The Strange Houses of William Morris

William Morris by George Frederic Watts

Fantasy is the literature of the impossible; fiction that deals in strange events, uniquely gifted people and bizarre or wonderful beasts that never existed and never could exist. Its impossibility marks it out as fiction, decisively turning its back on the real to take the path of visions, dreams and nightmares. Yet fantasy also aspires to bring the impossible into the sphere of material reality, through every artistic device at its disposal. No writer more vividly illustrates this aspiration than William Morris. Interior designer, poet, printer, craftsman, author of neo-medieval romances, political activist, purveyor of stained glass windows, he embodied the desire to bring an idealized past that never existed into material existence as the first step towards a better future. This desire to realize or make real the fantastic was his legacy to the fantasy tradition; and another of his legacies was his passion for strange houses, which in his hands became powerful political spaces where past, present and future intersect to work magical changes on the householders. Morris’s influence on actual houses, from the level of town planning to that of wallpaper, is widely accepted.[1] But his late romances give us a sense of what he wanted his houses to do – of the way he hoped they might change the world, like stained glass windows that effect real changes of colour in the landscapes we see through them. I’d like here to consider what his houses have to tell us about his dreams, as a prelude to thinking more about the place of houses in the fantasy tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Houses were much on people’s minds in the nineteenth century. The question of how to accommodate the industrial working classes, of how to make towns and cities capable of housing a healthy population, preoccupied politicians of all stamps, since the consequences of failing to do so were likely to be as devastating for the ruling classes as for unskilled labourers. Successive acts of parliament sought to impose better standards of construction and infrastructure on builders. Towns began to be planned instead of growing haphazardly. As a result, Victorian houses and streets were always changing. The suburbs expanded exponentially, as row upon row of identical terraced houses sprang up on the peripheries of London and Manchester and tenement blocks imposed an orderly grid system on the hills near Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee. Coal dust turned the new facades soot-black within a year of their construction. People moved into these houses in their thousands, abandoning rural communities in quest of work. The dispersal of those rural communities, with the corresponding sense that the past was being lost for ever as the people who remembered songs and stories were scattered abroad, led to the urge to commemorate the past through an accumulation of curiosities and knickknacks.  The houses people lived in became indexes both of social transformation and of resistance to change; dynamic cultural hubs, whose occupants expressed their sense of loss, their present needs and their hopes for a better future by means of the things they gathered round them.

John Tenniel, Alice in the White Rabbit’s House

The various forms of pre-fantastic fiction acknowledge the house as the focal point for radical change. The most popular collection of fairy tales was the aptly-named Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm, in which a fisherman’s hovel gets turned into a palace and a cottage made from bread and cakes gets consumed by children who are soon in danger of being consumed themselves. Children’s stories such as Alice in Wonderland, The Water Babies, Mopsa the Fairy and The Cuckoo Clock take the house as the starting or end point for bizarre adventures among unheard-of creatures, quite different from the birds and beasts of oral tradition.Neo-Gothic narratives in the first half of the century are full of the ruins of buildings left over from the past, while by the century’s end they feature mysterious urban residences haunted by ancient vampires, long-dead ghosts, and immortal demonic women seeking a place for themselves among the streets of the modern metropolis.And at the end of the century, too, William Morris developed what could be called the romance of housing: a series of neo-medieval romances which take as their subject the quest for a place to settle down, tracing the epic journeys of their protagonists through a succession of buildings and towns as they search for the perfect combination of location, occupation and community that will permit them to live well.

For Morris the domestic house was a political space, and its function as an interface between the person and the world made any contribution to its improvement a political act. This is why his great utopia, News from Nowhere (1890), begins with the Victorian time-traveller, William Guest, observing how houses have changed in the future society to which he finds his way, taking this as the principal proof of humanity’s progress over the last two hundred years. It also explains why News from Nowhere contains a number of embarrassing pronouncements on the subject of women and housekeeping (‘don’t you know that it is a great pleasure to a woman to manage a house skillfully,’ an elderly utopian mansplains to the troubled Guest).[2] As an advocate of women’s suffrage Morris might have been expected to support the campaign to liberate women from bondage to housework, but if the house is the most significant unit in Morris’s utopia – the hub of skilled labour once industrial factories have been abolished – then the economics of the household is ‘deserving of respect’ (p. 94), as the utopian points out, on a level at least as elevated as any other occupation in the community. And the romances that followed News from Nowhere make a good case for the centrality of housekeeping to the sociopolitical wellbeing of any well-organized commonwealth.

Morris was as concerned with interior design and furnishings of houses as he was with the buildings themselves. His late essay on ‘Gothic Architecture’ (1893)[3] extends the definition of architecture to encompass everything that contributes to a householder’s practical and aesthetic needs:

A true architectural work […] is a building duly provided with all necessary furniture, decorated with all due ornament, according to the use, quality, and dignity of the building, from mere mouldings or abstract lines, to the great epical works of sculpture and painting, which, except as decorations of the nobler form of such buildings, cannot be produced at all. So looked on, a work of architecture is a harmonious co-operative work of art, inclusive of all the serious arts. (p. 331)

For Morris, the ‘due ornament’ of buildings is as ‘necessary’ as household furniture, and both form part of the collective work of art which is a house, which itself fulfils a function within the larger community as a form of expression as well as an essential residential unit. The details of the house and its contents articulate the kind of work that has gone into them, in the best examples expressing ‘the happy exercise of the energies of the most useful part of [a society’s] population’ (p. 331), and so passing judgment on that society as a whole. In addition, the house makes nonsense both of the notion of hierarchy in art and of the myth of the artist as a solitary genius. Each work of art in the domestic space, from walls and windows to cabinets and carpets, must necessarily complement all the other works of art that fulfill equally necessary functions around it – just as the structure of the building must accommodate the unique features of the landscape in which it is set. This series of relationships between each element of the all-inclusive Morrisian ‘architecture’ should ideally be what Morris calls ‘organic’ (pp. 332 and 337) – that is, flexibly responsive to the particular demands of their geographical and social context. He sees the Gothic arch as the supreme example of organicism, combining as it does beauty with functionality in such a way as to make it as decorative as it is robust. Classical architecture is, for Morris, no more than a slight advance on the child’s crude edifices of brick piled on brick; it pays no attention to location and obeys strict codes of practice laid down by pedants with scant regard for circumstance. Gothic architecture, by contrast, responds to the land in its mimicry of the shapes of trees and rock formations, and embraces the meticulous efforts of individual craftspeople, whose seamless fusion of decoration and purpose speak of the ‘freedom of hand and mind subordinated to the co-operative harmony which made the freedom possible’ (p. 339). This expression of freedom means that for Morris Gothic architecture is always in dialogue with both a flawed but intelligent past and a better future. It’s as modern as it is medieval, and anticipates the moment when the need for mass produced materials will be superseded by a recognition of the greater need for dignified labour and respect for the environment.

A similar passion for what Morris calls the harmonious architectural unit, whereby every detail complements the structure of the whole, underlies his founding of the Kelmscott Press, itself named after Morris’s famous house in the Cotswolds, Kelmscott Manor. The press dedicated itself to producing the kind of lovely books that would grace the modern Gothic house as Morris conceived it. Morris’s ‘Note on his Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press’[4] testifies to his care in choosing the best handmade paper, designing the most legible fonts, and considering the perfect layout of print and pictures on the page, each of which involved a careful study of the best practice as Morris saw it, along with a historical study of the material conditions which made that practice possible. The contents of each book were chosen with equal care, and while the most famous products of the press reprinted medieval texts from what Morris considered the golden age of Gothic art – the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – it was inevitable that a number of books should also house his romantic visions of an alternativeGothic past; a fourteenth century that never was, which points towards a desirable future in which society as a whole would become, in effect, a ‘harmonious architectural unit’. The most detailed of these romances of housing is The Water of the Wondrous Isles(1897), which can be read, like all his fiction from The House of the Wolfings(1889) onwards, as an extended meditation on the politics of domestic architecture.[5]

The story is simple enough. It tells of a young girl named Birdalone who is stolen from her mother by a witch and raised in a house on the edge of a wood as the witch’s slave. She escapes in a magic boat and sets out across the Water of the title, a vast freshwater lake dotted with mysterious ‘wonder isles’ full of enchanted buildings, where men and women exist in a condition of permanent stasis, frozen in time like forgotten works of art. At the other side she finds herself in a more conventional country, a land of castles, fields and towns where magic is not widely practised, but where crafts of all kinds are held in high esteem. After many twists and turns she finds a place to settle down – suitably enough, in the very town from which she was stolen as an infant. Here she becomes part of what is in effect a neo-medieval utopian community, an island of socio-political sanity in a sea of historical violence and oppression.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Venus Verticordia

The simplicity of the plot, however, is deceptive. For one thing, this is a chivalric romance with a woman at the heart of it; if you like, the first work of high fantasy written for adults with a female lead. And the woman in question is highly unusual. Birdalone, whose name points both to her solitary state and to the desire for flocking together with others of her kind as birds do, is equally adept in the arts of the domestic worker, the agricultural labourer, the craftswoman and the hunter. She is beautiful, as the heroine of a romance must always be, but she is also strong, capable of swimming out to the little ‘eyots’ or rocky islands near the lakeshore where she lives, of running faster than most men, and of shooting with a bow as well as any trained archer. Her education in domesticity and agriculture at the hands of the witch is complemented by an alternative education in what Morris calls ‘wisdom’ – which includes magic and dressmaking – delivered secretly by a woman called Habundia, a faery ‘wood-wife’ who is effectively the tutelary spirit of the forest beside which the witch’s cottage stands. This intimacy with the wood’s guardian means that Birdalone is at home among the trees in a way that the witch can never be. Her house, in other words, extends well beyond the enclosing walls of her mistress’s dwelling, taking in all the different terrains and elements that make up the remote environment to which she has been abducted, and giving her an intimate practical knowledge of all the different processes that make life possible.

Edward Burne Jones, Frontispiece to The Wood Beyond the World

Morris describes the location where the child Birdalone grows up in meticulous detail, and in doing so helps us understand what makes his protagonist different from the men and women she meets on her travels. The proximity of the witch’s house to the woods and the lake, where Birdalone runs and swims when the witch does not need her, explains the unique combination of qualities she possesses. Raised to be a slave, Birdalone refuses to have her education curtailed by the limited expectations of what a slave must know in order to be useful. Raised a woman, she possesses the courage, practical skill and energetic adventurousness associated in a phallocentric culture with masculinity. Raised ‘wild’ thanks to her love of the woods and her ignorance of social conventions (she describes herself repeatedly as a ‘wild woman’ in the course of the book), she is also capable of civilizing wild things through her beauty, which is to a great extent a function of her intelligence and her social gifts of kindness and courtesy. Birdalone is in effect a miniature utopia in herself, capable of everything traditionally expected of a man or woman of any class, the ideal inhabitant of the ideal house; and the function of the romance is to find an ideal house for her to live in.

Most of Morris’s late romances have a there-and-back-again structure which anticipates the organizing principle of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair (1895) opens and closes in the forest city of Oakenrealm; The Well at the World’s End (1896) begins and ends in the ‘High House’ of Upmeads; The Sundering Flood (1897) in a more modest house at a place called Wethermel, next to a river that can’t be crossed. As we have seen, The Water of the Wondrous Isles is no exception. It begins in a dilapidated house at the edge of Utterhay, from which Birdalone is stolen; loiters for a time at the witch’s house; then passes on from house to house, from castle to town to city, before revisiting all these locations on its way back to the witch’s cottage, and then to Utterhay where it started. This process of return in fantasy fiction is often read as a conservative gesture, an expression of the middle-class desire for restoration of the status quo, but for Morris it serves a very different function. Birdalone’s return to the witch’s house sees her transformed by her adventures, an expert in many different models of cohabitation, and the added power this transformation lends her gives rise to a radical domestic transformation. The witch has died while she was away, and on her return the witch’s house – formerly known as the House of Captivity – is repurposed as the House of Love, since Birdalone brings home to it the man she has chosen for her mate. With his help she makes it a sanctuary of mutual desire and collaborative labour, dispelling the miasma of oppression which had clung to it throughout her early years.

Her eventual return to the town of Utterhay, where she started out, is equally transformative. She arrives there in the company of what Morris calls a ‘fellowship’ – resonant word for lovers of Tolkien. This is a group of equals, men and women, whom she has met on her travels and effectively rescued from a condition of stasis and segregation: the women from captivity to the witch’s sister on one of the ‘wonder isles’ in the mysterious lake; the men from a state of constant warfare with aggressive neighbours in the women’s absence. So large a fellowship cannot live in a place as small as the House of Love – they need a town to live in, with all the crafts, trades, friendships, entertainments and protective alliances it can provide. But they bring to the town what they learned in the witch’s cottage, above all the kind of wisdom Birdalone taught them there: an aptitude for combining things, activities and people which are traditionally considered to inhabit separate spheres.

Edward Burne Jones, Love Among the Ruins

The man she brought to the House of Love was a knight, whose usual home is a castle rather than a cottage, and whose usual mode is one of command. Birdalone found him in a state of despair, living insane and alone in the woods after having lost her, as he thought, for ever. She domesticated and civilized him, making him the worthy inhabitant of a miniature collaborative civitas or society and healing him both psychologically and physically in the process. And she also brought the faery wood-wife to the House on one occasion. Uneasy in human dwellings, drawing all her power from the natural world and profoundly at odds with human hierarchies, Habundia found herself shrinking to diminutive size as she stepped through the door, but Birdalone’s affection for her restored her to adult proportions, and in the process suggested that the wood-wife’s connection with the wilderness had been domesticated too: naturalized, one might say, to this particular human habitation, and thus shown to be compatible with living in houses everywhere if properly respected and embraced. The wood-wife does not go on to live in Utterhay like the rest of Birdalone’s fellowship; but she remains an integral part of the company, maintaining links with them through regular meetings in the woods throughout the year, and affirming as a result the new organic connection between the town and its environment.

William Morris, Strawberry Thief

Between Birdalone’s departure from the witch’s House of Captivity and her return to what is now the House of Love, she visits a range of houses which articulate in different ways the conditions of their inhabitants. The witch’s boat brings her first to the house of the witch’s despotic sister on the Isle of Increase Unsought: a magnificent structure ‘nobly builded’ (p. 82), which incorporates a prison called the Wailing Tower where Birdalone is jailed for a while before being freed by three female slaves. Birdalone calls this structure the House of Death, and its unsound social foundations are later confirmed when it collapses as soon as its owner has been deprived of her magic powers. The Isle of the Young and the Old is inhabited only by children and one old man, and its once magnificent house is now ‘ruined and broken’ (p. 124), bereft of the solicitous care of strong and intelligent men and women. The Isle of Queens contains a ‘great house, white and fair, as if it were new-builded, and all glorious with pinnacles, and tabernacles set with imagery’ (p. 131); but this house holds only women, and the women are as motionless and breathless as statues, so that this building too could be called a House of Death. The same name would apply to the ‘castle, white, high, and hugely builded’ (p. 136) that stands on the Isle of the Kings, which is full of the motionless bodies of ‘all-armed men’ (p. 138). Each of these buildings speaks of a society that segregates genders and generations, unable to achieve the organic synchrony of elements which is the objective of Morris’s ideal architecture. The final wondrous isle she visits is the Isle of Nothing, which expresses the barrenness of such segregation; Birdalone is nearly stranded there in permanent solitude, with nowhere to go that suits her needs as a free woman.

With the help of the wood-wife’s magic, Birdalone escapes from the Isle of Nothing and finds her way to more promising regions on the mainland. Here too, however, the segregation of genders is practised, with devastating consequences for the communities that practise it. The Castle of the Quest, which is the first place she comes to after her voyage across the Water, is a functional building designed by the three knights who loved and lost the three female slaves befriended by Birdalone on the Isle of Increase Unsought. It is ‘brand-new, and […] fair enough builded, part of stone and lime, part of framed work’ (p. 147), but it is out of bounds to women, and its situation is precarious, since its occupants are in constant conflict with the rapacious men of a nearby fortress called the Red Hold. Birdalone’s arrival triggers the end of segregation, first by providing the Castle of the Quest with its first female guest, then by setting its owners on the path to the Isle of Increase Unsought where their lovers are slaves. And while they are away she also begins the process of ending the conflict between the men of the Castle and the men of the Red Hold.

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

In each house she visits on her adventures she serves as a catalyst, breaking the tyranny of stasis and initiating a process of new growth.On being kidnapped, for example, by the henchman of the Red Hold’s ‘tyrant’, Birdalone has such an effect on her captor that he decides to take her to a secret house of his own where he hopes his violent master will never find them. The house is barely even a building – merely a ‘bower builded of turf and thatched with reed’ (p. 251), constructed, he tells her, ‘with mine own hands’ (p. 253) – but it embodies his better nature, since he has always retreated to it at times ‘when my heart was overmuch oppressed with black burdens of evil and turmoil, and have whiles prevailed against the evil, and whiles not’ (p. 254). On this occasion Birdalone’s company helps him prevail against evil; after staying with her there for two days, sustained by the sense of sharing the place he built with his own labour for the first time in his life, he agrees to take her home to the Castle of the Quest, and is only prevented from doing so by his death at the hands of his tyrannical master. Birdalone’s civilizing influence combines with the influence of his natural surroundings and the house he himself constructed in a potent fusion that finally fulfils that latent potential in Sir Thomas, turning him from banditry to a commitment to fellowship or mutual support, though at the cost of his life.

The combination of ingredients that enable Birdalone to heal Sir Thomas is exquisitely invoked in Morris’s account of their time together in the bower, hunting, eating, talking and engaging in crafts, in a kind of sensuous utopian ecosystem caught in time between periods of conflict:

So they gat them a roe and came back therewith to the bower, and the knight dight it and cooked it, and again they ate in fellowship and kindness; and Birdalone had been to the river and fetched thence store of blue-flowered mouse-ear, and of meadow-sweet, whereof was still some left from the early days of summer, and had made her garlands for her head and her loins; and the knight sat and worshipped her, yet he would not so much as touch her hand, sorely as he hungered for the beauty of her body. (pp. 260-1)

The organic interweaving of diverse ingredients represented here – company, food, deft manual or mental activity – is repeated time and again in other houses Birdalone visits: in the prison-chamber on the Isle of Increase Unsought, where Birdalone and her fellow inmates sit down to eat and talk while keeping a sharp ear open for the arrival of their captor, the witch’s sister; in the garden of the Castle of the Quest, where Birdalone first tells her story to the Knights who built it; in the forest cave which the faery wood-wife calls her ‘house’. In each case the concept of an ideal dwelling place is briefly invoked by the beauty of the location, which serves both as an oasis of calm and conversation and as a trigger for action, the sort of action that takes Birdalone and her friends or fellows closer to the ideal domicile they hope to construct by the end of their narrative. In many cases old houses are repurposed as part of the journey towards this utopian future. The Red Hold, for instance, becomes a possession of the Knights of the Quest after the defeat of its master, while the buildings on the ‘Wonder Isles’ of the enchanted Water have each been requisitioned by new inhabitants when Birdalone visits them for a second time on her journey back to Utterhay. The most radical repurposing is that of the witch’s house, the House of Captivity, which is rebranded as the House of Love. Each of these repurposed houses can be read as a blueprint for, or a stage in, the organic planning and construction over time of the ‘good and fair castle’ at Utterhay where Birdalone eventually makes her home.

The process of making a home for Birdalone is complemented in the romance by the process of providing that home with its most significant furnishings: the clothes its occupant will wear, the housing of the body. Birdalone begins her life as an abductee in the witch’s cottage wearing rags, her garments an index of the older woman’s neglect:

Lank and long is Birdalone the sweet, with legs that come forth bare and browned from under her scant grey coat and scantier smock beneath, which was all her raiment save when the time was bitter, and then, forsooth, it was a cloak of goat-skin that eked her attire: for the dame heeded little the clothing of her. (p. 18)

William Morris and Edward Burne Jones, The Flora Tapestry

As she grows to adulthood Birdalone becomes ashamed of her rags and sets about making good clothing for herself: first a pair of embroidered deerskin brogues, then a green gown decorated with roses, lilies and ‘a tall tree springing up from amidmost the hem of the skirt, and a hart on either side thereof, face to face of each other’ (p. 21), in token of her organic connection to the wilds. Meanwhile her body is subjected to radically different treatments by the witch and the faery wood-wife. The wood-wife is the first to describe Birdalone’s physical appearance to her in detail, confirming her beauty both as an essentially socialattribute and as a work of exquisite craftsmanship on the part of God – or of the artist William Morris: ‘Surely he who did thy carven chin had a mind to do a master-work and did no less. Great was the deftness of thy imaginer, and he would have all folk that see thee wonder at thy deep thinking and thy carefulness and thy kindness’ (p. 25). The social aspect of Birdalone’s beauty is reinforced by the fact that the wood-wife magically takes on the young woman’s appearance, providing her with company, in the form of a double, and a co-conspirator against the witch who is in effect another self – Cicero’s famous definition of the perfect friend. The witch, meanwhile, treats Birdalone’s bodily beauty as an investment, a means of gaining power over the men who will be attracted to it; and she asserts her ownership of this investment by briefly transforming the girl into a deer, as punishment for a display of independence. In response, the wood-wife gives Birdalone renewed ownership of her own appearance by providing her with a ring of invisibility – a means of disappearing from the gaze of hostile eyes – with whose help she learns the secret of the witch’s boat.  Not long afterwards Birdalone escapes in the boat, but not before the witch has stolen from her both the ring and her clothes. In token of her liberation from slavery and of her new birth, so to speak, through the symbolic medium of water, Birdalone sets out on her adventures naked as a baby, and must find clothes of her own as well as a home in the course of her quest.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of many portraits of Jane Morris

Birdalone’s next set of garments are symbolic of her first entry into a community. Naked she arrives at the Isle of Increase Unsought, where she is enslaved again by the witch’s sister; and the three slave women she meets here invest her with clothes of their own before helping her escape for a second time. The garments they provide are not just decorative coverings, however – they are also messages to their knightly lovers. Each has a story woven into it, so to speak, having been given to its owner by her fiancé, and Birdalone learns the narrative behind each item when she meets the bereft young men at the Castle of the Quest. At the Castle, too, she is provided with jewels and alternative garments to replace the borrowed items, and her first entrance wearing her newly-made aparrel marks the end of the second part of her adventure:

She was so clad, that she had on a green gown with broidered sleeves, and thereover a white cote-hardie welted with gold, and gold-embroidered; on her feet were gold shoon of window-work, pearled and gemmed; and on her head a rose garland; on her neck she bore the Golden Knight’s collar; her loins were girt with the Black Squire’s girdle; and on her wrist was the Green Knight’s ancient golden ring; and she carried in her arms Aurea’s gown and Viridis’ shift and Atra’s shoon. (p. 186)

The carefully listed garments here identify her as an integral part of the story of the three knights of the Castle of the Quest and their respective ladies. From a ragged slave and naked wanderer she has been transformed into the embodiment of fellowship, of collective enterprise and collaborative workmanship; and Morris’s craftsman’s eye for the technical details of her apparel (a cote-hardie welted with gold, gold shoes of window-work) invites the reader to recognize the way it speaks to her new condition, as a participant in and beneficiary of a community of ‘carefulness’ (to use the wood-wife’s word) – in other words of mutual support and affection.

Birdalone undergoes several more changes of costume as the romance goes on – most notably into two successive suits of armour, the first provided by herself (a light hauberk covered by a surcoat, a sallet or light helmet and long boots of deer-leather, p. 396), the second by the faery wood-wife (‘helm and hauberk, and leg and arm wards; and they were all of green, and shone but little, but were fashioned as no smith of man-folk could have done the like’, p. 517). The second of these warlike ensembles is identical to the outfit supplied by the wood-wife to Birdalone’s lover, Arthur, and her physical strength in bearing ‘such light gear’ in the final battle to rid the woods of brigands helps to underline her equality with men at that late stage in Morris’s narrative.

The most significant new garment she gets, however, is the richest and most conventionally feminine of all: a dress presented to her by the faery wood-wife Habundia, fashioned from the ‘web of the Faery’, whose shifting colours seem to summarize the difficulty, variety, strangeness and frequent beauty of her experiences over the book’s 500-odd pages:

And therewith she laid on Birdalone’s outstretched arms the raiment she had brought with her, and it was as if the sunbeam had thrust through the close leafage of the oak, and made its shadow nought a space about Birdalone, so gleamed and glowed in shifty brightness the broidery of the gown; and Birdalone let it fall to earth, and passed over her hands and arms the fine smock sewed in yellow and white silk, so that the web thereof seemed of mingled cream and curd; and she looked on the shoon that lay beside the gown, that were done so nicely and finely that the work was as the feather-robe of a beauteous bird, whereof one scarce can say whether it be bright or grey, thousand-hued or all simple of colour. (pp. 463-4)

It is this set of clothes, here summarized in one exuberant, breathless sentence, that ‘abashes’ the ‘captain of the porte’ of Utterhay when the fellowship approaches his gates in the penultimate chapter, convincing him that ‘he had to do with folk of the Faery’ (p. 545). The ‘gleaming-glittering’ web or fabric of the gown, then, could also be said to symbolize the dynamic web of comradeship based on collaborative action of which Birdalone has become the central emblem. And it brings us back to the question of impossibility in Morris’s late fantastic fiction.

William Morris, Blackthorn

It’s often said that magic is only peripheral to Morris’s romances, and that their author’s heart and soul is more invested in crafts, communities and personal courage than in manifestations of the supernatural. It would be better to say, I think, that magic is organically woven into these final books of his – made of the same whole cloth. Its operation seems so much a natural part of Morris’s narratives that one hardly notices when it is happening; or rather, he makes little distinction between events where magic is at work and events where the behaviour or work of ordinary human beings has an effect like magic. The difference between the embroidered gown Birdalone fashions for herself, for instance, and the ‘gleaming-glittering’ gown Habundia gives her, is one of degree rather than substance. Both are made of beautiful fabric, both are sumptuously decorated with exquisite handiwork, both offset the personality of the garment’s wearer. They symbolize different things – in the first case Birdalone’s independence and skill, in spite of enslavement, in the second Birdalone’s bond with her Faery mentor – but both are equally remarkable, the former perhaps more so than the latter, since the preservation of independence and the acquisition of skill under such conditions is more of a miracle than the collective capacity of the Faeries to produce fine craftsmanship.  In the same way, Birdalone’s bodily beauty seems no less magical in its effects than the acts of magic by which it is obscured. Her transformation by the witch into a ‘milk-white hind’ gives her a shape that perfectly represents what the witch wants her to be, but the witch also feels constrained to make her new form a beautiful one, since beauty of mind and body is the essence of what makes Birdalone herself.   For the same transgression the witch also threatens to make Birdalone invisible in a very particular way, making her ‘wander about seen by none but me’ (p. 45), and thus underscoring the witch’s possession of Birdalone’s special form of loveliness. In the following chapter, the wood-wife offers Birdalone a different gift of invisibility, which differs from the witch’s in its emphasis on Birdalone’s agency – Birdalone herself can choose when to use it, and can be seen (when she turns invisible) by no one at all, not even the wood-wife (p. 50). In this way she restores to Birdalone a sense of her own identity as distinct from and independent of her mistress’s power. In both cases, however, it’s Birdalone’s personal qualities which make it worthwhile exerting power over her, and which remain unaffected – indeed, are enhanced – by the magic worked on her. The power of magic in effect intensifies her power, making the reader increasingly aware as the tale goes on of her effect on others, which is all the more remarkable given that Morris is concerned to stress at every point that Birdalone is not a frequent user of magic, despite her education in the wood-wife’s knowledge.

John William Waterhouse, Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus

Magic, then, in Morris’s work, is a way of intensifying the personality of the user; the way it is used provides an index to the user’s desires and values. In the process it also provides a means for Morris to emphasize how power works at its best and worst, since magic is raw power. When used by the unscrupulous it demonstrates the effects of tyrannical power on its victims, which is to bereave them of their personal powers. The witch’s transformation of Birdalone into a milk white hind robs her of the capacity to think and speak, while the magic powers of the Tyrant of the Red Hold puts Sir Thomas to sleep, replicating the effects of the mysterious magic that binds the noblemen and ladies on the Isles of Kings and Queens in a deathly sleep, the residents of the Isle of the Old and Young in perpetual childishness.  Well used, on the other hand, magic invests people and things which have often been held in low esteem – friendship between women, items of clothing or personal jewellery, keepsakes, houses – with an efficacy that asserts their centrality to human experience. The wood-wife’s magic, for instance, strengthens her bonds with Birdalone, whether it is invested in a gown, a ring or a lock of her hair. It reinforces the qualities in Birdalone which attract the wood-wife to her, as we’ve seen with the ring of invisibility and the glittering-gleaming gown. And it leads her out of the states of entrapment to which she is so often subjected: for instance, when Habundia sends her image to Birdalone to lead her out of an imprisoning fog on the Island of Nothing, or when she supplies her friends with faery guides to lead them away from and back to the forest. Magic entraps, encloses and curtails, or else it liberates, comforts and affirms; but in every case the person who works it, and the person on whom it is worked, find their identities painted in bolder colours by its operations, much as the personality of the sitter is enhanced by the process of having their portrait painted.

The operation of magic in The Water of the Wondrous Isles is most beautifully demonstrated, perhaps, in the episode where the wood-wife enters the house of the witch at Birdalone’s invitation (Chapter XXI, pp. 468-71). Before entering it for the first and only time in the book, Habundia asks Birdalone if she knows anything about the method of the house’s construction: ‘belike [the witch] buried some human being at one of its four corners. Tell me, fair child, sawest thou ever here at night-tide the shape of a youngling crowned with a garland straying about the house?’ (p. 469). On Birdalone’s affirming that she has never seen any such ghostly apparition, the wood-wife suggests that ‘maybe thou hast hallowed it with the wisdom and love of thee’, and adds that the materials from which the house has been constructed are natural and local, thus linking it with the wood which is Habundia’s home: ‘it is all builded of trees and the grass of the earth; and thou art free to use them by my leave’ (p. 469). Habundia then enters the house and shrinks to the height of a very young child – infantilized, it would seem, by the lingering influence of the witch’s impulse to tyranny. But shortly afterwards the affection of Birdalone magically restores her to full size, in token of her power of ‘hallowing’ what was diminished and curtailed, and they go on to eat and drink together ‘a simple meal of bread and cheese and wood-berries, and […] milk withal’ (p. 470, a kind of communion supper in celebration of their equal power, their wholesome friendship. The meal consists both of the fruits of Birdalone’s labour – bread and cheese – and the fruits of the wood-wife’s wilderness, and forms one of the series of companionable meals in times of tribulation that punctuate the narrative from beginning to end.

The analogy with communion brings us to another function of magic in Morris’s work, which is to serve as a substitute for religion. Morris’s new Middle Ages are striking for one glaring absence – the lack in them of a powerful Christian church, the terrestrial aspect of the celestial House of God. There are priests in them – albeit very few in comparison with the religious orders of the real medieval period, as the briefest glance at the cast-list of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will demonstrate; but these priests have little to say about the God they serve, and the only priest in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, a man called Leonard, worships Birdalone far more intensely than he does any heavenly deity. His worship of her recalls the various points in Morris’s work where a woman takes on the role of goddess: the Lady and the Maid, for instance, in The Wood Beyond the World, who are worshipped as divine by the pagan Bear people, or the Lady of Abundance in The Well at the World’s End, who is seen by some as a goddess, by others as a demonic sorceress. Such forms of personal idolatry are always represented as problematic in the romances, although they also always elicit the narrator’s sympathy (like Sir Philip Sidney he seems to share his characters’ tendency to idolize his heroines).  Leonard in The Water of the Wondrous Islesends his life as a solitary hermit living near the Castle of the Quest where he first met Birdalone; the last we see of him is standing on the shore as Birdalone speeds away from him in her magic boat, the holy man ‘staring on her speechless with grief and blinded with his bitter tears’ till she vanishes from sight (p. 412). The authority of God’s House is replaced in Morris’s work by the various kinds of influence exerted by a succession of secular houses, just as the power of a centralized monarchy is replaced by a succession of local leaders – soldiers, merchants, craftspeople – who use these houses as their headquarters.  The removal of the central powers of church and state is what allows Birdalone to take her place in the narrative as the ideal householder, the lynchpin of the fellowship of co-habitants which transforms Utterhay in the end into a model dwelling-place.

Kelmscott Manor

William Morris repurposed houses throughout his career: most famously Kelmscott Manor in the Cotswolds and Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, London. In his late romances he repurposed the literary houses of the Middle Ages to accommodate his dreams of a fairer time to come. His own fictional houses were repurposed in their turn, most famously by Tolkien; and a concentration on the houses in Tolkien’s fiction may help us understand how the there-and-back-again structure of The Lord of the Rings involves the repurposing of the celebrated underground houses of the Shire as a quasi-socialist utopia along the lines of Morris’s. Frodo’s journey to destroy the Ring takes him through a series of houses as various as the residences Birdalone visits: from his hobbit hole at Bag End to the house of Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, from the Last Homely House at Rivendell to Galadriel’s woodland home, Lothlorien, a hideout in Ithilien, an Orcish stronghold in Mordor, and the splendid city of Minas Tirith, newly restored to the rule of an unusually democratic king.As with Birdalone, Frodo’s eventual return to Bag End gives him a new appreciation for the quasi-socialist, organic space of the Shire, whose landscape is restored and improved, after the physical and political ravages wrought on it by Saruman, with the help of the wood-wife Galadriel – who thereby becomes permanently linked with the fellowship of humans and hobbits which protects the Shire from the depredations of malicious outside forces. This transformed Shire seems to throw off the shackles of the class system that identified Frodo as Sam’s Master; by the end of the narrative it’s Sam who’s the elected master or Mayor of his home country.Later still, Sam’s mastery of the narrative of the Ring – embodied in his possession of the collectively-written Red Book, which contains the story as begun by Bilbo and continued by his nephew – gets handed on to his daughter, as if in belated recognition of the role of women in the processes of making history. The Red Book itself is a work of craftsmanship – incorporating calligraphy, cartography, illustration, linguistic and historical scholarship, verse-making – which evokes the richly designed volumes of the Kelmscott Press. Viewed in terms of his inheritance from Morris, Tolkien’s there-and-back-again structure looks far less conservative than it is often made out to be. It’s Gothic, yes, but Gothic repurposed for the twentieth century, a form of Gothic whose location in a deep past that never existed holds out hope for a possible future restructuring of old spaces and structures to the mutual benefit of all their inhabitants.Add to it Morris’s radical reinvention of women’s roles in such a future, as articulated in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, and you have a future that still looks well worth having, from the perspective of the twenty-first century.

The Brothers Hildebrandt, Bilbo at Rivendell

NOTES

[1] See Gordon E. Cherry, ‘The Town Planning Movement and the Late Victorian City’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Vol. 4, No. 2, The Victorian City (1979), pp. 306-319

[2] William Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (London: Penguin, 1993, rev. 1998), p. 94.

[3] Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, pp. 329-48.

[4] Morris, News from Nowhere and Other Writings, pp. 385-90.

[5] References to The Water of the Wondrous Isles are taken from my copy of the 1909 edition (New York, London and Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co.).