Notes: Because the copyright has expired, you can get The Well at the World’s End for free on the Kindle at Amazon or at Project Gutenberg. Make sure you have the entire book. Some publishers have divided it into two installments.
William Morris, a textile artist, was enamored of medieval chivalric romances, so The Well at the World’s End, published in 1896, is his contribution to that dying literary genre. Thus, you’ll find heroic knights on quests, damsels in distress, and scary beasts to slay. The novel is even written in archaic language. What’s different and noteworthy about The Well at the World’s End, though, is that it’s set in an entirely made-up world. For this reason, William Morris is often considered the father of high fantasy literature and, not surprisingly, both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis credit him as a major influence on their own writing.
In The Well at the World’s End, Ralph of Upmeads, youngest son of the King of Upmeads, leaves home (where nothing exciting ever happens) without permission and sets out looking for adventure. When he hears rumors of a well that exudes water with magical properties, he is intrigued and begins his quest. Along the way, he travels through various towns and wildernesses and meets — and is sometimes led astray by — a host of interesting people including a mysterious knight, a beautiful woman who may be a goddess, a treacherous servant, a brave tavern wench, a barbarian warrior, a solitary sage, and a sadistic king. Many exciting adventures occur and by the end of his two-year journey, Ralph is a different person and anxious to return home, for “him seemed the world was worse than he had looked to find it.”
Forsooth, The Well at the World’s End takes a bit of getting used to whereas it’s written in archaic prose:
What is amiss, fair damsel, that thou art in such a plight; and what may I for thine avail? Doth any pursue thee, that thou fleest thus?
But meseemeth to adapt, I wot not how, and thou mayst also if thou persevere thereat. I’m not too fond of this style, but it wasn’t long before I got into the rhythm of Morris’s prose and it didn’t hamper my speed or enjoyment. I did have to look up a few words, but Morris used these same unfamiliar words so many times that I was soon comfortable with them. He also had the strange habit of sometimes changing, inexplicably, from past to present tense in the narrative.
Ralph of Upmeads makes a great hero — he’s strong, handsome, brave, and good. His adventures are entertaining, and so are the places (there is some beautiful scenery) and people (the women, especially, were surprisingly strong characters) he meets on his quest. The Well at the World’s End is not likely to completely satisfy if you’re in the mood for something deep, dark, complex, or sexy, but it’s a fun story and, since it was written by the first fantasy world builder, it’s an important piece of fantasy literature history.