William Morris’s The House of the Wolfings will stand as my medieval book of the month. Though published at the end of the 19th century and set prior to the Middle Ages, it reads very much like a Viking saga–even if the prose is more ornate than the saga writers tended to use. William Morris numbers as one of those forgotten pre-Tolkien fantasy authors. I first became interested in him when I heard of how Tolkien borrowed the name Mirkwood from the book under review. The House of the Wolfings has not disappointed me in the least.
The story appears to be set around the first century AD and concerns the Roman invasion of Germania, but the clans of the Mirkwood are fictional. The hero of this epic, Thiodolf, leads the Men of the Mirkwood against the invading Romans, and some fantastic elements include the prophecies of the goddess Wood Sun and the Hall Sun, who is the daughter of Thiodolf and the Wood Sun, and an enchanted dwarven hauberk. The prophecies of these two women and the Romans history of conquest leave the reader guessing up until near the end what the final outcome of the war will be.
This tale fits seamlessly into the genre of epic. It is far more poetic than one expects of fantasy: the characters often speak in poetry and the prose itself is riddled with poetic language. That helps give one the impression of reading an old saga, since the Vikings were especially fond of poetry. Unlike Tolkien, the work does not critique the heroic culture in the slightest but revers it unabashedly.
Some reviewers complained about the poetic language on Amazon–even going so far as to rate it one star. But, there was nothing especially jarring about Morris’s prose: it was simply harder to read than that which most people are accustomed. From the perspective of a student of foreign languages who discovers unknown words every day, this hardly seems like a reasonable criticism–especially if one downloads the Kindle version and can look up words with a mere touch of the screen.
Instead, the worst part about the book is that the plot moves very slowly at times. Part of the reason for this is because the author wishes to immerse the reader in the story’s world before proceeding to the action, but Morris overdoes the immersion to some extent. Also, the characters strike one as archetypal rather than original. One likes the characters, but the reader of epic has seen them all before. Still, The House of the Wolfings is a wonderful novel to read, and I recommend it to all medieval and Tolkien enthusiasts–who are often one and the same.