Saturday, 31 July 2010

Fafnir and Friends

I’m glad to see that Morris’s Story of Sigurd the Volsung features in the ‘Ten of the Best’ column in today’s Review supplement of the Guardian newspaper, which is devoted to ‘Dragons in Literature' (p.11). Morris’s Fafnir features alongside such familiar literary rivals as J.R. R. Tolkien’s Smaug in The Hobbit or the fearsome beast defeated after three days’ battle by the Red Cross Knight in Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, but also, more surprisingly, alongside the dragon tattooes in such recent novels as Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

This blog has already mounted its own ‘defence of Fafnir’, on the model of Morris’s ‘defence of Guinevere’; for the great dragon, in my view, gets a very raw deal indeed in Sigurd the Volsung (see ‘Enter the Dragon’, 23rd April 2010). More recently, I find myself dreaming of some new Morrisian masterwork in which all of his assorted monsters and villains, from Fafnir himself through the vicious dwarf in The Wood Beyond the World or Glam in Grettir the Strong to the evil shape-shifting witch who kidnaps Birdalone in Water of the Wondrous Isles, would combine forces and launch a fearsome collective assault on the forces of good.

We should not only, as I have suggested in earlier blog entries, aim to complete works which Morris himself left unfinished, but should also turn our minds to releasing further narrative possibilities in and from those which he himself did complete; and compiling an A-Team of Morrisian monsters and their further joint adventures may well be one productive way of attempting to do just this.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Kelmscott Book of Ghosts

We now have Helen Elletson’s excellent guide book A History of Kelmscott House, beautifully illustrated and very reasonably priced at £5-00. She gives a lively account of the three major inhabitants of the House: Sir Francis Ronalds, who constructed the first electric telegraph there; George MacDonald, who wrote some of his best-known fantasy novels in it; and of course William Morris himself.

Elletson acknowledges some of the practical problems of the house as a dwelling place (though one she doesn’t record is Morris’s complaint to Georgiana Burne-Jones that ‘the soil of this garden was composed chiefly of old shoes and soot’); but overall, as one would expect, her account of the Morris family in the house is very positive, encompassing such social events as Boat Race parties and boisterous post-lecture socialist dinners, as well as such creative activities as tapestry-weaving and the Kelmscott Press.

But we do have a radically different perspective on Kelmscott House from one who was, after all, very close indeed to Morris during these years. For as Edward Burne-Jones noted in a letter to his friend May Gaskell: ‘I come away from his [Morris’s] house sadder always ... when I am there which is once in two years at most I come away gloomy and depressed – the house feels full of ghosts to me – a Wuthering Heights feeling about it all’.

What are we to make of such a chilling observation? Certainly Burne-Jones had a sensitivity throughout his career to the eerie and the occult which his more robust friend Morris gives little evidence of. His series of ‘bogey’ drawings is testimony to that, and when Morris and Burne-Jones went to a sĂ©ance together one imagines that the latter rather than former was the main instigator of the experiment.

So are we not perhaps now, in the light of Burne-Jones's remark, under some obligation to re-imagine Kelmscott House in Gothic mode, as a place of hauntings and sinister secrets, of doppelgängers and troubling coincidences? Could not a whole alternative guidebook to both the House and the area, in fact, be concocted along these dark lines - a Kelmscott Book of Ghosts indeed?

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Morris One-Liners

What are the best one-sentence observations ever made about News from Nowhere? We will all have our own favourites, I imagine, so I here offer three of my own preferred candidates to open a debate.

The best of them all, surely, would be A.L. Morton’s remark in his 1952 study of The English Utopia that News from Nowhere is ‘the first Utopia which is not utopian’. This is a finely riddling observation, more like a Zen koan for meditation rather than a standard critical comment; and if I were going to teach Morris’s utopia on an MA course, this is the essay question I would set for my students. It forces us into a searching examination of our conventional concepts of utopia and the way Morris’s own great work challenges them.

Secondly, I am very fond of Barbara Gribble’s mischievous thought, as part of her 1986 critique of the stasis of Morris’s utopian world, that ‘One wonders how Dick or Walter would react to a sudden epidemic of smallpox or an invasion of malicious aliens’. Someone should certainly rise to this challenge and rewrite News from Nowhere as H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, with Dick and Walter reaching for their Star Trek-style phaser-rifles to fight off the Borg and the Klingons. That would ginger utopia up nicely!

Finally, Frederick Kirchoff opines in his 1979 book on Morris that ‘Morris’s treatment of Ellen is not merely a new element in the book; it is a repudiation of the earlier chapters of his utopia’. This is a brilliant remark indeed, which confirms my own sense that News from Nowhere offers us not one but two utopias in a single set of covers, and that they may well be radically antagonistic to each other. And it provokes us into necessary thought about Ellen’s fate and future beyond the last page of Morris’s work, which we shall one day have to explore in a sequel to News from Nowhere itself.