Monday, December 14, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Well at the World's End

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.


  1. I consider William Morris to be the Younger Grandfather of modern fantasy (with George MacDonald the Elder Grandfather).

  2. I enjoyed your review, but I feel that I must clear up one discrepancy I founds in an otherwise interesting piece.

    "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."

    Being written in 1896, The Well at the World's End is not slow moving or tedious, but is well within the style of the time period. Only to our more modern expectations is the writing overly flourished with flowery prose. to the readers Dickens and other Victorian authors, The Well at the World's End would have seemed fast paced and exciting.

  3. Ian,

    That's fair enough. I'm not a connoisseur of Victorian literature generally -- I actually rather dislike a lot of it -- so my perceptions are undoubtedly skewed on this (and other scores). Thanks for the perspective.

  4. I'll take Morris (and MacDonald) over any door-stopper modern fantasy hands down! He has been a tremendous influence on my own D&D play over the last 3 decades.

  5. This is very interesting, James, thanks for bringing it to my attention.
    Is this book in the public domain? I'll check Gutenberg as soon as I get a chance.
    I've been interested in Morris for a long time now, but I'm coming from a study of the Arts & Crafts movement in this instance, rather than literature.
    I'm a proponent of the virtues of handmade things vs the shoddy monotony of cheap mass produced drek that fills the big-box stores today.
    I build furniture myself, and I've long admired Morris sense of design and philosophy of construction for duration and loathing of the idea of planned obsolecense.
    I admire the guy so much, I'm even able to cut him some slack for his naive view of socialism. The man was an idealist, but with enough talent that his idealism wasn't thwarted by reality. He was always focused on improving the lot of the common man, but only the rich could afford his work.
    I've heard he didn't appreciate the irony.

  6. THere is a William Morris museum in London that, while small, is quite cool. Sadly, except for some of his Kelmscott printings, there is almost nothing about his literature there (I'll admit it's been 10 years or so since I was last there).

  7. > That's fair enough. I'm not a connoisseur of Victorian literature generally

    (aside/in general) For a broad-brush approach to Victorian fantasy in /general/ there are better in-depth works (e.g. ), but for a passing view and as a companion to the series, Lin Carter's "Imaginary Worlds" is still a pretty good start.

    I'm with Welleran above; a genetically-bottlenecked 9,000 page trilogy of trilogies might be easy prey whilst resolutely preventing a door from premature closure, but that doesn't mean there's necessarily more "new" meat to be feasted upon therein that than in many older, less familiar (to the general public) works.

    (If "archaic style" is a problem, I feel sorry for anyone who might discard the likes of Eddison out-of-hand, far less those texts actually written back towards that idealized linguistic and stylistic timeframe).

    02c only as ever, of course. :)

    keywords: pings (ah... apparatus est ostendo sum *jk*)

  8. Also worthy of mention are "The Roots of the Mountains" and "House of the Wolfings". The title of the latter, in particular, was borrowed by Tolkien in "The Hobbit" and in LOTR (such as Gollum's statement "The roots of those mountains must be roots indeed; there must be secrets buried there which have not been discovered since the beginning." More generally, both of these books are steeped in Nordic/Germanic history, the first taking place during the Hunnic invasions of the 5th century and the latter sometime during the conflicts with Rome (probably 1st-3rd century)

  9. I liked "The House of the Wulfings" best of the Morris fantasies I've read (Well, Wulfings, The Wood Beyond the World, The Water of the Wondrous Isles). Wulfings is a bit darker, and very Tolkienish in its frequent switches to song and poetry within the text.