On a fine warm sunny day, lovely for February! 5 of us met to begin considering William Morris’s The House of the Wolfings. This had been suggested to us by Laura because Tolkien refers to its influence on some elements of his own work. It is not the easiest of books to obtain, but we have all managed to access the first 5 chapters so far. It was sad that as we began the book Laura herself could not be with us, but she sent comments, some of which are included in this text. Please see the next post for her full comments.
But initially, Laura sent a helpful introduction
Not all the versions of the House of the Wolfings have an intro so for information:
JRRT mentioned in his letter of October 1914 to Edith the Kalevala and that he was trying to turn one of the stories into a short story “…somewhat on the lines of Morris’ romances with chunks of poetry in between…..” (Turin?) He also wrote in December 1960 to Professor Forster that: “ …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 Wolfings.”
Some of us found the poetry inhibited our ability to get into the book, at least at first. Laura admitted that “on this reading I didn’t find the poetry quite so intrusive or artificial – particularly as a welcome to the person bringing the war arrow – although if he could barely catch his breath (gotten his breath again…! Is this an example of English crossing the pond and coming back as an Americanism??) would he be speaking in rhyming couplets?
Angela thought the poetry Morris’s poetry was easier to read that Tolkien’s. Eileen found Morris’s prose quite poetic in its rhythms, more so that Tolkien’s at first reading. This makes Morris’s work easier to absorb in places than Tolkien’s, and Morris’s prose style is more performative.
Laura also commented: At the beginning of the book, Morris starts with “The tale tells that in times long past …”, a phrase which crops up several times. This is a scene setting which Tolkien uses as well to give the sense of history becoming myth becoming legend etc… Is it true anyway? Also that this could be a story being told in a mead hall especially with the poetry.
I thought Tolkien’s prose never gives the impression of being intended for oral performance.
Ian and Eileen both noted that The House of the Wolfings is a 19th century reinterpretation of the Middle Ages, its history and culture, and Ian thought there was a propensity to believe stories rather than real events, but Tolkien creates a secondary reality.
Eileen disagreed with Ian’s remarks on the glamourising of the Middle Ages, arguing that Tolkien’s world comes across as sounding ‘real’, but, she noted, that’s the skill in the writing.
Chris remarked that Tolkien’s writings contain elements that are relevant today.
I drew attention to what I thought was a significant difference between Tolkien and Morris, a consideration prompted by the image on the cover of the Cambridge Library reprint edition I am using. This shows the famous Edward Burne-Jones wardrobe created as a wedding present for Morris and his wife, and apparently treasured by them.
It is undoubtedly a beautiful piece of pre-Raphaelite art. It shows scenes from Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, so it fits perfectly with the high moral seriousness of Morris’s politics and aesthetics, but runs counter to Tolkien’s declared stand against German anti-semitism before WW2, as stated in his letter to a prospective German publisher. The Prioress’s Tale repeats the most famous medieval anti-semitic story of little Hugh of Lincoln. In the Middle Ages the views it puts forward were the standard views of Christian society, and these were hardly modified even in the late 19th century. There is no reason the conclude that Morris and his wife held anything other than mainstream opinions and indeed the image could be a joke turning on the use of the word “wardrobe” in the Prioress’s Tale, if so, it is a strange one. My (overlong) comment was that while Morris and his wife plainly felt no sensitivity towards the implicitly anti-semitic image, Tolkien, in the context of the rise of Nazism, was far more alert to it. The use of medieval sources by both authors should be considered in this light – they are always determined to some extent by the attitudes of the society and times in which they exist, to say nothing of the times in which they are interpreted!
Ian observed that the wardrobe image may have other dimensions. In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, it is the way into a world of Christian values, so there may be overt and covert senses in which such an image or artefact may be interpreted. Certainly the Prioress’s Tale is insistently Christian.
Eileen remarked that ‘wardrobe’ is used by Shakespeare to indicate a gateway to hell. The Online Shakespeare Concordance gives 6 instances. None seems quite hellish, but there might be others unlisted.
Chris noted the descriptions of rowdy children as like ‘throstles’ in Morris’s story and compared this to the Victorian ideal that children should be seen and not heard. He also noted the ‘archaising’ of language by Morris. I thought this was much more heavy-handedly done, and done for effect as distinguished from the subtlety and meaningfulness with which archaic language is used by Tolkien.
Angela remarked that some people have criticised Tolkien the inclusion of archaic ‘registers’ in his work, as for example in the characterisation of Aragorn, whose vocabulary changes depending on whether he is talking to hobbits, Gandalf, or Elves, when it becomes more obviously and legitimately ‘archaic’ to reflect his lineage and their historical difference.
Laura also commented on the use of archaic language: Like Tolkien, Morris uses older forms of words or possibly dialect words eg “drave” in the first chapter presumably to give a sense of a mediaeval romance – thinking Gawain here. Neb – I thought this was a Liverpool word. Also stithies – not a misprint for smithies but a Norse word for anvil and where an anvil if housed!
Angela added that Tolkien defended his use of ‘hard words’ – archaic and difficult vocabulary in a work for children. Of course he pointed out that The Lord of the Rings was not intended for children, but that many read it and coped, and that it was good for them to have their linguistic horizons broadened.
Eileen and Angela both commented on the different approaches taken by Morris and Tolkien towards woods and trees. I noted the many references to hazel trees in Morris.
Angela remarked that the Wood-Sun spirit doesn’t seem to fit with a story about the historical tribe of the Goths. She also questioned the use of spells on garments and wondered if there were any in Tolkien’s work. I could only think of the spell Lúthien weaves into her cloak so that it causes anyone it sweeps over to fall asleep.
Both Eileen and Laura noted the prominence apparently given in the Wolfings to dark hair and grey eyes. We thought these characteristics were less signs of distinctive ethnicity in Morris’s work than in Tolkien’s.
Eileen noted that the Goth tribes are mostly named after animals. Angela noted the ‘Beamings’ named for trees, and Eileen thought that altogether these were very ‘green’. Angela remarked that the naming and heraldic signs are much easier and less complicated than Tolkien’s ‘houses’ in Gondolin!
Eileen remarked on the sense of wide open spaces around the Roof of the Wolfings and elsewhere. Ian observed that there were fewer human in the past represented in the story. Everyone had something to add to the topic of space but Eileen remarked that there was more space in ‘those days’. Ian rejected this notion, commenting that there was the same space but the numbers of people changed.
Angela than drew our attention to the Hall-Sun’s staunching song and reminded us that in the Lays of Beleriand, when Beren is badly wounded Lúthien sings a staunching song over him to add to the effect of the herbs used. [The Anglo-Saxon Nine Venoms Charm shows how sung spells supplemented healing herbs.]
We recognised as the afternoon drew to a close that we were making assumptions and commenting based on our reading of just 5 chapters of The House of the Wolfings, and I wondered how we would have reacted if we had come to The Lord of the Rings in the same way! Chris reminded us that Eileen and done just that, and she reminded us of our collective astonishment when she expressed serious suspicions about Gandalf when she first encountered him! She revised that opinion later, but her experience was instructive.
We agreed to read the next 5 chapters for our first meeting in March.