This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for a few years now – in fact, every time I teach William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World I tell myself I’ll get on with it, but every year I just allow myself to move on to other things. This time, however, I promised my students (this year’s cohort of our Masters in fantasy, the Fantasy MLitt at the University of Glasgow) that I would actually get my act together and write it – so there!
William Morris is often considered one of the “grandfathers” of modern fantasy, in the sense that Tolkien is (nearly) universally recognized as the father, and Tolkien (and Lewis, and many other later fantasists) read Morris and his writing shows clear echoes of Morris’s imaginative creations and narrative structures. Years ago, when I first read The Wood Beyond the World I was struck by a particular scene which chimed so closely with a very well-known scene in The Lord of the Rings, that I was stopped in my tracks.
The Wood Beyond the World (one of Morris’s romances, but clearly also a proto-fantasy) recounts the story of Golden Walter, a young man who is attracted to sail away by the vision of a strange trio: a hideous Dwarf, a fair Maiden, and an alluring Lady. He eventually finds himself in a remote land, an otherworldy place, where he will have to go through trials and tribulations to escape the (sexual) nets of the Lady (and her evil ally, the Dwarf) to free the captive Maiden (or, rather, to be saved by her, as the Maiden manages to save Walter and herself!) and find fulfilment and happiness. The scene that I found so striking occurs in Chapter IX, the first time Walter encounters the wicked Dwarf in the flesh, not just in vision.
First, Walter hears what he thinks is the voice of a beast – he hears “a strange noise of roaring and braying, not very great, but exceeding fierce and terrible, and not like to the voice of any beast that he knew”. His knees give way, he exclaims loudly, and tumbles down in a swoon when he sees the dwarf’s “hideous hairy countenance”. When he comes to his senses again, this scene follows (I am highlighting in red certain phrases I found significant):
How long he lay there as one dead, he knew not, but when he woke again there was the dwarf sitting on his hams close by him. And when he lifted up his head, the dwarf sent out that fearful harsh voice again; but this time Walter could make out words therein, and knew that the creature spoke and said:
“How now! What art thou? Whence comest? What wantest?”
Walter sat up and said: “I am a man; I hight Golden Walter; I come from Langton; I want victual.”
Said the dwarf, writhing his face grievously, and laughing forsooth: “I know it all: I asked thee to see what wise thou wouldst lie. I was sent forth to look for thee; and I have brought thee loathsome bread with me, such as ye aliens must needs eat: take it!”
Therewith he drew a loaf from a satchel which he bore, and thrust it towards Walter, who took it somewhat doubtfully for all his hunger.
The dwarf yelled at him: “Art thou dainty, alien? Wouldst thou have flesh? Well, give me thy bow and an arrow or two, since thou art lazy-sick, and I will get thee a coney or a hare, or a quail maybe. Ah, I forgot; thou art dainty, and wilt not eat flesh as I do, blood and all together, but must needs half burn it in the fire, or mar it with hot water; as they say my Lady does: or as the Wretch, the Thing does; I know that, for I have seen It eating.”
“Nay,” said Walter, “this sufficeth;” and he fell to eating the bread, which was sweet between his teeth. Then when he had eaten a while, for hunger compelled him, he said to the dwarf: “But what meanest thou by the Wretch and the Thing? And what Lady is thy Lady?”
The creature let out another wordless roar as of furious anger; and then the words came: “It hath a face white and red, like to thine; and hands white as thine, yea, but whiter; and the like it is underneath its raiment, only whiter still: for I have seen It—yes, I have seen It; ah yes and yes and yes.”
And therewith his words ran into gibber and yelling, and he rolled about and smote at the grass: but in a while he grew quiet again and sat still, and then fell to laughing horribly again…
Now, if you know The Lord of the Rings well, this scene cannot fail but bring to mind the famous scene with Sam and Gollum in Book IV, Chapter 4, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”. After Gollum brings in rabbits for Frodo and Sam to eat, and sees Sam starting a fire, he goes into an anxious frenzy, telling Sam to put off the fire as it will attract enemies. But Sam has firm plans and isn’t going to change them. He responds:
‘…I’m going to risk it, anyhow. I’m going to stew these coneys.’
‘Stew the rabbits!’ squealed Gollum in dismay. ‘Spoil beautiful meat Sméagol saved for you, poor hungry Sméagol! What for? What for, silly hobbit? They are young, they are tender, they are nice. Eat them, eat them!’ He clawed at the nearest rabbit, already skinned and lying by the fire.
‘Now, now!’ said Sam. ‘Each to his own fashion. Our bread chokes you, and raw coney chokes me. If you give me a coney, the coney’s mine, see, to cook, if I have a mind. And I have. You needn’t watch me. Go and catch another and eat it as you fancy – somewhere private and out o’ my sight. Then you won’t see the fire, and I shan’t see you, and we’ll both be the happier. I’ll see the fire don’t smoke, if that’s any comfort to you.’
Gollum withdrew grumbling, and crawled into the fern. Sam busied himself with his pans.
Later on, when Sam asks him to fetch herbs and mentions “taters”, Gollum asks him:
‘…What’s taters, precious, eh, what’s taters?’
‘Po – ta – toes,’ said Sam. ‘The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly. But you won’t find any, so you needn’t look. But be good Sméagol and fetch me the herbs, and I’ll think better of you. What’s more, if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned, I’ll cook you some taters one of these days. I will: fried fish and chips served by S. Gamgee. You couldn’t say no to that.’
‘Yes, yes we could. Spoiling nice fish, scorching it. Give me fish now, and keep nassty chips!’
‘Oh you’re hopeless,’ said Sam. ‘Go to sleep!’
The two scenes present a series of remarkable parallels:
- Both the hideous Dwarf in The Wood Beyond the World and Gollum make harsh and squealing noises and gesticulate – not just as a reaction to Walter’s or Sam’s words respectively, but as part of their more general behaviour patterns.
- They both find the cooking of animal flesh as needless at best, and wasteful and wrong at worst: the Dwarf mockingly refers to Walter “half-burning” or “marring” coneys, or other meat because he is too “dainty”, while Gollum accuses Sam of “spoiling” or “scorching” the rabbits or fish and wasting good “tender” and “nice” raw meat. Clearly both the Dwarf and Gollum are more than content with raw flesh (a general sign of “primitiveness”, of “barbarians” or “savage” people from antiquity to Victorian perceptions – I shall return to this point below).
- The Dwarf gives Walter what he calls “loathsome bread” which he clearly can’t abide, while Walter finds it “sweet between his teeth”; and Sam reminds Gollum that “our bread chokes you” – and that, of course, refers to the Elvish bread, lembas, as we have already seen Gollum choking on it earlier on, in Chapter 2, “The Passage to the Marshes”.
- Notice also the use of the word “coney” which both Morris and Tolkien use instead of rabbit. Coney is a slightly more unusual/archaic word which fits well with Morris’s pseudo-romance language in works such as The Wood Beyond the World. Tolkien had already used “coney-rabbits” in one of his early poems (see one of my previous articles for where the rabbit imagery in that poem may come from) and in The Lord of the Rings contrasts Sam’s language, who uses “coneys”, with Gollum’s language, who uses “rabbits”.
One could just observe the parallels between those scenes as one of those cases when Tolkien is (perhaps unconsciously) recalling an incident he read in the past out of “the leaf-mould of the mind” (as Tolkien called all that an author has previously “seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps”, quoted in Carpenter, 1977, 126). But I think that these resonances are not just a simple case of “borrowing”, or reproducing/adapting, an episode. They also overlap in terms of more structural elements in the two texts.
As briefly mentioned above, I think the binary of civilization vs. “savagery” or “barbarianism” (and I put these words in quotation marks because such labels really depend on whose perspective the story is told from) is a wider concern in both texts. In The Wood Beyond the World, the Dwarf has often been discussed as a representation of “the primitive, demonic forces in the world” (e.g. Silver, 1982, p. 167) showing signs of what the Victorians would have perceived as “savage”. He is initially described in very derogatory terms: “dark-brown of hue and hideous, with long arms and ears exceeding great and dog-teeth that stuck out like the fangs of a wild beast” (Chapter 2). Aside from assigning a bestial aspect to the Dwarf, this passage also identifies him as dark-skinned, and one cannot help but recall Victorian racial categorizations and prejudices, combining non-European physique with savagery, often also specifically associated with eating raw meat. The barbarians who eat raw meat are definitely a motif familiar from a long time earlier (e.g. from Classical writers such as Pomponius Mela, who wrote that the Germans ate the flesh raw, and with their hands), but we also see them in Victorian scientific papers and in novels such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four (1890) in which Tonga is displayed as “the black cannibal. He would eat raw meat and dance his war-dance”. This idea of culture vs. nature (in which civilization is positively inflected, and nature equates a more “primitive” stage of humanity) has also been discussed in the Gollum and Sam scene above by Thomas Honegger, drawing on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s well-known work The Raw and the Cooked (1964), the first volume from his Mythologiques (Honegger, 2013). Though Honegger highlights more strongly the difference in moral nature between Gollum (originally of hobbit-kind, but showing traces of moral and spiritual decline) and Sam (the hobbit par-excellence), he also recognizes Sam’s cooking gear as a sign of civilization, and – by extension – Gollum can also be discussed in terms of “primitiveness”.
Another important point I’d like to make is that both the Dwarf in The Wood Beyond the World, and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, have been read as the darker aspect of the two novels’ respective heroes. Both Andrew Dodds (1987) and Hilary Newman (2001) have discussed the Dwarf as symbolic of sexual rapaciousness without emotional attachment (something Morris would disapprove of), which makes him a perfect ally to the Lady, and a negative role-model for Walter. Newman has actually described the Dwarf “both as part of Waiter’s unconscious, and a physical presence” (2001, p. 51). Taking this one step further, the Dwarf represents Walter’s baser instincts, or Walter “gone wrong”. Similarly, Douglass Parker designated Gollum as Frodo’s “corrupted counterpart” (1957, 605), Thomson as “his double in darkness” (1967, 52), and Flieger described Gollum as Frodo’s “dark side, the embodiment of his growing, overpowering desire for the Ring” (2004, 143). Both the Dwarf and Gollum, therefore, occupy the position of the binary opposite to the main hero, but are also uncannily similar to him too.
As I said in the beginning, I’ve been meaning to write up this blog post for years, but as I finished, I thought, seriously, someone else must have spotted this particular scene in Morris as a Tolkien inspiration in all this time it took me to write this up! Well, fair is as fair does, so I did search for this and found two brief mentions, both dated 2014:
- This anonymous post on “Thinklings: The Tolkien Ideas Group” blog, in which the two extracts are briefly compared but not explored further (I liked another parallel picked up here: “We also thought about how Gollum refers to Shelob enigmatically as ‘She’ and ‘Her’ and compared this to the enigmatic ‘Lady’ and ‘Thing’.”)
- Gerard Hynes’s essay “From Nauglath to Durin’s Folk: The Hobbit and Tolkien’s Dwarves”, published in The Hobbit and Tolkien’s Mythology: Essays on Revisions and Influences, edited by Bradford Lee Eden (McFarland, 2014), in which the Dwarf’s preference for raw food is briefly compared to Gollum’s (p. 26), though The Wood Beyond the World is mostly used to show the ambiguity of the Dwarf figure in literature prior to Tolkien.
I am still rather surprised that this link hasn’t been explored further hitherto. This blog post is just opening up the conversation. I’d like to see more on Tolkien and Morris, not just source-spotting, but scholarship that will explore further the ideological echoes of Morris’s work and world in Tolkien’s legendarium.
Carpenter, Humphrey. 1977. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Dodds, Andrew. 1987. ‘A Structural Approach to The Wood Beyond the World’, Journal of William Morris Studies, 7.2: 26-28
Flieger, Verlyn. 2004. ‘Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero’, in Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism, ed. by Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin), pp. 122-145.
Honegger, Thomas. 2013. “‘Raw Forest’ versus ‘Cooked City: Lévi-Strauss in Middle-earth”, in J.R.R. Tolkien: The Forest and the City, ed. by Helen Conrad-O’Briain and Gerard Hynes (Dublin: Four Courts Press), pp. 76-86
Newman, Hilary. 2001. ‘The Influence of De La Motte Fouqué’s Sintram and His Companions on William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World’, Journal of William Morris Studies, 14.2: 47-53
Parker, Douglass. 1957. “Hwaet We Holbytla…”, The Hudson Review , 9.4: 598-609
Silver, Carole. 1982. The Romance of William Morris. Athens [Ohio]: Ohio University Press
Thomson, George H. 1967. “The Lord of the Rings: The Novel as Traditional Romance”, Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 8.1: 43-59