Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Study of Fantasy: William Morris and The Wood Beyond the World

In my ongoing quest to learn the history and understand the development of the modern fantasy genre, I come early on to William Morris, who wrote in the late 1800s. Morris only dedicated his prolific pen to writing fantasy novels for a short time before his death, but his accomplishments were what truly spurred the genre into being. In a few short years he wrote such works as The Wood Beyond the World, The Sundering Flood and The Well at the World's End. I chose to read the Wood Beyond the World because, honestly, it was short. Much shorter, at least, than The Well at the World's End.

The story revolves around the man called Walter who is betrayed by his wife and so leaves home to go on a trading voyage on his father's ship. News reaches him when his father dies and he prepares to return home, but along the way his ship is lured to the land of the Wood Beyond the World. He finds his way eventually to the house of an enchantress who lures men to her on a regular basis. But first he meets and falls in love with her maid/slave and the two of them vow to find a way to escape her clutches. Ultimately, after Walter plays along at being the Lady's boytoy for a while, the Lady, her previous lover and her Dwarf servant all end up dead and Walter and the Maid escape. 

They have to make their way through a valley of savage giants (the Bear Men) and then come to a kingdom where the King has just died without heir. The curious custom of this kingdom is that when they have no clear line of succession, they wait for the next man to come from the mountain pass leading to their kingdom, then they take him and test him. If he doesn't pass the tests, he dies, if he passes he becomes king. Needless to say, Walter passes and he and the Maid become King and Queen and the founders of a new dynasty. And they all live happily ever after. 

The first thing that stands out immediately about Morris' writing is that he uses intentionally archaic words. Being a medievalist he throws in plenty of thees and thous and, a new one to me, the verb "wot" (sometimes "wottest", seriously) which from the context I take to mean to know. It makes the prose pretty dense and not in a good way. Aside from the archaism, his prose is very straightforward and expository and so it fails for me one two levels. First, it is not clear and easy to understand. Second, it is not beautiful, it has no lyrical rhythm and makes no use of imagery or illusion. It is because of Morris' prose that I decided I really couldn't bear to read The Well at the World's End, even though I had originally planned to. The Wood's one saving grace is that it is relatively short, whereas The Well is one of those door stoppers. 

The second thing that stands out about the novel is that it gives a strong impression of being a Mary Sue type story. If you're not familiar with the concept of the Mary Sue, it's a story where the main character is basically a substitute for the author. (Is there a different term for when the author is a man?) This usually results in the main character being practically perfect in every way and also getting everything they want. I think we can say as much for Golden Walter. Walter does suffer a misfortune at the beginning of the story (his wife is apparently cheating on him) but this is more or less a page right out of William Morris' life. His beloved wife fell in love with one of his close friends, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and commenced a long standing affair with him. One can imagine that at times Morris wished that he could sail away to an enchanted land to forget about his heartache. During the rest of the story William/Walter meets the perfect woman of his dreams who is utterly devoted to him to the point of murdering for his sake and then becomes the BEST KING EVER. So, yeah, it reads a little like a personal wish fulfilling fairy tale. Not that I can particularly blame him. 

The third thing that strikes me is that it's a bit unfair to its women. Two of the main characters are women, but they are only ever referred to as the Lady and the Maid. Seriously. Now, I'm no feminist, not by a long shot, but... THE ONLY CHARACTERS THAT HAVE ACTUAL NAMES ARE MEN. So yeah, that irks me a bit. 

Still, William Morris is important for two reasons. His works where the first to be set in an imaginary world instead of just in a dream world, fairy land, foreign land, or future of our world. As a result, he was a huge influence on the next generations of fantasy writers including Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. 

In addition, Morris' fantasy romances were self published by his own Kelmscott press and were examples of his own philosophy of craftsmanship. (Notice how gorgeous the book in the picture above is.) Morris was the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement which championed traditional craftsmanship that was simple and elegant in design and form and true to the materials in use. Kelmscott Press created some of the most beautiful books in existence based on these principles. 

Recently, I read a post at The Daring Novelist blog that talked a bit about the potential within the world of indie publishing in jump in on that Arts and Crafts philosophy to take part in every aspect of the creation of your book and make it a true work of art. To be, as a commenter on that post said, an Artisan Writer. I find those ideas incredibly exciting. Camille says she's going to elaborate on those ideas in a future post and I'm really looking forward to it. I would love to be an Artisan Writer.

Next analysis: Lord Dunsany and The Gods of Pegana


  1. Thanks for the link! I like the idea of following in the footesteps of the Arts and Crafts movement. I love Morris' art, but you're one better than me - I *still* haven't finished The Well At the World's End. I just couldn't slog through it.

  2. Thanks for mentioning my post! Yes, I've been thinking more and more about the Artisan Writer idea since then. It fits with a lot of things which are already going on. The do-it-yourself aspect of indie publishing (which is in all of the indie movements -- including music and film).

    A lot of indie writers think about "branding" as a marketing concept, but it seems to me it's also a creative concept.

    (And in answer to your question, the guy side of Mary Sue is sometimes referred to as "Gary Stu.")

  3. It's good to see fantasy that predates Tolkien, however archaic and misogynistic it may be :P I'll have to keep an eye out for older fantasy novels like this one.

  4. Theodric, I honestly have nothing to say to that. :P

    Deniz, I had the feeling that I would be better off going with the shorter work. I can't imagine slogging through The Well.

    Daring Novelist, I'm taken with the idea as well. Unfortunately, I have no artistic skill other than writing. Fortunately, this is the age of computers! And yes, Gary Stu. I knew I'd heard one before.

    Jamie, So far of the 4 pre-Tolkien authors I've tried I've disliked one (Morris), found one kinda hit and miss (MacDonald) and absolutely LOVE two (Dunsany and Howard) so this study is a success for me so far. I'll continue posting reviews as I go down through the years.

  5. Ahhh I love William Morris! I grew up in Kelmscott, so it's kind of the law there that you have to :)

  6. Thanks, Margo. :)

    Vfantasy, well, I really do admire him greatly as a person for all his accomplishments and for his influence on the next generations of fantasy writers (who knows if the genre would have developed if not for him) but well, his writing... it's just a bit dry for me. ;)

  7. Oh the fantasy! Oh the chance to go on an adventure and escape our dull, drab lives. I bet if we could go back far enough, there would be cave drawing of fantasy. Wild tales and adventure. It's fun to makeup worlds.

    I wonder in that time frame if names of women were ignored or held sacred. I wonder if that was the reason he didn't use any female names. Curious to know if he was a jerk or not :)

    Consider yourself stalked. I already followed your blog , but as you can tell, you were lost to me. But now you are found :)

    I will be back.

  8. Verily, 'wot' is a verb, and indeed doth it betoken 'know.' Shakespeare used it too. Im reading this book right now. A year or so ago I read THE WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD. Prior to that I bravely pushed my way through THE WORM OUROBOROS.

    Yes, the archaic language can be a pain. What bothers me most is that, for a writer writing when Morris or Eddison wrote, its use is an artifice- a contrivance. I doubt very much real people in Shakespeare's day spoke the way that characters in his plays do. In this book, Ralph encounters many average folk, workers toiling in the field, household servants- yet all spin out poetic verse. As a result, none of the characters project any real personality.

    And why are there so few adjectives in this 'high style?' Everything is 'goodly' 'excellent' or 'passing fair.' "And he did espy a goodly ramshackle hut, nigh on collapsing." Perhaps, in the original editions, Morris felt that the language was a necessary match to the book design. But I'm reading the 1970's Ballantine paperback reissue. There's no elaborate design- just a book with language more dense than a bowl of pea soup in the Wood Perilous.

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  10. Interesting analysis. I think that you may want to consider more closely both Morris's intentional derivation from northern European tribalism and his references to their naming habits where people were named more for how they looked and what they were doing, so common in tribal societies, than with any kind of familial names, so "Gold Hair" or "Bride" along with township names like "Face" and "Dale".

    I also think you have Morris's relationship completely backwards from what really happened. Jane Burden was Rossetti's muse and model, first, before the marriages of her and her sister. They were not of the bourgeois but were born in the VERY lowest of the poor class and did not at all have the money or security to wait until Rossetti overcame his problems with commitment (which never happened owing to the guilt and shame around his first wife’s death) or even to choose not to marry. The Burden sisters married those who asked and who could support a better life for their children. For Jane that was Rossetti's ardent follower, William, who saw Jane as another option into adopting Rossetti's wants and desires into his own life.

    For those of us in this century, the blatant emotional attachment between Jane Burden and Rossetti automatically translates to a sexual relationship. It is hazardous to view the past through today's lens. In her later life, after husband and inamorata had both died, Burden specifically mentioned her regret in having never consummated that relationship. We might blow that statement off as pretense to maintain a cover of respectability, but Rossetti's many ills and madness toward the end must have resembled syphilis. Venereal disease was not something women of her era could protect themselves from and the cure was expensive, impossible to be secretive about and neither guaranteed nor pleasant since it involved taking poison for a year or so and just hoping that the virus died before the patient.

    I highly recommend reading "The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood" for a closer look at that relationship.


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