On the day the BBC caves in to Tory pressure and refuses to play in full the Wizard of Oz song which the anti-Margaret Thatcher campaign has managed to get into the download charts this week, we might just pause and quietly reflect that rather a lot of witches die in the late romances of William Morris.
The Witch-Wife of Evilshaw who kidnaps Birdalone in The Water of the Wondrous Isles dies alone and unmourned in her lakeside cottage, and her no less wicked sister is crushed when her house falls down after her defeat by the questing knights on the Isle of Increase Unsought. The dangerous Mistress of The Wood beyond the World kills herself in despair after having (as she believes) murdered Golden Walter, and that deeply ambivalent figure the Lady of Abundance in The Well at the World’s End, gorgeous nature-goddess to some but malevolent witch to many others, is killed by the Knight of the Sun after Ralph slopes carelessly off from the Chamber of Love for a little early-morning bathing.
The Morrisian quest hero seems to face an archetypal Victorian sexual choice: Mistress or Maiden for Walter, Lady of Abundance or Ursula for Ralph, i.e., the dark, dangerous, sexually experienced (even voracious) woman on the one hand, or the demure, fair, inexperienced middle-class virgin on the other: in short, madonna or whore, that tired old dualism. But Morris’s texts deviously manage to have their cake and eat it. You get to sleep with the wickedly lascivious woman (even if only for a single night, like Ralph) while also, in the end and after many painful adventures, winning the demure virgin as wife too. Nice work if you can get it.