As always, dear readers, welcome.
The title of this posting is a kind of wish in Italian. It means literally, “in/into the mouth of the wolf”.
It doesn’t sound like a good wish—until you think about the English parallel usually suggested for this expression, the theatrical, “Break a leg”, in which the point has the opposite meaning, “Be a huge success”, because, by a strange magical law, reverses prevent evil.
In this case, the evil was said originally to endanger a hunter, but, in the case of William Morris’ (1834-1896)
1889 novel, A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and All the Kindreds of the Mark Written in Prose and in Verse (now usually called The House of the Wolfings ,for short),
the wolf brought good luck, as reviews, like Oscar Wilde’s (1854-1900) in The Pall Mall Gazette (2 March, 1889—which you can find here: https://victorianweb.org/authors/wilde/essays/1.html )
in which he calls the book, “a piece of pure art workmanship from beginning to end”
or Henry Hewlitt’s in The Nineteenth Century (August, 1889, xxvi, 337-341), where the reviewer says “None of his [Morris’] writings will generally be read, I think, with more unqualified pleasure”. (337—the full review may be found here: https://morrisarchive.lib.uiowa.edu/items/show/972 ), suggest.
Hewlitt goes on to say of Morris that:
“His genius has always seemed to breathe most freely in the atmosphere of prehistoric or semi-historic mythology, whether Gothic or Greek…” (337)
and, looking at Morris’ list of publications, from The Hollow Land (1856—you can read it here: https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/morris/thol/index.htm ) to The Life and Death of Jason (1867—you can find it here: https://archive.org/details/lifedeathofjason00morrrich ) to The Sundering Flood (published posthumously in 1897—and here it is: https://archive.org/details/sunderingflood00morrrich ), one can see that Morris created worlds based, just as Hewlitt says, on medieval or classical themes, with, as Wilde noted of Wolfings, a “very remoteness of its style from the common language and ordinary interests of our day which gives to the whole story a strange beauty and an unfamiliar charm”. This style often mixes poetry and prose, something which Morris did more than once in his literary works, as Wilde points out “like the medieval ‘cante-fable’ “, and The House of the Wolfings is a perfect example of this, the plot sometimes being advanced in prose, sometimes in verse.
(A “chante-fable”, as it’s now ordinarily spelled, was a medieval creation, being, as Wilde says, a story in a combination of media. Only one known medieval example survives (“Aucassin et Nicolette”) and I imagine that Wilde had read it in Andrew Lang’s 1887 translation: https://archive.org/details/aucassinnicolete00languoft –this is a 1909 American republication. For a modern, more literal translation of what is really a parody of all sorts of medieval genres—with its music transposed into modern notation, see: http://www.umilta.net/aucassin.html )
In brief, the story concerns an early Germanic land (“the Mark”—which in our world once meant “a border”—as in Denmark, “the frontier/border of the Danes”) of villages settled by clans with names like “Wolfing” (“children/family of the wolf”), with the image of a wolf as their badge—which might remind you of the Starks in A Game of Thrones–
or “Bearing”—and you can guess what their image would be.
A major figure among the Wolfings is Thiodolf (a Germanic compound name—“Thiod-“ from a root like “teut-“= “people/of the people” and “-olf” = “wolf”, so something like “Wolf of/for the People”). He has had an alliance with a figure called (the) Wood-Sun, who is somewhere between the gods and men, which produces a daughter, (the) Hall-Sun, named after a glass lamp which hangs in the main hall of the Wolfings and is a sacred emblem, always kept alight, like the fire in the temple of Vesta in Rome.
This land is then invaded by the Romans and a series of battles ensues.
(This is Paja Jovanovic’ 1899 painting of the ambush of three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest in 9AD and probably more or less how Morris would have imagined such combat.)
Wood-Sun is conflicted when it comes to Thiodolf’s involvement in this war, in which he is a leader of the Wolfings, and eventually gives him a “hauberk”—that is, a ring mail shirt–which was made long ago by dwarves, and which will protect him from harm, probably looking something like this—
although Thiodolf remains helmet-less, like most of the major characters in A Game of Thrones, making them easy targets for head blows in real combat.
There is a catch to this, however, in that, through some terrible dwarvish magic, it also takes the wearer out of this world and, after putting it on and advancing into battle, Thiodolf collapses, insensible, leaving the battle to those around him and thus endangering them and the Mark itself. Eventually, Thiodolf understands the consequences, and, to the grief of Wood-Sun, goes out to the final battle without it, saving his people, but dying, as Wood-Sun had foreseen he would.
In a letter to Professor L. W. Forster of 31 December, 1960, Tolkien has this to say of Morris:
“The Dead Marshes and the approaches of the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme. They owe more to William Morris and his Huns and Romans, as in The House of the Wolfings or The Roots of the Mountains.” (Letters, 303)
Knowing this quotation, I have often seen others cite it, but without more detail than, at best a brief summary of the plot of Wolfings. Curious about what JRRT might really have meant by what looks like a kind of off-hand remark, I decided that it was time to read more of Morris than his early The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858) with its daring view of a feisty Guenevere, far from the groveling and repentant heroine of Tennyson’s “Guinevere” (1859). (And here’s your copy of the Morris: https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/morris-defence-of-guenevere This is from the University of Rochester’s wonderful “The Camelot Project”.)
While reading, I kept a running list of what in Wolfings struck me as a potential influence on Tolkien and found, to my surprise, that it was something other than Dead Marshes and Morannon.
Rather than go through the thirty-one chapters one by one, here’s a brief thematic summary:
1. familiar names (both in Chapter I)—and this is what other commentators have picked up on:
a. the Mark (which is then divided into geographic sub-regions)
2. familiar architecture:
a. the main hall of the Wolfings:
”As to the house within, two rows of pillars went down it endlong, fashioned of the mightiest trees that might be found, and each one fairly wrought with base and chapiter, and wreaths and knots, and fighting men and dragons; so that it was like a church of later days that has a nave and aisles: windows there were above the aisles, and a passage underneath the said windows in their roofs. In the aisles were the sleeping-places of the Folk, and down the nave under the crown of the roof were three hearths for the fires…” (Chapter I)
Compare this with the bits of description of Beorn’s hall, with its pillars and central fires, in Chapter 7, “Queer Lodgings” of The Hobbit.
b.decoration of the hall:
“round about the dais, along the gable-wall, and hung from pillar to pillar were woven cloths pictured with images of ancient tales and the deeds of the Wolfings, and the deeds of the Gods from whence they came.” (Chapter I)
Compare that with this from the description of Meduseld:
“Many woven cloths were hung upon the walls, and over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend, some dim with years, some darkling in the shade.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 6, “The King of the Golden Hall”)
(There are more architectural details in Chapter I, including a raised dais at one end of the hall, just as in Meduseld.)
c. as in front of Edoras are the grave mounds of former kings, including, in time, that of Theoden,
so the hero of the story, is given his own mound near the main hall of the Wolfings:
“But on the morrow the kindreds laid their dead men in mound betwixt the Great Roof and the Wild-wood. In one mound they laid them with the War-dukes in their midst, and Arinbiorn by Otter’s right side; and Thiodolf bore Throng-plough to mound with him.” (Chapter XXXI—“Throng-plough” was Thiodolf’s sword, just as swords in Tolkien have names like “Orcrist”.)
3. familiar look:
“Tall and for the most part comely were both men and women; the most of them light-haired and grey-eyed, with cheek-bones somewhat high…” (Chapter I)
More than once, Tolkien gives a similar appearance to his heroic characters, as in his description of the troops of the Prince of Dol Amroth:
“…a company of knights in full harness, riding grey horses; and behind them seven hundreds of men at arms, tall as lords, grey-eyed…” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)—and we note that even their horses are grey.
4. interesting armor
As noted above, one focus of the latter part of the story is the hauberk which Wood-Sun gives to Thiodolf and which causes him so much grief. Thiodolf addresses it, saying:
“Strange are the hands that have passed over thee, sword-rampart, and in strange places of the earth have they dwelt! For no smith of the kindreds hath fashioned thee, unless he had for his friend either a God or a foe of the Gods.” (Chapter XVI)
Although it was made by Elves, not dwarves, could there be a certain similarity here between this and Bilbo/Frodo’s mithril shirt?
5. characters—this is more suggestion, I admit, than hard fact, but
a. at times, Hall-Sun, Thiodolf’s daughter, reminds me of Eowyn—a highly-respected member of her clan, but left behind to organize the defense of the Wolfings’ hall when the warriors go off to fight the Romans (Chapters V and XIV)
b. Wood-Sun, the semi-divine figure, strikes me as having both elements of Galadriel—in her position of human, but not quite:
““Nay, nay; I began, I was born; although it may be indeed
That not on the hills of the earth I sprang from the godhead’s seed.
And e’en as my birth and my waxing shall be my waning and end.” (Chapter III)
and of Arwen, in that, when she knows that Thiodolf will die, she says to him:
“But I thy thrall shall follow, I shall come where thou seemest to lie,
I shall sit on the howe that hides thee, and thou so dear and nigh!
A few bones white in their war-gear that have no help or thought,
Shall be Thiodolf the Mighty, so nigh, so dear—and nought.” (Chapter XVII)
which sounds very much like Arwen’s choice in remaining in Middle-earth with the mortal Aragorn and fading after his death. (See The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, (V), “Here Follows a Part of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen”)
There are more details here and there, like Hall-Sun being called a “Vala” (Chapter VII), but perhaps the last big point worth considering is that mixture of poetry and prose, which Oscar Wilde mentioned in his review, the ‘cante-fable’ effect. Although not so prominent in The Lord of the Rings as it is in Wulfings, at moments of high emotion, characters tend to break into verse—think , for example, of the lament for Boromir in “The Departure of Boromir” in Book Three, Chapter 1, or even Sam singing to bolster his courage in The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 1, “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”.
And there may be more possibilities yet—here’s the text for you so that you can see what you may find which I may have missed: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2885/2885-h/2885-h.htm . As you read, you’ll certainly see why Tolkien mentioned Morris’ influence.
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Be wary of approaching Romans,
And know that, as always, there’s
William Morris was a creative dynamo and well worth learning more about, as part of later 19th-century literary and artistic history, but also for the pure pleasure of watching him at work—and he can tell a good story. If you find Morris as irresistible as I do—although in small doses!—have a look at: https://morrisarchive.lib.uiowa.edu/
Is there something similar between this map, from Morris’ posthumous The Sundering Flood, and another long-worked-over map we know?
This is Morris’ first purpose-built residence, called “the Red House” because of its brick and tile.
Do those windows remind you of anything?
The traditional reply to “In bocca al lupo” is “crepi il lupo!” which means, literally, “May the wolf burst!”