The Well at the World’s End: Important piece of fantasy literature history

William Morris The Well at World's Endfantasy book reviews William Morris The Well at the World's EndThe Well at the World’s End by William Morris

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 The Well at World's EndWilliam 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.

The Well at the World’s End — (1896) Publisher: The Well at the World’s End was among the very first of its kind — it is an epic romance of duplicity, machination, passion, and wizardry, and is, in short, a vast odyssey into the weird. It is a beautifully rich fantasy, a vibrant fairy tale without fairies. It is the most entrancing of William Morris’s late romances — part futuristic fantasy novel, part old-fashioned fairy tale. Morris writes his magic love story with a sense of color and pattern, and the sheer imaginative fervor of one of the most brilliant decorative artists that has ever lived.

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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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5 comments

  1. Dost thou thinketh I mightest liketh yon tome, fair damsel?

  2. Sooth to say, I think not. I deem the aforesaid tale too simple for thee, though I wot nought for certain. Ye seemeth not the quest type, so warily would I recommend it.
    And thanks for the compliment :)

  3. Sometimes its great to read an old fashioned style fantasy book. Sounds like one to kick back and relax with. :) Thanks

  4. Mel, if you use an e-reader, you can get it free!

  5. Thanks Kat! I have an ereader on my phone. I don’t use it very much, but I might have to think about getting this one for it. :) Thanks!

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