William Morris

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The House of the Wolflings by William Morris
More to William Morris by William Morris
On the Lines of William Morris by William Morris
The Roots of the Mountains by William Morris
The Well at the World's End by William Morris (part of a collection)
The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris (part of a collection)

The Literary Link Between William Morris
and J. R. R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien fans who have longed for more of that same sense of joy they get from The Lord of the Rings will find it in the writings of William Morris. It was he who founded the literary style that Tolkien brought to perfection. As a young man writing to his future wife, J. R. R. Tolkien has this to say of William Morris: "Amongst other work I am trying to turn one of the short stories [of the Finnish Kalevala] . . . into a short story somewhat on the lines of Morris' romances with chunks of poetry in between."

Forty-six years later, Tolkien was still describing the inspiration he got from Morris, noting that: "The Lord of the Rings was actually begun, as a separate thing, about 1937, and had reached the inn at Bree, before the shadow of the second war. . . . The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme. They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains.

At the time The Lord of the Rings was being written, Tolkien's close friend, C. S. Lewis, said that Morris provides his readers a "pleasure so inexhaustible that after twenty or fifty years or reading they find it worked so deeply into all their emotions as to defy analysis." In words that could apply equally well to Tolkien, he goes points out what is so special about Morris' writings

It is indeed, this matter-of-factness . . . which lends to all of Morris's stories their somber air of conviction. Other stories have only scenery; his have geography. He is not concerned with 'painting' landscapes; he tells you the lie of the land, and then you paint the landscapes for yourself. To a reader long fed on the almost botanical and entomological niceties of much modern fiction . . . the effect is at first very pale and cold, but also fresh and spacious. No mountains in literature are as far away as distant mountains in Morris. The world of his imagining is as windy, as tangible, as resonant and three dimensional, as that of Scott and Homer.

In short, if you like what Tolkien wrote about Aragorn and his Rangers, if you admire the courage of the Riders of Rohan, if you long for more tales of travel in an unspoiled wilderness, and if you wish that Tolkien had more to say about the bravery of women or love between men and women, then you'll be delighted by these two marvelous tales from the pen of William Morris.

And what author its author? What sort of man was William Morris? Edward Carpenter, a contemporary of Morris had this to say.

I think that future times will look back on William Morris as one of the finest figures of this century. In the midst of an era of finess, sleekness, commercial dodgery, their eyes will rest with relief upon this brusque, hearty, bold and manly form. . . . He hated with a good loyal hatred all insincerity; but most he hated, and with his very soul, the ugliness and meanness of modern life. I believe that was the great inspiring hatred of his life.

Inkling has published the four books by Morris that seem to have had the most influence on the writings of Tolkien. Two are tales of courage, romance and war. They are The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains, published both separately and together as More to William Morris. Two are quests and adventures much like Bilbo's pursuit of dragon gold and Frodo's journey to destroy the Ring at Mount Doom. They are The Well at the World's End and The Wood Beyond the World, published together as On the Lines of William Morris. Each is described below.


The House of the Wolfings: A Book that Inspired J. R. R. Tolkien
by William Morris (1834-1896)

From the Introduction to The House of the Wolfings

In J. R. R. Tolkien's great epic, The Lord of the Rings, the climax of the Council of Elrond comes when the decision is made that "the Ruling Ring must be destroyed." When the noon-bell rings, a silence falls on the group as they ponder who will take up this seemingly impossible task. At that moment Frodo, the central character in the tale, is filled with dread, "A overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo's side in Rivendell filled all his heart." With a great effort, he makes his choice, "I will take the Ring," he said, "though I do not know the way."

In this earlier tale by Morris, the central actor, Thiodolf, faces a similar choice, one linked to a magical hauberk (a coat of chain mail) rather than a Ring. Like Frodo, he must choose either to live, remaining close to someone he loves (Wood-Sun) or face the near certainty that he will die defending his people.

Morris said as much in a 1888 letter when he wrote that The House of the Wolfings "is a story of the life of the Gothic tribes on their way through Middle Europe, and their first meeting with the Romans in war. It is meant to illustrate the melting of the individual into the society of the tribes: I mean apart from the artistic side of things that is its moral--if it has one."

Although it is no more than a coincidence, both Frodo and Thiodolf see in its starkness the choice they must make in the fourteenth chapter of their respective tales. For Frodo the choice was clear beyond doubt. He must carry the Ring to Mordor. But for Thiodolf, the choice was at that time no more than a dark suspicion, "that a curse goeth with the hauberk, then either for the sake of the folk I will not wear the gift and the curse, and I shall die in great glory, and because of me the House shall live; or else for thy sake I shall bear it and live, and the House shall live or die as may be, but I not helping, nay I no longer of the House nor in it."

Like Tolkien, Morris set his story within a larger history. Although there is no exact parallel between what happens in The House of the Wolfings and any particular historical event, the great struggle between Rome's drive to civilize and enslave their way into Central Europe and the Gothic (Germanic) tribes willingness to fight for their independence is a fact of history.

Perhaps the most important battle in that struggle between Romans and Germans was one in A.D. 9 between the Roman general Varus and Gothic soldiers led by Arminius, a German whose talent had been recognized the Romans, who attempted to buy his allegiance by giving him Roman citizenship and military training. He would use that training against them.

Knowing that troop strength and military skill gave the advantage to Rome, in September Arminius lured Varus out of his Westphalian fortress to put down what the Romans thought was a minor revolt. They were tricked into entering a wooded and hilly region, where heavy rains made movement difficult. Arminius then launched a series of lightning attacks on the Roman army, using every advantage imaginable. (Much as in Morris' tale, one key battle took place on a forested ridge.) In the end, Varus committed suicide to avoid capture and most of his army was either killed in battle or sacrificed to blood-thirsty pagan gods. Rome was left angry and bitter by the defeat, but in the end both sides were forced to come to an uneasy truce with the Rhine River as a boundary line. Later, barbarian tribes coming out of Central Europe would weaken and then destroy the Roman empire. Morris tells that history from a Gothic perspective in The Roots of The Mountains, where the Huns are the Wolfings' new foes.

Why would an Englishman like Morris take pride in a long-ago victory by a distant tribe when his own homeland, England, had been successfully occupied and colonized by Rome? The reason is simple. In his day, many educated Englishmen believed that their racial ('blood') roots lay in the Germanic tribes of this era. In his often-reprinted 1851 Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, Edward S. Creasy made the bold claim that, "an Englishman is entitled to claim a closer degree of relationship with Arminius than can be claimed by any German of modern Germany." Strange as it may sound today, the Englishmen of Morris' day had no problem imagining themselves as brave and fierce Wolfing warriors, even as a heavily industrialized Great Britain ruled a Rome-like empire that bore little resemblance to a Gothic village.

Those who have read Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings will notice similarities. There is a forest named Mirkwood in Morris, although it is not as dark and mysterious as Tolkien's. (Both have as their source the Nordic Elder Edda saga.) In Chapter 2, a messenger brings to the Wolfings (as to Rohan) a "war-arrow ragged and burnt and bloody" that is a call to war. And, much like Bilbo and Frodo, Thiodolf acquires a protective coat of mail (hauberk) made by dwarves and having, in addition, dangerous and hidden powers much like the Ring that both Hobbits bear. But while the Ring can bestow an unimaginably dangerous power on its possessor, the hauberk has a far different effect. In both tales, however, the plot hinges on the hero making the right choice about the use of the powerful weapon he has been given.

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More to William Morris: Two Books that Inspired J. R. R. Tolkien--The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains
by William Morris (1834-1896)

More to William Morris combines in one inexpensive wide-format volume two of Morris' greatest tales of courage, romance and war. They are The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountain. Each is described separately on this web page and both are available separately in paperback and hardback.

ISBN 1-58742-023-6 (paperback)
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On the Lines of William Morris: Two Books that Inspired J. R. R. Tolkien--The Well at the World's End and The Wood Beyond the World
by William Morris (1834-1896)

From the Introduction to The Well at the World's End

Much like his fellow writer, J. R. R. Tolkien, William Morris liked to slip into his writings a description of places he had visited and enjoyed. In his Collected Works (Vol. 18), his daughter May explained how, "vivid notes of places seen may be recognized time and again through my father's writings: beautiful country moved him deeply, as in The Well at the World's End he made full use of his remembrances."

Indeed, as May notes, The Well at the World's End held a special charm for his family for, "the King's sons start on their adventures from the very door of [their family home] Kelmscott Manor transformed into the palace of a simple-living kinglet." Even Kelmscott's location was accurately placed, "between river and upland, with the ford at the corner where the harvesters in News from Nowhere [another Morris tale] landed at their journey's end."

The tale of the mysterious Well centers on the journey of Ralph, one of those four princes, after he leaves home seeking adventure. Morris' family knew that, "our eyes can any day sweep the long blue line above the water, up which Ralph rode as he made his way to the down-country." The Wulstead of the tale is the real-life Faringdon, but "with a richer, fairer architecture." The mysterious Champion of the Dry Tree is first met at what is actually Uffington Church, a "gem-like little building sweetly placed at the meeting of the green plains and the downland." This close match between imagined and actual geography continues until "Ralph leaves the downland for the Wood Perilous and the Burg of the Four Firths." Later, it returns in brief flashes. The volcanic desert and the Wall of the World recall the "keen emotion that the terrible Icelandic desert aroused in him."

For the Morris children, the parallels between tale and truth left them feeling that on, "going out one fine morning along the meadows of our sweet uneventful country it would not be at all out of the way to meet a Dragon or at the least a Lady in distress on a white palfrey." What could be more appealing than a tale linking the everyday with a mysterious new world?

Readers of The Lord of the Rings will recall that Tolkien put much the same sentiment into the mouth of Frodo who remarks, on the first afternoon of their hike to Crickhollow, that Bilbo had told him "there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'"

That sense of unexpected adventure, Tolkien tells us in "On Fairy Stories," is the very essence of a fairy tale: "Stories that are actually concerned primarily with 'fairies,' that is with creatures that might also in modern English be called 'Elves,' are relatively rare, and as a rule not very interesting. Most good 'fairy stories' are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches." In his great masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien exaggerated that contrast by sending four Hobbits, whose love for homely comfort is greater than that of most men, on a great quest to battle Sauron and destroy the Ring. Morris sticks closer to the basic literary model and uses men or, more accurately, a man and a woman, as the chief characters in his great quest. But their journey is no less dangerous and a part of the "Perilous Realm" into which they journey is called quite literally the "Wood Perilous."

In their respective tales, both Morris and Tolkien ask the same basic question: Is a much-prolonged life a blessing or a curse? (For Morris's remarks, see Book 3, Chapter 16.) You will also find similarities that seem to go beyond mere coincidence. There is in The Well at the World's End a horse named Silverfax (Book 1, Chapter 22), a name not that different from Tolkien's great Shadowfax. The story also has a major character named Gandolf (Book 2, Chapter 30), although he is the evil Lord of Utterbol, rather than Gandalf, Tolkien's wise and good wizard. In addition, there is a folkmote among shepherds (Book 4, Chapter 24) to decide on war plans that resembles Tolkien's Entmoot, where Ents, the shepherds of trees, debate their war plans.

With that I leave you to enjoy a mysterious, dreamlike story that is both alike and yet somehow different from Tolkien's far better known tale.

From the Introduction to The Wood Beyond the World

The Wood Beyond the World is a rewrite of an earlier tale that Morris began and abandoned. As his daughter May noted in his Collected Works (Vol. 17), Morris had written "some sixty-five pages of a tale called The King's Son and the Carle's Son before he threw it aside and made a fresh beginning." From his notes, she pieced together the differences. "It is delightful to watch the story-maker at his craft," she says as she describes how the plot changed. "Here one can see how the peasant's son, entering straightway into the wood to seek adventure, is transformed into the young merchant who breaks away from home and a bad wife and reaches the Wood Beyond the World in a skillfully wrought atmosphere of wonder and romance. . . . [I]n comparing the unfinished manuscript and its plot with the finished work, one can feel how the story took hold of the writer as he progressed, with what zest he rounded off the incidents, concentrated the action, visualized the scenes; one can watch how the atmosphere grew around his personages as he moulded them, till all behold the written word is transformed into a series of pictures before our eyes and the story lives."

After his book came out, Morris experienced the same problem with The Wood Beyond the World that J. R. R. Tolkien would later have with The Lord of the Rings and he became just frustrated at those who failed to understand his purpose. Reviewers, it seems, wanted to turn his uncomplicated romance into an allegory with hidden messages about contemporary social issues.

As his daughter would note, Morris "rarely made public comment to his critics." But in this case he made an exception and wrote a letter to the Spectator. After thanking them for their kind review, he went on to write that he "had not the least intention of thrusting an allegory into The Wood Beyond the World; it is meant for a tale pure and simple, with nothing didactic about it. If I have to write or speak on social problems, I always try to be as direct as I possibly can be."

ISBN 1-58742-024-4 (paperback)
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The Roots of the Mountains: A Book that Inspired J. R. R. Tolkien
by William Morris (1834-1896)

From the Introduction to The Roots of the Mountains

Move forward several hundred of years from the time of The House of the Wolfings, and you arrive at the setting for The Roots of the Mountains. The tribe in the former tale has moved and now lives in the foothills of a large mountain chain, although we cannot be certain if it is the Alps of Western Europe or the Carpathians of Eastern Europe. Morris clearly wants us to focus on the lives and the personal dilemmas his characters face rather than the broader historical context. This is a tale of Everyman living in Anytime.

As the tale progresses, we discover that these people are threatened by a cruel, fierce and ugly (for them) people called the Dusky Men or Huns. Like Rome in the previous tale, the Dusky Men want to enslave them and destroy their living and harmonious culture. Unlike Rome, they seem to have no particular talent for warfare or ruling. Instead, they rely on sheer numbers and raw terror to defeat and dominate. In The House of the Wolfings, some readers may feel that the Wolfings, with a religion that involved the sacrifice of prisoners of war, might have benefited from more contact with the civilized and literate Rome. It is unlikely readers will feel that these Dusky Men have anything to teach.

Again, the plot contains romance, including one involving two women, the unfortunately named Bride and the mysterious Sun-beam. As sometimes happens, both want to wed Burgstead's most eligible bachelor, the heart-stoppingly handsome Gold-mane. (As in Tolkien, major characters often have more than one name. Gold-mane's other name is Face-of-god.) The parallels to J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and to Eowyn and Arwen's romantic interest in Aragorn (also known as Strider) should be obvious. There is even a father who tries to block the marriage, although in Morris, the unhappy father is that of the groom-to-be. In both cases, the one in love is thought to be marrying below his or her station in life.

Much as in The House of the Wolfings, in this tale Morris wrestled with the conflict that often exists between an individual and his society. But in this tale, that conflict took a different twist.

In The House of the Wolfings. Thiodolf had to choose between serving his people and following the desires of the woman he loves, a goddess who was willing to do almost anything to make sure he does not die in battle. Gold-mane faces a different conflict. When he eventually learns of the threat the Dusky Men pose to Sun-beam's tiny people and the role she wants him to play in protecting them, it is clear at almost the same time that the Dusky Men pose the same threat to his own people. By making war on them, he can serve his people and possess Sun-beam. On that point, there is no conflict between individual and society.

The conflict in this tale is more personal and emotional. For much of the story, Thiodolf suspects he is the victim of another's choice to serve her society. As Sun-beam eventually admits, her romantic pursuit of him began as a carefully planned scheme by her people to win his much more numerous people's support in a struggle with the Dusky Men. When Gold-mane realizes that, he is torn inside. Is he being loved or merely used? In Chapter 20, he puts those doubts into a painful question: "But tell me this if thou wilt: dost thou desire me as I desire thee? or is it that thou wilt suffer me to wed thee and bed thee at last as mere payment for the help that I shall give to thee and thine?"

Gold-mane will have no peace in his heart until he resolves that conflict and another that is linked to obligations placed on him by his people. Unlike many, he is as kind and honorable as he is handsome. He must find a way to ease the hurt that his sudden love for Sun-beam has inflicted upon Bride, the woman his community has long expected him to marry.

As you read this story, keep in mind a major difference between Morris and Tolkien. Morris not only had no personal experience with warfare, he lived in an England and a Europe that was in the midst of an extraordinarily lengthy period free of extended, violent warfare at home (the century from the Napoleonic Wars until World War I). Tolkien, on the other hand, experienced first hand what war could be like in World War I trenches. As a result, while both men attach a high value to bravery in combat, Morris seems less aware of what war demands physically, particularly in the age of sword and spear (hence his pretty young maiden warriors). He also does not seem to grasp the tremendous psychological costs of war. In this tale you will find no equivalent to Tolkien's deeply wounded Frodo. . . .

Morris planned to create a trilogy of historical novels to carry on this tale, but he never completed the third book, one his daughter entitled The Story of Desiderius. So regrettably, the tale of the Wolfings must end here.

ISBN 1-58742-027-9 (paperback) and 1-58742-028-7 (hardback)
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