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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Well at the World's End, by William Morris

I recently read The Well at the World's End, by William Morris. It's a public domain work, originally published in 1896.

Morris must have been an interesting character. The Wikipedia article on him says that he was influential in textile design, book publishing, preservation of old buildings, and "As an author, illustrator and medievalist, he helped to establish the modern fantasy genre, and was a direct influence on postwar authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien." He was also a "libertarian Marxist," whatever that means, or meant.

The book is still considered important enough that there's a Wikipedia article on it. This article says that "Although the novel is relatively obscure by today's standards, it has had a significant influence on many notable fantasy authors. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both seem to have found inspiration in The Well at the World's End: ancient tables of stone, a 'King Peter', and a quick, white horse named 'Silverfax' are only a few." The article doesn't say that having wise old men (and women) living in out-of-the-way places, and setting the story in a time before gunpowder and internal combustion engines, in a feudal society, are all conventions often used by modern-day fantasy authors, and are part of this book. I don't suppose that Morris invented any of these conventions, but he used them well. (See here for musings on "sword and sorcery" fiction.)

The "obscure" adjective, in the Wikipedia article, seems to refer to the language in the book. Morris used a few words that I have never seen before, such as sele and thorp, for two of them. They don't distract much from the novel. What's it about? It's about Ralph, the youngest member of a royal family, who decides that he doesn't want to stay home and look after his parents as they age. He goes off on adventures. The greatest adventure is to drink from the Well at the World's End. It's not giving away too much to say that he achieves that adventure. For whatever reason, Ralph is very attractive to women. He attracts two, one who would have become his wife, but is killed, and another, who does marry him. He also attracts the queen of another area, and another lady or two. I guess that's part of the magic of the book. He also is an excellent swordsman. Drinking from the Well gives the few that achieve that quest a longer life, and also seems to infuse them with wisdom and goodness. (Morris died in the year that the book was published.)

The church, probably the Roman Catholic church, is alive and well, and not villainous, in the book. There is almost no magic, other than what I have described.

The book is a good read. It's available cheaply, or freely, from Amazon and the Project Gutenberg web site, as an e-book.

Thanks for reading!

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