Book Review of The Chalchiuhite Dragon
Kenneth Vennor Morris was born in 1879 in Wales, and educated in England. While in Dublin in 1896, Morris encountered members of the Dublin Lodge of the Theosophical Society, including AE, Violet North, William Butler Yeats, and Ella Young. Morris later wrote that it was AE who "awoke poetry in me. . . . It was he who urged me to start writing it." Morris enthusiastically joined the Theosophical Society, and began contributing poems, stories, plays, and essays to the Society's periodicals. In 1908, at the invitation of Katherine Tingley, he joined the staff of the Theosophical Society headquarters at Point Loma, California, where he lived, lectured, and wrote for the next twenty-two years. His first novel, a retelling of parts of the Welsh Mabinogion called The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed (illustrated by Reginald Machell, R.A.), was published by the press at Point Loma in 1914. Three of his book-length studies were serialized in The Theosophical Path: "Golden Threads in the Tapestry of History" (1915-1916), "The Three Bases of Poetry — A Study in English Verse" (1917), and "The Crest-Wave of Evolution" (1919-21). A collection of ten of his short stories was published in England in 1926, and Morris's second retelling of Welsh legends, Book of the Three Dragons, appeared in the US in 1930, soon after the author had returned to his beloved Wales. There, in the seven years before Morris's death in 1937, he founded seven Welsh theosophical lodges.
Among theosophists, Morris and his writings have never been forgotten. Essays and poems appeared in The Theosophical Forum throughout the 1940s, and in Sunrise since the 1950s. Among the general reader-ship, however, Morris's name remained obscure until the 1970s, when Ursula K. Le Guin called especial attention to Kenneth Morris by singling him out — with E. R. Eddison and J. R. R. Tolkien — as one of the three master prose stylists of fantasy in the twentieth century. New editions of Morris's two novels followed (now out of print), and a number of his short stories were reprinted in various anthologies. This first publication of his final novel, The Chalchiuhite Dragon (pronounced chal-che-we'-tay), to be followed later this year by a volume of the collected short stories of Kenneth Morris, comes on this crest of interest in Morris's fiction. It is to be hoped that this general interest in Morris's writings will continue and envelop his other writings, all of which deserve wide accessibility and attention.
Morris's poetry divides itself mainly into two styles, the first being more traditional in form and mostly Welsh in subject. These poems are technically proficient, and often inspired, but on the whole they are not nearly so impressive as Morris's poems of the second style translations (Morris himself called them "recensions") from the classic Chinese poets of the Yang Dynasty. Morris's plays combine some of the best elements of his stories with the best elements of his poetry. Of his essays, his lecture-series stand out: "Golden Threads in the Tapestry of History" and "The Crestwave of Evolution" predate Spengler with their discovery of the cycles of culture and civilization, and rival H. G. Wells's Outline of History in scope and erudition.
Morris's fiction is much less easy to describe or pigeonhole. Today it is categorized as fantasy literature, but such a distinction of "fantasy" as a genre did not exist during Morris's lifetime. Morris's short-story collection, The Secret Mountain and Other Tales, was marketed as a gift book, painstakingly produced, and contains some elegant symbolic illustrations in color by K. Romney Towndrow. The unnamed blurbwriter at the publisher Faber & Gwyer (possibly T. S. Eliot) accurately wrote that "nothing more unlike the American, or indeed the English, short story can be imagined. The author's nearest literary relative is perhaps Lord Dunsany, but he stands entirely on his own feet." Book of the Three Dragons, on the other hand, was marketed as a children's book, with distinctive penciled illustrations by Ferdinand Huszti Horvath. It was chosen as a main selection of the Junior Literary Guild, thereby gaining more attention than had any of his earlier books.
But these categories do not really describe Morris's fiction, which might be more accurately described (almost) as mythology or, better yet, as wisdom-literature. For Morris knew that the art of fiction had its origins in things entirely holy: that, as he himself wrote, "the deepest truths of religion and philosophy had their first recording for the instruction of the peoples, not in the form of treatise, essay, or disquisition, but as epics, sagas, and stories." Morris continued: "I do not know what better form could be found for them. It is the soul of man that is the hero of the eternal drama of the world; 'the Universe exists for the purposes of the soul."' And these tenets are at the base of Morris's fiction: that man comes in contact with that inward and divine light which will make a god of him.
In The Fates of the Princes of Dyfed and Book of the Three Dragons, Morris reworked Welsh legends into the framework of his stories. In his short stories, nearly forty in number, he invoked an impressive variety of myths in order to embellish his tales, from Celtic to Buddhist, from Norse to Taoist, and so on.
In The Chalchiuhite Dragon, Morris's final novel (written at the request of Katherine Tingley), he used as his raw materials the legends of the pre-Columbian new world, particularly of the Nahua-speaking native peoples of central and southern Mexico. Morris found most of the basics for his story in Hubert Howe Bancroft's Native Races of the Pacific States (5 vols., 1874-5); he recognized that Bancroft's interpretation of history and legend was questionable. As Morris writes in his Preface to the novel, "Bancroft disentangled, or thought he had disentangled, from the masses of legend the story of a Great King: this author tried to disentangle from Bancroft the story of a Great Teacher."
Morris's story concerns itself with the Quetzalcoatl legend, the story of the Prince of Peace, the Plumed Dragon, the god who is periodically reborn among men to teach Peace. As the legend goes, Quetzalcoatl was always born in a year Ce Acatl (Reed One, the fourteenth year in any year-bundle of fifty-two years). The chalchiuhite dragon, a living green jewel no larger than a woman's thumb and shaped like a dragon, would appear whenever Quetzalcoatl was about to reincarnate among men.
More specifically, Morris's novel tells the story of a year leading up to an incarnation of Quetzalcoatl. (Indeed, Morris's alternate title to this novel was The Coming of the God.) It is the time of the dominion of the Toltecs, who have gone conquering far and wide, adding kingdoms to the rule of their leader, the Toltec Topiltzin, whose godname is Camaxth, the Toltec God of War. Finally the Topiltzin hears of idealistic Huitznahuac, in the south beyond the south. He decides he must add this realm to the Toltec League, and he sets forth to subjugate Huitznahuac, where war and killing are unknown. To say more here would, I believe, begin to give away too much of the story, which deserves to be read on its own.
It is one thing to write fiction and another to write philosophy, and here Morris achieves a unique blending of the two mediums with nothing to the detriment of either: The Chalchiuhite Dragon is richly textured and filled with wisdom on many levels. To this writer it is the best of Morris's three novels. And it is one of those rare and precious books we will return to again and again, and savor over a lifetime. And surely, it is one of the most soul-enriching things in literature.
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, February/March 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Theosophical University Press. Douglas A. Anderson, author of the award-winning The Annotated Hobbit (Houghton-Mifflin, 1988), contributed the Afterword and Glossary to The Chalchiuhite Dragon and is compiler of the forthcoming collected short stories of Kenneth Morris, scheduled for publication by Tor Books in Fall 1992.)