William Morris's Fantasy Fiction

Although best known as an artist and designer, William Morris was most famous during his lifetime for his writing. His poetry, translation and fantasy stories were a key influence on later generations of writers.

'Woodpecker' tapestry (1885) by William Morris and Morris & Co.William Morris Gallery

Best known as an artist and designer, many of William Morris's textiles and designs often have literary connections.

This tapestry is based on the classical legend of King Picus from Ovid’s Metamorphose. Picus is able to interpret the will of the gods by studying the flight patterns of birds.

In the legend, the sorceress Circe attempts to seduce Picus whilst he is out hunting, he rejects her advances and she transforms him into a woodpecker for scorning her love.

The text on the top and bottom of this tapestry is Morris’s own poetry on the tale and reads: ‘I once a king and chief now am the tree bark’s thief’ ‘ever twixt trunk and leaf chasing the prey’.

Kelmscott Press edition of 'Love is Enough' (1897) by Kelmscott Press, William Morris, and Edward Burne-JonesWilliam Morris Gallery

During his life, William Morris was best known as a writer. In fact, his obituaries barely mention his designs and almost always celebrate him as a great poet.

His obituary in the Times read:
'A poet, and one of our half dozen best poets, even when Tennyson and Browning were still alive.'

However, his poetry was not always popular and his first publication The Defence of Guenevere published in 1858 was described in an unsigned review in the Spectator as 'bad as bad can be'.

Kelmscott Press edition of 'The Life and Death of Jason' (1895) by Kelmscott Press, William Morris, and Edward Burne-JonesWilliam Morris Gallery

After this, Morris did not publish anything for almost 10 years. However, when he published The Life and Death of Jason in 1867 it was very successful and brought him fame as a poet.

Kelmscott Press edition of 'The Earthly Paradise, Vol 1' (1896-1897) by Kelmscott Press and William MorrisWilliam Morris Gallery

This was followed by The Earthly Paradise a popular collection of narrative poems based on Greek myths and medieval romance tales.

Whilst looking for inspiration for The Earthly Paradise, Morris became interested in Icelandic sagas. He began to learn Icelandic and to write his own translations with native Icelander Eiríkur Magnússon.

Drinking horn (c.1870) by UnknownWilliam Morris Gallery

Morris traveled to Iceland with Magnússon in 1871 to see many of the sites he had read about in the Icelandic sagas.

He brought back this drinking horn which may have been a gift from one of his traveling companions as it is engraved with his initials: 'WM'.

Kelmscott Press edition of 'The Wood Beyond the World' (1894) by Kelmscott Press, William Morris, and Edward Burne-JonesWilliam Morris Gallery

In the 1890s, towards the end of his life, William Morris wrote a series of what we would now call fantasy novels, including this one The Wood Beyond the World.

When they were first published the stories were very popular. They were read by many soldiers during the First World War, including a young J.R.R Tolkien.

The stories were a key influence on both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. After finishing one of the books on 1931, Lewis wrote to a friend: 'This leaves me no more Wm Morris prose romances to read.'

Kelmscott Press edition of 'Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair, Vol 1' (1895) by Kelmscott Press and William MorrisWilliam Morris Gallery

Another of Morris's stories, Child Christopher and Goldilind the Fair, shares a very similar plot to Lewis's Prince Caspian. They were both influenced by the 13th Century tale of Havelok the Dane.

Although his own works are not often read nowadays, the influence of Morris as one of the first writers of fantasy fiction can still in many of the books commonly read today.

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