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The Well at the World’s End by William Morris

The Well at the World’s End by William Morris
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Book Name: The Well at the World's End
Author: William Morris
Publisher(s): Out of Copyright
Formatt: Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: 1896

Restless in his home, a rural, backwater country, the hero sets out into the wide world on a dangerous quest that has to do with a piece of jewelry. Crossing the downs, he stays the night at a neighbouring town before entering the wilderness and is guided by a mysterious man, suspected locally of being a robber, though he proves a loyal friend. The hero is badly wounded in a fight, but nursed back to health before much of the story’s background is explained to him – at great length.

After plunging into his quest in earnest, he’s traumatised by the sudden loss of a close companion, but nevertheless crosses the mountains with a fellowship to a land where a beautiful queen gives him aid.

He now embarks on the final stage of the quest with just one companion. Together, they cross mountains and a terrible desert to achieve their goal. Coming back, the hero finds an old companion is now the most powerful king in the region, but all is not well with his homeland – it’s been overrun by brigands. The hero uses the strength he’s gained on his quest to raise the countryside and drive them out.

Besides being a summary of the quest of Frodo Baggins, this also describes the quest of Prince Ralph of Upmeads, hero of The Well at the World’s End by William Morris, published in 1896.

I’m not aware of any documented evidence that Tolkien ever read The Well at World’s End, but it seems likely. He was certainly affected profoundly by Morris’s retelling of Sigurd the Volsung, as noted in Tolkien’s own take on the legend (Sigurd and Gudrun), and his close friend C. S. Lewis was a great admirer of Morris’s fantasy novels. Indeed, the sequence of islands visited by the heroine of another Morris novel, The Water of the Wondrous Isles, has always reminded me strongly of Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Nevertheless, it’s the differences between Morris and Tolkien that are, perhaps, more interesting. Although the sequence of events in Ralph’s and Frodo’s quests form a striking parallel, their significance is very different. In Morris’s story, the guide and the king aren’t the same person, while the companion who dies and the one who stays to the end are both women Ralph is in love with (though not at the same time). Most of all, while Frodo undertakes a self-sacrificing quest to save the world, Ralph’s is a more traditional one for his own gain.

William Morris, 1834-1896, was one of the great polymaths: poet, painter, novelist, translator, political thinker, social reformer, designer (yes, that wallpaper) and publisher, the organisations and movements he founded ranged from the Arts and Crafts Movement to the Socialist League to the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings. He was a passionate medievalist, sharing the utopian vision of the great fourteenth century socialist John Ball that an idealised rural Golden Age could be brought into being.

After the Socialist League moved too far from Morris’s brand of libertarian socialism for him to remain a member, he devoted himself to writing a series of prose romances rooted in the past. At first, these were tales of ancient Germanic heroes, but they gradually wandered over the edge of the map, to the places that say “Here Be Dragons,” into a series of purely fantasy novels, starting with The Wood Beyond The World, and including The Well at the World’s End.

Lin Carter, the editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, which reprinted many of these books during the 1970s, claimed that William Morris “invented fantasy”. This was perhaps overstating the case, and Carter himself, in his 1973 book Imaginary Worlds, also claimed, “that fantasy is no less than the original form of narrative literature itself.” I’d say that’s an arguable point of view. His distinction was that Morris was the first author to consciously set a story in a world with no connection to our own.

To a large extent this is true, but not entirely. In essence, these books are set in the world of medieval romance and, although the lands and cities his characters wander through are entirely invented, they contain many real-world institutions, notably the church, as well as occasional references to far-off places like Rome or Jerusalem. Still, the difference is a nicety, which is perhaps not worth arguing. For most practical purposes, Morris was inventing his worlds.

To the novice, Morris’s novels might seem intimidating, since his medievalism extends to the language. An example, from early in The Well at the World’s End:

So Ralph rode on, and came into the high road, that led one way back again into Upmeads, and crossed the Water by a fair bridge late builded between King Peter and a house of Canons on the north side, and the other way into a good cheaping-town hight Wulstead, beyond which Ralph knew little of the world which lay to the south, and seemed to him a wondrous place, full of fair things and marvellous adventures.

This might be a little off-putting at first, but most readers can get used to it quite quickly. It’s a simple, flexible style that suits the story, and Morris uses it well – in contrast to some of the other early fantasy authors who affected archaic styles.

The Well at the World’s End is best described as epic fantasy, yet it lacks most of the elements familiar in the modern epic. You’ll find here no titanic struggle between Good and Evil, no stupendous battles (the only battle in the book is over almost before it begins), no desperate last chances to save the world, or at least a significant portion of it. Indeed, Ralph’s quest affects few people except himself and those close to him.

The tone is much closer to that of medieval romance, full of perilous forests and exotic castles, unpredictable knights and mysterious ladies, noble queens and foul bandits. In the earlier stages of the tale, Ralph blunders around almost as cluelessly as Percival, only gradually being guided into his quest by the influence of the characters around him. It’s a self-centred quest; Ralph’s godmother, who first tells him of the Well, describes it thus: it saveth from weariness and wounding and sickness; and it winneth love from all, and maybe life everlasting.

Nevertheless, as in fairy tales, success in the quest seems most often to be advanced when Ralph helps others, and the world he returns to after drinking from the Well is in a far better shape than the world he left. Most of all, it appears tied in with love. Ralph is told many times that they be likeliest [to find the Well] with whom all women are in love. Certainly, a high proportion of the women he meets appear to be in love with Ralph, and this invariably helps him on his quest.

This is a world in which things are frequently not as they seem. Early on, Ralph is given contradictory accounts of two towns. One is a fair and friendly place, the other a dangerous den of brigands; but which is which? Ralph nearly comes to grief finding the answer, but emerges from the experience wiser and more cautious.

This ambiguity is even more true of the two main women caught up in Ralph’s quest. Ursula, who shares the final stages of the quest with him, is first named, in a dream, Dorothea. The name means gift of God, which may well be relevant, but Ralph never gets an explanation of the mystery. Her actual name, incidentally, means a bear, and bears recur throughout the story as an important symbol.

If Ursula’s name causes a puzzle, the Lady of Abundance is given none – and, curiously, Ralph never asks it. As with the two towns, he is given starkly contrasting pictures of who she is – either their goddess, their mawmet, their devil, the very heart and soul of their wickedness or else the saint of the Forest Land, and the guardian of all poor folk. He’s also told that she’s the servant of the Well to entangle the seekers in her love and keep them from drinking thereof. Perhaps the most curious description is that whiles she is foul, whiles very fair, whiles young and whiles old; whiles cruel and whiles kind. Even her age is uncertain, since there are suggestions she’s been young for many human lives, although she seems to deny this.

The Lady’s true nature is never entirely resolved, although her own story paints her simply as an ordinary woman who’s experienced an extraordinary life. This account, though, contradicts other tales told of the Lady, and she remains an enigmatic figure. Should we take her at her word, as Ralph does? Or should we consider her, as she seems at times, manipulative and untrustworthy?

Perhaps it fitting that these questions remain unanswered. The labyrinth of choices, love and betrayal Ralph must navigate can plausibly be seen as representing the perplexities of adolescence, which he ultimately leaves behind to find the Well.

It might seem strange for a committed socialist to use knights and princes as his heroes, but this idea is misleading. Ralph, it’s true, is a prince, but the youngest son of a king so minor that he’s scarcely more than a local landowner. What he achieves by the end of the story is entirely by his own efforts.

Most of Morris’s heroes and heroines, though – especially the heroines – are of lower birth. The heroine of The Water of the Wondrous Isles, Birdalone, is the daughter of a poor widow, charming and beguiling all the highborn knights and ladies she encounters to the extent that they follow her as their lady. Osberne and Elfhild, too, the hero and heroine of The Sundering Flood, come from the yeoman stock that was Morris’s ideal.

Of the two principal females characters in The Well at the World’s End, the Lady of Abundance has a strange and ambiguous background, having (according to her own account) been brought up as far back as she can remember serving a sorceress in the forest. The mystery of her origin is never cleared up, but it can hardly be a coincidence that, in his next book, Morris gave a very similar story to Birdalone, who proves to be of humble birth. The two characters have striking similarities, although Birdalone, as the viewpoint character, is far less ambiguous.

Ursula, the actual heroine, is certainly of peasant birth. Ralph first encounters her in a wayside tavern that had belonged to her dead parents, and she frequently refers to herself as being of yeoman stock. When Ralph presents her to his parents and they ask her lineage, she tells them defiantly, I am come of no earl or baron. I am a yeoman’s daughter…we labour afield, and the barons and the earls call us churls. It is told amongst us that that word is but another way of saying earl, and that it meaneth a man.

All Morris’s novels concern people who make themselves great by their actions and their innate qualities, not by their birth. This is true of Ralph to some extent – his royal title is really of little significance – but far more so of Ursula. A little earlier than the scene above, Ralph’s brother Hugh also asks about Ursula’s lineage, and Ralph replies – proudly, if a little evasively – I am become a Friend of the Well, and were meet to wed with the daughters of the best of the Kings: yet is this one meeter to wed with me than the highest of Queens; for she also is a Friend of the Well.

Indeed, it becomes clear in the end how much greater Ursula’s achievement is than Ralph’s. At the outset of his quest, Ralph is given a charmed necklace by his godmother, which will protect him and help him find the Well. Ursula too is given a similar necklace by the Lady of Abundance, and it’s she who ultimately finds the Well for them both. Yet it’s revealed at last that the necklace must be given by a member of the opposite sex, or it will be no talisman or leading-stone. Ralph is left to reflect that for all that she hath done without help of talisman or witchcraft is she the more worshipful and the dearer.

This is a long tale of adventure, love and friendship, and many memorable characters come and go, most of whom must be passed over in an account like this, but ultimately it’s about the Well at the World’s End. Like the Grail, it’s an alluring and perilous goal but, desirable as it is in its own right, the quest is what makes it worthwhile.

The Well is surrounded by sterility. A recurring image, used as a symbol and appearing in reality as the last marker to the Well, is the Dry Tree, a great dead tree hung with weapons and armour and surrounded by corpses, and it marks the end of a terrible desert the questers must cross. This might seem strange, since the Well itself is the ultimate symbol of life, but it’s terrible all the same. The inscription above it proclaims, “Ye who have come a long way to look upon me, drink of me, if ye deem that ye be strong enough in desire to bear length of days.” Perhaps Morris is telling us that life will only be given to those who can look death unflinchingly in the face.

In the end, though, the key to the Well appears to be love, both romantic and more general. Perhaps its greatest gift to those who drink from it is to be loved by all, but its gift to Ralph and Ursula is also to give each a love worthy of them. That gift, though, is given not by achievement of the quest but by the desire and determination that leads them to undertake it.

I began by comparing The Well at the World’s End to Lord of the Rings. Realistically, it’s not in the same league as Tolkien’s masterpiece, but it’s well worth reading, both for its own exuberant story and because it stands at the very start of twentieth century fantasy. Four years early, to be sure, but that’s life. Even fantasy life.

All William Morris’s works are long out of copyright, and there are consequently many editions available of The Well at the World’s End. Some of these may be stocked by larger bookshop, but I also give below the links to the relevant pages of Amazon, both the UK and US versions:

Amazon UK

Amazan US

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Rating: 9.5/10 (4 votes cast)
The Well at the World's End by William Morris, 9.5 out of 10 based on 4 ratings
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8 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Well done for a great article on a truly classic series!

    Not as many people seem to know about William Morris when compared to say Tolkien, but as you said in your article – he was one of the earliest people to write what we could still call today ‘Fantasy’. I’m really glad we’ll be able to educate a few readers today 🙂 Another great author I’d love to do an article on is George MacDonald – he was on par with the likes of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien too, but didn’t seem to get that level of recognition he deserved… Tolkien even seemed to base his Goblins on his work and Lewis his narration… got me thinking of articles now 😉

  2. Tegan Beechey says:

    Wonderful article. It was extremely revealing, and interesting to see just how deep the roots for modern fantasy go. And what a diverse author!

  3. AE Marling says:

    The Lady of Abundance sounds like a fascinating grey character, perhaps even a femme fatale. This does sound like an intriguing story with good imagery, and I thank you for introducing me to it.

  4. Mark T says:

    Very informative, I’ll be looking for “The Well at the World’s End” to add to my Kindle library for sure; sounds like I have found my next read. Thank you! As a side note, all fans of fantasy literature with an interest in it’s origins, who have a Kindle or other e-reader, should search for “Fairy Tales” at your favorite ebook vendor. There are a great many wonderful collections available free or at minimal cost. I have been working my way through 33 collections and enjoying them very, very much. Much of the work in these collections is so old it has no known author; even the ethnic origins are in question with many of them. But that does not lessen the enjoyment and wonder of the storytelling in the least.

    • I second that, and I want to recommend two lesser-known Scottish fairy stories – The Black Bull of Norroway, which is awesome, and Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree, which is a fairly weird variant on Snow White (minus the Dwarves).

  5. Mark T says:

    I’m just a few chapters into “The Well at the World’s End” after finishing my previous read. I love it! Thanks FF for turning me on to this one.

  6. June Dewar says:

    I find the excerpt of “the World’s End” intriguing. Within the fantasy I can see truth and fact. Fantasy doesn’t interest me only truth. I am about to write a book at present and intend to interpolate what I identify as truth from the fantasy of this novel and use that. I wonder when I read some of this if William Morris may have had some visions. We are living in dangerous and trying times for which truth is needed. I personally know the Truth about the Holy Grail but fiction and fantasy have become more palatable or acceptable to human perception and acceptance than the concept of truth..

  7. Eric says:

    I must admit that first paragraph of this review mystified me. Mysterious guide? Hero seriously wounded? Your “Well at the World’s End” seems to begin differently from mine 🙂

    And which work is in which league is debatable. As much as I like “The Lord of the Rings”, I think the division of the Fellowship, and the consequent alternating story lines, is a serious structural flaw.

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