An unexpected Guest.
J. R. R. Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892, but spent the bulk of his childhood and adolescence in the industrial Birmingham of the last decade of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth centuries. There were also two brief, but important, sojourns in the West Midlands countryside. A clever boy, Tolkien attended King Edward VI School in New Street, Birmingham and then Exeter College Oxford, following the same route as another Birmingham boy whose childhood had been without beauty, Edward Burne-Jones.
Tolkien certainly read Morris's fiction whilst at Oxford, and it seems likely that this was the first time he had read any of Morris's work. Tolkien's biographer Humphrey Carpenter states "Morris had himself been an undergraduate at Exeter College, and this connection had probably stimulated Tolkien's interest in him" (Carpenter 69). In his third year at Oxford Tolkien was awarded the Skeat Prize for English, and spent his five pounds prize money on three of Morris's works: The Life and Death of Jason, Morris's translation of The Volsunga Saga, and The House of the Wolfings (Carpenter 69). (1) In the same year Morris's writing inspired the 22 year-old Tolkien to an attempt of his own. He wrote to tell his fiancee that he was turning a story from the Finnish Kalevala "into a short story somewhat on the lines of Morris's romances with chunks of poetry in between" (Letters 7).
Morris's translation of The Volsunga Saga led Tolkien into the world where he was to spend most of his academic life: he was to specialize, as undergraduate and later as professor, in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English and he had a passion for the Icelandic sagas. As professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford he formed a society called "The Coalbiters," which met to read the Icelandic sagas aloud (Carpenter 119-20).
However, when reading The House of the Wolfings (published in 1888) and Morris's late romances such as The Well at the World's End (1894), Tolkien entered a world that was, before the publication of his own novels, unique. The late romances are devoid of the childish or twee approaches that beset so many other early "fantasy" novels; from the first sentence the reader is placed within a perfectly realized and ordered sub-creation: "Long ago there was a little land" (The Well at the World's End), or "A while ago there was a young man dwelling in a great and goodly city by the sea" (The Wood Beyond the World). Without rabbit holes or fairy dust the reader is immersed within an actual world. One of Tolkien's biographers writes of "Morris's aptitude, despite the vagueness of place and time in which the story is set, for describing with great precision the details of his imagined landscape," and continues, "Tolkien himself was to follow Morris's example in later years" (Carpenter 70).
There can be little doubt, then, that Morris's fiction was a considerable influence on Tolkien. Much of what he found in Morris's work--names such as Mirkwood in The House of the Wolfings, for example--he was later to re-discover in the Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic poems whose characters and landscapes were to become as real to him as his own family and the streets of Oxford. However, this article intends to explore the impact on Tolkien of two of Morris's other works, The Icelandic Journals and News From Nowhere.
The Icelandic Journals
Tolkien has left no evidence in his published writings about when he read William Morris's journals of his two Icelandic expeditions of 1871 and 1873, but I hope to make it clear, using evidence from both authors' work, that he did so. Given the dearth of literature about Iceland, he was no doubt eager to read anything relating to the land of his beloved sagas. The influence of Morris's Icelandic Journals is most apparent in The Hobbit, first published in the UK in 1937.
Both Morris, in the Journals, and Tolkien, in The Hobbit, wrote in a consciously light-hearted tone. Morris (rotund, like Tolkien's Mr. Baggins--both have their weight commented upon (2)) consciously presents himself as the buffoon of his party, cared for and irritating by turns. He regularly loses things which are returned by kindly Icelanders. (3) This is the exact attitude which Tolkien's dwarves (all of whose names come from the Icelandic poem Voluspa [Shippey 16-17]) adopt towards Mr. Baggins who, like Morris, is used to a comfortable middle-class life and is thrust into an "adventure." (4)
Burne-Jones' well-known caricature of Morris on a pony could equally apply to Tolkien's Mr. Baggins. Both are often homesick, both dislike rivers and streams. Morris's obvious discomfort when fording the fast-flowing Icelandic rivers (for example, crossing the Markafljot he clings to his horse's mane and "quite lost my sense of where I was going" [Icelandic Journals 40]) is a characteristic which Tolkien transferred wholesale to hobbits who, interestingly, look upon rivers and boats as "wild horses" (Fellowship 384).
Morris, to his own surprise, proves to be a good camp cook, producing fried bacon and plovers, a highly-praised stew, and a leg of lamb on various occasions. Likewise, Tolkien gives this quality to hobbits. All hobbits are fond of food (hence Mr. Baggins's girth--we are told that his hobbit-hole has lots of pantries) and in The Lord of the Rings Sam, the hobbit servant, is described as "a good cook, even by hobbit reckoning, and he had done a good deal of the camp-cooking on their travels" (Towers 261).
Bilbo Baggins, therefore, is torn from his comfortable middle-class existence by dwarves with names from the sagas. William Morris left his comfortable life for a time in order to explore the landscape of the sagas. Marjorie J. Burns has outlined many similarities between the landscape Morris describes with such clarity in the Journals and the landscape of Tolkien's Middle-earth. Like Morris, Tolkien could describe landscape in great detail. Here Morris describes his party's climb up and inside the volcano Eiriksjokull. Climbing "over the lava till we come to a steep-sided hollow," they entered "first into a ragged sort of porch, and then into a regular vaulted hall" from whence ran a long dark passage (Journals 66). Compare Bilbo and the dwarves on the Lonely Mountain: "Silently, clinging to the rocky wall on their right, they went in single file along the ledge till [...] they turned into a little steep-walled bay" (Hobbit 219). Later, Bilbo goes inside the Mountain: "It was a passage made by dwarves [...] straight as a ruler" (225).
There are other correspondences. Morris writes comically of his party's difficulties making a fire in the Icelandic damp: "It soon comes on to rain again," and despite everyone's attempts it was not possible to light the fire (Journals 56). Tolkien depicts a similar situation as the dwarves "sat glum and wet and muttering, while Oin and Gloin went on trying to light the fire" (Hobbit 42) until, like Morris and Charlie Faulkner on several occasions, they began to fight. (5)
The ponies ridden by Bilbo and the dwarves owe much to the Icelandic ponies about which Morris writes with such obvious affection. The Morris party's ponies are always running away, chased by the guides. On Morris's second visit to Iceland a baggage pony bolts "and he had soon banged off both bundles and then gallopped away as hard as he could split" (Journals 160). Similarly, one of the dwarves' ponies bolts at nothing, losing all the baggage he was carrying. Indeed, on the subject of ponies, Morris and Tolkien have an almost exact correspondence of language. Morris writes of making camp in a storm, while the ponies have their "tails turned to the wind and heads hanging down, shaking again with the cold" (Journals 69). When Bilbo and the dwarves make camp in a storm "their ponies were standing with their heads down and their tails between their legs" (Hobbit 68).
The dwellings of Tolkien's hobbits have a great deal in common with the houses Morris saw and described in Iceland. Morris was fascinated by the thick turf walls: "both walls and roof are just as green as the field they spring from; all doors are very low," necessary insulation in the hostile climate (Journals 31). Hobbit-holes "were usually long, low and comfortable [...] thatched with dry grass or straw, or roofed with turves, and having walls somewhat bulged" (Fellowship 16).
Although Morris loved Iceland, he found it a very melancholy place in many ways. Everywhere he went were reminders of the heroic days of the sagas: Gunnar's Howe, the home of Gudrun, places associated with Grettir the Strong. One guide, Thorstein, points out saga sites as if the inhabitants were still his neighbors, and a host almost quarrels with Morris "for saying some ill of Snorri the Priest" dead a thousand years (Journals 99). Although this immediacy was very important to Morris--it was after all what he had gone to Iceland in order to find--he also found it depressing to compare the glories of the past with the deprivation of the present: "What a mournful place this is--Iceland I mean [...] how every place and name marks the death of its short-lived eagerness and glory [...]. But Lord! What littleness and helplessness has taken the place of the old passion and violence that had place here once--and all is unforgotten" (Journals 84).
It is perhaps from passages such as this, which contrast past heroism and present poverty, that Tolkien took one of his most important inspirations from the Journals. By the time he wrote The Hobbit in the early 1930s, Tolkien had already been working for twenty years on his "mythology for England," The Silmarillion. In common with the sagas which Morris and Tolkien both loved, The Silmarillion is a tale of nobility and heroism, love and loss. Descendants of the great heroes who people The Silmarillion appear in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As with the people of Iceland described by Morris, they are sadly diminished. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien describes the Dunedain of Arnor, descendants of great kings, "their power departed and their people dwindled" so that they are scattered and, like the Icelanders, live in isolated settlements (Return 324). Yet they still recall the deeds of their forebears as if millennia were a few days.
News From Nowhere
News From Nowhere (1890), a Utopian revolutionary novel, may seem an unlikely influence on a man considered by many to be a purveyor of escapist fiction. However, the landscape, lifestyle and even, in part, the attitudes of Nowhere are reflected in Tolkien's Shire.
Of course, News From Nowhere is not the only place Tolkien could have found an idealized English rural landscape: many authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries described rural idylls. George Eliot is only one example of someone who wrote about the largely pre-industrial Midland landscape (a similar area to that in which the young Tolkien spent his two brief "rural idylls") of the 1820s and 1830s. However, Tolkien was no enthusiast for what he called "modern" English literature, by which he meant anything post-Chaucer. So the two most likely sources for the Shire are Tolkien's childhood recollections of two brief periods living in the West Midlands countryside and News From Nowhere. Again, Tolkien has left no published account of when he read the work, but internal evidence from both writers points very strongly to his having done so.
Tolkien, conservative in outlook throughout his life, would doubtless have small interest in the chapters in News From Nowhere concerning the 1952 revolution. However, he would instantly have sympathized with Morris's description of the de-urbanization of England, which fitted so well with his own association of the rural landscape with happiness and freedom. (6) The lifestyle of Nowhere is described in the book by Old Hammond: "[England] is now a garden, where nothing is wasted and nothing is spoilt, with the necessary dwellings, sheds and workshops scattered up and down the country, all trim and neat and pretty" (News from Nowhere 61). It would have seemed perfection to Tolkien. When he wrote about the Shire, home of the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, this is almost exactly what he described. The Shire is Nowhere seen through the lens of Tolkien's natural conservatism.
In News From Nowhere, Morris carefully describes work, transport, food, housing and the upbringing of children. Each of these finds a close parallel in Tolkien's writing. First, work. In Nowhere, of course, Morris described his own ideal: no unnecessary mechanization, "useless toil" obliterated and replaced by "useful work." Old Hammond states that: "All work which would be irksome to do by hand is done by immensely improved machinery; and in all work which it is a pleasure to do by hand machinery is done without" (News 82). The pleasurable work which Morris goes on to describe includes house-building, gardening, farming, the work of the smithy and weaving. He also comments upon the "abundance of mills" along the Thames (News 172).
Tolkien shared Morris's dislike of mechanization. Indeed, he was almost virulently opposed to technology, having seen the devastation caused by then state-of-the-art machinery during his time in the trenches. He only briefly owned a car and, prophetically, was concerned about the damage done to the landscape by new roads. In a filmed interview, his son recalled Tolkien's belief, so like that of Morris, that labor-saving machinery simply created worse labor: it put slavery out of sight in the factories (J.R.R.T.). Hobbits of the Shire, then, share the lifestyle of Nowhere. They are farmers, millers, gardeners. "[Hobbits] do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom" (Fellowship 10). A related area, of course, is transport, and here the match is exact. In Nowhere, William Guest (the name which Morris adopts in his guise as narrator) travels, or witnesses transport, by foot, horse and cart or river, and these are exactly the modes of transport used by hobbits of the Shire.
Morris speaks with great relish of the meals enjoyed by Guest in Nowhere. All the food is "simple" and "excellent" (News 86). Guest tucks into pies and wine, and is lucky enough to find a pipe and tobacco shop. Hobbits, like William Morris himself, love eating and drinking, and will have "six meals a day (when they could get them)" (Fellowship 11). They, like Morris and Tolkien, also love smoking and are renowned for their cultivation of excellent tobacco.
Guest is struck by the houses in Nowhere, "amongst the fields with pleasant lanes leading down to them, and each surrounded by a teeming garden" (News 19). Tolkien made a picture of his ideal hobbit village as an illustration for The Hobbit. It shows exactly what Morris described: cottage gardens, pleasant lanes, a farm and a water-mill--rural perfection.
Guest is at first perplexed, then delighted, to find that the children of Nowhere are not being crammed full of useless knowledge but live a free, outdoor life camping and cooking in the woods. Book-learning, he finds, is delayed for as long as possible: "As a rule, they don't do much reading, except for a few story-books, till they are about fifteen years old" (News 25). Tolkien gave this excellent way of life to Hobbits, who were easy-going with their children, preferring them to learn cooking rather than their letters, "which many never reach" (Towers 261).
What of government? Nowhere is an anarchist society, and Tolkien wrote of the Shire as having "hardly any 'government'" (Fellowship 18). In a letter written during the Second World War, Tolkien expressed a preference for "Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control [...])" (Letters 63). However, Tolkien, whose years of maturity coincided with the Russian Revolution and Stalinism, was not a socialist. He believed that socialism was synonymous with state control and interference. Morris predicted just such an outcome in his 1893 lecture "Communism," arguing that Fabian "gas and water" socialism would lead to a soulless, state-run future. Morris's argument is reflected in Tolkien's statement: "I am not a 'socialist' in any sense--being averse to 'planning' [...] most of all because the 'planners', when they acquire power, become so bad" (Letters 235). Tolkien included this belief in the concluding chapters of The Lord of the Rings, when the Shire is at the mercy of 'gatherers' and 'sharers,' ruined by soulless new building and industrial blight.
Unlike Nowhere, the Shire is not completely egalitarian. Although it has no aristocracy, it has a clearly-defined middle class with inherited wealth and a working/servant class of farmers, gardeners and servants who show "proper respect" to their "betters" addressing them as "Master Frodo" or "Mistress Lobelia." (7) Tolkien, therefore, seems to have drawn on Nowhere as a rural ideal whilst discarding its political aspects. It also seems possible that Tolkien pays his own homage to Morris for (as Tolkien wrote in a different context in The Lord of the Rings) those to see who can.
Traveling up the Thames in News From Nowhere, Guest, Dick and Clara are invited by an old man to stay in a little house at Runnymede on "the rise of the hill" with "little windows [...] already yellow with candlelight" (News 126). Compare The Lord of the Rings, where the four hobbit travelers see "high above them on a further slope [...] the twinkling lights of a house. [...] Suddenly a wide yellow beam flowed out" (Fellowship 133). Guest and his friends find themselves in "a very pretty room, panelled and carved [...] the chief ornament of which was a young woman, light-haired"--her name is Ellen, and this is Guest's first meeting with her (News 127). The hobbits come to "a long low room, filled with the light of lamps [...]." Here they find "a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders" (Fellowship 134). Her name is Goldberry.
Ellen welcomes Guest and his companions and brings them food, her movements "as beautiful as a picture" (News 128); Goldberry "busied herself about the table [...] the slender grace of her movement filled [the hobbits] with quiet delight" (Fellowship 135). After their respective meals, Guest has a night of good sleep in the house for "there were no rough noises to wake me" (News 132), whilst the hobbits are bid to sleep well and "Heed no nightly noise" (Fellowship 138).
Tolkien was a careful writer with an almost compulsive desire to revise his work, so these correspondences cannot be the result of chance. Perhaps the most telling parallel is this. On the morning after his restful sleep, Guest, Dick and Clara are looking at Ellen. Dick remarks "we have come to a fairy garden, and there is the very fairy herself amidst of it" (News 133). Ellen's grumpy grandfather is compared to a "gnome or wood-spirit." To the hobbits, Goldberry seems like "a fair young elf-queen clad in living flowers" (Fellowship 134). But what of the "gnome or wood-spirit," Ellen's cantankerous grandfather? In his place Tolkien, like Morris a great lover of trees and nature, has put Tom Bombadil, the guardian of the woods and natural world. In Tolkien's description of Bombadil we seem to have an affectionate portrait of Morris himself: "a large and heavy" man "stumping along with great yellow boots on his thick legs, and charging through grass and rushes like a cow going to drink. He had a blue coat and a long brown beard" (Fellowship 131). The contrast between the "slender grace" of Goldberry and the "merry and odd caperings of Tom" (Fellowship 143) are reminiscent of the contrast between Jane and William Morris in one of Rossetti's mischievous caricatures.
William Morris, always a lover of woods and fields and little rivers, would no doubt be both amused and pleased to find himself transformed in this way.
Burns, Marjorie J. "Echoes of William Morris's Icelandic Journals in J.R.R. Tolkien." Studies in Medievalism 3 (1991): 367-73.
Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
J.R.R.T: A Study of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Dir. Derek Bailey. Judy Dench, narr. S.I.: Tolkien Partnership, 1992.
Mathews, Richard. Fantasy: The Liberation of the Imagination. London: Routledge, 2002.
McCarthy, Fiona. William Morris: A Life for Our Time. London: Faber & Faber, 1994.
Morris, William. Icelandic Journals, (1911) London: Mare's Nest Publishing, 1996.
___. News from Nowhere. (1890) London: Routledge, 1970.
___. The Well at the World's End (1896) Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1996.
___. The Wood Beyond the World, (1895) New York: Ballantine, 1969.
Shippey, Thomas A. J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
___. The Return of the King. 2nd ed. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1966.
___. The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.
___. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Selection. Eds. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. 1st Houghton Mifflin pbk. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
___. The Two Towers. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
(1) Richard Mathews, in his book Fantasy: The Liberation of the Imagination, states that at the end of his life Tolkien owned eleven books by Morris (Mathews 87).
(2) Compare the priest who "tapped [Morris] on the belly and said very gravely: "Besides you know you are so fat" (Journals 126) to Bilbo Baggins's treatment in the house of Beorn (Hobbit 141).
(3) For example, his pannikin (Journals 26) and his slipper (28).
(4) "May Morris reminds us that her father at this period was used to a largely sedentary life and six hours in the saddle were a new experience" (McCarthy 292).
(5) Icelandic Journals includes a comic account of Morris and Faulkner falling out over who was snoring (122-23).
(6) Tolkien lived at Sarehole, south of Birmingham, from 1896-1900 and at Rednal, Worcestershire, for a few months in 1904. He regarded these as the happiest times of his life.
(7) Mr. Baggins inherited his home from his father (Hobbit 11). Farmer Cotton, Sam Gamgee and his father Gaffer Gamgee are presented as working class characters. Sam refers to his employer as "Mr. Frodo" throughout The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's own opinion was "Touching your cap to the squire may be damn bad for the squire but it's damn good for you" (Carpenter 128).
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|Title Annotation:||influence of William Morris on J. R. R. Tolkien's works|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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