William Morris as Inspiration for Tolkien’s Literary Art

Most of those involved in Tolkien fandom, at any rate, know that William Morris exerted a profound literary effect on the development of The Lord of the Rings.  This is most evident, in the case of The House of the Wolfings, in the way that both works are organized as prose narratives with lengthy intervals in verse.  The quality of Morris’s verse is indeed very similar to the verse we see in Tolkien’s masterwork, which really does deserve to be recognized as the greatest work of popular fiction produced in the 20th century.  Neither Morris nor Tolkien wanted the poems in their narratives to be judged independently as poems.  The poems were intended to be judged as utterances of the people who deliver them in the narrative—and in this they succeed brilliantly.

However, The House of the Wolfings had a far more profound effect on The Lord of the Rings.  Morris showed Tolkien how to link reality and fiction without inflicting the horrors of allegory on the hapless reader.  Many readers interpret The Lord of the Rings as the history of an alternate world—but this interpretation is mistaken.  The tale of Frodo and his companions—along with all the voluminous associated materials—is really an alternate history of our own world.  In this particular, Tolkien is following the clear example of William Morris.  In The House of the Wolfings, Morris retells from an alternate point of view the story of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

We all recall the accounts in Tacitus and Suetonius.  Arminius, a warrior of the Cherusci who had served as a Roman legionary, leads his own people and Germanic allies against three Roman legions under Publius Quintilius Varus.  Taken by ambush, the Romans are—incredibly—defeated.  Indeed, they are wiped out.  It is the most devastating military defeat ever suffered by Augustus Caesar, arguably the greatest and most influential statesman of all time.  Suetonius tells how he reacted:  Quintili Vare, legiones redde!  (“Quintilius Varus, return my legions!”)  The practical effect was to establish the boundary of the Roman Empire at the Rhine.

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HouseOfWolfingsCoverMorris reverses the common Western perception of these events—and places their execution in the hands of original characters.  Normally, we understand the Romans as civilized and the Germans as barbarians.  In The House of the Wolfings, the Romans do come from cities—but they are vicious savages in most other respects.  The Germans—whom Morris calls “Goths”—have all the admirable attributes: they are kinder, treat their slaves (“thralls”) better, show more mercy, and are fighting to defend their own liberty.  The only thing the Romans have to offer is something they share with the fighting men of the Goths: they are valiant men.

Morris’s interpretation is not original with him.  It was extremely popular among German intellectuals of the 19th century.  But Morris enriches it with a universality never before conceived.  For Morris, the victory over the Romans is not only a victory for the Germanic peoples over the Latin.  It is a victory for a proper conception of human nature.  It is a defeat for the heresy that says: “No limit.”  For this is the password that the Romans use to identify their spies in Germania—or, as the Goths call it, the Mark.

“Day and night I rode till I came to the garth of the Romans; there I gave myself up to their watchers, and they brought me to their Duke, a grim man and hard.  He said in a terrible voice, ‘Thy name?’  I said, ‘Hrosstyr of the River Goths.’  He said, ‘What limit?’  I answered, ‘No limit….’  ‘Thou art the man,’ said he.”

The Roman password derives from the words of Jove in that most glorious of Roman works, The Aeneid:

His ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono;
Imperium sine fine dedi.

(“I set no limits to their powers nor times;
I have delivered empire without end.”)

It is a sentiment that Morris sees at the heart not only of Imperial Rome but also of a diseased and mechanized Western culture.  As Tolkien did in The Lord of the Rings, Morris properly avoids Christian symbols and categories in The House of the Wolfings—but Catholics can well understand what he means through the example of the Tower of Babel:

And they said: Come, let us make a city and a tower, the top whereof may reach to heaven: and let us make our name famous before we be scattered abroad into all lands. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of Adam were building.  And he said: Behold, it is one people, and all have one tongue: and they have begun to do this, neither will they leave off from their designs, till they accomplish them in deed. Come ye, therefore, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. And so the Lord scattered them from that place into all lands, and they ceased to build the city (Genesis 11: 4-8).

The genius of Morris’s book is the link between the historical and general theme – the arrogant Roman insistence on “No limit!”—and the personal struggle of the hero, Thiodolf.  As leader of the Wolfings, and War-Duke of the Goths, Thiodolf is beloved of a goddess, the Wood-Sun, who cannot bear the thought of his mortality.  She presents him with a “dwarf-wrought hauberk” which is both blessed and cursed: it will preserve him from wounds in the war against the Romans, but only at the cost of making him swoon in the press, so that he cannot carry out his commitment as a leader.  The love between Thiodolf and the Wood-Sun is very real.  Indeed, the goddess is the mother of Thiodolf’s daughter, who presides over the Hall of the Wolfings in his absence.  But the goddess will accept no limit.  Immortal herself, she refuses to let Thiodolf face the limit of his own mortality.  The results are disastrous for the Goths.

Ultimately, both Thiodolf and the Wood-Sun have to understand that a man shielded completely from danger is a man shielded completely from manhood.  Once this truth is grasped—though with much sorrow—the battle against the Romans is won.

Morris’s version of this pivotal historical conflict is a fiction.  The Germans that fought the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest were not Goths.  When the Goths met the Romans in force, they came first as invaders, then as allies, then as conquerors.  The Visigoth King Alaric—who sacked Rome—was trained first in the Roman military.  Moreover, both sides had already converted from paganism at this time: the Goths were Arians, the Romans generally Catholics.  Thiodolf does indeed bear a physical resemblance to Alaric, and shares with him a mysterious origin—but there the likeness ends.

Furthermore, the astute reader can place other interpretations on the relevant lines from The Aeneid.  “Empire without end”?  Didn’t the Roman Empire end under the loving attentions of such figures as Alaric?  Well, yes—except that all the civilizing influences of the Empire, as Vergil esteemed them, continue in the Roman Catholic Church, which indeed is without limits in space and time.  Her missionaries go forth to all nations, and her Divine Head is with her unto the end of history.  Morris was associated in his university days with the Oxford Movement.  Unlike Newman, he never converted—but he at least faced the claims that the Catholic Church could reasonably make.  Such a reading of The Aeneid would not have been strange to him.

Nevertheless, Thiodolf’s renunciation of unlimited protection resonates forcefully in Morris’s day—and even more forcefully in our own.  In an age when the “right” to abortion is being extended beyond the point of birth, and when marriage may soon be redefined as any contract between any number of sentient beings, the password “No limit” takes on an entirely more urgent significance.  Renunciation of new freedoms will soon be the only way to remain free.

In the theme of renunciation also, Morris has exerted a formative influence on the work of his superior craftsman, Tolkien—whose great themes were self-sacrifice and the renunciation of power.  If the example of Thiodolf possessed no other value, it would be justified by the example it gave to Gandalf, Galadriel, and, imperfectly, Frodo.  For The Lord of the Rings is not only the 20th century’s greatest work of popular fiction: it is also the century’s most Catholic work.  Thiodolf’s heroism helped to make that work what it was.


  • Tom Riley

    For many years, Tom Riley was the Latin and literature teacher at Trinity Grammar and Prep in Napa, California. He is widely recognized as a poet of the formalist school.

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