William Morris Archive

The Medieval Tale for July

Florence S. Boos 


In "The Watching of the Falcon," a king learns that a deserted castle of his kingdom houses a falcon, which if watched for seven days will become a beautiful woman, pledged to grant the watcher a single wish. If the watcher fails to remain alert for the full term, however, he will be "torn and mangled wretchedly" by invisible hands.

Heedless of family and kingdom, the king sets forth. As he rides, he encounters tapestries which depict past instances of destructive sexual passion, and commits an ultimate Morrisian blunder: he ignores these artistic representations of the past.

When he finally arrives at the castle, the falcon's perch itself bears an explicit warning against "wishing for a thing untried," but the king remains undeterred. He successfully watches his full seven days, after which sobriety and self-knowledge desert him utterly when an unreally beautiful and obliging woman appears in human form. This basically well-intended and friendly fay personally warns him yet again, but finally responds to his persistent importunities, and bids him farewell with an expression of pity for "the sad life of men."

The king now returns to his kingdom and family, but soon sees both fall into ruin. Later, the "fay lady" visits him one last time, and accurately predicts that he will be murdered within the hour. The wretched king's dying thoughts continue to circle his obsession, and his final rationalization appeals to a kind of resigned suspension of judgment: ". . . who knows if what men call bliss / Had been much better now than this / When I am hastening to the end."


Morris characteristically revised his sources for this tale--the episode of Sparrow-Hawk Castle from Sir John Mandeville's The Travels of Sir John Mandeville (11. 5566-5628), and another version of the same tale in Jean d'Arras's The Tale of Melusine--to provide fuller descriptions of the countryside, the "fay lady" and the king's disastrous return, and to interpolate several brief meditations on the transience and limitations of life. Morris also adds a nice small touch in the admonitory scroll on the falcon's perch, yet another warning to the obdurate king. Only in Morris's version does the fay actually grant the king's request, and her initial cautions and solicitiously affectionate manner are also absent from Mandeville's tale.

Critical Remarks:

"The Watching of the Falcon"'s brightly colored descriptive details, direct, even rhythms, and insistent preoccupation with the inevitability of death are characteristic of Morris's earliest drafts for Earthly Paradise tales. The figure of an elusive, almost shamanic woman who first lures and deserts her victim, also appears in three other medieval Earthly Paradise narratives: "The Land East of the Sun" (September); "The Man Who Never Laughed Again" (October); and "The Hill of Venus" (February).

Another of the story's distinguishing features--its censure of vaulting Faustian ambition--appears in three other medieval tales: "The Writing on the Image" (May); "The Lady of the Land" (June); and "The Ring Given to Venus" (January). The tale's didactic frame characterizes the king quite clearly from the onset as a good example of someone who should not undertake such a quest, since he already enjoys a full measure of human satisfaction--stable family life, success, and wealth.

"The Watching of the Falcon"'s overreaching king seems on balance more deluded than evil, however, and the narrative is carefully structured to mitigate the falcon/woman's complicity with the king's suicidal obsession. Partly for this reason, the tale's fatalism seems slightly gratuitous, but its anxious eroticism is a recurrent motif of Victorian affective psychology.

See Bellas, 225-36; Boos, 99-103; Calhoun, 172-75; Kirchhoff (1990), 171-72; Oberg, 30, 58,62; Silver, 67, 72, 76

An early draft is in Fitzwilliam Library EP25, and the fair copy for the printer in Huntington Library 6418. Morris's revisions of the early Fitzwilliam draft underscore both the gravity of the hero's failures and their moral ambivalence.