The Wood Beyond the World
William Morris, 1894
William Morris, 1894
So, William Morris was a complicated guy. He was a textile designer, part of the Arts and Crafts movement, a vocal socialist, interested in preservation of vintage architecture, and, on top of all that, ran his own small press. Did I mention that was a translator and a poet who became obsessed with reviving the medieval romance? The reason his work is on my early fantasy list is fairly straightforward. Morris is regarded as “perhaps the first modern fantasy writer to unite an imaginary world with the element of the supernatural, and thus the precursor of much of present-day fantasy literature.”
In other words, his books aren't set in Fairyland, or a dream world, or on the Moon, or on the ancient Earth. They're set on some world like medieval Earth, but not the same. The characters aren't Earth people transported, but natives of these new lands.
Unfortunately, Morris' works are thick to trudge through. In his effort to mimic the medieval texts he liked so much, he uses a great deal of imitation medieval English. Sometimes I think he might be making up new uses for the words.
Yet soothly if there hath been a shift of wind, that is not so ill; for then shall we be driven to other lands, and so at the least our home-coming shall be delayed, and other tidings may hap amidst of our tarrying.Most of it is clear in context, but certain words are used awkwardly, as if he did a partial find/change; sooth for true, wot for know, etc. Don't forget, this is the 1890's. He's copying this style out of older texts, trying to sound like he's writing in some earlier time. For context, Sherlock Holmes was temporarily killed off in print the year before this was published.
I got all the way through The Wood Beyond the World, which I enjoyed despite the thick writing, and purposely archaic plot structure. I read about a third of The Well at the World's End, and it was just too long for me this week.
Despite its trappings of chivalry, The Wood Beyond the World has a delightfully skewed morality. The story opens with the hero, Golden Walter, having discovered his wife has been untrue to him, deciding to take a trip. In a few chapters, we learn that after he left, his father threw Walter's wife out of their house, and was mortally wounded in the ensuing family feud. Walter is upset by this, but not especially. He's had a waking vision of a lady of some far-off land, and when opportunity strikes, he sets out alone in search of her.
When he finally meets and falls in love with the character called the Maiden, she is revealed to be a sorceress of a sort, in the servitude of a more powerful sorceress. The Maiden has no compunction about using her powers and any wiles she can think of to carry them both safely from that land. She is concerned as times that Walter will disapprove, but as his part in their deceptions includes pretending to be in love with, and sleeping with, the more powerful 'Lady', she knows he can't really throw stones.
When we are free, and thou knowest all that I have done, I pray thee deem me not evil and wicked, and be not wroth with me for my deed; whereas thou wottest well that I am not in like plight with other women. I have heard tell that when the knight goeth to the war, and hath overcome his foes by the shearing of swords and guileful tricks, and hath come back home to his own folk, they praise him and bless him, and crown him with flowers, and boast of him before God in the minster for his deliverance of friend and folk and city. Why shouldst thou be worse to me than this?All of this un-moralizing is especially amusing to me because these are the bones of Narnia. The only reason anyone reads Morris nowadays is that Lewis and Tolkien wrote about his works and their enjoyment of them. The Narnia parallels are especially strong in this one.
The Lady who is the villain of the piece is “so radiant of visage and glorious of raiment, that it were hard to say what like she was”. We know that she is strong in magic, including illusion, although we see her do little directly. She is subtle and deceitful, and toys maliciously with the men who come into her lands beyond the mountains. And she keeps a dwarf. And is afraid of a lion... (just an ordinary lion, potentially an illusion, this is a very unclear scene). Hmmm..
Characters ask each other, in the wild and magic lands where most of the action takes place, whether they are “Sons of Adam”.
In the section of The Well at the World's End that I got through, a different wicked sorceress forces a different young lady to sacrifice her favorite goat on a stone table in the woods. (The young lady goes on to kill her oppressor and seeks out the Well of the title, which gives extended youth and health.)
So it's almost like a Narnia tale for adults, including sex and violence. Only the plots are quite meandering, and the text clunky.
Side note: the Bear People, who live in the mountains, are introduced early on as a barbaric society to be avoided at all costs. I really liked that they were given a fair shake later, during one of the semi-random plot-twists.
It does feel very much like what it is: a step towards what we would call a fantasy novel. These works are mostly held back by the impenetrability of the language.
I do recommend The Wood Beyond the World if you'd like a taste of this writing or are a fan of Narnia, but don't be afraid to skim a little. Read or download for free at Project Gutenburg, Manybooks.
3 Stars - A Good book
Next Week: The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison