Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Morris and Monsters

We need to think more boldly about Morris and his work, and that does not necessarily have to be done by importing into it new theoretical models from outside (though the more of that we do, the better anyway, I feel). For we can also generate new questions simply by thinking in a more radical way about the relations of his works to each other. For example, why, just a year or two after finishing his utopia News from Nowhere in 1890/91, did Morris embark on a translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf with the Cambridge scholar A.J. Wyatt?

The standard academic answer to that question might be: he often relaxed from his more serious endeavours by translating, and he had always been interested in British pre-Norman literature and culture. True enough, as far as it goes. But let us try out a more searching hypothesis: Beowulf is about warriors battling monsters (Grendel and Grendel’s mother, above all), and Morris’s move to the poem may suggest that there was some thought about monstrosity which did not – or could not – get fully expressed in News from Nowhere itself. Morris had, after all, already given us a powerful model of what it means to fight monsters in the extraordinary wrestling match between Grettir and Glam in his version of the Grettir Saga; you may defeat the monster, but you also become partly marked by its monstrosity in so doing.

Can we take such thoughts back into the utopia itself? Has William Guest put so much energy into fighting the economic monster which is Victorian capitalism that he has become to some degree a monster himself, capable of contaminating rather than just benignly learning from the new world he visits? And is Ellen, accordingly, in some sense battling him as much as she is learning from him in their scenes together, struggling to expel this monster back to its own time, as she finally does (‘she shook her head with a mournful look’ and he can’t get back in). And is the cost of that battle, for her, is to be the enigmatic, isolated, qualitatively distinct figure that she so clearly is in this otherwise genial, relaxed world (‘I have often troubled men’s minds disastrously’)? The more we can unsettle Morris’s works, as Ellen does her neighbours’ minds, the better!


Kotick said...

Certainly an interesting theme, Tony. For Fiona MacCarthy, monstrosity in Morris seems to be mostly about the fear of sexuality. As she writes: 'Morris gives us some bad monsters: snakes and dragons, apparitions. This is much the worst one because it is so slithery and sexually threatening, the nightmare, even in pre-Freudian days, of any bride'. You might have to change the illustrations to your blog post to take account of that!

Tony Pinkney said...

Yes, I'm just beginning to realise what a big field monster studies is. See, for example, Jeffrey Cohen's good collection 'Monster Theory: Reading Culture' (1996), which contains essays on both Beowulf and Icelandic sagas, as it happens; and, for a very recent compendium, 'The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous' (2013), a weighty 598 pages of assorted monstrosity!

Tony Pinkney said...

And can I take the liberty to draw attention to my earlier post entitled 'Enter the Dragon' on 23 April 2010, in which I tried to suggest a more positive approach to Morrisian monsters, particularly Fafnir from 'Sigurd the Volsung'? See These earlier posts are available in print form in my blog book (Kelmsgarth Press, 2011), pp.92-3 in this particular case.