The author who most captivated Lewis as a boy was William Morris. Now best known as a designer, decorative artist and founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, Morris was also a translator, poet and novelist (of sorts) who shared Lewis’ enthusiasim for Norse myths and epics. Lewis came across a copy of Morris’ The Well at the World’s End, in Arthur Greeves’ bookcase in his late teens, and his childhood penchant for “knights in armor” was instantly revived. Before he knew it, “the letters WILLIAM MORRIS were coming to have at least as potent a magic in them as WAGNER.”
My copy of The Well at the World’s End is a double volume, bound together with a similiar work, The Wood Beyond the World, by Inkling Books, an impressively industrious one-man concern in Seattle. The collective title given to this volume by its publisher, Michael W. Perry of Inkling Books, is On the Lines of Morris’ Romances, which fosters the misleading impression that the book might be a work of criticism. This curious umbrella title comes from a letter the young Tolkien wrote to his future wife, announcing his intention to adapt one of the tales of the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland, using Morris’ narratives as a model. Morris had translated the Icelandic epic The Volsunga Saga (which, like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, tells the story of the hero Siegfried) and retold several other Norse legends in other books, but The Well at the World’s End and The Wood Beyond the World are original stories, set in imagined worlds that combine the mystical Britain of the Arthurian tradition with the timeless noplace where fairy tales transpire. According to The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute and John Grant (also deceptively titled, a massive, weblike work of criticism, rather than the reference work it appears to be), Morris’ invented setting for The Well at the World’s End “is a clear forerunner of J.R.R. Tolkien’s kind of secondary world.”
Two Books That Inspired J.R.R. Tolkien is the subtitle that Inkling Books has appended to On the Lines of Morris’ Romances, and as you might guess from this, the publisher believes that these two long tales have one compelling feature to recommend them to a modern reader. “Tolkien fans who long for more of the same delight that they get from The Lord of the Rings,” the back cover announces, “will find it in the writings of William Morris.” This statement strikes me as overly optimistic; there are good reasons why Morris’ artisanal designs, particularly his wallpaper and textile patterns, still sell today while his fiction is only being published with another writer’s endorsement embedded right in the title.
It’s difficult to see how any average fan of The Lord of the Rings would find much cause for delight in The Well at the World’s End. It’s the story of Ralph, the youngest of four princes, who leaves his father’s kingdom in search of adventure in a far-off realm. He spends much of the narrative wandering around a forest, falling in and out of love with ladies, occasionally battling other knights and often pondering which of the nearby communities to favor in a series of ongoing, low-level border wars. The chief preoccupations of the characters are virtuous leadership, chivalric protocol and, especially, affairs of the heart. Considered by some to be Morris’ best book, The Well at the World’s End has its moments, but it’s a prolix and often dull work, with none of the narrative momentum of Tolkien’s novels or the lightness and economy of the Chronicles.
All the same, Tolkien and Lewis were both moved by Morris’ ability to evoke landscape, and by the way he reworked the familiar Gloucestershire countryside around his beloved home at Kelmscott Manor into a mysterious land fringed by great mountains (“the Wall of the World”) and landmarks infused with symbolic resonance (“the Dry Tree,” “the Wood Perilous” and the eponymous well). “No mountains in literature are as far away as distant mountains in Morris,” Lewis wrote. Morris’ imaginary lands filled him with the same awe he got from listening to Wagner or reading about Norse mythology, with its vast, severe, empty vistas.
Both men surely also responded to the intense nostalgia of Morris’ “romances,” a literary term that places the books in a category that pre-dates the novel — the word “novel” being a contraction of the term nouvelle romaine, or “new romance.” Morris wrote in a deliberately archaic, “high” style, reminiscent of the pre-modern epic verse that Lewis and Tolkien loved. Here is a sample quotation, in which Morris’ questing hero contemplates his next move:
“Ralph left alone pondered a little; and thought that he would by no means go hastily to the Burg of the Four Friths. Said he to himself; This want-way is all unlike to the one near our house at home: for belike adventures shall befall here: I will even abide here for an hour or two; but will have my horse by me and keep awake, lest something hap to me unawares.”
There’s a lot of this sort of thing in The Well at the World’s End: laborious, exhaustive accounts of moments that are too introspective for the old romances and that a novel would dispense with in a line like, “Ralph decided to proceed cautiously.” Tolkien would find smoother ways to incorporate “high” diction into his novels, although if you open to a page somewhere in the middle of, say, The Two Towers, and select a few lines of dialog at random, it can sound pretty silly (“Wingfoot I name you. This deed of the three friends should be sung in many a hall. Forty leagues and five you have measured ere the fourth day is ended!”). As Lewis himself observed, Tolkien cleverly introduces his readers to his secondary world by first attaching them to the hobbits, who are just the sort of commonplace bourgeoise people that novels usually get written about; then he sets the hook with a chase plot full of breathless escapes and near-misses, until we are drawn into an essentially old-fashioned heroic narrative. Like the proverbial frog in a pot, who doesn’t notice the slowly rising temperature of the water until he’s boiled alive, we become incrementally acclimated to what Lewis called “the saga-like tone of the later chapters.” (Or most of us do. Some critics, most notably Edmund Wilson, could never tolerate the “storybook language” Tolkien’s characters speak.)
Lewis and Tolkien, who spent their work days studying Beowulf and The Faerie Queene, wouldn’t have found Morris’ antique style the least bit off-putting, and they surely identified with his reverence for England’s idyllic, pre-industrial past. Morris’ characters are more intent on adult pursuits than Lewis’ Narnians (and more erotically robust than Tolkien’s heroes), but they track them through a semi-symbolic chivalric world that’s just as fanciful as Middle-earth or Narnia. It is the kind of world where a young prince like Ralph naturally comes to view gallivanting around the forest as a more appropriate activity for a king’s son than remaining in court and consolidating his power. Like Lewis, Morris distrusted cities: “The leading passion of my life,” he wrote, “has been and is hatred of modern civilization.” For Morris, as for Lewis, the Middle Ages represented a time of pastoral authenticity, when people were motivated by nobler passions than mere greed, utilitarianism and self-interest.
Considering the dreamlike quality of Morris’ romances, it might puzzle some readers to find, in Perry’s introduction to The Wood Beyond the World, the assurance that “no hidden messages about contemporary social issues” lurk within this “uncomplicated romance.” Perry compares Morris to Tolkien, who resented having The Lord of the Rings interpreted as commentary on the Second World War, although he never specifies what sort of “hidden messages” one might read into Morris’ stories. Perry — who has dedicated Inkling Books to publishing titles “with close ties to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien” — finds himself in a ticklish position with respect to Morris. Like most keepers of the Lewisian flame, he is a conservative Christian. But Morris, who so profoundly influenced Lewis, was not only not a believer — Perry characterizes him as a “‘multi-culturalist’ when it came to religion” — he was also an outspoken, active socialist.
The word “socialist,” curiously enough, never appears on any page of On the Lines of Morris’ Romances; apparently, it’s a failing even more unspeakable than religious “multiculturalism.” Perry does explain to his readers that Morris’ untempered enthusiasm for Norse paganism — “northerness,” as Lewis called it — had a fatal ideological flaw: its vulnerability to “Nazi-like perversions.” “Morris had only northerness as his guide,” Perry writes. “Tolkien had northerness and Christianity. That was the critical difference between them.” Perry is honest enought to add that Morris didn’t actually live to witness the rise of Nazism and its efforts to incorporate Norse legends into the mystic ideology of Ein Volk — and therefore no one has any reason to suppose that Morris would have been susceptible to such claims. The editor even allows that Morris almost certainly would have deplored the Nazis had he survived because Morris had always made a point of denouncing tyranny in his romances. And lastly, Perry doesn’t explain how the Christianity that supposedly protected Tolkien from the seductions of Aryanism failed to prevent millions of other Christians throughout Europe from eagerly joining in Nazi “perversions” directed against Jews. (Surely the idea that a profession of Christian faith serves as proof against murderous anti-Semitism is a bigger fantasy than anything Morris, Lewis or Tolkien ever wrote.)
This little knot of ironies demonstrates how tortured the course of literary influence can be, and how uncertain a role of ideology plays in it. Most of the people who devote themselves to paying tribute to the Inklings, like Perry, are motivated by their Christianity. In Perry’s case, this essentially religious commitment has led to him to publish the work of a prominent, irreligious socialist, whose political ideas he avoids mentioning even as he attempts to critique them. In turn, he unwittingly sells that book to me, an agnostic writer hoping to describe all the ways a reader might respond to Lewis’ works without subscribing to his Christianity. Perhaps, if he ever reads this, Perry will find himself wondering if publishing is always the best way to champion the faith. Who knows what use a book will be put to once it’s loosed on the world, whatever the precautions you take to rein it in?
It isn’t books that are unruly, of course, but the readers. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis reports having read “nearly all of Morris” in his teens, and claims to have taken “very little notice” of Morris’ socialism. If it was so easy for Lewis to shrug off the political ideas that pervade Morris’ writing, what makes him think he’ll succeed any better at injecting Christian ideology, however carefully concealed, into the readers of the Chronicles? Naturally, a believer thinks this sort of thing must be persuasive, but only because he already feels his own doctrine to be so manifestly true. The same believer will put down a copy of another writer’s book, peddling some other theory about how to save humanity, in all confidence that, however much he might have enjoyed the story, he has remained impervious to the propaganda. He might be deeply affected by what he’s just read, as Lewis was by Morris’ books, but unless he opened the book with the secret hope of converting, a story is unlikely to do the trick. All of us, whatever our quarrels about politics and faith, probably agree that literature does lead us to believe something, but we scoff at the idea that it can convince us against our better judgement to believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God or to advocate the redistribution of wealth.
In fact, the more strenuously a story attempts to win us over to an ideology, the more steadfastly we’re inclined to resist it. The one Morris book I’d gotten my hands on as a young reader, reprinted with an enthusiastic endorsement by the contemporary fantasy novelist Lin Carter, was News from Nowhere, the tale of a late Victorian gentleman (a stand-in for Morris) transported to the year 1962 and to an England transfigured by a workers’ revolution into a paradisiacal socialist republic. Like most utopian narratives, News from Nowhere is essentially a guided tour, in which docent-like characters escort the narrator from one illustrative spot to another, explaining the many excellences of their well-ordered world. And, like most utopian narratives, News from Nowhere is also didactic, aimlessly structured and excruciatingly dull; it put me off Morris’ writings for a good three decades. The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End are better, and in parts I can see what Lewis and Tolkien liked so much about them. Yet Morris never entirely leaves his socialism behind, and anyone who cares to look for it will find allusions to “contemporary social issues” throughout both romances. Good governance and what it consists of was a topic that never left Morris’ mind for long.
Can it be pure coincidence, however, that the other writer to captivate the young Lewis was also a socialist? E. Nesbit, along with such Edwardian literary lights as George Bernard Shaw, Leonard Woolf and H.G. Wells (another Lewis favorite), was a charter member of the Fabian Society, a forerunner of today’s Labour Party. (Morris founded the more radical Socialist League.) Her beliefs also bled into her children’s books, from the occasional soapboxing about the miseries endured by England’s urban poor to a visit to a full-fledged utopia near the end of The Story of the Amulet. The four children at the center of that novel, like the narrator of News from Nowhere, are magically transported to the future. There, they wander through a gardenlike London where men and women care for infants equally, children love going to school, and everyone wears soft, brightly colored clothes.
Lewis borrowed very freely from Nesbit, especially in The Magician’s Nephew, a novel that begins by informing its readers that it takes place when “Mr. Sherlock Holmes was still living in Baker Street and the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road.” The empress Jadis’ rampage through the streets of London owes much to the Queen of Babylon’s uproarious visit to the British Museum (she tries to get her jewelry back) in The Story of the Amulet and the cabbie who becomes the first king of Narnia is a descendant of the family cook in The Phoenix and the Carpet, who takes a position as the queen of a tribe of “savage” islanders. The similarities between certain fictional incidents, however, conceal great discrepancies in temperament. Just as Tolkien picked up some strands from Morris’ romances (including a king named Gandalf and a horse called Silverfax) without adopting the entire fabric, Lewis enlisted Nesbit’s tone and a few comic anecdotes to a very different cause. For Lewis and Tolkien, inventing imaginary worlds was a fundamentally conservative exercise; they wanted not just to put a halt to progress, but to roll back what had already occurred and to restore England to condition that prevailed hundreds of years before their own births.
Morris, in his peculiar way, wanted to do both. His vision of a socialist utopia is founded in the past — that semi-mythic pre-modern nirvana known as “Merrie England” — but it requires the reorganization of labor and the abolition of private property, things that could only occur in the future. The utopia of News from Nowhere is a world of cottages and milkmaids, but without money or class distinctions. Nesbit’s vision of the future, on the other hand, is both strangely prescient in its details (no one wears hats and there’s central heating everywhere) and retrospectively naive (instead of “nasty horses all over the streets” people travel the “very clean” roads in “a sort of motor carriage that made no noise”). Nevertheless, a green London — fresh air, a clean Thames, and grass and trees instead of the houses of Bloomsbury — is the first thing Nesbit’s children see when they arrive in the future.
For Morris, returning to a close, harmonious relationship with nature and its cycles is the whole point of the forthcoming socialist revolution; News from Nowhere concludes with a haying festival in his beloved village of Kelmscott, held in the same ancient churchyard where the author would one day be buried. He believed that, whatever its hardships, feudalism left countryfolk and — most important — artisans with enough free time for leisure and the soul-feeding work of making beautiful, useful things. (Historical studies of labor suggest he was correct about that; industrial and post-industrial worker do spend more of their hours on the job than their feudal counterparts.) “At the present time,” he wrote in a preface to a study of medieval lore, “those who take pleasure in studying the life of the Middle Ages are more commonly to be found in the ranks of those who are pledged to the forward movement of modern life; while those who are vainly striving to stem the progress of the world are as careless of the past as they are fearful of the future.”
As immune as he claims to have been to Morris’ socialism, Lewis writes that before his conversion he did pick up some vaguely left-leaning opinions from Shaw and the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin, an important mentor of Morris’. In a section in Surprised by Joy dedicated to surveying all the errors he flirted with but managed to avoid, Lewis marvels that he didn’t become a “Leftist, Atheist, satiric Intellectual of the type we all know so well.” He attributes his resistance to his loathing of “the Collective,” and to his pessimism and “Romanticism.” This last seems an unlikely stumbling block — could anyone be more romantic than the romance-writing, avowedly socialistic Morris? My money’s on pessmism as the primary cause of Lewis’ conservatism. Morris and Nesbit, whatever their flaws and inconsistencies, and whatever messes they made of their own lives (both had marriages troubled by infidelities they didn’t feel entirely free to challenge, given their political ideals), had faith that human beings could make the world a better place. Lewis only hoped they could be prevented from making it a worse one.
Pessimism, however, didn’t keep Lewis from writing his own form of didactic fiction, and his could be just as oppressive as everyone else’s. Among the Chronicles, The Last Battle is the book most people like the least — unless, of course, they are personally invested in Book of Revelation-based eschatology that infuses it. I remember as a child being impressed by the The Last Battle’s significance as the finale of the series; I saved up my allowances and birthday cash to buy hardcover editions of the Chronicles, and the first two I acquired were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Last Battle. I knew I was supposed to respect the last Chronicle, and yet I couldn’t really love it, certainly not the way I loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I couldn’t even like it as well as I liked The Horse and His Boy, my second least-favorite.
Naturally, The Last Battle’s atmosphere of doom depressed me; I also found it puzzling. The hero, King Tirian, being a grown-up, seemed more capable of rescuing Narnia from the false Aslan and the perennial Calormene menace than the kid protagonists of the other Chronicles, so why did he give up so easily? Yes, the wavering faith of the talking beasts and the unreliability of the dwarves were bad signs, but doubt and treachery figured in the earlier Chronicles, too, and were defeated. In The Last Battle, the operation of the human (and Narnian) spirit and will have been subdued. The drama of the individual soul has been subordinated to the need to destroy and then resurrect the Narnian world. Everyone in the book functions as the tool of this cosmic imperative, and while this doesn’t entirely leach them of interest, it makes everything they do to defend themselves seem pitiful and pointless.
Above all, I did not want to see Narnia obliterated, especially in the pulverizingly terminal way that Aslan ends it, with the stars falling from the sky, dragons and giant lizards devouring every last shred of vegetation, the sea flooding the land and the sun squeezed out in the fist of the giant named Father Time. How bleak it is to read those pages even now, and when Aslan orders Peter to close the door on the final vacancy, how unsatisfying to see the characters all turn around and begin running “further up and further in.” They hurtle, like “living speedboats,” through a superior version of Narnia we just saw eradicated, “a deeper country,” with more colors and “where every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.” In the western mountains they reach the walled garden that Digory visited in The Magician's Nephew, and there they reunite with characters from the earlier books. Still further up and further in, Lucy discovers that the garden contains yet another Narnia, even bigger and more “real” than the Narnia they have just travelled through, which was bigger and more real than the Narnia of the earlier books. And presumably that Narnia contains yet another walled garden with a yet more real Narnia inside it, ad infinitum. It is “like an onion,” Mr. Tumnus explains, “except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.” From this vantage, Lucy can even see England, “the real England,” according to Tumnus, “and in that inner England, no good thing is destroyed.”
Lewis concluded the second volume of his science fiction trilogy, Perelandra, with a similar show-stopping neo-Platonic extravaganza in which the more interior, more exalted and more real keeps exploding out of the seemingly supreme interior reality like a showgirl busting out of a cake held by a showgirl who just busted out of a cake and so on. Even before I was old enough to understand what, exactly, Lewis was getting at with all this, I would read these passages and hear and little voice inside me protesting, “But I liked the old Narnia.” I didn’t want a new and improved version of it, whatever the characters might say about how this transcendant new Narnia is really the original while the one I knew had been only a shadow or copy. The most winning aspect of this new, original Narnia was the one thing Lewis doesn’t really linger over in The Last Battle: the chance to see again such old friends as Reepicheep, Puddleglum, Trumpkin and Bree. (Puddleglum doesn’t even get a line. How I longed to hear the gloomy interpretation only he could put on this a dully perfect new place!)
Here is the whole failure of The Last Battle in a nutshell: Lewis’ conviction that we’d be wowed by reverse-onion metaphors, the power to swim up waterfalls, telescopic vision and breathtaking vistas of Aslan’s country — the literary/spiritual equivalent of the titanic explosions at the end of a James Bond movie. He took a Narnia I believed in, largely because of the homier, earthier notes that made it seem so real to me, souped it up into a bigger, shinier, cleaner, fancier version of itself and then told me that this is what’s really real. Whatever the theological, philosophical or artistic rationale behind that statement, it felt, to this reader and so many others, fundamentally untrue. Offered a choice between the Narnia of the earlier Chronicles and the transcendental theme park at the end of The Last Battle, I wouldn’t have hesitated to choose the former.
The fatal flaw of all utopias, earthly or celestial, is their lack of non-fatal flaws. One insufficiency that Lewis shared with Morris and Nesbit — and for that matter even with Dante — is an inability to make Heaven interesting.
(Return to Outtakes)