William Morris Archive

Florence S. Boos

A Times Literary Supplement reviewer once remarked of William Morris’s use of history in later life: he "was always concerned with the future even when he seemed  most absorbed  in the past. He turned to it, not to lose himself in it, but to find what was best worth having and doing now."1  Morris's imaginary reconstructions of a proto-socialist past are among his most intriguing literary works, for they enabled him to express two dialectically opposed features of his art: a concrete sense of physical, everyday reality, and a deeper sense of the emotional transformations needed for a new social order.

A Dream of John Ball, serialized in the Socialist League newspaper Commonweal 1886-87, was the last historical reconstruction which Morris attempted before the shock of the police attack on a crowd of protesters and resultant death of an innocent by-passer in Trafalgar Square on 13 November 1887. The Trafalgar Square  incident deepened Morris's wariness of armed confrontations in which the enemy held all the arms, and his essays and Commonweal notes of the late 1880s reveal growing sadness at the slow progress of socialism. Perhaps partly in compensation, and to find to find reasons for hope, he began to search for historical "traces" of socialist victories in a more distant past, that of Germanic tribal societies in the twilight of the Roman Empire. The House of the Wolfings (1888) and The Roots of the Mountains (1889) both describe early struggles of imaginary tribal societies toward a more coherent communal order.

These paired romances constitute Morris's most concrete reconstruction of an idealized pre-socialist society-its economic organization, political features, and heroic ideals in war and peace. Morris largely followed his sources' accounts of the tribal structures of work, farming, law, and kinship. These descriptions also provided him with a narrative framework for his egalitarian social ideals and intuitive understanding of many forms of work, and encouraged him to identify the best features of medieval life for later incorporation into the ideal future society of News from Nowhere.

The House of the Wolfings is briefer than its companion romance, set in an earlier period, and more tied to concrete historical events. The Roots of the Mountains, by contrast, is a more leisurely recreation of a later period of tribal and communal life. Morris wrote little else about the political intentions or "literary matter" of the German romances, but May Morris later commented on them:

His thoughts were fixed on this point in mid-Europe where the great forces came and went and met in conflict before blending....  In the one  tale [The House of the Wolfings]the exhausted Roman is the villain of the play, in the other [The Roots of the Mountains] it is the Savage of the East, the wild horsemen that "move like to the stares [sic] in autumn." Against these two elements, of outworn tyranny and ignorant brute-force, the free intelligent tribes are in warfare.... Love of the tribe and the kindred is the keynote in The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains.2

The House of the Wolfings clearly identifies its people as "Goths," and their opponents as "Romans," "Huns," "Franks," and "Burgundians,” and May Morris’s identification of "villains" in Roots with the Huns would seem to date the latter story before the defeat of Attila in the late sixth century and locate it in some part of alpine middle-Europe.

In some respects, the relation between the two German romances is analogous to that between Morris’s two English romances, A Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere. A Dream of John Ball focuses on preparations for an early revolt, while News from Nowhere looks back to a completed social revolution from a time of peace. Wolfings similarly presents an earlier, more threatened warlike tribal society, while Roots offers a fuller account of social relations in a time of relative peace. After these precedents, it becomes less surprising that Morris's next romance was News from Nowhere, whose future society exhibits significant features of this idealized “medieval" life.

Morris’s Medieval Antecedents:
Such appeals to Germanic tribal values followed a rather venerable tradition, represented by Baron Montesquieu's claim in De L'Esprit des lois (1748) that England's political constitution had been "invented first in the woods [of Germany],”3  and David   Hume’s warm praise for Saxon "valour and love of liberty" in the History of England (1762). The most direct influence on Morris, however, was likely Edward Gibbon's 1776 The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which Morris read both as a young man and in middle age. Many details of Morris's descriptions closely resemble Gibbon's pronouncements about the organization of Germanic society. However Morris's interpretations of these details also closely parallel arguments by his socialist and communist· contemporaries-Ernest Belfort Bax, Friedrich Engels, and Peter Kropotkin among them—that small "medieval" societies had adumbrated the realization of communitarian ideals.

As an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford, Morris had read H. H. Milman's 1852 annotated edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and according to his daughter: "Gibbon ... was read through more than once during different bouts of illness and taken up constantly in the last years of the life."4 Morris's German romances show little trace of the "historical" details of Gibbon's narrative—his lengthy chronicles of tribal reigns, emigrations, wars, and hegemonic disputes. Instead, Morris seems to have adapted Gibbon's general descriptions of tribal life and military resistance and extended his reconstructions of daily life, communal activity, and popular art. The historical indefiniteness of Morris's Germanic romances allowed him to sketch in loving detail the communal virtues of the Wolfings and Wolf-Folk, and mitigate or suppress practices that might seem harsh or brutal. Morris, in effect, ascribed to Germanic tribespeople traits of sophistication and kindness which Gibbon had denied them, and contrasted their traits favorably with those of Roman "civilization."

Gibbon had described a tribal government by general council of free adult men, convened at stated intervals or in emergencies. The Folk-motes of the Wolfings and the Roots’ Wolf-Folk are of course such bodies. According to Gibbon this council was not legislative but judicial and military: "The trial of public offenses, the election of magistrates, and the great business of peace and war, were determined by its independent voice. Sometimes, indeed, these important questions were previously considered and prepared in a more select council of the principal chieftains. The magistrates might deliberate and persuade, the people only could resolve and execute."5  Thus in Wolfings chieftains confer directly before battle, andin the more developed society of Roots, several such prior consultations take place between Folk-Might, the Alderman, Face-of-God, and various other "principal chieftains." The narrator of Wolfings asserts that "neighbors" of the Folk-mote pass judgment at the Doomring, although only one Wolfing Folk-mote, at which the tribesmen elect Thiodolf as War-duke, is actually described. By contrast, the Folk-mote in Roots adjudicates individual disputes, makes peace, and declares war. The Wolfings' council is attended by all males of the tribe: "At such Things would all the men of the  House of the Wolfings or the  Folk be present man by man" (5);6 the virgin-priestess Hall-Sun is also permitted to attend, and her advice solicited on the defense of the Wolfing People’s Roof.

The elections of Thiodolf and Face-of-God as War-Leaders both follow Gibbon's prescription according to which "a general of the tribe was elected on occasions of danger; and, if the danger was pressing and extensive, several tribes concurred in the choice of the same general. The bravest warrior was named to lead his countrymen into the field, by his example rather than by his commands. But the power ... expired with the war, and in time of peace the German tribes acknowledged not any supreme chief. Princes were, however, appointed in the general assembly, to administer justice, or rather to compose differences, in their respective districts. In the choice of these magistrates as much regard was shown to birth as to merit." In Wolfings, Thiodolf, significantly chosen for merit rather than birth, conveniently doubles as chief administrator and principal warrior, for "he was deemed the wisest man and the best man of his hands, and of heart most dauntless."

Gibbon's Germans venerated nature and "the Earth," and followed elaborate codes of hospitality and exchange of gifts (1.197). The tribespeople in Wolfings likewise worship assorted animals ("the holy beasts who drew the banner-wains"); places (of the "Holy Thing"); and objects (the Hall-Lamp). According to Gibbon, iron, silver, and gold were scarce among the tribes in the first and second centuries (1.179). By the fourth through sixth centuries (the approximate period of Wolfings and Roots), trade in such commodities had become common. Wolfings contains several references to iron weaponry but notes that not every fighter can be provided with iron armor; the tribal War-horn is made of gold.

Morris also followed several aspects of Gibbon's description of tribal war: the presence of women in the war-camps, their occasional participation in battle, the juxtaposition and mutual exhortation of kinsmen in the ranks, and the importance of archery, war-cries, and music. In Wolfings, two brothers and "a doughty maid, their sister" (l24) bring news to the Wolfings' army and engage in the fighting, and Hall-Sun, other women, old men, and boys form a reserve contingent. Both Wolfings and Wolf-Folk sing as they advance into battle, in some cases they are accompanied by horns and trumpets, and Thiodolf shouts a battle-cry in alliterative meter as he leads his final advance.

Gibbon calls "desire of fame and the contempt of death ... habitual sentiments of a German mind," and remarks on the tribes' distaste for tribute and negotiations (1.202). Both Wolfings and Wolf-Children faithfully commemorate past heroism and expect the same from their descendants. In Roots the prewar Council and Folk-mote debate whether to attack immediately or prepare for defense, and Morris praises the wisdom of their surprise attack. This may echo an episode in which Gibbon describes the only instance in which a Roman city (Azimus) held out against the Huns: the Azimuntines did not wait, but "attacked, in frequent and successful sallies, the troops of the Huns, who graduallly declined the dangerous neighbourhood, rescued from their hands the spoil and the captives, and recruited their domestic force by the voluntary association of fugitives and deserters... The ministers of Theodosius confessed, with shame and with truth, that they no longer possessed any authority over a society of men who so bravely asserted their natural independence; and the king of the Huns condescended to negotiate an equal exchange with the citizens of Azimus... Every soldier, every statesman, must acknowledge that, if the race of the Azimuntines had been encouraged and multiplied, the barbarians would have ceased to trample on the majesty of the empire” (2.214).

Morris, however, pointedly reverses Gibbon's censure of two other aspects of Germanic life: the bravery of their women and the absence of money for exchange. Gibbon remarks that "the Germans treated their women with esteem and confidence, consulted them on every occasion of importance, and fondly believed that in their breasts resided a sanctity and wisdom more than human."  But he dismisses derisively women who "emulate the stem virtues of man": "Heroines of such a cast may claim our admiration; but they were most assuredly neither lovely nor very susceptible of love. Whilst they affected to emulate the stern virtues of man, they must have resigned that attractive softness in which principally consists the charm of woman . . . . Female courage, however it may be raised by fanaticism, or confirmed by habit, can be only a faint and imperfect imitation of the manly valour that distinguishes the age or country in which it may be found" (1.199) In Wolfings, by contrast, women who serve as scouts are "well-nigh as strong as men, clean-limbed and tall, tanned with the sun and wind" (87). Even so, Wolfings's virgin-priestess Hall-Sun is an isolated figure, and the goddess Wood-sun of Roots never considers entering battle to protect her lover. Gibbon also describes the German women's preference for suicide over capture, a resolution shared by Morris's women scouts in Wolfings and in Roots by the women of the Shadowy Vale.

Morris's view of money also differs radically from Gibbon's. The latter writes:  “Money, in a word, is the most universal incitement, iron the most powerful instrument, of human industry; and it is very difficult to conceive by what means a people, neither actuated by the one nor seconded by the other,” could emerge from the grossest barbarism" (1.192). There is no mention of currency in Wolfings;in Roots Morris gleefully accepts Gibbon's identification of civilization with money, and rejects both. His Dalespeople use various commodities (including gold) for barter and exchange, but no coins or currency. Coins of course are also absent from the future society of News from Nowhere, whose inhabitants are incredulous and puzzled when the narrator offers payment for their services. In his essay "The Society of the Future," Morris describes this utopian aspect of the ideal commonwealth: "Private property of course will not exist as a right: there will be such an abundance of all ordinary necessaries that between private persons there will be no obvious and immediate exchange necessary.”7

Thus far Morris’s revisions of Gibbon have been consistent with his respect for non-classical art and culture and for communitarian ideals. Unfortunately he also replicates Gibbon’s caricatured portrayal of the Huns in his portrayal of the Wolf-Folk’s antagonists. Morris's simplistic characterization of the Dusky Men in Roots may be compared with his more muted presentation of the Romans in Wolfings. The Roman hosts are several times portrayed as cruel, predatory, and greedy, but the narrator also notes instances of their bravery and skill, records their decency in preserving the corpse of the slain Gothic leader Otto, and describes them  physically as "nimble  and fleet of foot, men round of limb, very dark-skinned,  but  not foul of favor" (96). In contrast to the Wolf-Children in Roots, the Wolfings also feel some respect and pity for their defeated opponents: "For pity of these valiant men was growing in the hearts of the valiant men who had vanquished them, now that they feared them no more" (185).  

It may seem surprising that Morris did not also use Frederick  Engels's 1884 Der Ursprung  der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staates (translated into English in 1902 as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State), in which Engels also associated egalitarian and communist ideals with the social practices of "upper barbaric" Germanic tribes. The direct influence of Engels's work on Morris's romances, however, seems to have been rather slight. Morris knew Engels, and may well have discussed with him, or with Bax and other socialists, the ideas of Der Ursprung,  as well as its chief sources, Lewis Morgan's 1877 Ancient Society and Edward Freeman's 1874 Comparative  Politics. Morris, moreover, surely concurred with Engels that "all the vigorous and creative life which the Germans infused into the Roman world was barbarism. Only barbarians are able to rejuvenate a world in the throes of a collapsing civilization.8  Both writers identified the decline of political liberty with the rise of private property,  and Engels also disparaged coinage as a "new instrument for the domination of the non-producer over the producer and his production." (225) Engels concludes his argument with a ringing quotation from Morgan: “Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education  ... will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality, and fraternity of the ancient gentes" (237).

Morris's portrayal of German tribal life contains no counterpart of Engels's great polemical attack on the patriarchal family. Engels ascribed to the gens a matrilinear extended-family system that permitted "group marriage," and he vigorously attacked the property-based monogamous marriage of convenience," which "turns often enough into the crassest prostitution  ... far more commonly of the woman, who differs from the ordinary courtesan in that she does not let out her body as piecework as a wage worker, but sells it once and for all into slavery" (134). The patriarchy of  Morris's tribal societies is slightly mitigated by the active temperaments of their women; his reconstructions are in this sense less radical than those of Engels if perhaps equally accurate. Thus Engels and Morris both wished to interpret contemporary reconstructions of Germanic tribal society as forms of a socialist state of nature, but the motives and details of their interpretations differ in some respects.

Morris had discussed twelfth century Icelandic life and literature in his 1887 essay "The Early Literature  of the North—Iceland," and the life of later medieval England in the 1886-87 trilogy "Early England," "Feudal  England," and "Art and Industry in the Fourteenth Century." He also summarized his views of the Middle Ages in two 1886 Commonweal essays, "Ancient Society" and "Medieval Society," both coauthored with Ernest Belfort Bax. Morris and Bax later developed their views at much greater length in a section of their 1893 Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome, which included the chapters "Medieval Society:  Early Period" and "The  Rough Side of the Middle Ages." Most of these reflections on medieval and tribal societies thus predated the composition in 1886-1887 of John Ball and the German romances.

Morris's joint essay with Bax, ''The  Medieval Society - The Early Period,"  examines feudal hierarchies and the social and  temporal  role of the church with varying degrees of disapproval, and celebrates the gradual organization of artisans into guilds. Their next essay, "The Rough Side of the Middle Ages," criticizes a view of medieval society presented by "bourgeois historians, whose aim was the praising of the escape of modern society from a period of mere rapine and confusion, into peace, order, and prosperity ... [and] who have drawn so violent a contrast between medieval disadvantages and the gains of modem life."9 Among the alleged forms of medieval "rapine and confusion," Morris and Bax consider four: "Lawless" disorder; prevalence of "oppression and violence"; "rudeness of life and absence of material comforts"; and the constricting effects of "ignorance and superstition."

In response to the charge of "lawlessness," they claim that  feudal society was in fact characterized by "undue observance of laws." By this they may have meant severity of punishment, but in any case Morris's choice of a prefeudal society as the subject of Wolfings and Roots largely sidesteps the issue. Morris and Bax give the second charge, "rudeness of life," short shrift: "There is no degradation in mere external roughness of life.... The medieval man in his turn would probably be ill at ease amid the 'comforts' of modem London" (78).  The inhabitants of Mid-mark and Burgdale and their environs are actually rich in landscape, wildlife, waterpower, and good soil, and skilled in carpentry, masonry, smithing, cookery, outdoor sports, and fighting. Tribal clothing and household goods are also ample and well-ornamented, and their special garments for festive occasions are brightly colored and especially well-made. Sitting on the dais as the Wolfing army depart for war, for example, Hall-Sun is beautifully arrayed "in a garment of fine white wool, on the breast whereof were wrought in gold two beasts ramping up against a fire-altar whereon a flame flickered" (23).

The Wolf-Folk have an abundance of everything which contributes to their activities and well-being but, perhaps implausibly, are uncorrupted by surfeit. Their daily work - serving, weaving, hunting, blacksmithing - requires constant physical exercise, but, again improbably, no one seems ill, oppressed by the severity of tasks too difficult to perform, or in need of release from work. Burgdale youth are resolutely healthy, take long walks, and engage in sports. No one raves or suffers mental breakdown, and there are no severely retarded persons. If there were, however, they would presumably be cared for. According to Bax and Morris: "Whatever advantages we have gained over the Middle Ages are not shared by the greater part of our population. The whole of our unskilled labouring classes are in a far worse position as to food, housing, and clothing than any but the extreme fringe of the corresponding class in the Middle Ages” (79).

Morris insists on this egalitarianism in all his essays on medieval life. He remarks in "Early England" that the Saxon kings not only ruled but participated in everyday work, and he makes elsewhere the same point about Icelandic heroes and aristocrats. In "The Early Literature of the North," Morris also notes with approval Icelandic society's relatively equitable treatment of women, for example in its provision of the right of divorce to both sexes.10  As we have seen, young unmarried women in both German romances are athletic and sturdy, although no women seem to undertake the more physically strenuous crafts such as carving and smithing.

In his discussion of medieval Icelandic society Morris also observes that it was founded by exiles who sought freedom from the Norwegian monarch and preferred the rule of local chieftains to that of a distant king. He remarks that the law was based on the "equal personal rights of all freedmen," although he does not mention that the latter were substantial property owners who supported bands of paid retainers and thralls. The societies described in Wolfings and Roots, in any case, are somewhat more egalitarian than the Icelandic one. At Folk-motes in both romances, each male has the vote and right to speak, regardless of wealth or social status, and at least one woman is present, though she does not speak. In a gesture toward historical accuracy, the Wolfings do keep captives from other tribes as slaves, but this injustice is slightly mitigated by occasional adoption: "Howbeit they had servants or thralls, men taken in battle, men of alien blood, though true it is that from time to time were some of such men taken into the House, and hailed as brethren of the blood" (3).  

In "The Rough Side of the Middle Ages," Morris and Bax remark: “There remains the charge of violence and misery to be dealt with. As to the misery, the result partly of that violence and partly of the deficient grasp of the resources of nature, its manifestations were so much more dramatic than the misery of our time produces, that at this distance they have the effect of overshadowing the everyday life of the period, which in fact was not constantly burdened by them. What misery exists in our own days is not spasmodic and accidental, but chronic and essential to the system under which we live" (80). But surely tribal and feudal wars were also "institutional" and "chronic," and the helplessness of medieval peasants also a fact of "everyday life." One historian has estimated that violent crimes were twelve times as frequent in the thirteenth as in the twentieth century; perhaps this is exaggerated, but so also may be Bax’s and Morris's special pleadings.11

According to Morris and Bax, medieval suffering was impartially visited upon all: "In medieval times the violence and suffering did not spare one class and fall wholly upon another, the most numerous in the community... The unsuccessful politician did not retire to the ease and pleasure of a country house, flavoured with a little literary labour and apologetics for his past mistakes, but paid with his head, or the torment of his body, for his miscalculations as to possible majorities" (81-82). Perhaps. The Wolfings Thiodolf and Otter die heroic deaths, but other slain Goths are virtually anonymous, and none has been important to the narrative.

More moving (if only slightly more convincing) is the Wolf-Folk's ability to transcend grief: "Death, moreover, to them seemed but a temporary interruption of the course of their life. Men in those days really conceived of the continuity of life as a simple and absolute fact." The customs, rituals, and songs in the romances consistently express Morris's belief that each life merges in some large cycle. Hall-Sun sings over the corpses of her father and other warriors:

And these that once have loved us, these warriors' images,
Shall sit amidst our feasting, and see, as the Father sees,
The works that menfolk fashion and the rest of toiling hands....
There then at the feast with our champions familiar shall we be
As oft we are with the Godfolk, when in story-rhymes and lays
We laugh as we tell of their laughter, and their deeds of other days. 
(Wolfings,  196)

In a cremation song, similarly, the Wolf-Children describe  themselves:

We are the men of joy belated;
We are the Wanderers over the waste;
We are but they that sat and waited,
Watching the empty winds make haste.

Long, long we sat and knew no others,
Save alien folk and the foes of the road;
Till late and at last we met our brothers,
And needs must we to the old abode....

For here once more is the Wolf abiding,
Nor ever more from the Dale shall wend,
And never again his head be hiding,
Till all days be dark and the world have end.
(Roots, 383-384).

Other songs of the Wolf-Folk also express their acceptance of self-sacrifice and death.  An unexpected contrast to their laconic everyday speech, these songs affirm the universal quality of their experience.

Central to Morris's romances is the concept of "popular art." Morris and Bax describe the  Middle Ages as "the epoch of Popular Art, the art of the people; whatever were the conditions of the life of the time, they produced an enormous volume of visible and tangible beauty, even taken per se, and still more extraordinary when considered beside the sparse population of those ages. The 'misery' from amidst of which this came, whatever it was, must have been something totally unlike, and surely far less degrading than the misery of modern Whitechapel" (83). The people of Wolfings and Roots adorn common objects of their life with a profusion of tribal or iconic symbols. The Wolfings' War-horn is "carved out of the tusk of a sea-whale of the  North and with many devices on it and the  Wolf amidst them all; its golden mouth-piece and rim wrought finely with flowers" (8). Even more elaborate is their sacred lamp, which Hall-Sun guards; it is "fashioned of glass; yet of no such glass as the folk made then and there, but of a fair and clear green like an emerald, and all done with figures and knots in gold, and strange beasts, and a warrior slaying a dragon, and the sun rising on the earth" (6).

Curiously, however, we see little actual creation of decorative objects in Wolfings or Roots. When not fighting, the men in Wolfings hunt, fish, and farm, and the women sew, weave, bake, and herd sheep. The only artistic creation described with some frequency in both romances is the composition of songs: the Wolfings listen to a minstrel as they dance and sing (8), maidens play the harp and fiddle at banquets,  and all the major characters express emotion in extemporaneous songs.

Morris's romanticized versions of medieval society thus mute the importance of crime, violence, ignorance,  disease, class divisions, and the tedium of rudimentary iron-age manual labor. Never does he face the likelihood of pervasive brutality in a society which valorizes combat, or admit any tension between the youthful Gold-mane's modest, sensitive spirit and his capacity for generalship. Iron-face lovingly crafts weapons and armor, men fight in defense of friends and kin, and non-combatants are spared. Such idealizations paradoxically inclined Morris to demand more, not less, of a future society: that it restore the virtues he read into the past.

He was never a pacifist, but he did come increasingly to disapprove of violence, as in his 1893 remark that "here  I will say once for all, what I have often wanted to say of late, to wit that the idea of taking any human life for any reason whatsoever is horrible and abhorrent  to me."12  It may also be significant that Morris does not introduce a great paroxysmal revolutionary battle into the future-perfect history of News from Nowhere. After the deaths and arrests in Trafalgar Square, he may have seen with painful clarity that medieval ideals of self-defense have little relevance for a reserve army of the poor. A revolutionary "war" is described in "How the Change Carne" (chapter fifteen of News from  Nowhere), but the "forces of reaction" that oppose the revolution are so divided and discredited that they have essentially lost before they begin.

In conclusion, then, The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains embody Morris's selective and idiosyncratic interpretation of medieval society, an interpretation which elaborates those aspects of idealized tribal life which Morris hoped would be realized in a future socialist society, and provides a loose and simplified allegory of social change. To Morris the battles with the  Romans represented a simple but encouraging model for socialist self-defense and revolutionary victory, although Roots is more convincing when he departs from Gibbon more fully,  to create idealized precedents of mutual solidarity, loyalty, and daily enjoyment of life.

Morris's imagination was especially kindled by these romances' many congenial conversations, communal feasts, exchanges of gifts, ritual prayers, commemorative songs, and other gestures of social well-being. The central movement in Roots is the extension of the social fellowship to new groups, which then recognize their complex common history.  Morris,  in effect, miniaturizes standard ethnological speculations about common (Indo)-European origins,  and transforms these into a dream of a common community;  it is here that  "escapist"  romance converges most closely with his socialist hopes for an equal and unified society. Roots derives much of its emotional force from the reunion of fragmented Wolf-Folk, and the four central characters'  romantic fortunes closely parallel the merger and liberation of their oppressed people. Morris thus followed Gibbon's interpretations when the latter described the Germanic tribes' struggles against outside enemies, but constructed an internal social organization which paralleled Engels's communitarian ideals. The inhabitants of Roots are not yet members of Morris's communist Nowhere, but they differ radically from Gibbon's stereotypical barbarians.

Erotic subplots of both romances draw on similar sources of larger narrative energy. Wolfings presents an allegory of the need to subordinate the exclusiveness of erotic attachment to love of the kindred. The goddess Wood-Sun insists that her lover Thiodolf preserve his life by wearing into battle a dwarf-crafted magic hauberk which protects its wearer from physical harm at the cost of depleting the wearer's courage. As part of her effort to persuade him to value life above duty, she also reveals to him that he was not born in the Wolfing tribe in which he has spent his life and that his existence is merely physical and will in no way survive his death. After he has twice wavered in battle and retreated to a wood, she nevertheless suggests that he remove the hauberk. When Thiodolf does so, he chooses in the hauberk's place weapons crafted by his fellow men, asserts his full identification with the life of his people, and advances to what he knows is certain death. His reward is a characteristically Morrisean embrace-beyond­death with both kinspeople and enemies: "They are mine and I am theirs; and through them am I of the whole earth, and all the kindreds of it; yea, even of the foemen, whom this day the edge in mine hand shall smite" (162).

All of this may begin to answer the question: why did Morris feel such deep satisfaction in the quasi-historical reconstruction of "tribal"  societies which may never have existed? For all their borrowed ethnological specificity, these ceremonies are "rooted" less in the details of a single Germanic tradition than in Morris's fascination with generalizable patterns of human love and historical solidarity. Even the totemic details of Wolf rituals—the use of clan patronymics, the inscription of the face of the wolf on their dwellings, the pledging of unity on an ancient stone--reflect Morris's interpretation of near-universal aspects of experience: the unities of nature, family, and political harmony. In the end, the cultural cohesion of the Children of the Wolf approaches Morris's ideal of a gradually expanding union of all peoples. The image of pre-feudal communities which Morris creates in the German romances anticipates his vision of an ideal future in News from Nowhere, and its simple patterns of kinship, sacrifice, tolerance,  and the eventual union of the four branches of the "Folk" provide a miniature model for Morris's internationalism.

This introduction is adapted and condensed from “Morris’s German Romances as Socialist History,” Victorian Studies,  27.3 (1984): 321-42. A fuller discussion of Morris’s sources and more detailed documentation may be found in this article, available under “Criticism.”
  1. Anonymous review, 8 August 1912, 312.
  2. William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, ed. May Morris, Oxford: Blackwells, 1936, 2 vols., vol. 1, 508-509. Hereafter AWS.

  3. H. de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Thomas Nugent, 2 vols. London: Collingwood, 1823, vol. 1, 151.

  4. The Collected Works of William Morris, ed. May Morris, London: Longmans, 1910-15, vol. 22, xxvi-xxvii. Hereafter CW.

  5. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, New York: Modern Library, 1932, 2 vols., vol. 1, 196. Page references to Gibbon in parenthesis are to this edition.

  6. Page numbers in parenthesis for The House of the Wolfings are to the 1889 London: Reeves and Turner edition. Those for The Roots of the Mountains are to CW, vol. 15.

  7. “The Society of the Future,” AWS, vol. 2, 460.

  8. Friedrich Engels, Origin of the Family, 1888, rpt. and trans. New York: International Publishers, 1972, 216. Citations of page numbers in parentheses are to this edition.

  9. Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome, London: Sonnenschein, 1893, 76-77. Citations of page numbers in parentheses are to this volume. 

  10. Unpublished Lectures of William Morris, ed. Eugene LeMire, Detroit: Wayne State U Press, 1969, 185.

  11. James B. Given documents a high incidence of violence in the thirteenth century in Society and Homicide in Thirteenth-century England, Stanford, California: Stanford U Press, 1977.

  12. “Communism, i. e. Property,” ed. Florence Boos, William Morris Society US Newsletter, Summer 2009.