When I was in my early teens, I went yearly to a Danish family camp near the Minnesota-South Dakota border. The first couple years I went with my grandparents, but by the time I was 15 or so, I'd managed to gull a bunch of my friends and some of their parents to go too: two other also-Danes, and a Scot whom we smuggled in. Now I say we were Danes (and a Scot) at a Danish camp, but really we were a bunch of Americans with blond hair, last names that ended in -sen, and great-grandparents who emigrated around the turn of the century.
The camp itself had a strangely (or appropriately) low-key sense of ethnicity. When my mother (not a Dane) asked why they didn't have any Danish language classes, the organizers were awash in confusion. Why would we want to do that? But there was singing (mostly American folk) and dancing (mostly American folk, and I can still dance a mean circle polka, if I do enough shots) and crafts (again, mostly American folk.) The food was great, and I guess the desserts tended to be made with Junkett, but now I have a hard time discerning why it was called a Danish camp at all.
Anyway, one year one of my friends brought a copy of The Waters of the Wondrous Isles
along, and if my memory hasn't completely failed, read the entire thing aloud to us over the course of the week. The main camp building was a big dormitory, and the four of us were housed in a single, small room with bunks that were built in. I have very vivid memories of us lolling in cut-offs and band tee-shirts, listening to her strong reading voice and she went through the prose romance of a girl named Birdalone and Squires and Knights, hopping from isle to isle after her escape from the witch who raised her. I remember the smell of dust and the strange softness of the layers of white paint in the August heat, the creaky springs in the Depression Era “mattresses” on the bunks. I'm pretty sure this is wrong, but we pronounced “Birdalone” like bird alone.
Birdalone is raised by a witch-wife, after being stolen from her true parents. She grows into maidenhood, meets a fairy called Habundia who looks just like her. They arrange an escape on a magic boat, and Birdalone wanders the world buck naked (why? unclear) for a while, meeting various folk and traveling through the isles. She meets up with three women at some point, and their three color-coordinated guys: the Green Knight, the Golden Knight, and the Black Squire. There is a quest of some sort, and lots of “they broke their fasts” and other ye olde therewith forsooth ye gads. We all kind of expected the color-coordinated couples to hook up, but (spoiler ahead, if you really truly think you're going to read this) the Green Guy dies and his coordinated girl hooks up with a woodcutter or something. Then Birdalone swoops in on the Black Squire, but it's okay, because the Noir Lady thought he was kind of tool anyway, and went on to a women's college and dabbled in alchemy or something.
Okay, this sounds horrible and boring, and it totally is, don't get me wrong. But we were at this incredibly weird age. We'd all been enthusiastic participants in the incredibly dorky stuff our parents had signed us up for as kids, but were now dabbling in our adult powers, which at 15 (or my 15) meant wearing too much black eyeliner and being a bitch. I've since given up the black eyeliner (I have one of those flat, pale Scandinavian faces, and it looks really bad) but the bitch may be the true gift of adulthood. So we were cool
, you know, but not so cool that we weren't still going to a family camp, dancing the “Salty Dog Rag”, and reading stories aloud to one another.
It makes sense that we were totally into this, despite making endless fun of it while we were reading (or listening) compulsively. Morris was an an avid hater of modernity, harkening back to what he imagined was a more simple time, culling all the weirdness, fairies and witches out of the old legends and clothing them in raiments fine. (You just have to read a little of this stuff, like I have to write this review, and you'll start talking like a Ren Fester.) So here we are, ratting our bangs in the mirror and rolling our kohl-rimmed eyes. “Puh-lease, Bill, grow up
But we were the ones growing up, and Morris's tale, unlike the Tolkien I was reading at much the same time, was keenly and wholly the story of a girl growing into womanhood. It warms my feminist soul that I happened upon this early bitchin' girl-protagonist when the later stuff is so often discouragingly sword-as-phallus
. In retrospect, I was in my own mythic past, and this book had the road map out, even if it was totally symbolic and silly. And it may have been symbolic, silly, and written in the kind of prose that makes me want to claw my own eyes out, but it was also safe
, and safe in a way that our late adolescences were not fated to be.
William Morris has been hanging out in the peripheries of my life for some time. Mum did her dissertation on Dante Gabriel Rossetti's “The House of Life”, and our house was festooned in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. She was fond of quoting Morris and his feelings on interior design: “If you want mud, you can find it in the street.” This is a half-remembered quotation, but was his response to a Victorian lady who wanted to hang her house in black crepe or something. The first time I hung paper professionally, it was a William Morris design, which did nothing for my nervousness, as it costs approximately $1 million dollars a roll, and has to be imported from England. But I'd mostly forgotten about this book until a conversation I had with my in-laws, where we were talking about early fantasy and science fiction. Tolkien was, of course, mentioned as one of the big early heads of fantasy, and I busted in with William Morris: he was really the first! I read this book once at summer camp! It was terrible, just awful, but totally compelling! I have a copy at home!
So we go home, and I pull it down, and the front cover is blurbed by Lovecraft, and the back by C. S. Lewis! The introduction by Lin Carter enumerates all the crazy stuff Morris did throughout his life: a poet, a writer, a Socialist, an interior designer, most notably of the Morris chair and wallpaper, translator of Beowolf and the Sagas, just to name a few, an illustrator, weaver, and all-around powerhouse of making you feel like you're wasting your life. (You are; give up.) My husband, font of all typographical knowledge, pointed out that several typefaces Morris developed are still in use.
This all makes me need to lie down, but then also puzzles me. I feel like Morris is kind of an unknown out there in the literary world, for whatever reason, not really mentioned in the history of fantasy. I looked up this book on GR, and there are 10 ratings. 10! It's totally clear, from the introduction, that Morris is who set Tolkien and Lewis on their paths (of course, not the only one, please calm down). In his blurb Lewis says, “I had met him first in quotations in books on Norse mythology. After that I read all the Morris I could get...”
My father-in-law fell on the book like a mousing cat. We had just returned from a trip to the library, where he had found a Lewis book he'd never read before, and was happily reading it down when I gave him the Morris. After reading the intro, he asked if he could have my copy. Of course! My father-in-law is a devout Catholic intellectual, which is, you know, not my bag, but I'm always happy to find weird moments of connection with the man who raised my excellent husband.
So I propose that the feminists and the Catholics do a foray into the past, and try to rehabilitate Morris to the fantasy-reading world. We can argue about meaning later, and forsooth I think we will, but it could be a pretty good party, I think. William Morris would himself totally approve, given that most of his projects were ones of uncovering, reconstructing, structuring a better future out of a better past. Come, girl-protagonists, let us kick some ass. Huzzah!