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William Morris was a man of many talents, perhaps most famous now for his design work in several fields and as a founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He was also a prolific writer who amongst other things is often credited as the father of the invented-world Medievalist fantasy, of which The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897) is an example. Morris was trying to write something like Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and other Medieval courtly romances, and his twist was to set his own romances in a slightly different world than ours that resembles that older literary world where magic and supernatural beings exist alongside a pre-industrial political and economic system. In The Water of the Woundrous Isles, a woman named Birdalone is kidnapped by a witch as a child and is raised in isolation before she escapes and has a number of adventures while befriending a group of knights and their ladies (or I guess it's actually ladies and their knights).

Page from the edition of the book that Morris designed and published himself

Morris imitated or reinvented the style of the old romances as well, using archaic words and diction. I found this prose style repetitive and not very sprightly. He was probably better at it than a later imitator like William Hope Hodgson, but not so good as a writer like E.R. Eddison, whose writing in The Worm Ouroboros (1922) I remember as being more energetic and wide-ranging. Morris' writing is very placid and low-key, which is apparently one of his general traits. I found it a little boring at times, and I got tired of the word "dight" pretty quickly. Others find much to admire in Morris' style, so perhaps this is a personal problem.

The story, as others have commented, is also pretty placid and wandering. If there is a core to it, it's probably Birdalone's discovery and pursuit of sexual desire and love, but there are a lot of other things going on that don't really cohere with this central thread. In fact, Morris doesn't seem to be real concerned with tying it all together. The Wondrous Isles of the title are visited by various characters, but the wonders seen there are never really explained and mostly don't have much bearing on the plot. The last time Birdalone visits them, they have been transformed completely from when she first saw them, and I don't think those changes are explained at all. The isles and their wonders seem almost completely tangential to the story, although it's possible that the wonders are working on a symbolic level that I didn't understand on a first reading.

So I found the book a bit of a slog, and yet there were aspects of it that I still found fascinating. Foremost is the character of Birdalone. Holly E. Ordway has some interesting things to say about the book's feminism in "Subverting the Female Stereotype: William Morris's The Water of the Wondrous Isles," and she gets at a lot of what I found so attractive in the portrayal of Birdalone. It's not just that a heroic adventure story is centered on a female character, which seems remarkably modern in itself, but that Birdalone is a heroic character in a completely different mode than a typical heroic fantasy character. She is brave but not fierce, bold but not aggressive, strong but not violent. As Ordway argues, Birdalone represents a new ideal of the feminine, who incorporates the old ideal into new purposes.

There's another fascinating female character as well, called Habundia. Morris doesn't come right out and say what Habundia is, exactly, but he associates her with Faerie a number of times. Is she the Faerie Queen? She is magical, but her magic is mostly limited to the forest Evilshaw in which she lives. She seems to be a creature or avatar of the forest, which is feared and avoided by most members of "the race of Adam" as people are frequently referred to in the book, and Habundia herself says she is not of the race of Adam. As Birdalone's protector and mentor whose aid Birdalone is able to summon by burning one of her hairs, there are aspects of a goddess to Habundia. One of the strange little details of the book is that she first appears to Birdalone as her spitting image, and as Birdalone ages Habundia continues to look like her younger self, except for one section where she takes on the appearance of Birdalone as a fifty-year-old. All of this seems to make Habundia an avatar or projection of Birdalone herself, but I'm not sure what to make of that. Habundia seems to have a will of her own, and perhaps she takes on Birdalone's image as a way of connecting to or imprinting on her.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that if there is a central conflict or problem, it's that Birdalone falls in love with someone who is already the lover of a woman that Birdalone has befriended. It's a classic three-body problem, and the grief that Birdalone's love causes her friend is a complication that leads to no end of pain and trouble. Actually, Birdalone's desire for Arthur (no, not King Arthur, but a knight also called Arthur) also leads to the death of yet another friend, and the section in which this happens is probably the dramatic peak of the story -- the point at which I thought, "Wow, this is really getting good!" If the drama recedes again after that, it still leaves an emotional and moral conflict in Birdalone that she spends the rest of the novel working her way through in her wandering way. Habundia is her ultimate savior on this front as well, but Morris carefully ends his tale on a description of the pangs still felt by the jilted lover/friend, Atra. Some commenters see in this a hint of Morris' feelings about his wife, who carried on an affair with his friend, the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but whatever the case, it carries real freight.

I think it's safe to say that the fantasy writers who followed in Morris' footsteps improved on his story-telling and world-building. He was clearly very influential. I read the old Ballantine edition of the book that Lin Carter published in the early '70s, with its beautiful wraparound cover by Gervasio Gallardo and glowing quotes in praise of Morris from H.P. Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis. Wikipedia says Eddison, Lord Dunsany (another superior prose stylist), and James Branch Cabell were familiar with his work, and that Tolkien "considered much of his literary work to have been inspired by an early reading of Morris." Despite my struggles with the prose style, I found enough of interest in The Water of the Wondrous Isles that I may well try one of his other romances. I'm also tempted to finally read Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and this also gets me thinking about finally giving Spenser's The Faerie Queene a go. Maybe's it's also time to reread Eddison again! And so another potential path through the world of literature yawns wide.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 3rd, 2013 10:23 pm (UTC)
The first time I read the book, I got stuck at the very first sentence so gloriously and illegibly reproduced there in Morris's own setting. Whilom, as tells the tale, was a walled cheaping town hight Utterhay. I thought that "Whilom" was the name of the town. What a "cheaping" town might be, I had no idea, and the last two words of the sentence didn't parse at all.

Now I know it means "Once upon a time there was a walled market town called Utterhay," and I'm trying to bite my tongue and not say, "Then why didn't he say so?"
Dec. 3rd, 2013 10:31 pm (UTC)
Thanks for that. I knew what "whilom" (and, for that matter, "hight") meant, but I didn't know what "cheaping" meant. The use of archaic language does create a sense of estrangement, but I just didn't think Morris used it as sharply as someone like Eddison, who admittedly was going for a more Elizabethan style. I read a little bit of Malory in the Magus yesterday, and his style seemed pretty plain as well.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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