"The Writing on the Image" is a compact, well-told tale of self-destruction and utter failure whose plot is relatively simple. A "Scholar" deciphers an image that "stood anciently in Rome;" and enters an underground vault of great treasures, where he seizes several objects. One last depredation, however--that of a "wonderful green stone"--releases an arrow which irrevocably seals the vault and Scholar within it forever.
There is some indication that the tale's original intention was to warn against the Faustian use of sorcery, for the "Scholar" is a master of his period's secret lore. In any case, sorcery also removes all traces of his disappearance after he is immured:
. . . the great rain
Washed the earth down, and sorcery
Had hid the place where it did lie. (ll. 321-23)
Morris's modifications of a brief tale in the Gesta Romanorum (No. CVII) add a measure of complexity to the Scholar's emotions, and provide fuller descriptions of the "ancient image" and wonders of the underground vault. Morris also heightens the general atmosphere of quasi-necrophiliac greed in one scene: the Scholar plucks from a dead queen's enchanted corpse ". . . the jewelled collar, that straight slid Down her smooth bosom to the board." (ll. 251-52) The vault seems to be a virtual Venus-flytrap for would-be plunderers.
The Scholar's motivations for theft in "The Writing on the Image" seem straightforwardly avaricious, but the wages of his sin may be disproportionately harsh. Jovinian, Atalanta, and the hostile monarch of "The Man Born to Be King" are much more gently disabused of their bigotries, or at least given second chances. By contrast with various forms of royal arrogance, the Scholar's desires to be "the richest man in all the land" seem almost credulous and naive. The Scholar's end, in any case, is curtly claustrophobic:
And midst the marvels of that hall
This Scholar found the end of all. (11. 308-309)
See Bellas, 208-212; Boos, 87-89; Calhoun, 156-61; Kirchhoff (1990), 167-68; Oberg, 56-57.
A rough early draft is in Fitzwilliam Library EP25, and the fair copy for the printer in Hungtington Library MS 6418. "The Writing on the Image" also appears toward the end of May Morris's list of early drafts for The Earthly Paradise.