The Roots of the Mountains Critical Essays

William Morris


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The Roots of the Mountains is one of a series of historical romances written by William Morris during the last decade of his life. In these books, he attempted to situate the origins of European democracy in the gothic folkways of the early Middle Ages. In fact, the Sons of the Wolf are lineal descendants of the tribe Morris had depicted in his first romance, A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and All the Kindreds of the Mark (1888), in which the foreign invaders were not Asiatic but Roman. The shared decision making and respect for consensus characteristic of the medieval Thing-Mote represented for Morris the highest form of direct, participatory democracy, a model for the socialist future he was striving to bring into being through his political activity. Morris was still a prisoner of his own time, in his conviction that every people needs to place its faith in a great man—a Folk-might or a Face-of-God—who will lead them successfully through whatever challenges life presents. Thus, The Roots of the Mountains presents the unusual portrait of a heroic figure ruling over a direct, participatory democracy.

Further innovation is visible in Morris’ portrayal of strong women. It is Sun-Beam who initiates the relationship with Face-of-God, out of her vision of political necessity rather than emotional yearning. Although she eventually falls as deeply in love with her man as he is with her, that is a by-product rather than a cause of the union. Sun-Beam’s cousin, Bow-May, also is presented as a heroic role model; she is the best shot in the entire army and, until wounded, seems to be the least vulnerable. After the war is fought to its successful conclusion, she, too, marries and bears children, demonstrating that women who enter public life nevertheless should continue functioning in their traditional realm.

Finally, The Roots of the Mountains is important within the context of nineteenth century medievalism. It is written in a deliberately old-fashioned style, and at moments of high emotion, the characters burst into poetry. In fact, when the Woodlanders’ poetry changes from an archaic-sounding hexameter to a near-contemporary verse form, the reader should recognize this as a signal that they have been transformed from a beaten people, the servants of Burgdale, to fellows of the Wolf, inheritors of a proud tradition. Morris’ style of writing has been much imitated.