If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
—From a lecture entitled “The Beauty of Life” (1882).
William Morris (1834-1896) was an English designer, artist, writer and socialist.
He is perhaps best known today for his design work: he was a major contributor the revival of traditional textile arts and a major influence on the Arts and Crafts movement.
Horrified by the ugliness and soullessness of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism, Morris became a committed socialist. He was a leading figure in the Socialist League (along with Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor), and he believed his art, which valued beauty, craftsmanship and nature over mass-production and consumerism, to be an extension of this.
A prolific poet and prose author, his best know written work is News from Nowhere (1890), a utopian novel depicting the idyllic agrarian society he hoped would be created following a socialist revolution. His pseudo-medieval fantasies, such as The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Well at the World’s End (1896) were a key influence on both JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.
Oh, and he also set up a printing press, translated several Icelandic sagas and founded the movement to protect historic buildings in Britain.
Tropes found in the works of William Morris:
- Arcadia: In News from Nowhere, this is his vision of a future following a socialist revolution. Often feature in his medievalist romances too.
- Author Appeal: The Middle Ages, Northern Sagas and nature motifs feature frequently in his work.
- Author Avatar: The narrator of News from Nowhere is clearly this.
- Author Tract: News from Nowhere is really just a means for Morris to describe his vision of a socialist utopia.
- The Dung Ages: Averted hard. Morris adored the Middle Ages, or rather a romanticised version, which he contrasted with the dirty, ugly cities of Victorian England.
- Fish Out of Temporal Water: The narrator of News from Nowhere.
- The Hero's Journey: The plot of The Wood Beyond the World.
- The Lost Woods: The Wood Beyond the World, of course.
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Romanticism. Oh so very much.
- Take That: News from Nowhere was written as a riposte to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, a similarly structured Author Tract about a possible socialist future, but one which Morris hated for its utilitarian drabness.
- Time Travel: The framing device used in News from Nowhere, as the narrator falls asleep and wakes up in a utopian socialist future. The Dream of John Ball involves time travel to the peasant’s revolt of 1381.
- World Building: As noted above, his medieval romances were a model for both JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis.
- Ye Goode Olde Days: Morris liked to paint an idealized image of the Middle Ages.
- Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Morris was fond of using pseudo-medieval English, which can make some of his works a little difficult for modern readers.