawn to this tale by a passage in Sabine Baring-Gould's 1865 Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, which also served as a source for other Earthly Paradise tales. In Baring-Gould's chapter on "The Mountain of Venus," he listed several analogues of the Venusberg-myth, among them the following:

There is a curious story told by Fordun in his "Scotichronicon," which has some interest in connection with the legend of the Tanhäuser. He relates that in the year 1050, a youth of noble birth had been married in Rome, and during the nuptial feast, [570] being engaged in a game of ball, he took off his wedding-ring, and placed it on the finger of a statue of Venus. When he wished to resume it, he found that the stony hand had become clinched, so that it was impossible to remove the ring. Thenceforth he was haunted by the Goddess Venus, who constantly whispered in his ear, "Embrace me; I am Venus, whom you have wedded; I will never restore your ring." However, by the assistance of a priest, she was at length forced to give it up to its rightful owner. (218-19)

Morris incorporates several details of Baring-Gould's spare account in "The Ring," Venus's strong grasp of the ring, for example, and the youth's need for priestly intervention.

Critical Remarks:

The tale's tetrameter couplets and verbal and visual echoes of Keats's narratives suggest that Morris began it early, like the other tetrameter tales "The Man Born to Be King," "The Watching of the Falcon," and "The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon." Like Admetus in "The Love of Alcestis" (the classical tale for June), Laurence also experiences a wedding-night-phobia, but Morris clearly isolates the source of romantic frustration in the male protagonist's emotions. Laurence's unnamed bride in the tale is a silent and unidentified observer, and he seeks help and advice from a thaumaturgically-trained fellow-male, not his future wife.

The "Ring"'s origins as an attack on such "sorcery" also clarify several apparent ambiguities which seem to blur its narrative point of view. The poem's cosmology and iconology partly determine the significance of Laurence's encounters, but Morris relativizes Malmesbury's Christian bias by framing the tale as the narrative of a Swabian priest. This figure expresses some respect for the 'dark powers' of human passions, but his belief in the prior claims of the Christian God also sustains the narrative's endorsement of a vaguely 'just' natural order.

The tale's most important characters—Laurence, the father-in-law, the priest/sorcerer—also express this eclectic world view and evenhanded ambivalence, in complementary ways that persist throughout the tale. They all utilize the alleged resources of sorcery but profess ultimate allegiance to ethical or religious values that transcend it.

Laurence himself, for example, acknowledges his belief in Venus and her glorious past, but he is willing to consult a sorcerer [571] himself only at the suggestion of his father-in-law. The father-in-law, in turn, expresses the requisite disapproval of such 'arts' but takes Laurence to visit his old school friend Dan Palumbus all the same.

The latter, finally, has practiced black magic but benefits from the aforementioned last-act conversion, and his artificer's abilities to heal psychological problems remain essentially unquestioned, despite his recantation. He does supplement the powers of his magic scroll with a week's fast, but no one seriously considers scrapping the 'dark arts' altogether and sending Laurence on a religious pilgrimage, say, or a mission of mercy. Nor is the significance of the scroll fully developed. If it simply contains Palumbus's final repudiation, for example, what decree enjoins "the Master" to obey any directives it may contain?

The divinities of the underworld also appear in a similarly ambiguous light. Venus, for one, behaves much more gently with Laurence than she does in "Cupid and Psyche," where she is a "legitimate" deity—she does not, for example, threaten anyone's death. "Cold mists" aside, Venus and her maidens also appear to be genuinely beautiful.

Finally, the procession in the underworld is a fairly straightforward reminder of the transitory nature of human and divine glory, whose tableaux include representations of happy love, as well as war, betrayal, and loss. The return of pensioned-off-divinities to their former dwellings is also an oddly sympathetic historical rite. The Master of the Underworld is clearly a miniature Satan, but he performs a kindly service for Laurence with the cynical ill-grace of a world-weary old functionary.

Only in the implicit struggles for the sorcerer's allegiance, in short, do the Faust-legend's manichean divisions clearly predominate. In spite of Laurence's renunciation of "wickedness," therefore, there remains a lingering sense that both black and white "magic" ("scientia"?) may be necessary to decipher the complexities of human life.

It would also seem that the people of Laurence's unnamed country resort to sorcery in part at least from loyalty to the old gods (usually a worthy Morrisean impulse), as well as foolish if understandable desires for immortality. The latter is a desire Palumbus apparently renounced in good time, but it is also one which impelled the Wanderers themselves.

[572] For the rest, the message seems to be that civilization and order are needed for a harmonious and complete human life—but so also are passion, strong desire, and imagination, with or without benefit of Palumbus's expedient deathbed conversion. In "The Ring Given to Venus," and even more in the February tale "The Hill of Venus," the forces of conventional morality and libido—represented here by white and black magic—play each other to a draw, and the resulting equipoise prepares Laurence for a more enlightened adult life.

See also Bellas, 320-29; Boos, 314-29; Calhoun, 211-13; Kirchhoff, 207-11; Oberg, 55, 61-62; and Silver, 67, 72-73.


An early version appears in British Library Add. M. S. 45,302, and the final version is in Huntington Library M. S. 6418.