In a long, somewhat narrow dale in the mountains there was a burg located where the river that ran through it had an almost circular bend, with the tower almost touching the cliffs at one end. This was Burghdale, where the House of the Face (of the god whose head was carved with gilded rays behind it in the house hall), the House of the Steer, and the House of the Bridge (which crossed the river). The House of the Face was the most prominent, and the current Alderman, a smith named Iron-face headed the House. His son, a goodly youth with curly golden hair, was named Face-of-god, and was practically troth-plighted to the Bride, a beautiful maiden from the House of the Steer. The House of the Face had forever wed from the House of the Steer, and Face-of-god and the Bride were great friends and had been playmates all growing up. In fact, the Bride was practically a member of the family already, and the Alderman particularly loved her, although all men loved her.
Now one day Face-of-god found himself drawn to the Woodland one autumn day, and shot a deer. His foster-father, Stone-face, advised him against going in the wood, because there were wights and other dangers there, as well as fantasy maidens who would string out a young man’s love but never return it. For he himself had wasted his youth with one of those maidens. But Face-of-god heeded him not, and went again the next day. He came upon a house in a clearing, deep in the woods, where he was suddenly attacked by a man, but his sister was fortunately watching and told him to let him live. Face-of-god thought that the maiden must be one of the gods, so great was her beauty, and her sweetness. She introduced him to her brother Folk-might, and a huntress named Bow-may, and she invited him to be guested for the night, since it was late in the day. He slept well, but the next morning they were all gone as she had thought they might, so he ate what was spread out on the boards. The maiden gave her name as Friend and in answer to his request about seeing her again, she said she would give him token in the spring, but to not attempt to find her until then.
Face-of-god was so taken by the maiden’s beauty and grace that he lost interest in the Bride, who slowly and fearfully realized that a change had come over him. Stone-face, too, noticed it, and warned Face-of-god again, but he paid him no mind. At the Yule festival when the time for swearing of deeds for the new year came, he swore to marry the most beautiful maiden that year. Everyone assumed the Bridge, but Face-of-god had the Friend in mind.
During a winter hunt he left the party to search for the Friend and met Bow-may, who directed him back on the path and told him to come to a certain bridge in the mornings in the spring. So he waited out the winter, and the Bridge grew more anxious. Although he initially doubted if the Friend would give her token for the first few days of the appointed fortnight, but Bow-may came and give him instructions to meet her at a certain place and time. This he did, and Bow-may led him on day-long trek through the mountains into a narrow dale that, while goodly, had such steep sides that the sun rarely fell full on it even in the summer. Albeit it was a fairly goodly land for a small number of people.
The Friend welcomed him, and the people there, the people of the Wolf guested him, and told him their story. They had come from a different land, and came to mountains, where there was a trail split, and they split ways. One group took one path and ended up settling in the Woodlands at one end of the dale of Burghdale and were well-known to the people of Burghdale. The other group came to another dale, Silver-dale, a rich and goodly land like that of Burghdale that could support many people and where there was silver to be mined. (Whereas Burghdale had only gold.) There they thrived, but one day a race of Dusky Men, stout warriors though short of stature came and told them they could either become slaves or die. Some chose to become thralls, while others refused and had to fight their way out. Those escaped to Shadowy-vale, where they were, which was not inhabited due to its remoteness. The Dusky Men used their thralls—the people of the Wolf’s kinsmen—bitterly, and so Folk-might led bands that picked off roving bands of Dusky Men who were exploring, and bided their time until they could retake Silver-dale. But of late the Dusky Men were venturing near Shadowy-vale, and were even planning to invade Burghdale. So the Friend asked Face-of-god if he and the people of Burghdale would help them retake Shadowy-vale, especially since the Dusky Men were best attacked preemptively, else they would come on Burghdale in such numbers as could not be withstood. Face-of-god yeasaid this, of course, so taken was he of the maiden.
Now by the second day the two of them had gotten to know each other a little better, and Face-of-god asked her name, which she said was the Sun-beam. And he asked if she had drawn him magically to the Woodlands that autumn, and she said she did have a little of that craft and had been expecting him to come that day. Initially, she said, she just wanted his help in freeing her people, but now she admitted that having met Face-of-god, she desired him for more than that, and besides, it was now in the interest of Burghdale to help anyway. Face-of-god was sore desirous of her, and she said the Folk-might had been to Burghdale in disguise and had seen how Face-of-god was treating the Bride’s love of him as something little and was angry with him, so plighted their troth on communal altar, both of their desire of one another and so that Folk-might must needs accept it as something already done.
Face-of-god returned to Burghdale and he requested the Alderman to call a town meeting. At the town meeting Face-of-god informed them of the danger, and indeed, there had been two highly unusual killings that winter by men matching the description of the Dusky Men. The Alderman said that while he was a competent warrior, he said that he did not have the skill of war and recommended that Face-of-god be named provision War-leader until the official Folk-meet at early summer made an official decision. They everyone heartily agreed with. Then the Bride came out, dressed in fine armor and a sword, and said she would not marry Face-of-god. The Alderman, Iron-face, asked her why and she refused to say, and then asked Face-of-god, who remained silent as the Bride had requested him to when she talked with him the night before and asked if he loved her and he said no. Iron-face, Face-of-god’s father, was very wroth with him, and even forgot that the meeting had not finished, so that he broke the sacred peace when he drew his sword in anger. As Alderman, he fined himself. The Bride swore herself to be a warrior, for in her grief over the loss of the love of her life, she despaired of happiness in life.
Face-of-god appointed groups to patrol the dale and its surrounding areas, and they came upon some Dusky Men. One day Face-of-god led a group partway towards Shadowy-vale and they found a thrall who had run away from Silver-dale six months previously. In fact, there was a whole community of runaways, to whom Face-of-god offered offered to come and live in the Dale. From their stories he learned that the Sun-beam was right that they were planning to conquer Burghdale, for their numbers had grown to large for Silver-dale. He also learned that the Dusky Men treat their thralls as no more than units of work, and killed them for any minor infraction. It became clear that the Dusky Men could not be reasoned with, they simply had to be killed, else they would kill or enslave.
A dozen or so of the people of the Wolf, led by Folk-might and the Sun-beam arrived a few weeks later as promised to Face-of-god. The men of Burghdale were mustered: the three houses of Burghdale, the shepherds, and the Woodlanders, all told some 1500 people, plus one hundred or so of the people of the Wolf could be added. Then they went to the Folk-meet a few days later, which was a festive time, as well as a time for community business. There the Alderman paid his fine, and Folk-might paid a fine to one of the parsimonious Woodlanders whom he had robbed (out of necessity) during the winter. Face-of-god was confirmed as War-leader, and the attack planned about a week hence. So Face-of-god staged the army into groups, which rendezvoused at Shadowy-vale. And when they arrived and Sun-beam saw that Face-of-god was become a chieftain she loved him the more.
Then Folk-might led the army across the mountain ridges down into the edge of Silver-vale. The next morning Face-of-god took some archers (including Bow-may) and Folk-might took him to an area of cover where they could overlook the town center. The Dusky Men were gathering for a Meet of some sort, and looked to be sacrificing thralls to their god to hallow the Meet. So Face-of-god told the archers to shoot the priests who were preparing to kill the thralls, and each was deftly shot through the throat, and the archers continued to pick off the confused Dusky Men. Face-of-god sent messengers to the rest of the army and had them converge on the other three exits of the town. Eventually the Dusky Men figured out where the attack was coming from and swarmed up in that direction, as Face-of-god’s group of the army came down the hill in spear formation, which the Dusky Men could not resist. Then several warriors, including Face-of-god, led a couple dozen men in successive groups to cleave through the enemy with swords, and Face-of-god could not be resisted. His father had given him well-smithed armor and a high-quality sword, which combined with his skill made him a fearsome foe.
The battle was tiring but the Dusky Men did not recover from their initial disorder, and were almost all killed, albeit some of the thralls grabbed weapons and ran those who fled and cut them down in revenge. Face-of-god had initially been told that the Sun-beam had been killed and went on a killing rampage, but in truth she was lightly wounded. The Bride had fought well, but was severely wounded, and Folk-might was beside himself. Now while they were yet in Burghdale, Folk-might had sought out the Bride and told her that he found her more beautiful than any woman and that he loved her, and while she thanked him for bringing her some peace, yet she forebear to say that she desired him, out of fear that death in war might render the whole thing moot. But now that she seemed like to recover, although not quickly, she returned his desire and they kissed, and he talked with her much until she recovered. The people of the Wolf, now joined by the Woodlanders to reunite as one people, thanked the men of Burghdale and insisted on giving them gifts of some of the spoils, and guested them for two weeks or so. The night before they were to depart, Bow-may, the Sun-beam, and the head of the House of the Steer came to Folk-might. They asked if he desired to wed the Bride, and he yeasaid, whereupon they asked for a brideprice: the Sun-beam and Bow-may would be adopted as maidens of the House of the Steer. He agreed, and he and the Bride pledged their troth with the arms through the sacred gold ring on the alter of the god. So the next day the Bride stayed behind in Silver-dale, and Sun-beam and Bow-may rode back with the House of the Steer. And the Alderman grieved the loss of the daughter that he had expected to come live at the House of the Face.
At the end of summer, the brides-to-be of Burghdale all had a special day by themselves, and drove off attackers in a mock battle, and in the evening the grooms came and took them to the halls. Face-of-god took the Sun-beam through beautiful places, despite her protest that they should take the quick and direct way along the road because (as leading citizens) everyone could not start until they arrived. But no one begrudged them that, and there was great celebration in the hall.
Three or so years later, they men of Silver-dale decided that every three years they would host a Folk-thing in Silver-dale for the men of the Wolf, the men of Burghdale, and the Shepherds, so that they could be one community and see each other regularly. This invitation was heartily accepted by all. And Face-of-god gave the Bride his second man-child, as he had promised her, when she had asked his promise the day that he answered her that he loved another. [It is unclear if this was an adoption or whether this was the foster-system of the Icelandic sagas where one family raised the son of another family to build kinship bonds.] And so all the three peoples became one people.
The Roots of the Mountains is one of Morris’ first Romances (in the medieval sense), and it is considerably simpler than, for example, The Well at the World’s End. It is also a lot more descriptive than his later works; I would say that at least 30% of the book being description of the land, if not more. However, while very evocative, the chapter-long description of the Dale left me unclear about the actual layout of everything, so that when he said the sun lit the mountains on the east, I had no idea which side of the dale that was. But in general that was not a problem, and the journey across the ridges from Shadowy-vale to Silver-dale were very vivid, and true to the mountain ridges I have hiked along.
While I like good description, it did wax over-long at times. Likewise, the interpersonal details were also well-done, but were unnecessarily detailed and it dragged at times. More problematic to my mind, however, is the romances. In all of Morris’ Romances that I have read, but this one especially, when Morris says “out of love for her” (or somesuch), he seems to besaying “out of physical desire”, which is really “he lusteth after her” but in a restrained, genteel way. Neither Face-of-god nor the Sun-beam spend much time together or build any sort of a relationship until after they commit to marriage, and even then, the description of their desire is predominately described as physical (or in the Sun-beam’s case, the fact that he is high status by virtue of leadership and martial skills). In fact, Face-of-god throws away a deep, long-standing, mutually loving relationship over the mere beauty of a stranger, and one whose family seems fairly sketchy based on Face-of-god’s initial experience. And this is described as great “love”. Truly it were more consonant with reality if this were a female fantasy string him along like Stone-face in his youth. While I can certainly understand a hitherto-unawakened desire for more than just your childhood friend from same town, the description given is that he kicks a high-quality relationship to the curb in exchange for a fantastically beautiful face. The Bridge, too, gets physical-desire-love, and a chieftain as well, but of the relationships as actually described, Face-of-god and the Bridge had a the closest relationship which was replaced by two relationships based on physicality.
Along similar lines, Face-of-god all twenty-five years or so, is obviously the best military strategist in the town, despite seasoned veterans of multiple wars while he had been in none. None of the older people hold a candle to him (except for the Alderman’s skill in metalwork, but that is only briefly mentioned). I assume much of this is part of the medieval Romance genre, but this seems like youth-glory and shallow “love” like the excesses of Hollywood. It feels like Hollywood got its values from Morris—he was popular in the 1920s when Hollywood was starting. It is certainly known that Tolkien was influenced by this book in particular, and perhaps it is this romantic excess which is why Tolkien’s heroes are the provincial hobbits, in a swing towards the Christian values of humility and wisdom over physicality, fantasy, and heroic glory.
Tolkien certainly seems to have been influenced by Morris’ descriptions; Tolkien’s descriptions have a similar flavor and vividness. Interestingly, Morris moved in the direction of lightly-painted description, more like in an amplified fairy-tale, which allowed him to emphasize the mythic nature. But Tolkien went the other direction, and instead of decreasing the descriptions to the same Japanese-painting-like outlines as the fairy-tale plot and letting the reader fill in the details, Tolkien kept the environmental detail and turned the mythic-outlines into vivid cultural depth.
More speculatively, the description of the Dale is reminiscent of parts of The Hobbit, and there is a town called “Dale” in a narrow valley. The Goblin attack that is foiled is similar to the Dusky Men in attacking in overwhelming numbers and in taking slaves, although not it occupying the land. Finally, Éowyn of Rohan follows a similar trajectory as the Bride: when Aragorn rejects her she loses interest in life, becomes a warrior, is wounded grievously in battle, finding love with Faramir in the Houses of Healing. Like the Bride, she is a sort of secondary chieftain, and Faramir is the secondary chieftain of Gondor, while Aragorn and his elven bride are clearly the greater. (But, consistent with Tolkien emphasizing the humble heroism of the normal person, so the love between the secondary lovers is more clearly portrayed, while Aragorn and Arwen’s relationship is only outlined.)
This is an enjoyable read, with a vivid setup, and it is interesting as archeological research into Tolkien, but as a work, it is fairly average. There are definitely quite promising elements, but they very unbalanced. The Well at the World’s End, for instance, takes the same elements and balances them better.