William Morris

Poet, painter, designer, translator, novelist, and more, William Morris (1834 to 1896) only turned to book printing toward the end of his life, in 1890. Never one to do anything by half, he created his own fonts and helped influence the direction of book design.

During his lifetime, Morris probably had the most impact with interior design, advocating a simplicity in style in comparison with the typical Victorian hodgepodge. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that his greatest contribution was in bringing fantasy to life. Not that his writing is particularly enjoyable by today's standards; it contains too much archaic expression for the sake of archaic expression - though it can become an acquired taste.

Nevertheless, what he did do and what he was the first to do involved learning Icelandic and, in corroboration with the Icelander Eirikr Magnusson, translating into English the major sagas, including family sagas (those based on historical characters), historical sagas (the kings of Norway), and fantasies. The most important measure of these translations are the people they influenced: from H. Rider Haggard to E. R. Eddison, to Tolkien. With Tolkien, the Icelandic influence ran deep in his family; his son Christopher has some Icelandic saga translations to his credit.

Such is the way that Icelandic literature has supplied the underpinning of fantasy as we know it today . . . thanks, in large part, to William Morris.

While the writing of Morris himself may be an acquired taste, some images are particularly striking, such as the following excerpt from The Wood beyond the World:

    Walter stood on the stern and beheld, yet more with the mind of him than with his eyes; for it all seemed but the double of what the other ship had done; and he thought of it as if the twain were as beads strung on one string and led away by it into the same place, and thence to go in the like order, and so on again and again, and never to draw nigher to each other.

Of the two fonts that Morris designed, Golden type (on the basis of a classic Italian font) has been rather popular and is available from a couple of places. The other, Troy, has been ignored, and so I made a version of it, which has gone through three cycles thus far but still isn't finished. Nevertheless, the font has a complete set of letters, numerals, and punctuation marks. Yes, and a Morris dingbat and a couple of ligatures too.

I used Troy for the display title above, and you can try it for a 20K download, either as a truetype or a postscript font (for PCs). The font itself was designed in Fontographer, a truly excellent application with terrific tech support - that also helped convert it into a truetype for Macs (a *.hqx file if you have StuffIt Deluxe or a BinHex utility).

If curious about Morris, Dover Books has his novels The Wood beyond the World and The Glittering Plain in fascimile editions. On the web, the William Morris Gallery would appeal to a general interest and the William Morris Society to a scholastic one.

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