William Morris and Fantasy

William Morris’ fantasy books resonate with my bibliophile heart. Epic voyages told through folkloric narratives, his fantasies contributed to the birth of the Fantasy genre as we know it. As if that weren’t enough, he presented these works to the world in breathtaking volumes that are the epitome of typography and ornament.

'The Water of the Wondrous Isles'
‘The Water of the Wondrous Isles’


It is his character Birdalone that intrigues me.  The heroine of The Water of the Wondrous Isles, Morris seems ahead of his time in her characterization.  Avoiding gender stereotypes, Birdalone is both educated and brave. Unlike the usual damsel in distress, she is assertive and self aware.  She embraces hard work of both body and mind in a way that many nineteenth century women fought to achieve.  Furthermore, she experiences her own longings instead of being a mere object of desire.

Morris not only wrote his fantasies during a time when realist novels were extremely popular, but he wrote them in an archaic style that sets them apart from other Victorian literature.  His unusual prose later inspired the fictional worlds of both JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, authors whose works enjoy a large fan base to this day. Readers unfamiliar with Morris’ works may lament the archaic language upon first reading, but I believe that this is his way of immersing us in his created worlds. Morris’ syntax pulls us elsewhere and we are one with the world of Romance.

Burne-Jones illustration for 'The Wood Beyond the World'
Burne-Jones illustration for ‘The Wood Beyond the World’

Many works by William Morris are available to read at Project Gutenberg.  The William Morris Archive offers a web-based and text-searchable scholarly edition of the poetry and selected prose of William Morris.

1 thought on “William Morris and Fantasy”

  1. Birdalone is great, but it’s Bow-May in The Roots of the Mountains that I love. I think, with her grey eyes and her superiority to the men around her, that she’s based on Georgie Burne-Jones.


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