William Morris

The Story Of The Glittering Plain, Or The Land of Living Men


The Story of the Glittering Plain was written immediately after, or perhaps even in parallel with, News from Nowhere. It was Morris's first novel to be written after leaving the Socialist League, and the first to be printed by Morris's new venture, the Kelmscott Press, after serialization in the English Illustrated Magazine (Vol. 7) of 1890.

Set in the late Dark Ages, the Story of the Glittering Plain follows in chronological sequence from The House of the Wolfings, The Roots of the Mountain and the uncompleted Story of Desiderius, but is in almost every way unlike them, combining the themes of the novellas of Morris's youth (eg. The Hollow Land) with questions first raised in News from Nowhere.

The story begins and ends in Cleveland, in the north of England, but the bulk of it is set in the islands of the north. It is the most Icelandic of all Morris's novels - Icelandic in style, laconic and full of word-play, and Icelandic in contents, centred on the Glittering Plain of Icelandic myth, where the old are made young and the ruler's true name may not be spoken.

Most Icelandic sagas begin with the briefest of descriptions of the main characters, leaving the reader to make up his/her own mind about their personalities from their actions; the Story of the Glittering Plain is no exception:

There was once a young man of free kindred and whose name was Hallblithe: he was fair, strong, and not untried in battle.

But appearances are deceptive: while both style and detail are Icelandic, the plot is not. The story of a descent to Hades in search of a lost lover is certainly not new, though the twist that she turns out not to be there is - and could be seen as a belated response to Rossetti's insistent painting of Morris's wife Jane as Proserpine, implicitly casting Morris as Pluto. Above all, the Story of the Glittering Plain presents Hallblithe with a choice between two ways of life; a choice he makes without hesitation. The Glittering Plain offers him thoughtless individual love, and the possibility of living forever without work; as the king tells him

"In this land no man hath a lack which he may not satisfy without taking aught from any other".

But the results of such a life are visible all around him; the loss of any need to strive to live results in an existence without meaning, where people lose their need for curiosity, for memory, and so their humanity. The Glittering Plain is the dystopian side of News from Nowhere taken to its conclusion; not so far from Brave New World, though terrible even without the implicit condemnation of the Gammas. This dystopia however has a simple, though not immediately obvious, escape route: once Hallblithe's struggle to escape from the Glittlering Plains has become his work - much to the astonishment of the other inhabitants - meaning is restored to him, and he is free.

The one positive aspect of the Glittering Plains would seem to be escape from death: death and images of death form an undercurrent through the entire book, with Hallblithe himself 'of the House of the Raven', the bird of death in battle. It is the king's daughter who tells the reality of this escape:

And I the daughter of the Undying, on whom the days shall grow and grow as the grains of sand which the wind heaps up above the sea beach. And life shall grow huger and more hideous round about the lonely one, like the ling-worm laid upon the gold, that waxeth thereby, till it lies all around about the house of the queen entrapped, the moveless unending ring of the years that change not.

A greed for eternal life is just that - greed. Hallblithe's choice of life with struggle and hardship, of love that comes with social obligations, and, in the end, of death, is the only one possible for him or any human. This is not the conclusion Morris had reached in his youth, where his hero's only goal is to find and re-find the Hollow Land (the equivalent of the Glittering Plains in English folk-tale), and it is an uncomfortable conclusion for anyone who takes News from Nowhere seriously as Morris's description of a possible future; but it is a conclusion Morris returns to repeatedly in his later romances.

Introduction by Graham Seaman, 19th March 2003. XHTML version created by Graham Seaman, derived from the text file prepared for Project Gutenberg from the 1913 Longmans, Green, and Co. edition by David Price.