So they cut down the trees, and burned their stumps that the grass might grow sweet for their kine and sheep and horses; and they diked the river where need was all through the plain, and far up into the wild-wood to bridle the winter floods: and they made them boats to ferry them over, and to float down stream and track up-stream: they fished the river’s eddies also with net and with line; and drew drift from out of it of far-travelled wood and other matters; and the gravel of its shallows they washed for gold; and it became their friend, and they loved it, and gave it a name, and called it the Dusky, and the Glassy, and the Mirkwood-water; for the names of it changed with the generations of man.
Today William Morris is best remembered as one of the leading luminaries of the Arts and Crafts Movement. In his lifetime he was better known for his poetry. Poetry collections like The Life and Death of Jason (1866) and the four-volume Earthly Paradise (1870) found a ready audience with progress-besotted readers who couldn’t get enough of Morris. Andrew Lang, author of the Fairy Books, said that in Morris “the splendour of the Middle Ages, its gold and steel, its curiousness in armour and martial gear, lived again, and its inner sadness, doubt, and wonder, its fantastic passions, were reborn.” After Tennyson’s 1892 death Morris was offered the position of Poet Laureate: Morris, a staunch socialist, politely declined.
Morris brought a number of Icelandic sagas into English. “Translate” would be overly generous: Morris had his friend Eirikr Magnusson translate the tales into English prose, then recast them into a poetic term. While he made some desultory efforts to master Icelandic with Magnusson’s help, ultimately Morris decided “I can’t be bothered with grammar…I have no time for it… I want the literature, I must have the story. I mean to amuse myself.” When Tolkien won Christ College’s Skeat Prize for English in the spring of 1914, he used the £5 award on Morris’s Volsunga Saga, Jason and The House of the Wolfings.
Wolfings takes place in an early Germanic community facing the threat of the encroaching Roman Empire. Morris contrasts the free and happy Wolflings with those who have fallen under Rome’s yoke:
[T]heir thralls be not so well entreated as their draught-beasts, so many do they take in battle; for they are a mighty folk; and these thralls and those aforesaid unhappy freemen do all tilling and herding and all deeds of craftsmanship: and above these are men whom they call masters and lords who do nought, nay not so much as smithy their own edge-weapons, but linger out their days in their dwellings and out of their dwellings, lying about in the sun or the hall-cinders, like cur-dogs who have fallen away from kind.
In addition to a forest named Mirkwood, bloody arrows warning of war and a sinister empire threatening free folk, Wolfings also features a powerful but cursed magical artifact. Thiodolf, wisest and bravest of the Wolfings, has a dwarf-mail vest which protects him from all weapons. But its protection comes at a price: Thiodolf shall live, but his kindred will be defeated. To defeat the Romans Thiodolf sacrifices his armor and his life. Morris liberally mingles verse and prose, with characters breaking into song and declaiming old legends. He also uses archaic words and poetic forms to create an “ancient” feel, but in a context which remains easily readable to a modern audience: heavily would Tolkien rely on these techniques in his tomes.
When asked if Lord of the Rings was inspired by the Nibelungenlied Tolkien asserted “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.” But though Tolkien had a lifelong distaste for Wagner, we can see a good bit of the Volsunga Saga in Lord of the Rings. Andrew Lang’s “The Story of Sigurd,” a retelling of Morris’s 1870 retelling, was a young Tolkien’s favorite chapter in Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book (1890): it includes a broken sword reforged and a cursed dragon-hoard. Morris’ 1895 interpretation of Beowulf led young Tolkien, with the help of an Anglo-Saxon primer lent to him by a schoolmaster, to read Beowulf’s saga in the original. Tolkien’s earliest effort at writing in verse and prose, an unfinished 1914 retelling of the Kalevala story of Kullervo, was called by biographer Humphrey Carter “little more than a pastiche of Morris.”
Morris felt the Industrial Revolution had flooded the world with cheap ugly goods and imprisoned once-happy farmers and artisans in filthy factories. He sought a return to the simpler times of the Middle Ages, where craftsmen made objects that were both beautiful and functional. His vision may have been overly rose-tinted: critics then and now have noted that only wealthy shoppers could afford the hand-crafted items from his workshops. But Morris worked tirelessly toward his vision nonetheless. Tolkien shared Morris’ distaste for the modern era and his longing for a more agrarian society. He also was directly inspired by the beautiful woodcuts and drawings Morris created when he created the maps and drawings that accompanied The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
While Tolkien and Morris were simpatico on many fronts, they diverged in their political leanings. Morris was a committed Marxist who hoped for a worker’s revolution. In 1890’s News From Nowhere, Morris’ Utopian vision of a communist future, the time-travelling narrator William Guest asks his friend Dick:
“Did the change, the ‘revolution’ it used to be called, come peacefully?
“Peacefully?” said he; “what peace was there amongst those poor confused wretches of the nineteenth century? It was war from beginning to end: bitter war, till hope and pleasure put an end to it.
Tolkien shared Morris’ distaste for authority but had far less trust in the workers’ wisdom than Morris. In a November 29, 1943 letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien stated
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy … the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity
But in an April 1956 letter to Joanne de Bortadano he wrote:
I am not a “democrat”, if only because “humility” and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power — and then we get and are getting slavery.