At the end of the Quest, Birdalone and her companions achieve a timeless historicity, the archaic cadences of Morris's prose that sustains the medieval setting largely disappears in these final lines and in their fearlessness, the fellowship defy even death itself. This is a truly subliminal achievement; Birdalone and her companions have overcome their base selfish human needs to create a true, undying companionship. Here, then, is fantasy transcendent in all its romantic glory and sublimation of human reality.
Morris's glorious ending appears to be a rejection of Pre-Raphaelitism with its emphasis on nature and reality. In fact, Ruskin himself espoused the power of fantasy, that of imagination over fact, in his lecture on "Fairy Land":
The human mind in its full energy having thus the power of believing simply what it likes, the responsibilities and the fatalities attached to the effort of Faith are greater than those belonging to bodily deed precisely in the degree of their voluntariness. A man can't always do what he likes, but he can always fancy what he likes; and he may be forced to do what he doesn't like, but he can't be forced to fancy what he doesn't like. [Ruskin 122]
According to Ruskin, the acceptance of fantasy creates a more powerful reality precisely because this utilizes human rationality and represents a choice rather than coercion. In this manner, the Pre-Raphaelite pursuit of a higher truth necessarily requires the element of fantasy that requires the viewer to engage in the work and choose to believe.
The power of choice and imaginative engagement creates an undercurrent throughout The Water of the Wondrous Isles. The audience after all, can choose to accept Morris's pseudo-medieval prose or put the volume aside. Arthur chooses between his old and his new love. Birdalone's continued faith in Habundia allows the wood-mother to regain her shape. The people on the Isle of Nothing choose to believe that Birdalone is a goddess, after years have passed, all they retain is this memory of a goddess and this then, becomes truth. Birdalone faces many choices throughout the story and must accept responsibility for the consequences of her choices, from fleeing the wood-witch to confessing her love for Arthur to remaining at Utterhay with the fellowship. At every step in the Quest, choices define the boundaries between reality and impossibility.
Morris also tests the conventions of Pre-Raphaelitism in blurring Birdalone's sexuality. Although Birdalone has all the physical attributes of a Pre-Raphaelite stunner, in the final stages of her Quest, Birdalone dons male armor and manages to pass as a young man. The Pre-Raphaelite stunner is powerful in her sexuality but Birdalone is powerful beyond her sexuality. Birdalone completes her quest, returning to Evilshaw in the appearance of a young man and not as a beautiful lady. To some extent then, the power of Birdalone's desires, the strength of her love for Arthur and the fellowship enables her to complete her task. Birdalone also steps beyond her reality when she dons Habundia's gift of the faery gown. When the fellowship approaches the town walls, they are halted by the men of Utterhay who question the very existence of Birdalone and her companions; they think that they are encountering Faery folk. Here, Morris moves beyond the Pre-Raphaelite canvas and into a new conception of gender equality and gender itself.
Another manner in which Morris redefines Pre-Raphaelitism lies in the structure of the novel. In The Water of the Wondrous Isles, Morris utilizes the literary space in order to create what are essentially a series of vignettes, thereby bridging the gap between the Pre-Raphaelite fascination with series paintings, for instance, Hunt's Briar Rose and Pygmalion cycles, poetry and literature. The lengthy captions that accompany each short chapter function much as the title of a painting does for the work. They enable the reader to apprehend the nature and main purpose at a glance. These chapters aim primarily to engage the reader in aesthetic details and sustain the setting rather than move to the plot along. The Water of the Wondrous Isles is composed then, of a series of tableaux that join together to form a large coherent whole.
By exploring and testing the boundaries of gender and the limits of prose, Morris pushes Pre-Raphaelite convention and reveals that despite the movement's avowed embrace of realism, fantasy enables the realization of Pre-Raphaelitism's pursuit of a higher truth and natural morality. At the end of The Water of the Wondrous Isles, Morris revises the ending of "Golden Wings." At Utterhay, the fourth lady (whether Jehane, Birdalone or Atra) can realize her own physical demands within the boundaries of community and although time passes, a sense of non-history arises from the lack of fear of death. Death after all, represents the ultimate loss, thus when death is no longer feared, time too loses its bite.
This contrast between death and life is a sharp and very fine distinction. In The Water of the Wondrous Isles, the definition of time allows for a sense of timelessness. The companions face death without fear and so, triumph even over death. This highlights the Pre-Raphaelite consciousness of the power of sharp, almost surreal differences whether at the edge of reality, love or life. In The Germ , the aims of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are expressed when they confess to "enunciate the principles of those who, in the true spirit of Art, enforce a rigid adherence to the simplicity of Nature either in Art or Poetry." Art, after all, remains highly artificial in that it is, at its most fundamental, the work of man. And man, at his most fundamental, is base and covetous. Yet it is precisely this tension between humanity's basest needs and efforts towards the sublime that the Pre-Raphaelites sought to illuminate.
Last modified 23 December 2006