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Title: The Idle Singer of an Empty Day: The Fantastic and the Material in William Morris's The Earthly Paradise
Authors: Matos, Andrew
Advisors: Wolfson, Susan
Department: English
Certificate Program: Humanities Council and Humanistic Studies Program
Environmental Studies Program
Medieval Studies Program
Class Year: 2023
Abstract: William Morris’s 1870 epic poem The Earthly Paradise defends fantasy’s capacity to engage with the material and political conditions of reality. The poem retells a series of classical Greek myths and medieval European folktales, using a frame story of medieval refugees telling stories to one another to evoke the style of the oral tradition. Morris meditates on whether retelling fantastic tales from the past constitutes anything other than frivolous escapism or a reactionary ‘golden age’ narrative of the past. Where the search for an earthly paradise by his framing narrators showcases unproductive fantasies which seek to detach from reality, the scenes of paradise within the tales present an alternative fantasy founded in materialism. The aesthetics within these paradisal scenes find the natural world and works of craftsmanship as the basis of beauty, rather than finding beauty in works abstracted from the world. The paradises only function as an escape in that they depart from the values of a capitalist episteme and insist that imagining a better, fictive world is fundamental to progressive thinking. Morris extends his materialist fantasy to his depiction of the past, grappling with how he can portray his admiration for the medieval without ignoring the problematic reality of the Middle Ages. Morris intervenes in the past by emulating the oral tradition’s unique relationship with history, where the general plot of a tale is preserved across generations, but the auxiliary details are improvised in each retelling. This relationship is essential to Morris in that it represents a case where the present determines how the past is portrayed without altering it, as well as producing its transformations through an ornamentation which Morris saw as comparable to folk craftsmanship. The tales include the hegemonic structures venerated by earlier versions of the stories and do not change the plots which reward the rich and powerful, but Morris adds extensive detail to change where sympathies land and construct a more democratic history. Through the imagination within the tales and his medium of telling them, Morris develops a vision of fantasy which adheres to and advances his materialist politics.
Type of Material: Princeton University Senior Theses
Language: en
Appears in Collections:English, 1925-2023

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