The Well at the World’s End

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Tolkien scholar John Rateliff wrote a number of pieces on the Classics of Fantasy for the publishing arm of Wizards of the Coast, the company that produces Dungeons & Dragons and its associated novels. Those essays have disappeared from the WotC site, but the Wayback Machine has come to the rescue. Here Rateliff describes one of the proto-fantasy works that inspired Tolkien, William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End:

The Well at the World’s End by William Morris (1896)

If modern fantasy as we know it today derives largely from the work of J. R. R. Tolkien (whose The Lord of the Rings stands in relation to fantasy much as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories do to mysteries), then Tolkien, in creating the genre, built upon the work of many precursors. None was more important to him than William Morris (1834-1896), the man who provided the basic blueprint for the epic fantasy novel in such works as The Wood Beyond the World (1894), The House of the Wolfings (1889), The Roots of the Mountains (1890), or his masterpiece The Well at the World’s End (1896).

Morris not only served as Tolkien’s personal role-model as a writer but is also responsible for fantasy’s characteristic medievalism and the emphasis on what Tolkien called the subcreated world: a self-consistent fantasy setting resembling our own world but distinct from it. Before Morris, fantasy settings generally resembled the arbitrary dreamscapes of Carroll’s Wonderland and MacDonald’s fairy tales; Morris shifted the balance to a pseudo-medieval world that was realistic in the main but independent of real-world history and included fantastic elements such as the elusive presence of magical creatures.

Ironically, Morris did not intend to help create a new genre but was seeking to revive a very old one: He was attempting to recreate the medieval romance — those sprawling quest-stories of knights and ladies, heroes and dastards, friends, enemies, and lovers, marvels and simple pleasures and above all adventures. The most familiar examples of such tales to modern readers are the many stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but these were merely the most well-known among a vast multitude of now-forgotten tales. Morris deliberately sat down to write new stories in the same vein and even something of the same style, right down to deliberately archaic word choice. But just as the creators of opera thought they were recreating classical Greek drama a la Aeschylus and wound up giving birth to a new art form instead, so too did Morris’s new medieval tales belong to a new genre: the fantasy novel.

Morris the Fantasist

Despite a major revival in the 1970s in the wake of Tolkien’s phenomenal popularity, when publishers such as Ballantine, Dover, and Newcastle scrambled to reprint old works by fantasy pioneers, Morris is little read today and most of his work is available only from small-press publishers specializing in obscure fantasy. Partly this might be because his best works are his longest, and long fantasies fell out of vogue in the 1970s and 1980s, only returning to favor in the 1990s. Then, too, Morris offers up a distinctive style that takes getting used to: The first few chapters of one of his works feel stiff and unnatural until the reader adjusts to his idiosyncrasies (primarily a love for archaic words). But the initial difficulty is worth it, because the rewards of reading Morris are great.

Not only was Morris a trailblazer, but he was also a major talent whose particular niche has never been bettered; no one can conjure up the sense of being inside a medieval romance like Morris, with all its cruelty, beauty, and wonder. It was this quality that Lin Carter meant when he referred to the “fresh, scrubbed morning world” of Morris’s works, bright-colored like a stained glass window or tapestry. Morris is also evocative; C. S. Lewis argued that it would be difficult to write a book worthy of a name as good as “The Well at the World’s End” but judged that Morris had succeeded well enough to be worth reading and re-reading over and over again, adding that “No mountains in literature are as far away as distant mountains in Morris.” While the names of his characters are deliberately plain (Ralph, Roger, Walter, Hugh), being those in common use in the era he is trying to recreate, his place-names create a sense of a real world but not our own: Upmeads, Higham-on-the-Way, the thorp of Bourton Abbas, Hampton under Scaur, Utterbol, and so on. Some names, such as the Dry Tree or the Well itself, gain force from being repeated over and over as the hero hears of them in passing and tries to find out more about them and where to find them.

Love, Sex, War, and Death

The plot of The Well at the World’s End is simplicity itself. Bored with his quiet life, our young hero Ralph of Upmeads[1] leaves home seeking adventure. He soon finds himself upon the quest for the Well at the World’s End, where a single drink from the Well can grant long life, health, and beauty. He acquires lovers, friends, and enemies along the way, finding himself torn between the Lady (who visited the Well generations ago and gained eternal youth) and the Maiden (who seeks the Well on her own quest). It is typical of Morris, a great defender of the rights of women, that two of his three main characters are women, and each are equally capable as the male protagonist: The Lady is something of a sorceress reminiscent of Rider Haggard’s Ayesha (a.k.a. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed)[2] while the no-nonsense Maiden carries a sword and knows how to use it. After the sudden and brutal murder of one of the women by a jilted suitor, a grief-strickened Ralph and the other journey first separately and then together on the Quest. After many adventures, including a harrowing journey across the Thirsty Desert and an encounter with the Dry Tree itself, they reach the Well.

This would be the climax of a typical fantasy novel, but Morris does not stop there; his is a “there and back again” quest, and he devotes the final quarter of the story (Book IV) to describing the couple’s return journey back to Upmeads in the most impressive denouement in fantasy before the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings, a most unmedieval tying up of virtually every loose end raised in the first three-quarters of the novel (Books I-III). The two heroes find that their passage on the journey out has changed the people they came into contact with; tyrants have been overthrown, slaves have rebelled and won their freedom, and deposed villains now threaten Upmeads itself, where Ralph must raise the countryfolk to fight off the invaders. After a rousing final battle comes the satisfying happy ending, even explaining how the story happened to come down to us.

At the World’s End

So what does this century-old attempt to revive an art form that lapsed some five centuries ago offer to us today? Well for one thing, it shows how a lost or dormant genre can be re-created in all its glory by a devotee who grasps its root appeal and then transformed into something that can appeal to his or her contemporaries. It also provides a highly readable, moving story that offers a welcome relief to fantasy fans who are feeling burned out by generic trilogies and who are up to the challenge of something different. Those interested in the major influences on their favorite authors might be surprised to find out just how good some of those “precursors” are compared to their latter-day disciples, and how much the authors writing today owe to authors they’ve never actually read themselves.

Then too, the book contains a number of striking scenes, characters, and motifs that could be transplanted into an ongoing campaign and are worth reading in their own right: the Champions of the Dry Tree, which is a slightly sinister Robin-Hood like band of greenwoods robbers; their mortal foes, the men of the Burg of the Four Friths, who wage constant raids on their neighbors to acquire sex-slaves; the rebellion of the slave-women (the Wheat-Wearers), who take up arms to save themselves when no one else is willing to help them; the Lady, a sexy yet ambiguous figure whose history forms a novella within the work as a whole; the Well whose waters grant youth, beauty, and longevity but not immunity to a violent death; and perhaps above all the chapters describing Ralph and his lover’s grisly journey across the Thirsty Desert, which drives home the point that many undertake the quest but only the fortunate few, the destined heroes, achieve it. [3] The Dry Tree at the heart of the desert is also a striking motif and is encountered many times as a sigil or emblem before revealed to actually exist in physical form.

In the end Ralph and his companion, their Quest achieved and his homeland rescued, settle down to rule over his land. The Adventure over, they live happily ever after to the end of their days, which were extraordinarily long.


[1] This being a medieval story, the hero’s name should be pronounced in the medieval fashion: “Raff” rather than “Raulff.”

[2] The title character of She (1886) by H. Rider Haggard; Ayesha gained immortal youth and beauty by bathing in a magical flame, whereas the Lady of Abundance has extended her life far beyond its natural span with her voluptuous beauty intact by drinking from the Well.

[3] SPOILER: In one of the book’s most striking scenes, the young lovers crossing the desert begin to find the bodies of those who failed in the quest before them — first one or two whom they stop to bury, then a whole line of desiccated corpses marking a grisly path across the wasteland where they laid down to die along the way. The Dry Tree itself, when they finally reach it, is revealed as a vast dead tree rising up out of a pool of water at the heart of a natural amphitheater, every seat filled with the bodies of men and women who fell under the Tree’s allure, questers who sat down to die here with a smile on their faces. Along with the vivid depiction of the Wheat-Wearers’ mistreatment and rebellion and the sudden brutal death of one of the three main characters, the Dry Tree remains in the reader’s memory after the details of the rest of the book have faded.

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