Wednesday, October 1, 2014

MORRIS DANCES PT. 4



THE SUNDERING FLOOD was completed in 1896, just a few weeks before its author died. Of the four fantasy-novels, this still uses archaic diction, but Morris no longer seems to use forty words when four will do, as in the other novels. Perhaps the writer sensed that he no longer had time to waste, and chose to tell his last story more concisely.

FLOOD is also the only Morris fantasy that evokes the magical potential of what Lin Carter calls the “imaginary-world novel.”  In the other three books, Morris avoids depicting acts of magic, or magical beings, save where they’re strictly necessary to the plot. Thus one character possesses a magical boat that gets her where she needs to go, and another character sees visions of people he has met or is fated to meet. But in contrast to most later fantasy-authors, Morris has no interest in the dynamics of the faerie world. It may be that he was just too strongly influenced by the historical fiction of his time, as produced by writers like Dumas and Scott.

FLOOD, though, evokes faerie very strongly in its early chapters, though again, it’s for the purpose of empowering the hero, whose central conflict is one of overcoming mundane opponents. As a child the parent-less Osberne encounters a capricious dwarf who demonstrates his ability to cut off his own head and survive. Osberne refuses to let the trick be played on him, and his physical resistance wins the dwarf’s respect—so much so that the dwarf gives him a special knife. A little later Osberne, while standing guard over a sheep-flock, uses the knife to kill a pack of wolves. This heroic deed apparently wins the approval of another denizen of faerie, for at the age of thirteen, long before Osberne is deemed a man, a strange knight named Steelhead visits Osberne’s village and gives him two gifts: arrows that never miss their target, and a huge sword named Broadcleaver.

The sword presents a problem: Osberne is not yet strong enough to wield it. What follows might be termed the medievalist’s version of endowing a hero with some special abilities. In modern times heroes are empowered by mutant genes or the bites of radioactive nightcrawlers, but Steelhead empowers Osberne by the venerable medieval method known as “the laying-on of hands.” 

“And the lad stood still before [Steelhead], and Steelhead laid his hands on the head of him first, and let them abide there a while; then he passes his hands over the shoulders and arms of the boy, and his legs and thighs and breast, and all over his body…”

In our current culture there’s no way that we can read this scene—which takes place when both thirteen-year-old Osberne and apparently adult Steelhead are standing naked in a pool—and not think “gayboys!” I can’t absolutely deny that Morris might have written the scene with some mild gay-curious sentiment. But it’s worth pointing out that in the same section, Steelhead states that he’s performing the laying-on of hands because it’s considered the duty of a father, and he says of his deed: “Thus then have I done to thee to take the place of a father to thee.”  I think that while a gay sentiment is not impossible, it’s more likely that this ritual is a rite of passage, in which the adult only touches the different sections of the child’s whole body in order to bless them. And the result is indeed that thirteen-year-old Osberne gains the magical strength to wield the huge sword, and thus to become the village’s premiere warrior.

Osberne’s prowess also leads to a heterosexual conclusion. In place of the “older woman-younger woman” constellation seen in the other novels, here older women are no threat to Osberne’s relationship with his “Woman of Innocence.”  The only opponent to his tryst with Elfhild, girl of a neighboring village, is “Mother Earth,” for the villages of Osberne and Elfhild are separated by a titanic river-torrent that goes on for miles. This “Sundering Flood” prevents them from doing anything more than talking to one another across opposing river-banks, and thus builds good narrative tension for the early section of the novel.

Evil deeds break the impasse, as raiders called “the Red Skinners” take Elfhild prisoner. Osberne gathers some companions and pursues the raiders until he finally reaches a point where the Sundering Flood ends—culminating in the defeat of the raiders and the final union of the romantic couple. 


Of Morris’ four fantasy novels SUNDERING FLOOD is the easiest to read, in addition to having the most compelling storyline. It’s slightly disappointing that all trace of faerie drops out of the story once Osberne goes in quest of Elfhild, but it may be that on some level Morris simply wasn’t as “bullish” as Tolkien with regard to “dreaming of dragons” and all the other tropes of fantasy. Morris, it seems, made use of faerie “as needed.”  For this reason none of his four “imaginary world” novels rate among the best of their subgenre. Still, William Morris continues to deserve the appropriate honors for forging a new pathway, along which others chose to build more impressive structures.    

MORRIS DANCES PT. 3




1896’s WELL AT THE WORLD’S END benefits from a more forthright hero, the inauspiciously named “Ralph of Upmeads.” In a clear evocation of folktales in which three brothers leave their home to seek their fortunes, Morris begins WELL with four princes of a small kingdom. All four want to seek their fortunes, but the king asks them to draw lots, so that one will stay behind to comfort the king and his wife their mother. The three older brothers win the right to leave, and Ralph is expected to stay behind. Yet in  contrast to the folktale “three brothers” motif, where the older brothers fail at some task  that the youngest one fulfills, the three brothers barely re-appear in the novel. Ralph chooses to break faith and go forth anyway, seeking the fabled  “Well at the World’s End.”  He has heard that a drink from the well gives one not immortality but unblemished youth for the rest of one’s life. But the author’s real goal is for Ralph to find a perfect feminine companion to remain with him during that blessed life.

Ralph actually meets this helpmate almost as soon as he embarks upon his quest, but the young woman—confusingly called first “Dorothea,” and later ”Ursula”—apparently recognizes their joint destiny before he does.  She follows Ralph on his quest, but remains conveniently far behind him as Ralph has his first adventures, coming in conflict with a pair of towns at war with one another. But the real reason for Ursula’s prolonged absence in this section is that this leaves Ralph free to encounter a “Woman of Experience” paralleling the character of the Mistress seen in WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD.

The new character, known only as “the Lady of Abundance,” has suffered bondage under an evil, older female, just as did the characters of “the Maid” and “Birdalone” from the earlier two Morris novels.  Like the Maid, the Lady of Abundance gains a degree of supernatural wisdom from her association with a tyrannical witch, and as a result of that wisdom the Lady has managed to drink from the Well at World’s End. Ralph never explicitly worries about how old she really is, but even after their lovemaking he does start worrying about how many lovers she’s had before him. But any Freudian repercussions are literally cut short when one of those former lovers, a battle-skilled knight, catches her alone and slays her.  Though this grieves Ralph, for the author it may have been more like exorcising another baleful image of femininity, so that a Woman of Innocence can enter the picture.

Morris does not emulate those authors who preferred women to be distressed damsels, though. Ursula’s courage in joining Ralph on his quest is obvious. In a scene that’s become almost archetypal in fantasy-fiction, Ursula gets naked in a forest to take a swim, and is promptly attacked by a gargantuan bear. Though Ralph does have to come to her rescue, she does attack the beast with a knife rather than waiting to be saved. In addition, one of the many incidental off-to-the-side battles between opposing factions mentions a conflict in which the women of a town don armor and battle male opponents.


 WELL’s most problematic aspect is just this “off-to-the-side” resolution of several conflicts, as if Morris didn’t wish to waste time building to a climax.  Ralph and Ursula are separated when an evil lord—with the amusing name “Gandolf”—kidnaps  Ursula. But not only is Ursula freed from captivity without Ralph’s aid, Gandolf is killed in battle by opponents who are of tangential importance to the story. The fates of the witch who enslaved the Lady and of the murderous knight are also tossed off with no emotional impact. Worst of all, given the novel’s title, one might expect that Ralph and Ursula might have to overcome some obstacle in order to drink from the magical well. But there is no obstacle; they simply drink and then begin making their labyrinthine way back to Upmeads, on their way hearing stories about how their enemies were undone in their absence. At least Ralph does participate in one climactic fight, as he finally decides that one of the two townships he encountered earlier deserves his help, and he aids those townspeople in defeating their hereditary—but not very interesting—enemies.

MORRIS DANCES PT. 2




The most interesting thing about 1895’s THE WATER OF THE WONDROUS ISLES is that, if one does regard Morris’ works as the first in the “imaginary-world tradition,” then WATER is the first such work to focus upon a female protagonist. The central character Birdalone is a clever young innocent like the Maid from WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, and she begins her novel as the Maid does: as a serving-girl to an unnamed sorceress known only as “the Witch-Wife.”  However, though the Witch-Wife also has a sister in sorcery, Birdalone also gains an ally, a mysterious woman named Habundia (“abundance”) conjures up a magical boat with which Birdalone escapes via the ocean to other lands.


However, Birdalone’s first stop takes her to the land ruled by the witch-wife’s  sister, who has under her thrall not one but three maidens: Aurea, Viridis, and Atra, who are “named for the hues of our raiment.” Birdalone makes yet another escape and later encounters a similarly color-coded group of three knights who are lovers to the three damsels, and later, a knight for Birdalone herself. But I quickly became bored with all these minimally characterized figures, who displayed no more depth than mirror reflections—and in a psychological sense, the three sisters are just Birdalone times three, and the three knights are just reflections of her destined lover. In addition to the witches—who, like the one in WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, do very little actual magic-- there’s a hostile Red Knight who fights with some of the goodguy knights, but these conflicts did not increase my involvement. The only interesting aspect of this rather turgid and self-referential fantasy is that Morris gave it the structure of a labyrinth. That is, after Birdalone has used her magical boat to visit various isles, she reaches the narrative “center” of the story and begins to travel back, visiting all the sites she visited before, though some of them have altered by the time of the second visit. Morris would use this narrative strategy again in his best-known and longest fantasy-novel, THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END.

MORRIS DANCES PT. 1




My most recent project has been to re-read the fantasy novels of the Victorian author William Morris, whom the 20th-century fantasy-writer Lin Carter credited with having initiated  “the first great masterpiece of the imaginary-world tradition.” One can certainly quarrel with the criteria Carter chooses to define this tradition, but in essence he has a valid point. Prior to Morris, most fantasy-worlds were depicted as being either the phantasms of dreams, as with Carroll’s two ALICE novels, or as existing in some obscure corner of the normative world, as with the strange lands described in GULLIVER’S TRAVELS or the pseudo-Arabian realms of William Beckford’s VATHEK. For better or worse, Morris gave birth to the archetype of the fantasy-domain not tied to earthly expectations, which would be more fully elaborated by later authors like Dunsany, Lewis and Tolkien.

I didn’t anticipate getting much fun out of my scholarly task. In my first reading of Morris’ fantasies over twenty years ago, I was less than enthralled with his adoption of an extremely archaic style of writing, which sought to emulate the convoluted diction of old medieval romances. However, though during my re-read I still found the archaic style to be distracting, it didn’t impede me from appreciating Morris’ primary theme: the quest for a romantic fulfillment Morris apparently did not experience in his lifetime. Thus his imaginary-world novels—all of which take place in a medieval England that shares no place-names or history with the real country—may be interpreted as what Tolkien calls “fantasies of consolation.” Prior to the fantasies, Morris had also written historical novels after the primary model of Walter Scott. But since the four novel-length fantasies were written consecutively during the author’s last years, the last being finished a few weeks before his death, it’s logical to assume that for Morris the idealization of love dovetailed with the idealization of an enchanted England that never existed in history books.

About two years I had already re-read the first novel, 1894’s THE WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, so this time I only spot-read the novel. It begins with a character named “Golden Walter,” who on the face of things sounds less like a medieval hero than a Walter Scott protagonist, being that Walter is the son of a rich merchant. Further, unlike the many unaligned medieval heroes Walter begins the novel married to a shrewish, unappreciative wife, and he leaves his comfortable town of Langton in order to forget his bad marriage. If the unnamed wife is even disposed of at some point, I may have missed it.

As Walter leaves Langton, he experiences strange visions of three strangers, a woman who apparently holds as slaves a younger woman and a male dwarf. Later he will encounter the two women and the dwarf in the flesh when he crosses the titular “Wood Beyond the World.” None of the three are given proper names, though the women are dubbed “the Maid” and “the Mistress.” One doesn’t need a degree in Jungian psychology to perceive that these are archetypes first and living females second. The Mistress is a sorceress, though one sees little actual sorcery in the novel. Implicitly, since she has the authority of an older, landed woman, she is symbolically a “Woman of Experience,” making her homologous with the shrew Walter leaves behind—and the opposite of the Maid, who is a younger “Woman of Innocence.”  The dwarf-servant may represent the ugliness beneath the Mistress’ surface beauty. In later chapters Walter will see the Mistress being friendly with yet another unnamed fellow, known only as the King’s Son, who is implicitly her lover, but the Mistress also takes a shine to Walter, and becomes jealous when Walter and the Maid fall in love.


There’s no much action, or even forward momentum, in WOOD. Walter eventually kills the dwarf, but he doesn’t have a satisfying arc that fulfills his character at the novel’s end. Rather, by authorial contrivance he just stumbles across a city that chooses to make him their local king. The nameless Maid is a little more interesting: after Walter kills the dwarf the Maid gives him very specific instructions regarding the dead man’s burial so as to avoid occult consequences—meaning that she really is not as innocent as she appears, but shares with the Mistress a feminine grasp of magical matters. She enjoys the novel’s best scene as well. When the Maid suspects that the Mistress plots to come to the Maid’s bed at night and kill her, the clever young woman drugs the King’s Son and hides him in the Maid’s bed, so that the Mistress kills him instead.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #31



I can't exactly claim that the crossover in PRIZE COMICS #24 is any great shakes as a story. However, it enjoys a particular place in American comic-book history, being the first tale in which characters from disparate features team up against a single foe-- one who, in this case, also sported his own feature from that publisher.  Possibly this short tale intended to imitate Timely Comics' historical "book-length" story in which the Human Torch battled the Sub-Mariner, amid guest-shots from other Timely heroes, published in the fall of 1941, or the July 1941 story entitled DAREDEVIL VS. HITLER, aka DAREDEVIL #1. However, in both earlier stories, the individual heroes separately grappled with whatever menace was at hand. They did not truly "team up," as the Prize heroes do in this 8-page tale. The only Golden Age tale comparable would be published five years later, when Solomon Grundy took on the Justice Society-- and even then, only for a few panels does that man-monster fight the whole team, as the Frankenstein Monster does against the Prize superheroes.

Again, it's not a great tale. For one thing, the Monster-- whose series was one of the few Prize-serials that's still celebrated today, thanks to Dick Briefer art-- is a bit too much of a punching-bag for all of the heroes, including two goofy non-superheroes, "the General and the Corporal."

But as far as being the first time a villain found himself beseiged by the stars of several ongoing features, this story seems to take the, uh, "prize."

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #30



The 1920 novel SHE AND ALLAN, as I've mentioned in earlier posts, was one of the earliest examples of a tale in which an author chose to cross over two popular characters, both of whom were the "stars" of their respective shows -- in contrast, say, to Jules Verne providing crossovers between both major and minor characters in THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND.

Rider Haggard created his two seminal characters, Allan Quatermain and She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, within about a year of one another. Not surprisingly, there are a number of similarities of plot and theme between KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1885) and SHE (1886). However, the biggest dissimilarity between the universes of the characters is that Quatermain dwelled in an Africa that some would call "quasi-realistic"-- though I prefer my own term, "uncanny." SHE, however, takes place in an Africa that allows for causality-defying marvels, such as a woman who lives for hundreds of years thanks to a magical flame, and who can wield a sort of preternatural force-- even though Haggard suggests that this may also belong to some form of "science" that men no longer recognize.

Haggard clearly realized the conceptual gulf between the two characters. As a result, the author begins the novel by having the practical-minded Quatermain haunted by the spectres of lost loves. He conceives the desire to know something about the world after death, and a crafty witch-doctor named Zikali chooses to help him do so. Zikali gives Quatermain a magical totem-- albeit one whose power the hero never believes in-- and sends him to find a certain mysterious white queen, who may be able to answer the great white hunter's questions. On the way Haggard picks up Umslopogaas, the huge axe-wielding Zulu warrior who teams up with Quatermain in the 1887 novel ALLAN QUATERMAIN. Since Quatermain perishes in that novel, SHE AND ALLAN is one of many prequels Haggard wrote of his hero's early adventures, as well as the novel that depicts the first meeting of Quatermain and Umslopogaas.

SHE AND ALLAN is a great read. Haggard doesn't stint on the thrills, for when Quatermain's party arrives in the domain of She, the hunter finds himself and his friends drafted in a war with Rezu, a man who has undergone an immortality-transformation parallel to She's own.  A final battle between Umslopogaas and Rezu, both gigantic warriors, reads just as well as it did in 1920. At the same time, Haggard gets some dramatic mileage out of the mental outlooks of She and Quatermain, since the latter cannot place any faith in the marvels he beholds, and must constantly rationalize them out of existence. The queen does deliver on her side of the bargain, granting Quatermain a look at the World Beyond, with bittersweet results.

The novel can't very well surpass the seminal books that introduced these characters, so much-imitated over the years. But it deserves to be better known among readers of great fantasy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

THE 100 GREATEST CROSSOVERS OF ALL TIME #29



I debated about whether or not to give individual entries to Universal's four "monster mashes," which are pretty much sui generis.  I finally decided that although the films just barely keep continuity with one another, they do all use the same basic template, in which a mad scientist-- or, in one case, a vampire controlling a mad scientist-- interacts with at least two monsters, shows preferential treatment for one over the other, and gets undone by the neglected-child monster.

I won't go into great detail here, since I've reviewed all four monster mashes in depth on my film-blog. Links follow:

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)

HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)