A poor Greek farmer has fond hopes for his strangely impassive daughter Rhodope, and carefully unwraps for her one night a gift he has saved, some fine clothes and a pair of jewelled shoes taken years ago from a wrecked pirate ship.
Soon thereafter, on her way to a nearby temple, Rhodope encounters the high-priest's lovelorn son, whom she calmly assures that her rejections of his ardent proposals have saved both from a loveless marriage. She later stops to nap en route, dreams of a new life, tries on her new finery when she wakes, and then removes the jewelled shoes to bathe in the waters of a nearby bay.
When an eagle swoops down to bear away one of the shoes, she weeps bitterly and puts on her humble everyday garments once again. The loss angers her mother when she tells her parents what has happened, but it also reawakens fond memories in her father, and he is deeply hurt when Rhodope tells him she may not be able to love him in the years to come.
A year later, Rhodope returns again to the temple, where she meets royal emissaries sent in search of the owner of the lost shoe. When she shows them the jewelled slipper, they extend the king's offer of marriage. Ambition and a slightly alienated sense of destiny prompt her to accept, though she expresses reluctance to "wed some proud great man I do not know," (l. 1159).
Rhodope assures her father that he and her mother will accompany her to the wedding, but after the ship is underway realizes that she has somehow left them behind. A brief spasm of remorse and affection breaks her eerie detachment as she looks back from the deck, and "her unseeing eyes did range/ Wide o'er the tumbling waste of waters grey," (ll. 1405-6).
In Lemprière's Classical Dictionary, Morris's only known source for this tale, "Rhodopis" was a famous Greek courtesan, a former slave who practiced her trade at Naucratis, donated much of her earnings to the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and married Psammetichus, king of Egypt, after he had sent his underlings to find the owner of one of her sandals, also carried off by an eagle. Morris could also have found the story (minus the eagle) in the translation of Herodotus by George Rawlinson (1858; Book II, Chapters 134-35), who described the stages of the tale's transformation in his notes (Dr. Peter Wright).
Morris omitted all references to the prior life of Rhodopis as slave and courtesan, and incorporated the Cinderella-like episode of the lost slipper in a Cophetua-and-the-Beggar Maid-motif of the sort he had employed in the early romance "Gertha's Lovers" (1856) and used again in "The Fostering of Aslaug," The Earthly Paradise's medieval tale for December. The humble farm setting and other aspects of the plot also echo the Scandinavian and Germanic Marchen-plots Morris mined for several of The Earthly Paradise's medieval tales.
"The Story of Rhodope" is notable for its loving descriptions of country labor and landscapes and its effective use of dreams to express character and anticipate future events, but most conspicuously for Rhodope's coldness and ambivalent responses to her longed-for elevation. Royal courtships traditionally bring happiness to their peasant beneficiaries, as in "The Fostering of Aslaug," but Rhodope's good fortune elicits a complex sense of her narrow emotional range and an awareness that no change in her material circumstances may bring the fulfillment she seeks.
Alienation from the past is inevitable, of course, but Morris's superposition of Rhodope's depressive and ambivalent mental states onto the tale's nominally cheerful plot greatly deepens that estrangement. His self-consciously detached heroine may also articulate a latent critique of myths about female happiness when she characterizes her situation as an exchange of one form of alienation for another ("And nowhere now I seem to have a home," l. 1193).
In an earliert more cheerful and "Aslaug"-like draft of the tale, "Rhodopis" lacked almost completely her near-namesake's introspective ambivalence, melancholy disdain and deep estrangement from almost everything around her. She watched eagerly, for example, when the king's retainers disembarked, warmly praised her neighbors ("For kind this people is and true of heart"), and left gifts for her parents when she departed.
More significantly, perhaps, in the later draft Morris created Rhodope's father's spurned affection for her as well as her qualified and belated recognition that she does indeed love him. The later figure's social aspirations are also more self-interested, and include (unlike those of her benign counterpart Aslaug) little or no interest in her prospective husband.
Stripped of its fairy-tale trappings, certain aspects of Rhodope's situation suggest counterparts in the life of the young Jane Burden, and her father's responses may echo those of the Oxford hostler Robert Burden when his beautiful daughter Jane married the prosperous young William Morris. The father's love is marked by poignance, selfless generosity and eagerness for his daughter's welfare, and he seems at times to suffer a paternal counterpart of Morris's marital bafflement and loneliness.
Rhodope's defining trait, by contrast, is her estrangement from her companions in any current or prospective walk of life. Her grudging response to her father overshadows the tale, but she is also more self-conscious and reflective than most of Morris's women, and the extremes of her ambivalence and detachment make her "story" one of Morris's better studies of anomie and remorse. In short, unlike Psyche, Danae, Aslaug and perhaps even Gudrun, Rhodope is emphatically not born "for love alone." Unfortunately, it is also unclear what, if anything, she is born for.
Against the background of these autobiographical interpretations of Rhodope's predicament, it may be significant that Morris remarked to Swinburne in December 1869 that "I thought myself I had tried to make her too much of a character for the importance of the tale, which is such a very slight one" (Kelvin, ed., Letters, I, 100). Contemporary critics generally found her somber restlessness offensive, and most later writers have concurred that the tale's chief defect is its heroine's dour character.
Be that as it may, one might see "The Story of Rhodope" as a fragmentary treatment of topics which deeply troubled Morris in this period of his life. On these terms, the tale's chief fault might not be its heroine's character, but its shortage of plausible motivation and abrupt closure in medias res. It is as though Morris transposed "The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok" ("Aslaug"'s model) to ancient Greece, rough-cut it as a tale of 'good fortune' unsought (and in this case perhaps undeserved), then drastically modified its emotional tone and 'happy' conclusion. He was deeply attracted to the cheerful populist figurations of folktale-romance, but the enigmas and undercurrents of his ambivalent, self-absorbed and pitilessly 'honest' heroine so amplified the psychological complexity of "The Story of Rhodope" that they overwhelmed its initial frame.
See also Bellas, 150-58; Boos, 137-46; Kirchhoff, 192-94; Oberg, 43-44; and Silver, 67.
An earlier draft of "The Story of Rhodope" is found in B. L. Add. M. S. 45,304. May Morris reprinted parts of the latter which varied most from the published version in William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist, I, 414-22, and seven other stanza fragments appear in Boos, 142-43.