William Morris Archive

The Classical Tale for July

Florence S. Boos 


In Morris's version of this tale from Herodotus, King Croesus seeks to avert the predicted death of Atys, his only son. Atys's closest friend Adrastus, who is haunted by an earlier incident in which he accidentally killed his own brother, also tries to protect Atys by serving as his bodyguard, but wounds him fatally in a hunting accident. Croesus quietly forgives Adrastus as the unwilling instrument of an inevitable fate, but the inconsolable bodyguard immolates himself on his friend's pyre, and his ashes are joined with Atys in a funeral urn decorated with portrayals of their deaths.


In Morris's source, the first book of Herodotus's History (paragraphs 34-45), the death of Adrastus ("He who does not run away") is a small incident in the much longer career of his father, a ruthless conqueror who spurns Solon's reminder that no man can be called fortunate while he lives. Herodotus's Adrastus accompanies Atys on the hunt at Croesus's command, and his suicide is motivated by pain at his disgrace and misfortune, not grief. Morris also adds Adrastus's dramatic self-immolation on his beloved friend's funeral pyre, and the final admixture of their ashes in the urn.

Critical Remarks:

Morris's radical revisions of his source transformed Herodotus's simple exemplum on the evils of pride into a memorialization of male friendship and parental love. The result is the only classical tale in which heterosexual love plays little or no role, and the only one which might be described as an unrelieved tragedy ("The Death of Paris," the classical tale for September, is a near-rival in gloom, but it is lightened somewhat by Paris's final affirmation of Helen). Like "The Love of Alcestis," the classical tale for June, this is a tale in which memories of love and devotion provide tenuous but enduring consolation for the arbitrary blows of fate.

See Bellas, 119-119; Boos, 96-99; Calhoun, 172-73; Oberg, 30,58,62.

An early draft (entitled "The Story of Adrastus") is in Fitzwilliam Library EP25, and the fair copy for publication in Huntington Library MS 6418. Revisions of the early draft provide small stylistic improvements.