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