Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

July 7, 2009

William Morris – The Well at the World’s End

I’ve had one or the other volume of this sitting on my bedside table for the last six months, since it’s slow, dense reading. Last night before bed, I finished it off, and after that much time spent on it I’m damn well going to write about it.

Morris wrote this in the early 1890s, and it was published by the Kelmscott Press in the year of his death in 1896. It’s an expression of his lifelong love of the mediaeval and of the Matter of Britain, though this text is closer in feel to the numerous accretions than to the “core” Arthurian tales. Fundamentally, it’s fanfic – the devoted craft of someone who can’t accept that there isn’t any more of their obsession, and damn well writes it themselves.

A lot of what I can say about this involves “despite” – it is, overall, good and fresh despite the pseudo-mediaeval style (there’s enough cod in there to restock half the Atlantic) and the interminable dullness of every scene wherein someone shows love or affection to someone else.

I think it has that freshness for two reasons. First, it has a strongly English sense of place about it – Morris may have been unreasoningly in love with the form of the mediaeval epics, but he still understood their matter. When Ralph leaves Upmeads, he goes through Wulstead, the Abbey of St Mary at Higham[1], Bourton Abbas, and the Wood Perilous. Those are all good English place names where today you might find stockbrokers and real ale; and meseems that in the Wood Perilous might one
venture at cheap and hope to behold squirrels, ramblers, and suchlike woodland beasts.

Secondly, it’s mostly free of tired fantasy conventions. Well, technically Lord of the Rings is free of tired fantasy conventions, since it was the wellspring of most of them, but The Well at the World’s End has the added advantage that it didn’t inspire legions of imitators. I’ve a soft spot for books with no non-human characters or antagonists, too.

As for where the breadcrumbs lead next – I’ve some more of Morris’s work on the same shelf, and the next literary heritor on is JRR Tolkien. Large swathes of The Hobbit were inspired by Morris’s depictions of early Germanic life, and in his 20s he wrote self-consciously in the style of Morris. He got better though.

The other apparent followup is early Sheri S. Tepper – her True Game books et seq – though those owe as much to Dunsany as to Morris.


[1] The story is set very much in the far-off reaches of this world – the early pages make mention of “a house of good canons, who knew not the way to Rome”.

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