Monday, March 14, 2016

William Morris among the hobbits - "You are very bitter about that unlucky nineteenth century"

Before I make some notes on William Morris’s communist utopia News from Nowhere (1890), I want to ask if anyone has a strong opinion or two on Morris’s fantasy novels of the 1890s, The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End and so on.  Maybe I’ll read one.  I quite liked his much earlier fantasy short stories.

News from Nowhere is the sweetest, most generous utopia I have ever encountered, certainly for a utopia meant sincerely.  Morris time travels to a future England where a communist revolution led to the abolition of private property and thus the restoration of proper medieval craftsmanship.  This is the novel where England is the Shire, properly Scoured of factories, pollution, and iron bridges, and the English have becomes hobbits, spending their time making elaborate tobacco pipes to give to each other.

The novel is much less ridiculous than I just made it sound.

As a utopia, it does some of what utopian fiction generally does.  The narrator asks if the Houses of Parliament are still in use, given that the state has withered away:

“Use them!  Well, yes, they are used for a sort of subsidiary market, and a storage place for manure, and they are handy for that, being on the water-side.”  (Ch. 5, 34)

Ho ho.  Money is gone, marriage is gone, property is gone, and thus (Morris’s “thus,” not mine) so is poverty, disease, religion, most crime, most conflicts, and history, in the sense that it seems to have reached a steady-state.  One of the more historically-minded women of the future expresses some doubts that her perfect society can be permanently static – “’Who knows? happy as we are, times may alter; we may be bitten with some impulse towards change…” (Ch. 29, 202)

Here we see an example of Morris’s generosity.  He was publishing the novel in a socialist journal, and he meant it polemically (“’You are very bitter about that unlucky nineteenth century,’ said I,” Ch. 15, 99), as part of an argument about actual possibilities.  Thus he allows doubts, differences, even complaining.  There is some crime, some political conflict.  Morris allows some diversity of human temperament and belief.  My experience with utopians both fictional and all too real is that they are too quick to file down the essential rough edges of humanity.  By “file down,” I mean shoot and throw in a mass grave, murder in a deliberate famine, imprison in a terror camp, etc.  Morris allows people to be imperfect.

The charm of the novel is that it is also a highly personal fantasy about Morris’s own ideal world.  After designing Nowhere, Morris spends the last third of the novel living in it, giving his character a holiday trip with a beautiful, sympathetic lady hobbit up the Thames, which has now been freed from the tacky mansions, poisonous mills, and iron bridges that Morris hates so.  The water is clean and the ecosystem has recovered.

H. G. Wells puts a Year Zero in his utopian novel In the Days of the Comet (1906) in which the space gas-befuddled Earthlings spend a year tearing down every building on the planet, a passage that I now suspect is a parody of News from Nowhere, which is obsessed with architecture but allows some buildings – the good ones – to survive.  The climax of the novel is the narrator’s visit to the lovingly preserved Kelmscott Manor, Morris’s own beloved house!  Of course, they kept that.

Some readers might roll their eyes at Morris’s self-indulgence.  I thought it was adorable.  We keep it, too.

Morris added several chapters to the book after its first publication.  That’s the version I read, in the 1995 Cambridge University Press edition.


  1. Morris's fantasy novels are wonderful, easily the finest English books of that kind written in the nineteenth century. Their style tends to be much more ornate than that of News from Nowhere, but one adjusts to it quickly - at least I did. The Well at the World's End is the best, followed by The Roots of the Mountains and The Water of the Wondrous Isles. I wouldn't begin with The Wood Beyond the World: it's shorter and less richly-imagined than most of the others, but still worth reading if one relishes Morris.


  2. Yes, very ornate. Also the hero is Sir Ralph, and I wish he'd spelled it Ralf because that at least I can imagine as poetic. Although I suppose it's supposed to be pronounced like Rafe.

    I actually stalled out reading Well at the World's End, but that was largely because I was reading a scan on a tablet, and every time I turned the page I had to re-size the image to make it readable. That got old very quickly. I would like to read the whole thing.

  3. Thanks, these are helpful comments. "Ornate" sounds good to me. I will probably have to read Morris electronically, too. I will pronounce the name "Rafe."

    1. I bet somebody has produced an OCR version by now. Off to search the Internet!

  4. I'm reading through C.S. Lewis' letters at the moment and coming up in the letters, he apparently has a number of comments on Morris and his works. He doesn't mention News From Nowhere, but he does talk about Morris' other books and poetry (particularly enjoying The Well at the Worlds' End). I found one comment in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves on July 1,1930 where he has an interesting comment on Morris through reading one of his poems:

    [Morris] is the most essentially pagan of all poets. The beauty of the actual world, the vague longings which it excites, the inevitable failure to satisfy these longings and over all the haunting sense of time and change making the world heartbreakingly beautiful just because it slips away ... of what those longings really pointed to, of the reason why beauty made us homesick, of the reality behind, I thought he had no inkling. And for that reason his poetry always seemed to me dangerous and apt to lead to sensuality ... Now in Love is Enough he raises himself right out of his own world. He suddenly shows that he is at bottom aware of the real symbolical import of all the longing and even of earthly love itself. In the speeches of Love (who is the most important character) there is a clear statement of eternal values (coupled with a refusal to offer you crudely personal immortality) and also, best of all, a full understanding that there is something beyond pleasure & pain. For the first and last time, the light.of holiness shines through Morris's romanticism, not destroying but perfecting it."

  5. morris was like george borrow in his fascination with norse sagas and eddas; odin and the others form a constant presence in both authors works. borrow translated some of the sagas; don't remember if morris did...

  6. The Earthly Paradise is half Norse and medieval, and includes a long verse translation of the Laxdæla Saga, so I have read that. Morris translated several other sagas which I have not read. He had a deep interest in those great stories.

    The C. S. Lewis quotation is insightful. Morris's early lyric and balladic poetry is so good that it is almost a shame that he gave it up. Given what he later accomplished, though, not such a shame.

  7. I owned an old copy of News From Nowhere for many, many years before finally letting it go to a library book sale. You have me thinking about getting another copy and giving in a go at long last. I wonder if my local library will have a copy at their next sale...

  8. It's a duty, I think, to buy your unsold donations back after a few years, and then donate them again a couple of years after that, etc. etc.

  9. Just discovered your blog! Read everything on Balzac and Hardy and now ran across this bit about Morris. The Well at the World's End is one of my favorites. I would describe it like being inside a tapestry. Lovely old words like carles and carlines, greensward, etc. Weird plots. The air is different in there - golden and drowsy. It's abundantly clear that this is the beginning of fantasy literature, and it's exciting to be at the beginning, when anything was possible. I do hope you'll read more Morris.

  10. Welcome, and thanks. Your description of Morris's novel is quite appealing.