The Story of the Glittering Plain

Introduction from Carole Silver:

The World Beyond the World

When we enter the world of Morris’s last prose romances, we enter a land east of the sun and west of the moon. Unlike The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains, the setting is no longer the historical past. Unlike News from Nowhere and A Dream of John Ball, the message is no longer socialist doctrine intended for an audience of the proletariat. The myths utilized are similar to those used in the romances of the eighties; again they are visions of love and reconciliation, of the movement from separateness, loneliness, and discord to reunion, joy, and harmony, but their emphasis is subtly different. The interest in the individual in relation to society has shifted to a concern with the individual himself. Morris in the nineties is involved in depicting the integration of the personality, in portraying spiritual death and rebirth – only a minor motif in The House of the Wolfings – and in examining the growth and maturation of the hero. As the vehicle for presentation of his themes, he has selected the quest theme implicit in News from Nowhere. The last romances, The Glittering Plain, The Wood Beyond the World, The Water of the Wondrous Isles, The Sundering Flood, and [197] The Well at the World’s End, are journeys to a world beyond the world in search of self.

The journeys are set, not in time, but in the timelessness characteristic of the romance form. They are not full allegories,1 but rather examples of the romance of types: “romance that falls short of allegory yet seems to have typical value.”2 As such, they are images of inner life, projected by means of the exterior world. The conflicts, adventures, deeds of valor and of love are experiences of the inner world seen in terms of the out. The characters are not primarily individuals, but rather aspects of our experiences – stylized figures who becomes psychological archetypes. The narrative, as in the most interesting of romances, is psychological; the approach to narrative is through symbolism.3

Morris’s last romances did not spring full-blown from the collective unconscious. Instead, they stemmed from his broad knowledge of romance and legend, and from his awareness

1 As in the romances discussed in Chapter IV, they contain moments of formal or “naïve” allegory, whose significance is picked up and dropped at will.

2 Graham Hough, A Preface to the Faerie Queene (New York, 1963), p. 14.

3 This does not mean that Morris’s symbolism is constant, consistent, or always explicable; indeed, there are passages of entirely undesigning narrative. But there is, as F.A.C. Wilson suggests in Yeats' Iconography (New York, 1960), a “stream of conscious symbolic intention” (p. 52) assisted by functional imagery drawn largely from medieval sources. Thus we may read the works on two levels: “The mind’s surface receives it as pure narrative, while, at the same time and without the least sense of contradiction, a deeper level of the mind takes pleasure in the archetypal connotations and patterns.” (p. 16)

[198] of the current scholarship about them. He himself had translated a group of French romances and written his own redaction of Havelock the Dane.1 Equally important, he had read a vast number of romances. He possessed and knew not only such perennial favorites as Le Morte D’Arthur, Amadis of Gaul, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but also such works as Percival, The History of the Holy Grail, Joseph of Arimathee, Percival le Gaulois, Palmerin of England, Sir Eger and Grime, The Romance of Alexander, Lancelot de Lac, Le Chevalier Bayard, Tristam de Leonis, Ogier Danois, Amadis et Ydoine, Houon de Bordeaux, and Le Chevalier de la Tour Landruff – to mention only a few. In addition, he possessed a numerous collection of such compilations of romance and legend as Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript, Joyce’s Old Celtic Romances, Ritson’s Ancient English Metrical Romances, Webers’ Metrical Romances, Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England, and Ashton’s Romances of Chivalry.2 Through the introductions to these

1 Works, XVII. The Old French romances translated are “The Tale of King Florus and the Fair Jehane,” “The Friendship of Amis and Amile,” “The Tale of King Coustans the Emperor,” and “History of Over-Sea.” Child Christopher, a redaction of the tale of Havelock, is included in the same volume. Morris had begun using romance material as early as the 1860’s, when he planned a version of the tale of Amis and Amile for The Earthly Paradise and included “Ogier the Dane” among its stories.

2 An almost complete listing of the romances Morris possessed is to be found by collating three documents: “A List of Books and Manuscripts bought by William Morris, compiled about 1876, before he began collecting in earnest, partly in his handwriting and partly in that of his daughter, with the prices paid” (British Museum, MS. 86), “A Catalogue of the Library at Kelmscott House,” begun in 1890 by Morris’s daughter Jenny, continued by Morris, and further continued by Sidney Cockerell (Library of J.R. Abbey), and a “Priced Catalogue of a Portion of the Valuable Collection of Manuscripts, Early Printed Books and Etc. of the late William Morris, of Kelmscott House, Hammersmith” (London, 1898).

[199] works and a study of the sources themselves, he sought and gained an intimate knowledge of the nature and characteristics of the romance form.1

For Morris was trying almost singlehandedly to revive a long dormant genre. Aware of the importance of romance, of its great tradition and underlying psychological validity, he attempted to combine what he found most delightful in its pages with his own private vision. His goal was a literature for the future, a form of art to serve when the world had been reborn through socialism. His method was the extraction of what he considered the best features of the chivalric romance.

His protagonists, for example, are typical of the simplified and idealized heroes of chivalry. Like Amadis and Lancelot, they are men superior in degree rather than in kind.

1 He was familiar as well with a related subject, the work of the mythographers, folklorists, and antiquarians of his day. Morris was undoubtedly influenced by the studies of myth and ritual emerging in his time. He recounts trials, taboos, and primitive customs with considerable knowledge. His specific sources are often difficult to ascertain. One finds, for example, parallels to his account of Midsummer’s Eve Fire Festivals in The Well at the World’s End (XVIII, pp. 28-31) in John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities, Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology, and James George Frazer’s two-volume edition of The Golden Bough, all of which were available to him. However, it is certain that he drew extensively on such works as Frazer’s and Grimm’s. Frazer and his predecessors were important not only for specific names, characteristics, and accounts of rituals, but for the symbolism of fertility which Morris adopted from them.

[200] Now wholly mortal, not demigods like Sigurd and Thiodolf, they are often fostered and aided by supernatural beings, the Morgan Le Fays and Melusines of older works. Their adventures are the typical adventures of romance, and vows are made, jousts are fought, damsels are rescued, and castles are stormed or defended in the best medieval manner and spirit.

The framework in which they move is the world of medieval romance, one in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly, but not radically, suspended. In Morris’s works the more startling manifestations of supernaturalism are lacking; there are few bodily transformations and no talking animals. But there are evil witches, wise crones and hermits, fairy folk, and, of course, magic weapons and talismans. These we accept, if we accept the postulates of the romance form in the first place. But Morris uses the supernatural sparingly: we are not too often forced to strain our sense of belief.

The primary setting of the tales is the forest world – the “green world” of romance – well supplied with towers, castles, and hermitages, and broken occasionally by a medievalized town or city. It is an animistic world, full of elemental spirits, not all of whom are benevolent. It has its demonic forces, powers which seek to destroy its inhabitants, and whose region of negation is symbolized by the prison, the place of torment, the wasteland, and the tree of death. Complementing the green world is another realm just barely glimpsed in most other romances. It is the world of [201] society, a sort of Camelot, here represented by the small and uncorrupted town or kingdom. In the portrayal of these lands, Morris’s career as a socialist converges with his career as a poet, for they are ideal societies, little Nowheres with medieval furnishings. In them resides the spirit of the golden age—now seen as being made by men, for men, within the framework of an earthly world.

In all, though, what is most significant is not the traditional romance settings and devices, but the way in which they frame Morris’s private vision. The traditional quest—be it land journey or sea voyage—becomes increasingly symbolic. Morris knew the pattern and imagery of the journey from numerous sources, perhaps most clearly from the Grail romances he knew and loved, and from the Celtic myths and legends he enjoyed. Skillfully using his sources, he devised a series of quests whose objects were either the bride or the grail or both. He dismissed the other traditional goals for questers—treasure and political power—for his socialism made them seem unworthy. Instead, the end of all his journeys is happiness through wisdom and through love. Instead, the quest itself becomes a symbol for the entire process of regeneration. The late romances thus explore the powers that may harm or assist in the life journey. They suggest the way in which a man may come to terms with both himself and with his world; they promise the reward of love for him who does so.

The journey in The Story of the Glittering Plain, or [202] The Land of Living Men is from a utopian home, through a land which represents a confrontation with death, to a paradise seen as false, and finally again to home.1 Its outcome is the triumph of true fertility and life over the forces opposing them, here masked as their false counterparts, and its symbol of reward is the bride. It is thus a bride quest; but in searching for the fulfilling woman and all she represents, Hallblithe, the hero, also finds himself. His process of maturation involves learning to separate appearance from reality, lies from truth. He must move from a land of truth to a “land of lies” (XV,265), defeat falsehood through his own inner strength, and return, purified, to reality. The lands to which he travels in search of the kidnapped Hostage include both a false hell and a false heaven.

The journey to the first of these, the Isle of Ransom, suggests a descent to the underworld, even to the fact that the land may be approached only through an underground cave. It is a place of false values, whose people honor their principal hero as “chief liar” (XV,229), and it is a place of death. That it is modeled on Iceland may seem at first surprising, but to Morris Iceland, despite its beauty, came to represent the wasteland—the bare or terrible in life or

1 The book, limited in description and detail, shares with The Sundering Flood the distinction of having a vaguely Scandinavian setting. Its general aura is early medieval and its basic unit of society is the House. The Northern influence shows in the occasional use of saga epithets, and in the description of people (the Vikings), places (Iceland), and events. [203] landscape.1 Like Iceland, the Isle of Ransom is a waste and dreadful wilderness of black volcanic sand, littered with glacial rocks, and bearing only a few dwarfed and wind-bitten trees. Like Iceland, it is seen as beyond the edge of the ordinary world, an experience beyond the normal. As the world of the dead, it is a frightening country which must be confronted, conquered, and escaped.

The only way for Hallblithe to leave the Isle is to sail, outcast and tabooed, with the dying Sea-Eagle to the Land of the Glittering Plain. This is the other half of the psychological underworld, identified by its other title “The Land of Living Men” as the Celtic Tir-na-nog or paradise.2 What is important is that Hallblithe rejects it, and, by implication, all other paradises—earthly and unearthly. He

1 Bodkin, p.119, sees Morris’s Icelandic journeys as his “closer encounter with that threatening shadow [of death].” Whether, in the depression in which he traveled to Iceland in 1871 and 1873, it came to represent the wasteland or whether his reaction was retrospective, there is no question that the barren shores and steely seas of the remote North became linked in his mind to death.

2 Morris knew P.W. Joyce’s account of Tir-na-nog in the tale of “Connla of the Golden Hair and the Fairy Maiden” in Old Celtic Romances: Tales from Irish Mythology (New York, 1962, reprinted from a London edition of 1879). Joyce’s account of “the Land of the Living” (p. 74) is to the point; he describes it as “A land of youth, a land of rest, / A land from sorrow free; / It lies far off in the golden west, / On the verge of the azure sea” (p. 76), a description similar to Morris’s both in the land’s location and quality. Also to the point is the implication in the tale that Connla’s departure for the land is a false seduction, a relinquishment of his right role. [204] repudiates the land of the undying with its “flat felicity”1 and lack of opportunity for duty and courage, in order to return to the ordinary joys and sorrows of his mortal kingdom. In so doing, he rejects the world of illusion; his desire is to see the end of dreams, to accept the realities of life.

Seeing truthfully, he exposes the failure of the land, its exclusiveness, its light love, and its slothfulness. Although it is a place of immortality and eternal youth, it is only for the few (for example, the oldest chief of the Ransomers), and of these, the best refuse to go. They do not seek to separate themselves and their fate from that of the rest of their people; they prefer to suffer death with their kindred. They and the hero know that the highest immortality is not personal immortality, but that which comes of and through the race.

Moreover, though the earthly paradise promises the fulfillment of desire, the hero finds its love lacking. Peopled almost entirely by lovers, filled with frank and eager women, it permits free and spontaneous relationships. But the ladies of the land are women of pleasure entirely, rather than those whose love satisfies both duty and pleasure, and Hallblithe finds them unworthy. Love in the Glittering Plain is light, he announces: the women are not of the Houses into which he should marry; the “old laws of marriage” (XV,256), literally those of exogamy restricted to certain subtribes, generally, those of love based on knowledge and friendship,

1 Grennan, p. 123.

[205] are nonexistent. Passion here is glorified lust, not the true union of body and spirit that helps to mold the finer men.

Most important, though the Glittering Plain promises rest and peace, it is revealed as a Lotos Land, luring men to sloth. Outside the land are “battle and famine, longing unsatisfied, and heart-burning and fear” (XV,272), but these at least are realities. The “plenty and peace and good will and pleasure without cease” (XV,272) offered by the land are illusory goods, whose price is the relinquishment of manhood and duty. Hallblithe chooses the struggle and the strife, recognizing that it, at least, is life instead of death-in-life. In refusing the escape through ease and pleasure, he resists temptation and redeems himself.

Thus Morris, through his hero, makes what was to be his final statement on the search for the earthly paradise—a repudiation of it. The land’s shallowness and selfishness, its lack of true love and adventure, and above all, its unreality, reveal it as an unsatisfactory ideal. Though Morris’s rejection is fraught with an understanding of man’s urge to escape from the limitations of his mortality, he now condemns that urge. For some, he says, existence in an earthly paradise may seem preferable to physical death, but it is never better than actual life.1 Man’s right role is to live for the general

1 Hallblithe asks Sea-Eagle, the rejuvenated chief of the Isle of Ransom, how he can bear and existence devoid of adventure, and warns him that he may someday weary of the land and long for his active past or for the peace of death. But Sea-Eagle sees little choice; it is a matter of finding joy in the earthly paradise or existing somewhere as a “gibbering ghost.” (XV,257) Sea-Eagle’s mistake has been to choose what he considers life, Morris’s death-in-life, over the peace of natural death. [206] good—to improve the existent world rather than to escape from it, and to die as the rightful end of life—to rejoin an earth that is the sacred preserver of fellowship.

Once the hero has confronted death and rejected false immortality, he is ready to harrow hell. He may now return to the Isle of Ransom and reclaim the Hostage who has been confined there all the time. To gain her, he must simply tell the truth: that his pretended combat with the loyal champion has been a fraud and a lie. Moved by his truthfulness and the constancy of his love—he has been tested both by the princess of the Glittering Plain, to whom he might succumb out of pity, and by the women of the land, to whom he might succumb out of desire—the Ransomers restore his lady to him. He may take her back to life, the land from which they came, and there wed her amid the promise of growth and fertility. Perfected by trial, he returns to an earth made paradise: to life made as good as possible within the limitations of human nature and a mortality that is no longer seen as a threatening shadow.

The Wood Beyond the World is again, like The Glittering Plain, a bride quest, though this time its theme is the choice between the love that brings fertility and the lust that brings death. As in The Glittering Plain, the hero must be [207] tempted and tried before he is united with the woman who is his soul; again he must move from death to life. As in The Glittering Plain, the emphasis is on the fortunes of a few individuals, symbolically named and archetypally characterized. Golden Walter and the Maid replaces Hallblithe and the Hostage, but their attributes are strikingly similar.1 Though Golden Water has a Christian name, one which associates him with brightness, the rest of the characters are designated only by their function or position: the Maid, whose name connotes her magical virginity, her relationship to Isis and Diana, and her condition of servitude, the Lady, who, as the evil seductress and sorceress who rules the Wood, is the dark anima, the King’s Son who represents autocracy and male lust, and the Dwarves who are the representatives of demonic power.

But The Wood Beyond the World is a fuller psychological drama than The Glittering Plain. It presents an even clearer version of the myth of the discovery of the self. It begins with the call to adventure, here the hero’s visions of the Lady and the Maid, and it continues with a full account of his initiation, firstly through the sea journey to the Wood, secondly through his temptation by the Lady. It traces the fall of the hero, his succumbing to the dark anima, to woman envisioned in her destructive aspect; it portrays the failure

1 The men are physically identical as are their beloveds; even their language and gestures are closely similar.

[208] of his first attempt to integrate his personality. But it traces his ultimate triumph as well, the replacement of the dark anima by the virgin who is the lost half of his soul, their union, and their return to the world.

Important here is the conflict caused by the hero’s initial search for the wrong woman, the representative of lust rather than love, of death rather than life. Walter must learn to break the strong old pattern of self-destruction before he can find the new way of life and joy. For the Lady is only an extension of Walter’s wife, the false and unchaste woman who has made him so miserable, and form whom he is fleeing.1 Ironically, he leaves her to seek a more potent representation of her evil. He must conquer wrong love, and purge the elements within himself that have led to it, before he may attain to the right.

For the Lady is more than just a seductress, an Acrasia luring men to her Bowre of Bliss, and leaving them dishonored

1 Initially, Walter has fallen in love with a beautiful woman and wed her, thinking that she loved him: “but when they had been wedded some six months he found by manifest tokens, that his fairness was not so much to her, but that she must seek to the foulness of one worser in all ways; wherefore his rest departed from him, whereas he hated her for her untruth and her hatred of him, yet would the sound of her voice … 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.” (XVII,1) This is not to say that either Walter’s wife or the Lady are fictional portraits of Morris’s wife. They are, instead, projections of his inner feelings, certainly not unassociated with Mrs. Morris, but seen as dark elements within the self. Morris has simply created an object of wrong love, just as he has created the compensatory figures who are symbols of right love.

[209] and destroyed. She is a false fertility goddess whose love demands a bloody ritual. We learn this even before we meet her, for an old man tells us that he has slain hi predecessor to possess the Lady, and that through her he has lost his own soul, heart, and life. He has been a sacrifice to her, and Walter is to be lured into the same sort of Frazerian ritual. His immediate function is to slay and replace the King’s Son, of whom the goddess has tired, but his ultimate destiny requires his destruction and replacement as well.

He is saved from this by the intercession of the Maid, the true fertility goddess. As a representative of a less barbaric order, she is chaste and virtuous, a sort of medieval Diana. Walter may not even touch her while the Lady remains alive, but once she and the lust she represents have been destroyed, he may kiss the Maid. He may not, however, consummate his union with her till her magic powers of chastity are no longer needed. By following these restrictions, and by submitting himself to her will, he is redeemed.

The Maid brings life and regeneration to him and to all. All that the Lady has created (or so they believe) are the Dwarves—gibbering Calibans—and the barbarian Bear-People. The Maid destroys the evil of the former and develops the goodness of the latter. She wins them to her through a miracle—she appropriately makes faded flowers regain their bloom—and she introduces a new order and a new worship. Her dispensations are of mercy (she forbids the Bear-People human sacrifice) and of fruitfulness. Another [210] Isis, she teaches them the arts of agriculture, bringing iron tools into their Stone-Age culture, and, with a gift of seed corn, instructing them in tillage. She is goddess as civilizer, ridding a people of the evils of barbarism and gently moving them towards higher culture. This done, she may renounce her maiden’s girdle; her duties ended, she is free to be fertile to her own ends.

The journey’s end is thus the integration of the personality and the founding of a new order of love and rightful power. When Walter gains union with his true anima, he becomes a whole man, ready to transmit his wisdom to a new society. By following the right ritual (he must be a stranger from the hills, perfect in body, and wise in selecting the right way of life as symbolized by ritual garments) he gains an uncorrupted kingdom. Here, the type of the good king, he creates the new order, a utopia of mercy and justice whose source is the triumph of man’s finer self. The outcome is the traditional end of romance: right love and fame within a glorious society.

Thus in the first two of the final romances, Morris establishes the basic pattern he is to follow in the remaining works. Suggesting that individual regeneration must come first, he looks forward to the reborn individual as the source of the reborn world. He emphasizes the sources and problems of man’s second birth, the destruction wrought by wrong love, the redemption to be found in the union with the anima; and he sketches in the main feature of the redemp[211]tive pattern: the confrontation with temptation and death, the destruction of the old self, and the awakening to a new self that is finely balanced between the private and the public. Most important, he suggests that the pattern is his own, that he is striving to discover and come to terms with himself. The remaining romances are further biographies of his spirit; reading them, we become more and more aware of his private journey to maturity.

From 'No Idle Singer': A Study of the Poems and Romances of William Morris, Diss. Columbia University, 1967, chapter 5., 196-211.