Wednesday, 3 November 1999
William Morris: The Well at the World's End (1896)
Review number: 381
William Morris' late nineteenth century romances have proved very influential in twentieth century popular literature, yet they are probably rarely read today. There is a strong case for arguing that they mark the origin of the modern fantasy genre. The Well at the World's End is the longest, and amply illustrates why his work has become both so influential and so obscure.
The story is a simple one, telling the tale of the quest undertaken by Ralph of Upmeads to drink from the well at the World's End, which gives a renewed life - both physically and morally - to those who do so. It tells of the perils and wonders of his journey, of his friendships and loves as he also moves from being a boy to an adult man.
So what is it that made Morris an inspiration? The principal features of the background to the novel have become the principal features of just about every fantasy novel of the twentieth century: an imaginary world, a medieval culture, and magic. Morris' work shared these aspects with other novels of the nineteenth century - they are present to some degree in many Gothic novels - but Morris combined them with an optimistic tone which makes his work more escapist. This tone is related to that of the medieval romances of Walter Scott and Arthur Conan Doyle, but these are firmly set in (an idealised version of) the real world. Of course, part of this comes from the fact that Ralph's quest fits fairly snugly into the mould of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey; setting it in an imaginary world is what's new.
Morris is perhaps closer to the medieval romance than most of the authors mentioned, hints of (say) Malory or Chretien de Troyes being constantly present, while the allegorical sounding place names recall such works as Piers Plowman.
This medievalism is the foundation of the reasons for the neglect of Morris, as well as conveying the other-worldly atmosphere which was another vitally important legacy to the genre. There are two aspects of it which led to its rejection as a model. First, the prose is full of archaisms which make it difficult to read; second, his similarity to allegorical Christian writings together with his rejection of religion - given a remarkably peripheral part to play compared to his models - means that the whole quest is poorly motivated.
The archaisms and pseudo medieval style are grating to a modern reader, and make Morris a slow read. They are derived, I suspect, from Scott's ideas of medieval prose, and is about as authentic as a Neo-Gothic castle. It is, thankfully, something most fantasy writers have abandoned. (A few still use "thee" and "thou" for effect, and there are few more annoying things than reading a writer who has got this wrong...)
The lack of motivation is a more serious problem. It is possible to read The Well at the World's End as a pure adventure story, if a slow and sedate one, but the allegorical side of things leads the reader to start wondering what the the main symbols (especially the well itself) actually mean. It is possible to come up with meanings - I would say that the well is there to show that we need something outside our normal existence to give our lives true meaning, for example - but none are insisted on or even important to Morris.