William Morris Archive

Carole Silver

Morris’s next exploration [after] The House of the Wolfings [was a continuation] called The Roots of the Mountains. Again it is a myth of the heroic individual and society; again its center is love and fellowship; again, its writing is not an escape from the present but an attempt to recapture the heroic past in order to reshape that present. But this time, set as it is in a later stage of the development of the Germanic peoples, the book reflects not sage but romance.

Its tone is therefore entirely different from its predecessor’s. The interspersed poems contain some kennings and alliterative patterns, but no longer are they imitations of the Elder Edda. Gone are the starkness and severity of the earlier work. The tale is still somewhat grave, but Morris has already begun to slip into the world of his later romances, a realm of ornament. He has turned from the heroic age to what he considered the beginnings of the chivalric. Moving away from the myth of sacrifice to the myth of reconciliation, he has shown the restoration of the spirit of the golden age.

The land is no longer a primitive but heroic enclave. It is a fully grown earthly paradise, so good we are told,

[177] that it seems a land “wherein people die not, but live forever, without growing any older than when they came thither.” (XV,232) Its life is that of the age of gold:

Thus lived this fold in much plenty and ease of life, though not delicately nor desiring things out of measure. They wrought with their hands and wearied themselves, and they rested from their toil and feasted and were merry: tomorrow was not a burden to them, nor yesterday a thing which they would fain forget: life shamed them not, nor did death make them afraid. (XV,11)

Its rulers are an aristocracy of merit, dedicated to a life of service:

When I drive the herds it shall be at the neighbours’ bidding whereso they will; not necks of men shall I smite, but the stalks of the tall wheat, and the boles of the timber-tree which the woodreeve hath marked for felling; the stilts of the plow rather than the hilts of the sword shall harden my hands; my shafts shall be for the deer, and my spears for the wood-boar, till war and sorrow fall upon us, and though I be called a chief and of the blood of chiefs, yet shall I not be masterful to the goodman of the Dale, but rather to my hound: for my chieftainship shall be that I shall be well beloved and trusted, and that no man shall grudge against me. (XV,140)

Their principle is “to set right above law and mercy above custom.” (XV,71)

Once again the brave and free are threatened by tyrannical oppressors, this time the Huns whose master-slave society is seen as the prototype of modern capitalism.1 The point of

1 Grennan, p. 120. Morris is much concerned with describing the degradation of the Hunnish thralls. Treated as machines rather than men, they represent the victims of an early system of division of labor. There are thralls for each occupation, even to the most unfortunate who slave in the mines; they are organized and ruled by overseer thralls as brutal as their masters.

[178] the story is the building of the new order: how the separate Kindreds joined to overcome their enemy and become one fellowship. It shows the causes of the union, need, as represented by the threat of the Huns, and love, as represented by marriage between various tribal leaders.1 Not ignoring the barriers to such fellowship, personal enmity and frustrated passion, it shows how they are overcome. Finally, it presents the result of union, the melting of the separate tribes into a people – a race which is to “increase and multiply, till … valiant men and clean maidens make the bitter sweet and purify the earth!” (XV,235)

But the story is not just a nostalgic portrayal of the days of the Germanic inundation of Europe. It is a myth of reconciliation on many levels: of forgiveness between individuals, of the movement from separateness to union among political units, of the merging and mating of paired cosmic forces to create a second Eden.

Forgiveness becomes necessary when the hero, Face-of-God, meets the Friend, discovers that he truly loves her, and must break his betrothal to his childhood sweetheart, the Bride.2 He feels guilt and sorrow, the Bride a sense of

1 The Bride is spared from death to promote tribal union, for her marriage to Folk-Might was felt by Morris to “be a very good alliance for the Burgdalers and the Silverdalers both.” (XV,xi)

2 The reader may find it difficult to see why one woman is preferred to the other since they are barely distinguishable. Both are versions of the ideal woman, outdoor, active, tall and well-knit, tanned by the sun, and well adapted to labor, sports, and even war. Both are prototypes of Ellen in News from Nowhere, open free in speech, without affectation or coyness, and sexually warm and frank. Both are the ideal figures Morris will reuse in later romances.

[179] bitter inadequacy. But honesty helps solve the problem; Face and the Bride express their emotions frankly and analyze the causes of their relationship’s failure. The Friend behaves with tenderness and understanding to the woman she has supplanted. The real deus ex machina, however, is friendly love—love not based on passion, but on shared interests and mutual respect. Folk-Might, the Friend’s brother, wins this from the Bride and is satisfied with a relationship based not on her ardent desire but on her mild affection. She grows to accept his friendship and a marriage that will be good for her tribe.

Thus the book ends with the union of the two major sets of lovers, one in the traditional romantic marriage, the other in the less conventional wedding of two friends. Though the latter reconciliation may seem forced, it is valid as a thematic device. It contributes to the motif of mass marriage—of the uniting of a whole world through different kinds of love. The first act after the defeat of the Huns—the banishment of evil from Eden—is the reunion of all lovers within the various societies, and their mass kissing, embracing, and love-making. The next is the ritual of the Maiden Wrap, the mock abductions of the various brides and the bringing of them to their new homes. The end result is a married world of fertile love.

[180] On the socio-political level, the myth ends in the arrangement for another kind of marriage, the merging of the various Kindreds—Burgdalers, Silverdalers, and Rosedalers—into one people, so that the “lost way should be found and the crooked made straight.” (XV,233) Social reconciliation is expressed by the vision of the Bride cherishing Face’s second child along with her own. The child is not only a token of personal forgiveness, but a bond between Silverdale and Burgdale. Its birth suggests the beginning of a new age of fellowship.1

But the idea of the married world extends even to the cosmos, and the names of the major protagonists suggest the book’s broader symbolism.2 Face-of-God’s name is a traditional epithet for the sun, and the imagery used to describe him heightens the identification. As the face of God, he is the tribe’s visible symbol of power, wisdom, and kindness. As the man-god, he stands for the creation and increase—for love in all its forms. His beloved, the Friend, bears equally symbolic names. As the Friend, she is his rightful consort—for as Morris makes clear in News from Nowhere, friendship is the basis of all sound love. As Sun-Beam, her true name,

1 The pattern of the book is circular. It begins with the bringing home of a wife to bear her first child and closes with the bearing of another child to a new home.

2 Symbolic naming, though not with any broad intentions, is used even for the minor characters. Iron-Face is the name of Face’s stern, strong father, Bow-May of a rogueish archeress, and Penny-Thumb of a miser.

[181] she is the cosmic match for the creative force, his anima and emanation.

The Bride and Folk-Might are also identified as partially mythological beings. The Bride is, in part, ironically named, for she is not the bride of the expected groom. But her name also suggests the “human representative of the spirit of vegetation.”1 As such, she is a symbol of the rich and fertile earth. Out of friendship and kinship she weds the strength of a people. The result, as in the marriage of the two sun figures, is the creation of a new earthly paradise.

The marriage of individuals, societies, and cosmic forces are reflections of Morris’s dreams of peace and reconciliation. But they do not, in any way, suggest a final statement of belief. No sooner has Morris dreamed of reconciliation than thoughts of all its difficulties came to the fore. News from Nowhere examines these problems. It paints love as the one imperfection in a perfect society; it explores the gap between private passion and public benevolence, and it suggests the difficulty of finding and holding the good relationship.

"No Idle Singer: The Poems and Romances of William Morris," Diss. Columbia University, 1967, 176-181.