Had he not written any fantasy novels -- or "prose romances," as they are sometimes called -- William Morris would nevertheless have been a remarkable figure. He was a renowned architect artist, poet, and designer of furniture and textiles. A member of both the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement (not to mention the Socialist League), he founded the Kelmscott Press with the aim of producing modern books by traditional methods. Morris was a perfect example of an eccentric, even Quixotic, Victorian renaissance man, who achieved not only fame during his lifetime but great influence after his death. J.R.R. Tolkien is but one significant person in the history of fantasy literature who admitted to admiring Morris and, reading The Lord of the Rings with a knowledge of the older author's writings, there can be no doubt the debt Tolkien owed him.
The Well at the World's End was first published in 1896. It tells the story of Ralph of the Upmeads, a younger son of a king, who becomes bored with his cosseted lifestyle and decides to set off in search of adventure, despite his parents' warnings against doing so. In particular, Ralph seeks the mythical Well at the World's End, drinking from which grants long life and good luck. Ralph's journey across the world to find the Well forms the bulk of the book, as he meets a variety of characters and sees a number of sights along the way. Most notable among these characters are the Lady, who found the Well and drank from it years before, and Ursula the Maiden, who accompanies Ralph to the conclusion of his quest.
The novel is long and, at times, slow-going. I hesitate to call it "tedious," because it's finely crafted and there's scarcely anything within its text that is mere indulgence on the part of Morris. Nevertheless, it's written in an older style -- archaic even in the late 19th century -- and borrows heavily from the circuitous, rambling pace of traditional fairy stories. Anyone who finds Tolkien dull would certainly find Morris equally slow-moving. Nevertheless, there's definitely a power in Morris's prose and it repays sticking with it. In my opinion, starting the book is the hardest part. Once you've weathered the first few chapters, you become acclimated to its style and the rest of the book moves much more quickly.
As to its content, I don't want to say too much here, for fear of spoiling it. Suffice it to say that The Well at the World's End is a classic tale of a youth forever changed by his adventures away from home, so much so that, upon his return, he sees things far differently than he had before. Morris conjures up a number of powerful, moving scenes in the novel; it's easy to see why Tolkien was so taken with it. The book's meditations on the nature and advisability of immortality have influenced me as I work on the Dwimmermount campaign and I suspect most gamers who read the book will find something within its many pages to make them stop and think, if only for a moment. The Well at the World's End is probably an acquired taste, like a lot of older fantasies. Still, it'll repay the effort you put into reading it, something I encourage everyone who has the time to do.