The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Story of the Glittering Plain (1890)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Story of the Glittering Plain Which Has Also Been Called the Land of Living Men or the Acre of the Undying was written by William Morris. Morris (1834-1896) was a writer, artist, poet, textile and wallpaper designer, political activist, and translator, one of the true Renaissance men of the nineteenth century.
Hallblithe is “a young man of free kindred,”1 a warrior of the House of the Raven. He is engaged to marry “an exceeding fair damsel called the Hostage.”2 One day he is visited by three old men who ask him if they have found the “Land of the Glittering Plain” where “he who hath forgotten how to laugh, may learn the craft again, and forget the days of Sorrow.”3 Hallblithe has never heard of this land, and the three men leave, disappointed. Soon after Hallblithe is told by some of the women of the House of the Raven that Hostage has been kidnaped by a group of men and taken away by them in their boat. The men and women of the House of the Raven search for Hostage and are unable to find her, but Hallblithe sees another man arrive on the shore of the land of the Ravens and questions him. The man tells Hallblithe that if he wants to see Hostage again, he must accompany the man in his boat. Hallblithe does so, and after some days’ sailing they reach the Isle of Ransom, the home of the man, whose name is Puny Fox. Puny Fox tells Hallblithe that Hostage is on the island and that he must travel across the island to find her. But Hallblithe dreams that Hostage visits him and tells him that she is going to attempt to escape from her captors, and if she succeeds, he can find her on the Glittering Plain.
Hallblithe walks across the island until he reaches a large hall. There is only one man inside it, a crotchety old man who greets Hallblithe rudely but tells him where to find food and drink. The old man prompts Hallblithe to drink his health and wish him youth. When Hallblithe does this, the old man answers Hallblithe’s questions. The old man tells Hallblithe that Puny Fox is a great liar and that Hostage is not on the island. When Hallblithe mentions that he intends to go to the land of the Glittering Plain, the old man tells him that they will go their together. Thanks to the old man’s advice, Hallblithe is not attacked by the Ravagers, the men of the island of Ransom, and the following morning Hallblithe and the old man sail for the land of the Glittering Plain. When they reach it, the old man, who names himself “Sea-eagle,” tells Hallblithe that the land of the Glittering Plain “is the land of the Undying King, who is our lord and our gift-giver; and to some he giveth the gift of youth renewed.”4 When Hallblithe and Sea-eagle land on the island of the Glittering Plain they are met by a group of beautiful, carefree young women. They offer themselves to Hallblithe, but he is concerned only with finding Hostage. When they confess ignorance about her, he becomes “piteous with desire and grief,”5 and the women draw back from him, afraid. Sea-eagle is rejuvenated into a healthy young man, and chooses one of the women as his mate.
Sea-eagle and Hallblithe visit the Undying King, the ruler of the island, who promises Hallblithe that he shall soon meet the woman who loves him and who he should love. This woman is not Hostage, however, but the king’s daughter, and Hallblithe is forced to decline the offer of her love. When Hallblithe next speaks to the king, he is angry at what Hallblithe has done and refuses to help Hallblithe find Hostage. Hallblithe spends six months searching the island of the Glittering Plain but does not find Hostage or anyone who knows where she is. Eventually Hallblithe returns to the king and asks permission to leave the island, which further displeases the king. He grants Hallblithe leave to depart, and Sea-eagle and his lover accompany Hallblithe to the mountains which border the Glittering Plain. When they reach the Uttermost House, the first hall which pilgrims to the Glittering Plain encounter, they are told by the Warden of the Uttermost House that those who leave the Glittering Plain can only reenter it in the company of newcomers. This disconcerts Sea-eagle and his lover, and Hallblithe bids them farewell rather than make them continue on the trip with him.
Almost immediately after Hallblithe leaves the Uttermost House he weakens, losing the strength which he’d gained in the Glittering Plain, and after wandering for a short while he passes out. He is rescued by the three old men who he met on his own island at the beginning of “The Story of the Glittering Plain.” Rather than leave them, he decides to accompany them back to the Glittering Plain. There the trio are given youth and vitality, and become as happy in the Glittering Plain as Sea-eagle and all of its inhabitants are. Hallblithe goes to live in the forest of the Plain and stays there for several months. One night he dreams of Hostage, standing in a boat, and this inspires him to build a boat. Hallblithe leaves the Plain in his boat exactly one year after arriving. The winds carry him to the Isle of Ransom. He lands on the island and surprises a sleeping Puny Fox, who explains to Hallblithe that the Undying King compelled him to lie to Hallblithe. Puny Fox begs Hallblithe’s pardon for the lie, which Hallblithe grants and they become friends. Puny Fox wants to leave the isle of Ransom and return to House of the Raven with Hallblithe, which Hallblithe is agreeable to. Puny Fox lays a plan for Hallblithe to survive long enough to escape the Isle of Ransom, and Hallblithe follows the plan. Puny Fox leads the disguise disguised Hallblithe to the Hall of the Ravagers, where Hallblithe, following the pre-meal ceremony of the Ravagers, fights Puny Fox in single combat. Hallblithe defeats Puny Fox and then reveals himself to the Ravagers, who are willing to abide by tradition and let Hallblithe (a man of the House of the Raven and a traditional enemy of the Ravagers) live. But Hallblithe is too honorable to carry through with a lie and tells the Ravagers that the outcome of the duel was prearranged between Hallblithe and Puny Fox. The wise men of the Ravagers esteem Hallblithe’s honesty and manliness, and they agree to send Hallblithe back to the House of the Raven with gifts “that it may be the beginning of peace betwixt us and his noble kindred.”6
Erne, the chief of the Ravagers, asks Hallblithe to accept a gift from him. That gift is Hostage. Hallblithe, Hostage and Puny Fox return to the House of the Raven. Hostage and Hallblithe are married, and Puny Fox becomes one of the Ravens.
The Story of the Glittering Plain was Morris’ third full-length prose fantasy. But Glittering Plain is far more of a fantasy novel in the modern sense than Morris’ The House of the Wolfings, and it can be argued that Glittering Plain is the first modern fantasy novel. The world of Glittering Plain is a “secondary world,”7 J.R.R. Tolkien’s phrase for a place completely divorced from Earth and following its own internally consistent rules. Hallblithe does not travel to a Lost World (see: The Lost Race Story). Unlike many previous fantasies, including George Macdonald’s Phantastes, Glittering Plain is not set in Faerie. Morris’ creation of an entirely new world in Glittering Plain and later his Well at the World’s End (1896) would provide a clear example for twentieth-century writers of fantasy and science fiction. Glittering Plain shows none of the influence of the kunstmärchen, and Morris’ choice of Northern European legends and folklore as his source is unusual for Victorian fantasy fiction, whose primary influences are Greek, Egyptian, and Asian myths.
Glittering Plain is more engaging as a reading experience than The House of the Wolfings. Morris uses the same antiquated vocabulary and syntax, but the dialogue is in prose rather than verse and Morris eliminates the longer descriptive passages which make Wolfings slow going. The characterization in Glittering Plain is more sophisticated than Wolfings and the content more adult. And Morris deals with the issue of sex in a straightforward way, neither smirking nor prurient, which is unusual for Victorian fantasies.
Glittering Plain was a part of the New Romance movement (see: From the Memoirs of a Minister of France):
Although, for all the parity in prices, Morris’s stories never sold like the New Romancers’, they came before the same reading public, a public familiar with Haggard’s She and Stevenson’s Treasure Island, as well as with the books of Corelli, Caine, Weyman, Hope and Conan Doyle. If it followed the reviews, this public would have been aware of the critical consensus on a number of generic features, such as the opposition of purity to immoral filthiness, the improving nature of the subject matter, and the focus on plot as opposed to analysis and introspection, and it would have associated romance in general with ‘Sir Walter’ and Dumas.8
But Morris more than any of the other New Romancers hearkened back to the traditional romances of the medieval years:
Morris was trying almost singlehandedly to revive a long dormant genre. Aware of the importance of romance, of its great tradition and underlying psychological validity, he attempted to combine what he found most delightful in its pages with his own private vision. His goal was a literature for the future, a form of art to serve when the world had been reborn through socialism. His method was the extraction of what he considered the best features of the chivalric romance.
His protagonists, for example, are typical of the simplified and idealized heroes of chivalry. Like Amadis and Lancelot, they are men superior in degree rather than in kind. Now wholly mortal, not demigods like Sigurd and Thiodolf, they are often fostered and aided by supernatural beings, the Morgan Le Fays and Melusines of older works. Their adventures are the typical adventures of romance, and vows are made, jousts are fought, damsels are rescued, and castles are stormed or defended in the best medieval manner and spirit.
The framework in which they move is the world of medieval romance, one in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly, but not radically, suspended. In Morris’s works the more startling manifestations of supernaturalism are lacking; there are few bodily transformations and no talking animals. But there are evil witches, wise crones and hermits, fairy folk, and, of course, magic weapons and talismans. These we accept, if we accept the postulates of the romance form in the first place. But Morris uses the supernatural sparingly: we are not too often forced to strain our sense of belief.9
However, at the same time Morris inserted his usual politics—though subtly:
The full originality of Morris’s political thought comes to light in literary works, such as A Dream of John Ball or The Story of the Glittering Plain, in which Morris displays a sophisticated understanding of the contradictions and pitfalls of the struggle for social change, presents a theory of how historical conditions impede or enable collective action, and elaborates a penetrating analysis of reification and of the role of ideology in social transformation. Dreaming of the future plays a particularly important pedagogical role here. Morris was less interested in painting “detailed pictures of a socialist order” than in “making socialists.” Dreaming of the future in this sense appears as an important moment in conferring a broader and deeper meaning on the “immediate demands and reforms”; but it may also clearly emerge from the struggle for the latter, as part of thinking of the “vehicles” and “agencies” evoked by Panitch.10
Print: William Morris, The Story of the Glittering Plain. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2019.
1 William Morris, The Story of the Glittering Plain; or, The Land of Living Men (Boston: Roberts, 1982), 7.
2 Morris, Glittering Plain, 7.
3 Morris, Glittering Plain, 9.
4 Morris, Glittering Plain, 78.
5 Morris, Glittering Plain, 88.
6 Morris, Glittering Plain, 198.
7 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tales from the Perilous Realm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 313-400.
8 Anna Vaninskaya, William Morris and the Idea of Community: Romance, History and Propaganda, 1880-1914 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 41.
9 Carole Silver, “’No Idle Singer’: A Study of the Poems and Romances of William Morris,” (PhD. diss., Columbia University, 1967), 199-200.
10 Paul Leduc Browne, “A Dream of William Morris: Communism, History, Revolution,” in Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne, eds., To Build a Shadowy Isle of Bliss: William Morris’ Radicalism and the Embodiment of Dreams (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 197.