Saturday, 16 April 2011
Countries of Ultimate Testing
In her biography of Morris Fiona MacCarthy uses a most evocative phrase to conjure up our hero’s 1873 trip to Iceland with Charles Faulkner: ‘Sometimes they met whole barricades of boulders and great mounds of shaly flagstones. It was the country of ultimate testing, a deathscape drawn by Dürer’ (p.333).
Such landscapes of testing then occur regularly in Morris’s later literary works. One thinks of Golden Walter’s strenuous ascent across the mountainous waste in The Wood beyond the World, or of Hallblithe’s near-fatal wanderings amongst the mountains in The Story of the Glittering Plain, or of the armies of Face-of-god and the Burgdalers making their arduous way up to the great waterfall and then across the volcanic ‘rock-maze’ in The Roots of the Mountains, or, above all, of Ralph and Ursula threading their way painfully across ‘this huge manless waste lying under the bare heavens and threatened by the storehouse of the fires of the earth’ in The Well at the World’s End. It’s all a far cry from William Guest rowing cheerily through the verdant upper Thames Valley in News from Nowhere.
All of which is to suggest that ‘ultimate testing’ just as much as genial fellowship ought to be the goal of the William Morris Society itself, that, in the spirit of its namesake’s own romances, it should be organising SAS-style survival treks in the wilderness, now and again parachuting a party of stout Morrisians into the very inner heart of Iceland in winter and letting them make their own dogged way back to Rekyavik living off the land as best they can and using all their Ray Mears skills in the process. All is not sweetness and light in Morris’s literary works, not by means; and therefore it should not be so in our celebrations of him either.