William Morris is mostly noted today for his textile and paper designs, his links with the Pre Raphaelite brotherhood, the Arts and Crafts movement and early socialism. Fewer people are aware of the fiction he wrote towards the end of his life. Probably his most well known work was News from Nowhere, published in 1890. This was followed by other prose works, including a number of “medieval romances”, including The Wood Beyond The World, The House of the Wolfings, The Story of the Glittering Plain and The Well at the End of the World. All published in the mid 1890s, towards Morris’s death in 1896 at the age of 62.
Many people consider these works to form an important basis for the development of the present fantasy novel. Both C S Lewis with his Narnia stories and Tolkien with his Middle Earth collection have acknowledged the influence of Morris’s works. Morris’s works were amongst the first to be set in fantasy worlds wholly created by the writer.
I have always liked Morris’s textiles, and his artwork, but before I came to read The Well at the End of the World I was not really aware of him as an author. I had heard only of News From Nowhere, but shame to say I have never read it.
Reading Well At the Worlds’s End was inspired by Stephanie Pina’s Pre Raphaelite Reading Project, and given my other interest in healing wells it was an obvious title to pick up. I admit I have struggled with it, for many reasons, and have commented on it here and on twitter several times in the past.
However, where books are concerned I am not a quitter, so I have persevered to the end, and here are my final thoughts on the whole experience.
Ok, let’s be fair to Morris and The Well at Worlds End. I have complained I know but maybe that’s just me and fantasy novels rather than anything Morris has done with this volume.
 He set out to write a medieval novel. This is, I presume, wholly consistent with the general philosophy of his other work. Of the pre Raphaelites dream of restoring some lost golden era that we have lost and the general late Victorian fascination with the old simple pastoral life. In this he wrote a quest, set deep in the days of knights and chivalry, and couched in what he imagined as the language of that time.
Therein lies my first gripe, the language. The “yeasaids” and “naysaids” that replace the simple “yes” and “no”, the meeseemeths,doeths, believeths and all the other added word endings grated from the start and led to slow progress.
As in many fantasies, Morris was required to create a world to form a backdrop to his characters. This world appears to consist of a countryside in which a number of small city states exist, each apparently independent with no central government, and in a steady state of warmongering and peacemaking between each other. We are uncertain where in the world it is located, since although the countryside is often reminiscent of Britain, lions, bears and wolves lurk in the forests and it is often too hot to travel in the day. The characters seem to inhabit some indeterminable land which straddles the tundra and the equator, encircled by high mountains beyond which lies the sea.
Although we see these independent states as Ralph passes through them, and we learn a little of their current battles and a little of their allies and their foes; we are never really presented with an overall history to place the structure of the land in context. In all, this world the characters inhabit never rises above being two dimensional. Unlike in Tolkien, whose work this was supposed to have inspired,  we never learn anything about the history, the beliefs or the inter-relationships of the people we meet and thus never learn what makes them different form each other or whatever drives them to act them way they do.
The characters too never achieve more than two dimensions. They live in a feudal society which is for the most part male dominated. The women are seen as food providers and “bedmates” and are frequently bought and sold as such. Only the Lady of Abundance and to some extent the heroine Ursula are able to buck this role; although once the battles are won even Ursula appears all too ready to revert to her expected role.
Moreover, the characters remain flat because we are always watching and listening to them, we never get chance to see inside their heads. This is like watching a film rather than reading, since Morris never gives us access to their thoughts or feelings and never attempts to provide an independent justification for their actions.
So then to the plot, and here I accept there are strengths. It is of a king’s youngest son, tired of being kept a child whilst his brothers go out into the world to seek fame and fortune. He runs away to seek his own adventure, learns of the Well at the End of the World, drinking from which gives eternal youth, and sets off to find it. He returns triumphant, having fought battles, destroyed evil rulers and restored peace across the land finally uniting many cities under a single crown, his own, which he takes from his father, regardless of the claims of his older, and more hapless, brothers.
Morris’s late Victorian interest in sex tends to raise its head at frequent intervals, often couched in language such as “they loved each other dearly all night long.” We find his women are often all too ready and willing to obligingly jump into a man’s bed at very short notice. Even Ursula does so with Ralph on their first meeting, he doesn’t even learn her name for another 200 pages. The lady of Abundance, despite her age and wisdom does likewise. And while he gladly accepts this attention, Ralph worries endlessly about the fact that he may not be the first, that they might have had previous partners and shies away from discussing their pasts, although of course he expects Ursula to understand, and make all allowance for,  his feelings regarding his own previous relationships.
A most telling, and amusing, passage occurs when Ralph and Ursula have climbed the mountains and are heading out across the plateaus and deserts towards Worlds End. He is desperate to sleep with her again, and is constantly pestering him; whilst she, now with the quest in her mind finally decides to make him wait until they are married. This he arranges with the first passing band of travellers they encounter. The idea that she could become pregnant at the start of a year long trek across the wilderness never appears to worry him. Very conveniently for everyone, they marry, and for the next two years through exploring and battles she does manage, by luck or judgement, to avoid conceiving; although once back home she manages to bear him eight children. Now that is a true heroine.
So overall I suppose Morris was going to find it difficult to win this one.It isn’t particularly a genre I enjoy, but I honestly set out to give him a sporting chance. Hidden wells and mysteries are close to my heart. I found it very difficult to bond with the characters, and without that I found that I was never really involved in the quest, so that I cared little whether or not they were eventually successful. The only character I felt could relate to, or have any interest in was the Lady of Abundance, who was all too quickly finished off. The others and the world they inhabited was all too flat and too easily forgotten.
For now I shall retreat to my little Gothic shell, and pick my next reading from that department; however I don’t regret this little venture up a blind alley, I’m sure I’ll take, and enjoy, many more in coming years.