World's End Imagery: How William Morris and C.S. Lewis Imagined the Medieval North

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The allure of North European medieval literature was strong in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England. Two writers who inherited the Romantic impulse felt the pull of the Norse tradition and wrote their own imaginative works based on much of this material. Although they were both enamored of the North, William Morris and C.S. Lewis saw it differently, in terms of personal exposure to it, as well as its significance. For Morris, the qualities of medieval society he found so admirable could still be visited, not only within his favorite sagas and poems, but also in the country of Iceland itself. His travels there inspired many of his late romances such as The Well at the World's End, regarded by many as his fantasy masterpiece. For Lewis, the North was a place he could visit through the various literary texts he read and reread, including this work of Morris's, which influenced his Narnia book, The Silver Chair. Both of these works exemplify the authors' notions of northernness as a romantic aesthetic of rejuvenation, although Lewis borrows the "world's end" as a metaphor for eternal life in heaven, whereas Morris uses it to initiate an earthly paradise. The intellectual and artistic proclivities of each writer, as seen throughout crucial periods of their aesthetic development, led them to different conclusions both in their beliefs and in their fiction about the North.

Both Morris and Lewis were attracted by medieval(ist) literature in their youth. By age seven William Morris had read all of Sir Walter Scott's novels, and was known for haunting Eppington Forest clad in a miniature suit of armor (Henderson 6). He relished Gothic architecture wherever he encountered it, as it evoked the period of his favorite literature. His regular readings while studying at Oxford consisted of medieval romances including Le Morte D'Arthur, Amadis of Gaul, Parzifal, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Silver 158).

One of C.S. Lewis's earliest encounters with northernness occurred in his youth when reading the lines, "I heard a voice that cried/Balder the Beautiful/Is dead, is dead--" (Surprised by Joy 11). This gave him an inexplicable sensation of longing for a remote and spacious land far away, a feeling he came to identify later as joy. He grew up reading fairy tales and soon discovered Morris's romances, of which The Well at the World's End is the first he critiques at length in one of the early letters to Arthur Greeves (Hooper 61-62). This influential work of Morris's, along with the corpus of medieval literature and other fantasies, formed Lewis's staple reading throughout his life.

In his early twenties Morris turned his capable hands to poetry, which he found easy to craft. His earliest collection (1858), The Defense of Guenevere, brought him notoriety as a Victorian poet who vivified not only the romantic courtliness of the middle ages, but the violence and harshness of the period as well. Among the influences on his versification at this point were his "spiritual fathers" Chaucer, Malory, and Keats, who provided his young mind with the "sung-blazing glitter and the jewel-encrusted pageantry of an imagined Medieval Age" (Hoare 29). From the chronicles of Froissart he also gleaned the "unpleasant realities behind the romantic facade of medieval legend," including the atrocities of warfare (Hodgson 46). Morris's early poetry reveals this tension between the languid sentiments of courtly love and the brutality of medieval feudalism.

Morris had success with other poetic ventures like The Life and Death of Jason, but was chiefly known as the poet of The Earthly Paradise. Unfortunately, Sigurd the Volsung was not as well received, which discouraged Morris from producing original works of poetry for the next twenty years. Sigurd grew out of Morris's chief literary occupation during the 1870s, that of translating Norse sagas and Edda poems, interspersed by two trips to Iceland, in 1871 and 1873. …