Change in William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World

In her fine biography of William Morris Fiona McCarthy claims that his late romances are unlike anything else written in the nineteenth century.[1] One could just as easily say that they’re unlike anything else written at any time, including the post-Tolkienian fantasy fiction with which they’re so often compared. They articulate radical attitudes to women, class and sexual desire in an archaic prose that seems to anchor them in what is often taken to be the conservative past of the medieval romances. Their strange plots repeatedly turn romance conventions on their heads while seeming to conform to them; and they convey a dreamlike atmosphere, largely again through Morris’s prose style, which resembles his verse in its tendency to treat all incidents – crises and pastoral interludes, loving conversations, quarrels and apparitions – with the same fluid smoothness, seldom varying its rhythm whatever emotional terrain it traverses, much as a dream tends to inhabit the same mood throughout its length no matter what bizarreries or horrors it conjures up. Many incidents in them are never explained, and as a consequence the onus rests on the reader to decipher their significance, to an extent that simply isn’t true of many other contemporary narratives. George MacDonald wrote that he intended his own fairy tales to awaken something in their readers, not to direct them;[2] and the same statement might well have been made by Morris, whose interest in dreams was as intense as MacDonald’s, and whose romances helped to stir modern fantasy into wakefulness.[3]

The Wood Beyond the World (1894) is as strange and enigmatic as any of these late romances. It takes us on what seems to be a journey through the mind of its central character, Golden Walter, in which he finds himself playing a range of contradictory roles in a narrative whose form and content violate expectations in a number of crucial ways. An examination of its experimental features may help to debunk the still persistent perception of fantasy and romance as fundamentally reactionary genres. It may help, too, to point up the extent to which they can sometimes match modernism in their readiness to reinvent the past with an eye to the challenges of the present and future. The book’s form has political implications, and it’s these political implications that I want to tease out in the reading that follows.

Before setting out, though, it’s worth pausing to take note of the remarkable range of medieval and early modern prose romances to which Morris had access, thanks to the tireless labour of Victorian scholars. Stimulated in part by the international success of Walter Scott’s historical novels – Waverley, Ivanhoe, The Monastery and the rest – nineteenth-century scholars worked to put into print a huge amount of prose fiction from the sixteenth century and before which had been in many cases unavailable since early modern times, or never printed at all. Bibliophiles like Henry Huth, editors like F. J. Furnivall, Edmund Gosse and Alexander Grosart, book clubs like the Chetham Society, the Hunterian Club and the Roxburghe Club, and book series like the Globe editions, ensured that prosperous readers like Morris had access through mid-to-late Victorian libraries and bookshops to a wider range of old prose romances in English (Malory, Boccaccio, Bandello, Marguerite de Navarre, Lyly, Sidney, Lodge, Greene, Cervantes, Rabelais, and of course Anonymous) than at any other time in history. As a result he must have known the sheer diversity of the genre, its stylistic and formal inventiveness, its frequent refusal to follow pre-existent patterns, its preoccupation with topics neglected in official discourse – above all with women, desire, and desiring women – and its wayward way with historical and geographical fact, to an extent that would have been impossible for writers before him, apart from Scott and a few of his fellow antiquaries. Morris writes, in other words, free from the presuppositions about ‘chivalric’ romance that may have been entertained by many of his readers, but also intensely conscious of those presuppositions and prejudices. He plays with them even as he flouts them, and this knowing playfulness with accurate and inaccurate perceptions of the past is one of the characteristics he confers on the best examples of the fantasy tradition that followed him.

The title of The Wood Beyond the World helps to highlight the impression it gives of opening a door from one space – the everyday, mercantile, urban space in which it begins – into another: the enchanted wood where the bulk of the action takes place. ‘Wood’ and ‘world’ are so nearly homonyms that it’s easy to imagine one as being buried or concealed within the other (as C. S. Lewis did later in The Magician’s Nephew [1955]). This effect is intensified by the recurrent visions that trouble the protagonist, Golden Walter, taking him far away from the familiar surroundings of his place of origin, Langton on Holm (whose name punningly refers both to its homeliness and to its location, a holm being an island in a river – as well as to its dullness, since Langton invokes the German langweilig, boring). Three times Walter sees two women and a dwarf processing through the familiar everyday landscape; on one occasion, they seem to be leaving his father’s house moments after they have boarded ship and set sail for distant lands (p. 9).[4] Each time the threefold apparition ends by vanishing without a trace, and each vision intensifies his desire to track down the originals of the figures in it, despite his fear that they may have been illusions, the seductive symptoms of a catastrophic breakdown in his mental faculties. When the third occurrence of the vision is witnessed by his father’s matter-of-fact scrivener, Arnold, Walter is half convinced that it has substance, but even then will only concede that ‘there was at least something before my eyes which grew not out of mine own brain’ (p. 19). The question of whether what he sees is inside or outside his head – or of how far what he sees with his material eyes is affected by his mental state – continues to disturb his mind for much of the narrative, raising the question of what space the door through which the visions proceed might open into.

The behaviour of the visions doesn’t conform, then, to everyday notions of cause and effect, and so anticipates the degree to which Walter’s quest for the originals will operate in defiance of conventional narrative logic. Another way in which these visions anticipate this defiance is in the protagonist’s inability to decide which of the women fascinates him most: ‘For he said to himself that he desired not either of the twain; nay, he might not tell which of the twain, the maiden or the stately queen, were clearest to his eyes; but sore he desired to see both of them again, and to know what they were’ (p. 10). The contradiction in the young man’s thinking here – he tells himself he does not desire either woman, yet ‘sore he desired to see both of them again’ – predicts the continued confusion over identity (his own, as well as those of the two women) which will be a marked feature of his later adventures. Confused identity is a familiar romance motif, but it doesn’t generally manifest itself at the point when the romance hero first sights his future lover. On these occasions it’s expected that the knight will fall head over heels in love with a single woman, and that he will know full well from the first that it’s love or desire that draws him to her. Walter’s confusion may arise from two causes. The first is that he is no knight, and therefore presumably not subject to the usual rules of chivalric fiction. The second is that the mental state he finds himself in when he sees the visions is a singularly unromantic one, and that this sets him at odds from the outset with the narrative trajectory of traditional romance.

Walter’s situation at the beginning of the narrative is, in fact, a mass of contradictions. His nickname refers both to his current prosperity and to the long line of his prosperous forebears: his father ‘was of the Lineage of the Goldings, therefore was he called Bartholomew Golden, and his son Golden Walter’ (p. 2). But his gilded past and glittering present serve as a mask for an unhappy marriage to a wife whose barefaced adultery effectively puts him in two minds:

he hated her for her untruth and her hatred of him; yet would the sound of her voice, as she came and went in the house, make his heart beat; and the sight of her stirred desire within him, so that he longed for her to be sweet and kind with him, and deemed that, might it be so, he should forget all the evil gone by. (p. 2)

This sentence pits a bevy of romance conventions against each other. The young man loves a young woman who doesn’t love him back, so that disparate ages and inter-generational conflict are not a factor in their relationship as they so often are in stories. They are married, rather than barred from marriage either by circumstance or their elders; love and hate are fused in Walter’s attitude to his spouse; and while he would seem to have obtained his ending before his adventures begin, it’s anything but a happy one. Summarized like this it’s easy to see why the situation might give rise to the threefold vision that haunts him: two women who are equally desirable, one a slave, the other her mistress, attended by a malicious servant whose grotesque appearance differs from Walter’s beauty as much as his marriage differs from the public appearance it presents to the world, or from marital ideals in general as promulgated by fairy tale and sentimental fiction. Both Walter and the Dwarf are linked with the colour yellow (the former is ‘yellow-haired’ [p. 1], the latter ‘clad in a rich coat of yellow silk’ [p. 7]), as if the latter is the mirror image of Walter’s self-disgust at his failure as a husband and lover.[5] Walter later tracks the Dwarf and his companions to a far-off place called the ‘Golden House’ whose name echoes his own sobriquet, and whose magnificent appearance recalls the opulent life he led in Langton. The Dwarf carries a bow, which makes him a malevolent adult version of the childish love-god, Cupid. There is a second male lover at the Golden House who competes with Walter for the attentions of the two women of the vision, just as his wife’s lover had earlier competed with him for her affections. The central plot of the romance, then, represents a twisted double of Walter’s marriage situation, as if it has been deliberately offered to him as a nightmarish alternative model of human desire and its workings to set alongside the idealized versions of love and marriage offered by traditional forms of fiction.

But the Golden House is only one of a series of unsettling doubles that punctuate the narrative. The first of these – the first that Walter becomes aware of – is a pair of ships in the harbour at Langton. One is a vessel boarded by the threefold vision when Walter first sees it (pp. 6-8); the other is his father’s vessel, which Walter boards before setting out on a long sea-voyage intended to free him from his loveless union. As the second ship casts off, Walter notes how the sailors repeat with unnerving precision the routines already carried out on board the ship he noticed earlier:

it all seemed but the double of what the other ship had done; and he thought of it as if the twain were as beads strung on one string and led away by it into the same place, and thence to go in the like order, and so on again and again, and never to draw nigher to each other. (p. 11)

Doubling here becomes a metaphor for the repetitive nature of routine itself: the daily comings and goings in the household of wives, lovers and husbands, as mentioned in Chapter I (‘as she came and went in the house’ [p. 2]); the mercantile traffic that follows identical routes from land to land in quest of profit; the daily routine of the marketplace; the cycles of history, which repeat the same triumphs and tragedies in successive generations. Walter’s fear is that routine will undermine any effort on his part at escape or innovation – new encounters, the resolution of past difficulties, liberation from his hostile partner – and that the two ships will instead follow the same preordained trajectory for ever without any significant variation, much as his marriage has followed the same routine of hatred and renewed desire throughout its duration without any sign of rapprochement or reconciliation between the spouses.

The structure of the adventures that follow both reaffirms this anxiety and works against it, as Walter moves from one location to the next, at each point confronting the notion of preordination or predestined activity, but at each stage also breaking the cycle, freeing himself from the chain of repetition, and bringing about new chapters in his own story and (finally) in the history of the lands he moves through. The Wood Beyond the World doesn’t follow the there-and-back-again format of Tolkienian fantasy or classic medieval romance (in this it differs from its successor, The Well at the World’s End [1896]); and its refusal to do so can be read as a sign of its radical agenda, that is, of Morris’s determination to liberate his protagonist and readers from the reactionary view that a romance ending should always restore the status quo established at the beginning – or indeed that the future can be confidently predicted on the basis of the past, a foundational principle of conservatism as well as of the capitalist marketplace with which Walter’s family is affiliated.

The notion of predetermination is worth considering further, since it’s a concept that gets taken up by the later fantasy tradition, and one that’s cleverly problematized in Morris’s book. The repeated vision may suggest to the reader, on the basis of previous experience, that there is some sort of destiny or fate that links Walter with the women he keeps seeing. Walter, however, sees the vision as liberating him from his apparent destiny, which is to remain unhappily married and to follow in his father’s footsteps as a merchant and local dignitary. This becomes clear when he sees the vision for the third and final time, in the nameless city to which his vessel conveys him on his father’s business. Just before this third encounter he learns from his father’s scrivener that the old man has been killed by his wife’s relatives, the Reddings, in revenge for sending her home in disgrace after his son’s departure. The news at once prompts Walter to get ready for the voyage back to Langton, where he expects to ‘enter into the strife with the Reddings and quell them, or die else’ (p. 18) – that is, to carry on the feud for the foreseeable future, in an ugly variation on the routine he has so far been slave to. His duty seems clear, along with the two equally unattractive endings available to him: death at the hands of or victory over his father’s killers. But his third sighting of the women and the Dwarf negates his view that these are his only options. He yearns to follow the women instead, as a third way (like the third way shown to Thomas the Rhymer in the ballad) whose uncertain outcome will free him from the familial duties by which he feels bound. The archaic term ‘boun’ is used by Morris to describe the destination of the ships that conduct the business of the Langton merchants (p. 13), as if to stress the limitations of the mobility they seem to offer. Sure enough, the next stage of Walter’s liberation from his past can only come when his ship is driven off its ‘bounden’ course. Shortly after his departure for Langton, the new vessel in which he finds himself – again, symbolically, one of his father’s – becomes ‘unboun’, so to speak, from its route, when a sudden storm drives it to the shore of an unknown island. As it turns out, this is the country where the women and the Dwarf dwell in the Wood Beyond the World, a place beyond all known maps, and beyond reach, too, of the business transactions often referred to in medieval texts as worldly affairs (as against spiritual ones). Walter’s pursuit of the women, then, takes him away from his destiny, not towards a predestined or ‘bounden’ ending. It therefore seems entirely appropriate that the experiences he has with the women should defy expectation, literary or otherwise.

Before he reaches the Golden House, Walter’s arrival at the unknown island sets up another set of expectations that appears to bind him to a specific course of action. He and his ship’s company, which includes the scrivener Arnold, meet an old man who lives by himself on a farm in an otherwise unpopulated part of the unknown country. The man tells Walter how he ended up in this lonely state, and as he does so the young man becomes convinced that the route the old man took to his youthful adventures – through a gap or ‘rift’ in the nearby mountains – will also take him, Walter, to the women in his vision. The problem is that the old man deems his adventures to have brought about only ‘evil’ (p. 35), and to have set him on course for his eventual seclusion; he therefore does all he can to dissuade his young visitor from following the same course of action, and the prophetic terms he uses, together with the image we may still hold in our minds of the beads forever following each other along the same piece of string, make his forebodings plausible. As Walter sets out for the gap in the mountains, then, the reader may well assume that he is condemning himself to an ‘evil’ outcome, and perhaps to lifelong loneliness on the farm where he met the hermit. The reader is, however, given a number of clues that this is not in fact the case. For one thing the old man was a knight in his youth, as opposed to a bourgeois merchant, so that his destiny might be expected to be of a different kind from Walter’s (knights are destined to rule where merchants trade; errant knights may expect to end up on a preordained patch of land, while the fortunes of merchants fluctuate with the market, making their eventual destinies less certain). For another, the old man killed his predecessor on the farm before setting out on his journey, whereas Walter does not. In fact, the old man’s knightly status and his manner of acquiring his land would seem to be connected. In killing his predecessor the old man describes himself as succeeding to the dead man’s property ‘as though this were a lordly manor, with a fair castle thereon, and all well stocked and plenished’ (p. 34). Walter, by contrast, is un-lordly in his origins, non-violent in his habits and above all unconcerned with his inheritance, since his quest for the women diverts him from the legal process of succeeding his father in his ‘goodly house’ in Langton (p. 9), just as it involves parting company with his father’s legal representative, the scrivener Arnold. Morris has, however, planted in our minds the possibility of ‘evil’ presiding over Walter’s journey, and as a result the reader can’t be assured of the happy outcome of this romance until she’s reached the final page.

The gap in the mountains leads Walter, of course, to the titular Wood Beyond the World: an idealized setting redolent of fertility and wealth, presided over by the Golden House, a building ‘carved all about with knots and imagery’ which Walter considers ‘beyond compare of all the houses of the world’ (pp. 72-3). At the same time, the setting is dominated by ambiguities of many kinds. Walter approaches the House by way of a series of encounters: with the Dwarf, with the younger of the two women known as the Maid, and finally with the ruling Lady, whom he meets in the House itself with her current lover, a young man wearing a royal ‘chaplet of gems’ as a sign of his rank (though he looks in Walter’s eyes ‘nowise […] chieftain-like’ [p. 74], so that his appearance is itself contradictory). Each meeting feeds Walter with preconceptions about the meetings to come. The Dwarf, who occupies an ambiguous halfway house between human and animal (he even moves in a fusion of styles, ‘whiles walking upright […] whiles bounding and rolling like a ball […] whiles scuttling along on all-fours like an evil beast’ [p. 56]), convinces Walter that the Maid is a kind of monster (a ‘Wretch’ or ‘Thing’ [pp. 54-5]), whose hidden ‘knife’ may not be trusted. When he meets the Maid she fills him with anxiety first about the Dwarf, who becomes ‘that one’ (p. 60), a nameless monstrosity too horrible to be mentioned, and then about the Lady, whose identity seems somehow multiple: an ‘evil mistress’ who ‘by some creatures’ is ‘accounted for a god, and as a god is heried [worshipped]; and surely never god is crueller nor colder than she’ (p. 65). The encounter with the Lady and her royal lover suggests that the reference to her as being ‘accounted for a god’ may be the familiar hyperbole of Petrarchan love discourse; her coldness to Walter on his first arrival reads like a conventional game of desire as practised in the early modern romances of Lyly, Greene and Gascoigne, and it’s only the Maid’s words that suggest there may be something more sinister afoot. This perception is intensified if the reader remembers what Walter learned from the old man at the farm: that his neighbours, the stone age ‘Bear-folk’, worship a bloodthirsty female deity (p. 29) who demands human ‘blood-offerings’ from them (p. 40). The Lady, then, like the Dwarf and the Maid, may be mixed in the reader’s mind of compound elements, human, bestial and supernatural, and this mixture puts us perpetually in two minds as to which of these elements will become foregrounded in any given episode set in the Wood of ‘lies’, as the Maid calls it.

One can see by now why Morris, like his successor Tolkien, was averse to the notion that he might have written allegories (as McCarthy tells us, he reacted angrily when an editor suggested that The Wood was a socialist allegory of labour’s struggle with capitalism). Allegories such as Bunyan’s hugely popular Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) assigned singular, limited roles to each of their characters; the identities and moral standing of Worldly Wiseman, Little-Faith, Hopeful and the rest are obvious at once from their names. Walter’s meeting with the Maid, on the other hand, is all about uncertainty; not least, the Maid’s uncertainty as to Walter’s own nature, her uncertainty as to whether the Lady lured him to the Wood for some dark purpose, her cogitations as to how to proceed, and finally her uncertainty about what Walter will think of her if she succeeds in carrying out the plan she finally comes up with. The reader doesn’t share in all these uncertainties; by this stage of the narrative, for instance, we may well have decided that Walter is an upright citizen, exactly as Morris describes him in the opening paragraph (‘rather wiser than foolisher than young men are mostly wont; a valiant youth, and a kind’ [p. 1]). The Maid’s fears spring in part from her status as a slave, a condition of which we’re constantly reminded by references to the steel ring on her ankle: subject to the whims of a volatile mistress, unsure as to whether any given situation is an ingenious trap devised to remind her of her servitude. And one element of this trap consists of the Maid’s concerns about Walter’s potential attitude to her, conditioned as she assumes it is by romance conventions concerning female behaviour. Should she display excessive wisdom or courage – qualities associated with Walter’s character as a man in the opening pages – she fears that he may judge her to be as the Dwarf described her: a dangerous monster forever set apart from the rest of her sex, a kind of inverted Blessed Virgin. Walter does indeed doubt the Maid at various points in their subsequent adventures – not surprisingly, really, since he has only known her for a short time, and has already been betrayed once by a woman he loved. But then, he also begins to doubt himself, largely thanks to his ambivalent attitudes to the Maid and the Lady. Identities in the Wood seem not to be fixed, and it’s the complexity of the women’s roles there, in particular, that points up its refusal to be bound by allegorical or romance regulations.

The Maid lays out the rules of the game she will play – a deadly serious game of the sort played by slaves conspiring to win their freedom – when she first meets Walter. ‘Thou hast cast thy love,’ she tells him, ‘upon one [i.e. the Maid herself] who will be true to thee, whatsoever may befall; yet is she a guileful creature, and might not help it her life long [in other words, her cunning has been forced on her by lifelong captivity], and now for thy very sake must needs be more guileful now than ever before. And as for me, the guileful,’ she continues,

my love have I cast upon a lovely man, and one true and simple, and a stout-heart; but at such a pinch is he, that if he withstand all temptation, his withstanding may belike undo both him and me. Therefore swear we both of us, that by both of us shall all guile and all falling away be forgiven on the day when we shall be free to love each other as our hearts will. (pp. 69-70)

Such a speech spoken by a woman to a man is more or less unprecedented in the annals of romance, at least in my experience.[6] For medieval and early modern writers an admission of guile would invariably be tantamount to an admission of guilt, and the guileful woman would quickly betray her true colours by seeking to beguile or bamboozle her lover (as Lucilla does, for instance, in Lyly’s Euphues [1578]).[7] At the same time, the Maid also professes truthfulness in the sense of fidelity (she will ‘be true to thee, whatsoever may befall’), and so insists that a consistent set of values will underpin her deviousness. She then sets up a clear distinction between herself and Walter. He is ‘true and simple’ by nature, she says, but must cultivate deviousness if he is to survive; he must strategically give way to ‘temptation’ if either or both of them are not to be destroyed by the ‘evil mistress’. So far so Machiavellian; this might be Lady Macbeth enjoining her husband to ‘Look like th’innocent flower, / But be the serpent under it’, with the crucial difference that the Maid is enjoining Walter to seem duplicitous, even to be duplicitous, but to cultivate a secret simplicity in his intentions and commitments. This troubling advice comes hard on an earlier reversal of Walter’s preconceptions about romance behaviour, where the young man promised to deliver the Maid from her enslaving mistress and she retorted that ‘it is more like [i.e. more likely] that I shall deliver thee’ (p. 67). On their first encounter, in fact, the Maid seeks to instruct Walter in a new kind of narrative, where the knight is less effective in a crisis than the damsel in distress, where lying may be necessary rather than immoral, and where trust and forgiveness are bestowed with difficulty rather than with the ease that so often characterizes their attainment in chivalric romance. Walter is not a rapid learner; he promptly agrees with everything the Maid has said on the grounds that she is his ‘Hallow’ (p. 70), that is, his saint, which makes her sound dangerously perfect, in direct contradiction to everything she has just told him about herself. But the Maid has given him a key to interpreting or reading her subsequent actions which promises to convert him to her way of thinking, should he choose to accept it, before the story’s end.

Most strikingly, her advice closes with an insistence that both of these would-be lovers learn to cultivate a commitment to change rather than consistency if their relationship is to flourish. The Maid has learned to change guilefully in order to protect herself from the Lady’s cruelty. She can also change her own and other people’s physical appearance, which is a skill the Lady does not possess (perhaps she does not need it, being a slave-owner rather than a slave). Walter must learn to change (from simplicity to duplicity, from fidelity to promiscuity, from the assumption of male dominance to reliance on a woman) in order to protect himself and the Maid. And both must promise to change again, for one last time, when the need for changefulness is over. Her insistence ‘that by both of us shall all guile and all falling away be forgiven on the day when we shall be free to love each other as our hearts will’ could be taken as Morris’s manifesto: his romances recognize the need for compromise in adversity, acknowledging partial or apparent complicity with the dominant power as a necessary part of the struggle for freedom from it, as against the idealistic purism of traditional chivalric codes. At the same time, the original principles of chivalric romance remain important to him: fidelity (to those who are worthy of it), simplicity (a clear set of social and moral values underlying one’s actions), and devotion to truth (even when one is forced to lie in the interests of self-preservation). He wants his readers to recall traditional chivalric romance even as they recognize the various departures from it in his narrative. There’s an idealism here, in other words, concerning the possibility of keeping faith in the worst of circumstances, which the Maid is concerned to assert even as she spurns the kind of idealism based on arbitrarily-assigned gender roles that has dominated past narratives of this kind.

Sustaining this clandestine idealism proves as difficult as one might expect in the adventures that follow. Walter continually doubts the Maid’s fidelity, distrustful of her increasing intimacy with the King’s Son even as he self-consciously fulfills his own obligation to be physically intimate with the Lady. His relationship with the Maid is complicated by the fact that he finds the Lady equally attractive, as also by the fact that he is continually mistaking the one for the other, so that at times the only distinction between them seems to be the ring of steel on the Maid’s ankle which marks her out as the Lady’s property. Even when the Maid eventually frees them from the Lady’s power – by magically disguising the King’s Son as Walter and luring him to the site of an assignation, where the Lady kills him in a jealous rage after being tipped off by the Dwarf – Walter suspects her of excessive intelligence and courage (or deviousness and boldness), exactly as she predicted he would. Changing attitudes to gender prove as difficult in Morris’s romance world as they were in the actual struggle for women’s equality in which Morris took such a marked if problematic interest.[8]

The confusions of identity that occur in the Wood are exacerbated by the uncertainty as to how terms are used and phenomena explained. We’ve already noted how the term ‘yellow’ occurs in the descriptions both of Walter and of the Dwarf – that is, of the most ‘virtuous’ and ‘vicious’ male figures in the narrative – and how the sobriquet ‘golden’ applies at once to Walter, his father, and the enchanted House where Walter finds himself after abandoning his father’s ship. Similarly, the term ‘Enemy’ gets regularly applied to different inhabitants of the Wood, Maid, Dwarf and Lady; and its capitalized initial ‘E’ aligns it with the names denoting qualities in allegories like The Pilgrim’s Progress, as if to point up the danger of assuming a stable correspondence between signifier and signified. We’ve seen, too, how the origins of the visions Walter sees are never confirmed (were they sent by Lady, Maid, or some other influence?); so that it’s hardly surprising we never learn their purpose either (were they devised by the Lady to ensnare a new lover, by the Maid to procure a rescuer, by destiny to ensure that the story unfolds as it does?). Another incident that never gets explained is Walter’s killing of a lion on a hunting expedition with the Lady. Was the lion conjured up by the Lady as a test of Walter’s mettle? This would explain the fact that it is yellow, like her servant the Dwarf who shares so many of its properties, and that its body disappears, leaving no trace, after its killing. But if so, why does the Lady associate it with her Enemy (presumably the Maid), and react to its appearance with seeming terror? The Maid asserts that since the Lady is a liar her behaviour and words on this occasion cannot be trusted; but of course the Maid too is a mistress of false appearances, as her final plot against the Lady demonstrates. Finally, the Maid mistakes Walter for the King’s Son on at least one occasion, and the Lady mistakes him for her royal lover when she stabs the latter (using a knife of the kind the Maid carries about with her – as she claims, for purposes of self-defence and possibly suicide, though the Dwarf identifies it as the sign of the Maid’s monstrosity). The Lady commits suicide, in the end, just as the Maid proposed to do if her bid for freedom failed. Walter, meanwhile, ends up as a serial adulterer (he is successively unfaithful to his wife, the Maid and the Lady), a bigamist (he marries the Maid while still, apparently, married to his wife in Langholm), a voyeur (he is always spying on the Lady and the Maid, like the Dwarf he hates), a killer (he stabs the Dwarf to protect the Maid from his arrows), and a liar, and hence in some sense akin to the Lady, the Maid, the Dwarf and the King’s Son. The Wood, then, is a veritable labyrinth of resemblances and echoes, with each of its inhabitants repeatedly usurping the other’s role and partner in a dance of power that renders any notion of any one of them having a unique destiny, or preordained moral function, profoundly questionable.

It seems appropriate, then, that Walter’s moment of triumph in this romance is not an act of prowess (his killing of the Dwarf is a botched job at best, and he does little to rescue the Maid from her captivity) but instead an acceptance of his own complicity with the faults of which he suspects her. Having engineered the death of the Lady and the King’s Son, the Maid approaches the difficult task of explaining to Water what she has done – the chief difficulty being that she has behaved like the wicked witch of conventional romance – with hesitation; a hesitation that seems fully justified when Walter allows himself to half believe the Dwarf’s account of what has happened before he has even heard the Maid’s side of the story. It’s at this point, however, that Walter suddenly recalls the lesson in reading that the Maid taught him when they first met. The lesson involved pointing out to him how each of them must behave if they are to stand a chance of escaping from the Lady’s clutches; and how they must act in similar ways, and accept equal responsibility for their own and each other’s actions, if they are to have any chance of developing an adult relationship after their escape. Her lesson taught him, in fact, to rid himself of the double standards applied to men and women in fiction; and he shows he has learned the lesson when he affirms, as the Maid hesitates to speak freely to him, that he too has been guilty of any crimes she may confess in her account of the Lady’s death:

Yea, said he, and true it is that if thou hast slain, I have done no less, and if thou hast lied, even so have I; and if thou hast played the wanton, as I deem not that thou hast, I full surely have so done. So now thou shalt pardon me, and when thy spirit has come back to thee, thou shalt tell me thy tale in all friendship, and in all loving-kindness will I hearken the same. (pp. 157-8)

This statement of pardon before the Maid has told her tale certifies that Walter has learned to read in a new way, with an egalitarianism or ‘loving-kindness’ regarding gender (and ‘kindness’ suggests similarity or kinship in medieval English) that’s pretty much alien to the romance tradition, which tended to apply such different standards to men and women, especially in sexual matters [this isn’t true of Sidney or Mary Wroth]. This is not to say that these standards have yet been fully naturalized either in Walter or in Morris’s readers. Morris is careful, for instance, to ensure that the Maid remains what her title suggests, a virgin, so as not to alienate his more conservative readers. But the passage, like the romance as a whole, also asserts the possibility of accepting an authoritative, cunning, powerful, active and passionately desiring female figure into the storytelling tradition, and in doing so paves the way for the yet more powerful women of Morris’s later romances, The Well at the World’s End and The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897).[9]

Walter doesn’t remain entirely convinced by his own rhetoric of loving-kindness. His assertion of trust in the Maid is sorely strained when she later takes on the Lady’s former role as goddess of the Bear folk, and he fears that she will take the opportunity to have him sacrificed like previous visitors to the Bear country. Later a similar fear afflicts him when he is seized, stripped, washed and fed by the people of a city called Stark-wall, and again presumes that these are preparations for ritual murder to appease some sanguinary deity. As it turns out, however, both acts of sacrifice are averted thanks to the equal commitment of the Maid and Walter to changing things for the better. The Maid uses her power as a substitute goddess to dissuade the Bear folk from the practice of human sacrifice rather than to encourage it (though she also instructs them to enslave weak or sickly strangers instead of sacrificing them; the historical moment would not yet seem to have come for the total erasure of slavery). Similarly, Walter’s ordeal in Stark-wall turns out to be a test of his fitness to be crowned king – a test he passes with ease; and he immediately uses his newfound power to institute change, inviting the Maid to be crowned as his Queen while symbolically inviting her to choose the clothes in which she will be installed alongside him. Again the change he implements is not as radical as it might be; it seems clear that the Queen doesn’t wield the same authority in Stark-wall as her husband. But their personalities and experience ensure that they make a difference in the World beyond the Wood (as the Lady at one stage calls it), extending the principles of loving-kindness beyond the charmed circle of their marriage.

Walter’s legacy, like his reformation of Stark-wall, is finally limited. When he dies he leaves behind ‘no needy’ subjects, but the quasi-democratic practice whereby he was crowned king after emerging ‘poor and lonely from out of the Mountains’ (p. 250) is forgotten, to be replaced, one guesses, by patrilineal succession. And the Maid’s actions, too, leave an ambiguous legacy. The skills she taught the Bear folk in her capacity as her goddess – which include tillage as well as relative kindness to strangers – eventually give rise to warfare between them and their neighbours, the people of Stark-wall, though ‘that was a long while after the Maid had passed away’ (p. 250). And after her coronation she continues to suffer from what sounds like post traumatic stress disorder, since under certain circumstances ‘her heart waxed cold with fear, and it almost seemed to her that her Mistress was alive again, and that she was escaping from her and plotting against her once more’ (pp. 249-50). Like all the great socialist writers, Morris was no glib optimist; he harboured no illusion that the changes he advocated through his experimental ‘plotting’ would come into being any time soon, or that the damage inflicted by the past would leave no trace on the psychology of its victims and their descendants. Change, nevertheless, lay at the heart of his literary programme, and he had the vision to trace the roots of potential change in the language and artistry of the past, as a miner traces a vein of ore through the rock of bygone ages.

Morris’s attitude to change is perhaps best exemplified in The Wood Beyond the World in his attitude to religion. Medieval Catholicism is more prominent in this text than it became in his later romances; in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, for instance, it has more or less disappeared, as I recall, whereas in the Wood his characters are constantly invoking the name of God or the Blessed Virgin. At the same time religion is firmly rooted in human urges. We have seen how the Maid becomes Walter’s ‘Hallow’ or saint when he pledges his love to her; and later, one of the residents of Stark-wall predicts that her name will be hallowed in future generations ‘little less than they hallow the name of the Mother of God’ (p. 244). Yet only shortly before this scene she was associated with a harsher religion, that of the Bear folk, who had been instructed by her predecessor, the Lady, to sacrifice strangers to appease their goddess. And when Walter first encountered the people of Stark-wall he suspected them of practising the same religion: ‘Surely all this [ritual],’ he comments, ‘looks toward the knife and the altar for me’ (p. 229); an opinion that’s rendered plausible by an elderly citizen’s reference to the ‘God-folk’ they formerly worshipped (p. 233), who seem to be equivalent to their ‘Fathers’ or male ancestors (p. 235). Like the characters in his romance, then, Morris’s gods blend qualities traditionally associated with human beings, beasts and deities; they can be gentle and supportive or fatal to strangers; they can wield power with arbitrary violence or dispense blessings on their followers freely, as the Maid-goddess does on the Bear folk when she makes believe to bring them much-needed rain without recourse to the usual murderous rituals, or when she sends the people of Stark-wall to teach them husbandry. This combination of qualities is most disturbingly embodied in the Lady, who is referred to by the Dwarf as a creator (‘it is like that she made me, as she made the Bear men’ [p. 55]), and who veers between disdain for and erotic dalliance with her human subjects. For Morris, religions give rise to both purposeless violence and altruistic acts of generosity, and the way he mixes pagan and Christian elements in his story suggests that he holds this to be true of all religions, ancient and modern. As a result what might be termed missionary work, such as the Maid’s among the Bear-folk, doesn’t have an unambiguously positive effect on its recipients, and certainly not an enduring one. The measure of any given civilization, he implies, is the social and political impact of its religious beliefs, and these beliefs are generated by its living mortal citizens rather than by any external influence or pre-planned programme, divine or otherwise.

It’s hardly surprising, then, if religious language gradually dropped away from his romances as an irrelevance. His concern was with constructing earthly paradises, not heavenly ones, as the title of his most celebrated book of poems affirmed.[10] And paradise, like hell, inhabits people’s minds and bodies, as it inhabits the Maid’s body in the brief period of history when she inhabits Stark-wall. ‘It seemed to me as she went past,’ says one of the citizens at her coronation, ‘as though paradise had come anigh to our city, and that all the air breathed of it’ (p. 244). The Wood Beyond the World was also described as a paradise, though a deadly one that killed the wanderer who entered it without due caution. Distinguishing one kind of paradise from the other is a task Morris leaves to his readers; and his romance provides an invaluable guide to that difficult process.

[1] Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for our Time (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 634.

[2] George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination’ (1893), in The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. U.C. Knoeplmacher (London: Penguin Books, 1999), pp. 5-10. See especially pp. 9-10: ‘It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning […] If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it’.

[3] See e.g. his utopian dream-vision narrative The Dream of John Ball (1888).

[4] All quotations are taken from William Morris, The Wood Beyond the World (London etc.: Longmans, Green and Co., 1904).

[5] It’s important to note here, and to condemn, the racism and disability discrimination involved in Morris’s depiction of the Dwarf. In certain ways he was distinctly a white male able-bodied writer of his time.

[6] There may well be equivalent speeches in Sidney’s two highly sophisticated romances named Arcadia, the Old and the New (c.1580 and c. 1586), and in Mary Wroth’s Urania (1621).

[7] See my analysis of the duplicitous language of Lyly’s Euphues in Elizabethan Fictions: Espionage, Counter-espionage and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), chapter 5.

[8] On Morris’s and the contemporary women’s movement see Ruth Kinna, ‘Socialist Fellowship and the Woman Question’, in Writing on the Image: Reading William Morris, ed. David Latham, (Toronto etc.: University of Toronto Press, 2007), chapter 13, pp. 183-96. See also the essays by Florence S. Boos and Jane Thomas in the same collection.

[9] For a fine analysis of Morris’s most powerful and complex romance heroine see Florence S. Boos, ‘The Water of the Wondrous Isles: Morris’s Socialist “New Woman” Romance’:

[10] Morris’s major anthology poem The Earthly Paradise was published between 1868 and 1870.

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