The House of the Wolfings was first published in 1890; like several of Morris's other novels it went through a period of fashionability between then and the late Edwardian period -- even being used as a set text for schools -- before disappearing from view. Now if these novels are known at all it is as ancestors of the modern fantasy novel. But Morris's original intention was much wider than this.
The first reaction to the French Revolution and the Enlightenment it brought with it was natural: to see everything mediaeval as romantic - even people like Grimm didn't escape this. The second reaction - and this corresponds to the socialist tendency, although these academics have no idea of being connected with it - is to look beyond the middle ages to the primeval stage of every people.
Letter from Marx to Engels, March 25th 1868
Morris's evolution up to the House of the Wolfings had followed exactly this route; from his initial enthusiasm for all things mediaeval, his passion for Iceland and Icelandic literature had given him a deep knowledge of and feel for early Germanic history and society. As with Marx and Engels, his interest in these societies was anything but purely academic; the primitive communism dimly visible behind the middle ages was a direct validation of his political hopes for the future. But the intentions of the three in dealing with the period were quite different.
Marx's interest in the period, expressed in most detail in the section on Forms which precede capitalist production of the Grundrisse, was centred on integrating the property relations of this period into his overall theory. Engels' initial intention was to understand the historical patterns of land-holding in order to be able to better intervene in arguments over the German Socialist Party's peasant policy, and though the chapter on the Gens in The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State briefly discusses the role of kinship among the Germanic peoples, he was then mainly concerned with illustrating his (now rather dated) theories of a primeval matriarchical society. Morris had less interest in grand theory, and simply wanted to understand what it might feel like to have lived in a free, if primitive, society; The House of the Wolfings is the result.
To describe this society Morris could draw on a wealth of material: not just his knowledge of the contemporary Roman sources, but also the knowledge gained from his Icelandic translations. The Eddas and the Saga of the Volsungs, though first written down in the 12th century and later, contained persistent echoes of far earlier times and distant places - centred around the wars of the Goths and the Huns in central and eastern Europe in late classical times. Morris combined this background with the recent anthropological discovery of the importance of kinship in prehistoric peoples, the Iroquois in particular, to produce a picture of an early Germanic people living in clan-based longhouses, each with their own totemic ancestor, holding their land in common, electing their leaders, and making decisions in clan and tribal meetings. Though he was careful not to idealise them - this is not a utopia, and the tribe are illiterate, have slaves, taken in war, and occasionally practice human sacrifice - it is clear that these are a free people, self-determined in a way that has not been true for any later period.
But The House of the Wolfings is not a static picture. The tribe (of which the Wolfings are one of the principal clans) arrived in the German forests not so long ago, and are now locked in war with the Romans - of whom by contrast it is said that
[their] thralls and ... unhappy freemen do all tilling and herding and all deeds of craftmanship, and above these are men whom they call masters and lords who do nought ... like curs fallen away from kind.
The book is the story of how the Wolfings fight, and eventually destroy, the invading Roman legions. But here Morris faced a problem: while he could try to reconstruct the society of these early people, their history is almost unknown, and what is known is known largely from the Roman side. Rather than attempt to force the story into a known historical context (in which case it would have had to be the story of the destruction of the legions of Varus in AD 9 by Arminius, leader of the Cherusci) Morris preferred to preserve his freedom of invention. His solution was brilliantly simple: the story is one told by the descendants of the Wolfings many years later, and as with the Saga of the Volsungs, events have become garbled with retelling. The people are consistently referred to as Goths, but this seems to have become a generic term, since the Teutones who invaded Italy in 109 BC have also become 'Goths', so that the actual identity of the tribe is left vague. The hero, Thiodolf, remembers killing three Hunnish kings in battle, yet the story is clearly set long before the arrival of the Huns in Western Europe, at a time when the Romans were only beginning to
... stay the spreading of their dominion, or even to draw in its boundaries somewhat.
Just as importantly this device allows Morris to intertwine a mythical element with the story. Thiodolf's lover is not human, but one of the Vala, who has given up her immortality for love. Afraid that he may die in battle she tries to save his life with a dwarfish coat of mail. The coat of mail is magic; but it is also cursed, and it is only towards the end of the story that Thiodolf fully understands that it can only save his life at the cost of betraying others:
This mail is for the ransom of a man and the ruin of a folk
And in this society, if the folk is ruined the individual is also ruined.
Thus the fantasy element of the novel is absorbed back into the centre of the description of the society itself: individual and society are so closely linked that an artifical separation of the individual's interests from those of society damages both. Even as masters, the Romans who are like 'curs fallen away from kind' have lost something precious that Morris saw in this simple society and hoped would be possible again in the future.
Introduction by Graham Seaman, 25th February 2003. XHTML version created by Graham Seaman, derived from the text file prepared for Project Gutenberg from the 1904 Longmans, Green, and Co. edition by David Price.