Read House of the Wolfings: The William Morris Book that Inspired J. R. R. Tolkiena *s The Lord of the Rings Online

Authors: Michael W. Perry

Tags: #fiction, #historical fiction, #fantasy, #william morris, #j r r tolkien, #tolkien, #lord of the rings, #the lord of the rings, #middleearth, #c s lewis, #hobbit

House of the Wolfings: The William Morris Book that Inspired J. R. R. Tolkiena *s The Lord of the Rings

BOOK: House of the Wolfings: The William Morris Book that Inspired J. R. R. Tolkiena *s The Lord of the Rings
2.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

The House of the

William Morris with Michael
W. Perry

The Book that Inspired J. R. R. Tolkien’s The
Lord of the Rings

“The Dead Marshes and the
approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after
the Battle of the Somme. They owe more to William Morris and his
Huns and Romans, as in
The House of the
Roots of the Mountains

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1960

The House of the Wolfings

Copyright © 2009 by
Michael W. Perry/
All rights

Published 2009 by
, Seattle

Smashwords Edition 1.1, November 2009

William Morris and J. R. R. Tolkien

by Michael W. Perry

In her introduction to the fourteenth volume
The Collected Works of William Morris
(1912), Morris’
daughter May said that, “In
The House of the Wolfings
and in
The Roots of the Mountains
my father seems to have got back
to the atmosphere of the [ancient Northern European] Sagas. In that
it is part metrical, part prose, the
may be held
experimental, but in this tale of imaginary tribal life on the
verge of Roman conquest—a period which had a great fascination for
the writer, who read with critical enjoyment the more important
modern studies of it as they came out.”

The impact of those “modern studies” must
have been great, for May Morris went on to note with amusement, a
“German professor who, after the
came out, wrote
and asked learned questions about the Mark, expecting, I fear,
equally learned answers from our Poet who sometimes dreamed
realities without having documentary evidence of them.” The
hot-tempered Morris’ own response to that professor was amusing.
“Doesn’t the fool realize,” he shouted, “that it’s a romance, a
work of fiction—that it’s all lies!”

As Morris well knew, we know almost nothing
the day-to-day life of these brave and intelligent, but typically
illiterate Central and Northern European tribes. In the Middle
East, a dry climate, the widespread use of stone and clay, and the
early spread of a written language preserved much. In a region that
J. R. R. Tolkien would also make such a prominent part of his
Middle-earth, a wet climate, the limited use of writing, and the
common use of wood and leather left little for future generations
to study. What little we do know has as its source the far from
objective remarks of foes, such as the Romans, and literary
fragments that have come down to us across the centuries, preserved
in poetic sagas about great heroes and their accomplishments.

Both Morris and Tolkien drank deeply from
those ancient literary wells of “Northerness.” Morris did so as
part of a broad artistic genius that included the translation of
ancient tales—such as his 1870
Volsunga Saga: The Story of the
Volsungs and Niblungs
. Tolkien did so as part of his
professional life as an Oxford professor and a leading expert on
the ancient languages and literature of Northern Europe.

These two men knew either much (Morris) or
most (Tolkien) of all that was known about these people and their
lives. They used that wealth of knowledge to create “dreamed
realities” (Morris) or an “imaginary history” (Tolkien) about what
it might have been like to live in those days. While what they
wrote wasn’t necessarily true in a strict sense, both knew enough
about the past and were talented enough as writers that what they
wrote creates a strong sense that they describe what might have

Their readers certainly sense this. One
wrote Morris that his tales, “convey the impression of your having
lived in the time to describe what you have seen.” The effect of
Tolkien is even more startling. Friends of his fans often complain
that those who drink deeply of Middle-earth act as if Tolkien’s
created world were more real than the one in which they live. In
, Tolkien’s close friend C. S. Lewis said
much the same when he noted of Morris, “All we need demand is that
this invented world should have some intellectual or emotional
relevance to the world we live in. And it has.”

Without a doubt, both Morris and Tolkien
achieved that most difficult of all tasks for an author. They
imagined a world with such skill that those who inhabit it seem as
real as our next-door neighbor. Morris made clear that was his
intent in a July 1889 paper in which he discussed romantic
literature and said that, “As for romance, what does romance mean?
I have heard people miscalled for being romantic, but what romance
means is the capacity for a true conception of history, a power of
making the past part of the present.” Both Morris and Tolkien were
geniuses at doing just that.

Of course there are also differences in how
the two men wrote. Morris was relatively indifferent to the broader
picture. In
The House of the Wolfings
it was enough for him
that his tale resembles the battles that Germanic tribes once
fought with encroaching Roman armies. He has no desire to link his
tale to actual battles fought on certain dates with specific Roman
generals. The same is true of geography in
The Roots of the
. His description of the local geography and its
forests is as marvelous as anything in Tolkien and that geography
plays a major role in his story. But we are left uncertain about
what would seem to be an important fact, which particular mountain
range provides a backdrop for the story. May Morris believed the
story was set in “the wonderful land at the foot of the Italian
Alps” that her father loved so dearly. Others, with perhaps more an
eye on history, place it in the German Alps or even in the
Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe. Even more surprising,
although we are left with the impression that the people in
are descendants of those in
, the
actual ties between the two was left unclear. For Morris those
things simply did not matter. It was enough for him that his tales
could be fitted, however loosely, into European history.

In contrast, as his readers know, Tolkien
did not place his tale within the recorded history of Europe. The
events he described are assumed to have taken place in a past so
distant that no independent history or artifacts from the age
remain. Only the faintest echoes of what happened then have been
preserved in extinct languages and ancient tales about dwarves,
elves and dragons. In fact, so much (imaginary) time has passed
that even the geography of Middle-earth only loosely resembles that
of the Western Europe on which it is modeled.

Tolkien saw this historical vacuum as an
opportunity. Into that vast gap, he thrust his own history for a
world that, by his account, was just over seven thousand years old
when the main events of
The Lord of the Rings
took place. He
gave his Middle-earth a history and geography so complex, that
numerous books have been written to describe it. In fact, I was
able to write a 251-page chronology (
Untangling Tolkien
) in
which I describe, typically to the year, the complex and quite
plausible chain of events that led to Frodo acquiring the Ring, as
well as a precise and detailed day-by-day account of Frodo’s quest
to rid Middle-earth of the Ring, aided by his friends. Morris,
although almost as talented as a story teller, did nothing on that
grand a scale.

That said, what Morris and Tolkien had in
common is far more important than their differences. May Morris
expressed it when she said that her father’s writings were
“experimental.” In biblical language, he was trying to see if the
‘old wine’ in the ancient Northern tales that he loved so
well—tales that were fragmentary and typically told in poetic forms
that were no longer popular—could survive being put into the ‘new
wineskins’ of a modern historical novel, with only an occasional
burst of poetry. In that he proved quite successful, although much
of his success would come through others, such as Tolkien, and
through a new form of literature called fantasy, that he helped to
create out of ancient folk and fairy tales.

Of course, the fact that Morris was building
on those tales, did not mean he slavishly followed them. C. S.
Lewis readily admitted that, “Morris invented for his poems and
perfected in his prose-romances a language which has never at any
period been spoken in England.” But he went on to point out that,
“The question about Morris’s style is not whether it is an
artificial language—all endurable language in longer works must be
that—but whether it is a good one.”

Lewis, a great writer in his own right,
believed Morris had succeeded marvelously. Morris’ style, he wrote,
“is incomparably easier and clearer than any ‘natural’ style could
possibly be, and the ‘dull finish,’ the careful avoidance of
rhetoric, gloss and decoration, is of its very essence.” In words
that apply equally well to Tolkien, Lewis said that it was the very
“matter-of-factness” of the tales, that make them seem true. “Other
stories have only scenery: his have geography. He is not concerned
with ‘painting’ landscapes; he tells you the lie of the land, and
then you paint the landscape for yourself. To a reader long fed on
the almost botanical and entomological niceties of much modern
fiction—where, indeed, we mostly skip if the characters go through
a jungle—the effect is at first very pale and cold, but also very
fresh and spacious. We begin to relish what my friend called the
‘Northerness.’ No mountains in literature are as far away as
distant mountains in Morris.”

There is also, Lewis said, a remarkable
vividness in Morris’ descriptions of human society. Unlike many
other romantic writers, Morris did not glorify the individual,
making him almost God-like in his independence. Lewis wrote that
Morris “immerses the individual completely in the society. ‘If thou
diest today, where then shall our love be?’ asks the heroine in the
House of the Wolfings. ‘It shall abide with the soul of the
Wolfings,’ comes the answer.”

Lewis pointed out that many writers who try
to describe an ideal society are “dull” because they fail to define
the value of “x” that tells us what is Good. But he goes on, “The
tribal communities which Morris paints in
The House of the
The Roots of the Mountains
are such
attempts, perhaps the most successful attempts ever made, to give x
a value. . . . A modern poet of the Left, praising that same
solidarity with the group which Morris praises, invites a man to be
‘one cog in the singing golden hive.’ Morris, on the other hand,
paints the actual goings on of the communal life, the sowing,
planting, begetting, building, ditching, eating and conversation. .
. . Morris . . . brings back a sentiment that a man could really
live by.”

Lewis could have said much the same of the
imaginary communities that his friend Tolkien created. The Shire,
Rivendell and Rohan have ways of life many find appealing, however
different they may be from modern life. Each sets before us what
seems to be a reasonable standard by which we might live. All are
real enough we can imagine them as home.

Lewis also believed that Morris might bridge
a gap he saw developing in 1939 society and that has grown wider
since. “The old indeterminate, half-Christian, half-Pantheistic,
piety of the last century is gone,” he wrote. “The modern literary
world is increasingly divided into two camps, that of the positive,
militant Christians and that of the convinced materialists.” Both
camps, Lewis noted, can “find in him something that they need.”

Christians can benefit from Morris’ honesty.
As a Pagan poet, Morris was “content to merely state the [ultimate
human] question . . . uncontaminated by theorizing.” Within his
tales we sense the great Pagan “thirst for immortality, tingling
alive,” but also totally devoid of the answers that Christianity
would later bring to a Pagan Europe. As a “prophet as unconscious,
and therefore as far beyond suspicion as Balaam’s ass,” Morris,
Lewis said, testifies to the importance of that thirst in itself
and not merely as a prelude to a presentation of the Christian

Materialists can also benefit. Because
Morris considered himself a socialist, many on the Left see him as
one of them. But Lewis saw a critical difference between Morris and
his political allies. He believed that Morris might force an
increasingly secular and politicized Left to face a question it
would rather ignore. “The Left agrees with Morris that it is an
absolute duty to labour for human happiness in this world,” he
wrote. “But the Left is deceiving itself if it thinks that any zeal
for this object can permanently silence the reflection that every
moment of this happiness must be lost as soon as gained, that all
who enjoy it will die, that the race and the planet themselves must
one day follow the individual into a state of being which has no
significance—a universe of inorganic homogeneous matter moving at
uniform speed in a low temperature. Hitherto the Left has been
content, as far as I know, to pretend that this does not matter.”
Morris made clear that such things do matter and that our longing
for immortality raises questions that must be answered.

BOOK: House of the Wolfings: The William Morris Book that Inspired J. R. R. Tolkiena *s The Lord of the Rings
2.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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