Saturday, November 12, 2016

Dreams and gratuitous nudity in The Well at the World's End - And the wind in the willows is with us at last

My understanding is that William Morris is given credit for inventing the template of the heroic fantasy novel, they key to which is the understanding that the world of the novel is in some sense “real,” the only world the characters have, at least.   George MacDonald’s fantasies, like Phantastes (1858) and the great Lilith (1895) are explicitly dream-worlds, with characters from our “real” world visiting the fantasy world.  Two templates for fantasy – Middle Earth and Narnia – ready for later writers.

Thus my curiosity about Morris’s repeated update on the dreams of his hero.  Every three chapters Ralph goes to sleep.  Sometimes he is “troubled by no dreams of what was past or to come” (Bk. I, Ch. 24); other times he has symbolically loaded dreams, like the one about fish made “of gilded paper stuffed with wool” I mentioned yesterday.  Morris never has his knight dream of the dream world Morris created in News from Nowhere (1890), unfortunately.

The dreamy vagueness slips into the waking world.  Characters are vaguely defined, the landscape unfolds itself as needed, and the central plot, the quest for the Well at the World’s End, is continually treated by the hero as something not quite real.  Why is he searching for the Well, “which is but a word,” a rumor (Bk. II, Ch. 11)?  “’Maybe thou art seeking for what is not’” (Bk. II, Ch. 29), a Queen tells him, and he shares her doubts.  On the literal verge of the discovery of the Well, “it came into Ralph’s mind that this was naught but a mock, as if to bid the hapless seekers cast themselves down from the earth, and be done with it forever” (Bk. III, Ch. 20).

At this point, Ralph, of course, goes to sleep.  He “awoke from some foolish morning dream of Upmeads” (III, 21) and completes his quest.  A few pages later he dreams of home again, the dream no longer foolish.

The dream language gives The Well at the World’s End much of its symbolic weight, even if I have trouble saying what any of it might mean.  Another surprising pattern is the explicit sex and gratuitous nudity.  Temporally, this is still a Victorian novel, but holy cow.  The scene where Ralph defends his traveling companion, who is completely nude, from a bear attack, that was the gratuitous part.  When, after drinking from the Well, the couple bathes nude in the sea and reenacts the Garden of Eden – “and the deer of that place, both little and great, had no fear of man, but the hart and hind came to Ursula’s hand” etc. (III, 22) at least has some clear allegorical meaning.

Now I have a question.  Morris, a fine poet, includes only a couple of poems in the novel.  One of them has this stanza:

Come up, then up!
Leave board and cup,
And follow the gleam
Of the glittering stream
That leadeth the road
To the old abode,
High-walled and white
In the moon and night;
Where low lies the neighbor that drave us away
Sleep-sunk from his labour amidst of the hay.
No road for our riding is left us save one,
Where the hills’ brow is hiding the city undone,
And the wind in the willows is with us at last,
And the house of the billows is one and o’er-past.  (II, 34)

Is this the source of Kenneth Grahame’s title?  The internet has not been much help.  It fits.


  1. Well, I recall from somewhere that Grahame read a good deal of Ruskin and Morris, who were both writers opposed to the mechanization of the English countryside. So sure, why not?

  2. I have read that there are parts of Wind in the Willows lifted almost directly from older William Morris poems - from Sigurd the Volsung for example - so the likelihood here is strong.

    I really just wonder if the reference is older - to, I don't know, some Wordsworth poem I've never read.

  3. I scrabbled around Google a bit, and found that Grahame's working title was "The Wind in the Reeds," which he changed when he found that Yeats had already used it. So maybe that's all it was.

  4. How funny. Wind blowing through reeds in in Grahame's novel - e.g., end of Ch. 1; wind in willows is as far as I can tell, not.

    Still, there could be the Yeats discovery followed by a desperate turn to a favorite bit of a favorite book.