Friday, November 11, 2016

the world was worse than he had looked to find it - on the road with William Morris's The Well at the World’s End

I still have Goethe’s Italian Journey to poke at for German Literature Month – look at all of that blogging – but I want to save it for a bit later.  So now what.

I never wrote about William Morris’s long 1896 fantasy novel The Well at the World’s End.  That’ll do.

The novel is an adventure story, a knight’s quest set in an imaginary world where magic exists.  The setting is medieval English, but not England.  Towns and people have English names – Ralph, Richard, Roger.  There is a single, long-established Christian church, with saints and so on.  Once there is even a mention of Rome.  But it takes the characters a year to reach the ocean, and they have to cross a mountain range with active volcanoes to get there.

The mechanics of the plot are those of a journey, not just a series of adventures, although there are those – “full of heroic exploits, peril and satisfying resolutions” says Classical Carousel, who recently zipped through the novel – but a great deal of attention to movement, transportation, and not so much landscape as geography.

The novel is one of the direct ancestors of The Lord of the Rings and ten thousand other heroic fantasy novels, but it was surprisingly not Morris, a visual artist of such distinction, who realized that the first page of a novel like this should feature a map.  So I made my own map, in my head.  Morris’s directions are quite clear.

The traveling mechanics are so important that numerous chapters – I’m going to guess a third of them – end with the characters going to sleep.

So he lay down in his bed and slept, and dreamed that he was fishing with an angle in a deep of Upmeads Water; and he caught many fish; but after a while whatsoever he caught was but of gilded paper stuffed with wool, and at last the water itself was gone, and he was casting his angle on a dry road.  (end of Bk. I, Ch. V)

That’s an especially good example.  Few are that good.  For a long chunk of the novel, Morris moved at the pace of three chapters = one day.  Chapters are short, so that’s fifteen to twenty pages.  Every day I would read one “day” of Ralph’s quest.  The pace felt entirely natural.  I fall into the same rhythm with travel books, finding some pace that allows time to pass, simulating the experience of the characters in the book.  Honestly, The Well at the World’s End mostly felt a lot more like a travel book, an account of exploration, than a heroic novel. Much of the pleasure, some of it vaguely uncanny, came from not knowing the map.  The idiot hero seems to know literally nothing of the territory outside of his tiny little home.  “And himseemed the world was worse than he had looked to find it” (Bk. I, Ch. XIV).

About “himseemed” – the entire novel is written in a slightly flat pastiche of Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) and The Faerie Queene (1590-6) and so on, updated to a late Victorian idiom.  It can be numbing in its consistency, much like I found Morris’s expert verse in The Earthly Paradise (1868-70).  I found it difficult to pull out really exceptional passages or images.  Everything just flows forward at a nice even pace – a combat in the woods, Ralph’s first sight of the ocean, a merchant caravan crossing a pass – all written in the same register.

Gee, now that I’m writing I feel that I have a million trivial observations about this novel.   More of the same tomorrow.  Time for bed.


  1. "Numbing" is a good description of the language. Like Howard Pyle on steroids.

  2. It just goes on and on. I would happily read another of these Morris fantasy novels - someday, after a long break.