[Booktalk] The Well at the World’s End (William Morris)

William Morris is arguably the world’s first fantasy writer. There were stories with elements in them that the author believed was fiction (just look at the Gothic period), but Morris was the first to set his story in an entirely fictional world. Coming out in 1896, Well at the World’s End spans 4 volumes and served as an inspiration for the likes of Lewis, Tolkien and Dunsany. Its deliberate imitation of the language of medieval romances is impressive but makes it difficult to assimilate for a modern audience, contributing to its undeserved obscurity.

The Well at the World’s End is interesting because it is Epic Fantasy that predates the grandfather of ALL Epic fantasy. Imagine you had to write a fantasy setting, only you were not allowed to use any mythological creatures, fictional deities, demi-humans and you were only allowed to base any magic you might use on what was popularly believed in Europe at around 800-1500. That’s this book. Set in a sprawling demesne of Barons, Kings, Pagans, Knights, Strong-thieves, Sages, Ladies, Perilous Woods [1] and forebidding Mountain Ranges, Well is centered around the quest for the mythical Well at the World’s End, said to bestow vitality and long life on any who sup from its waters. Be wary, for many have sought the Well and have never returned, while others have abused its boon for vainglory, and the land is littered with the results of their misdeeds!

There is an authenticity to the Well at the World’s End that makes it easy to get immersed in it, far beyond anything the Sandersons or Jordans of today could ever evoke. This is achieved by a combination of Ye Aulde Englishe, but also by the way the world is set up. The scale of Well at the World’s End is resoundingly local. Virtually no character knows of places that are farther than a few days travel, with the exception of places of legend like Jerusalem, Rome or Babylon. This format and the lack of a map means the world is revealed a piece at a time, rendering it a place of mystery and danger.   

In the same way the metaphysics of the world are not fully laid out. In Tolkien’s Silmarillion we can divulge the hierarchy of the spheres, all the way up to Illuvitar. We are aware, by and large, of the major players and powers of Middle Earth. The World of The Well has scope and depth, but only small tendrils extend into the supernatural realm that is hinted at. The Well has no discernable point of origin. One of Ralph’s loves is the century old Lady of Abundance, who has indeed supped from the well and escaped from an evil sorceress, but what power the Sorceress is calling to and what powers she wields remains shrouded in obscurity. There is hidden lore in this world but we perceive it through the eyes of an outsider. There are dream-sendings, prophecies, tricks of illusion, leechcraft of preternatural efficacy or unnatural strength, but there are no fireballs, summoned demons, lightning called down from the heavens or any other vulgar displays of power.

“But the woman drew a strong sharp knife from her girdle and cut the beast’s throat, and dipped her fingers in the blood and reddened both herself and me on the breast, and the hands, and the feet; and then she turned to the altar and smote blood upon the uprights, and the face of the stone plank. Then she bade me help her, and we laid the seven faggots on the alter, and laid the carcase of the goat upon them: and she made fire, but I saw not how, and set it to the wood, and when it began to blaze she stood before it with her arms outspread, and sang loud and hoarse to a strange tune; and though I knew not the words of her song, it filled me with dread, so that I cast myself down on the ground and hid my face in the grass.

If there is anything the Well at the World’s End gets right it is in conveying the feel of the medieval through the use of language. Words like chapmen, unpeace, gossip, cheaping, leechcraft, dastard, quean grant the Well an unparalleled sense of authenticity. Place names are all the more believable for their simplicity, the Mirror Universe Tolkien. Swevenham, Goldburg, Hampton under Scaur and The Burg of the Four Friths have a simple credibility to them far beyond any number of apostrophes. So too with the landmarks, the Wood Debatable, The Wall of the World, The Valley of Abundance, The Dry Tree. The simplicity breeds a clarity that is lost with ostentation or assumed gravity.

The premise works because it is relatively unpretentious. The four sons of the small kingdom of Upmeads resolve to set out and explore the world, each taking along a retainer. Ralph, as the youngest, is forced to stay behind to ensure the Kingdom is not left without an heir but sneaks off anyway. What follows is a ground tour of the towns, hommlets, baronies, burgs and forests of the Land, leading across mountains, wastelands and deserts to the End of the World and back!

William Morris (b.1957) | The Well at the World's End (1896) | Artsy
Ralph saves the Lady from the men of the Burg

I find it an intriguing series because it illustrates how superfluous magic really is to the creation of interesting and varied dramatic situations and societies. South of Upmeads and past the cheaping town of Wulstead lies Higham and the Abbey of St. Mary, a domain ruled by its Abbot and occasionally threatened by the Westland Barons, where Ralph sees the festival of St. John. After that the place gives way to a rugged hill-land inhabited by bellicose Shepherd’s who still maintain some of their old pagan ways, and into the Wood Perilous. You’ve got the Burg of the Four Friths, a Spartan-esque town of raiders and fighting men with a helot under-class that perform manual labor. There’s a band of thieves led by a lady rumored to have supernatural abilities that take as their coat of arms the Dry Tree, the last sign before the Well at the Worlds end. Later there are hillmen, and towns ruled by pagan tyrants, and great towns built by those who have supped from the Well yet poor as dirt, and lands devastated by long wars over a woman and so on.

But the King cried out in a loud harsh voice. “Thou, young man, beware thou! and try not thy luck overmuch. We are as many as these trees, and thou canst not prevail over us. Go thy ways free, and leave me what thou canst not help leaving.”

“Yea, fool,” cried Ralph, “and what wilt thou do with these two?”

Said the King: “The traitor I will flay, and the woman I will bed.”

Scarce were the words out of his mouth ere Ralph gave forth a great cry and drew his sword, set spurs to his horse, and gallopped on up the road with all his band at his back for they had drawn anigh amidst this talk. But or ever they came on the foemen, they heard a great confused cry of onset mingled with affright, and lo! the King threw up his arms, and fell forward on his horse’s neck with a great arrow through his throat.

Within this landscape moves Ralph, almost a paragon of knightly virtue, though it is obvious that while Morris had great fondness for the knightly virtue of Chivalry, which is displayed by its main character at every opportunity, it is equally clear he is less enamoured of piety, as he mocks the pious entreaties of the monk of Higham to forsake the worldly and become Captain in Higham and almost entirely disdainful of chastity, as he consummates not one but two courtly romances before marriage, though never at once and only the other after the first dies tragically. Otherwise Ralph is impetuous though not foolish, brave, handsome, honest, merciful but not weak and generally a paragon of manly virtues, and his invocations of his patron St. Nicholas ring true. There is not a hint of the transactional or flippant nature of intimacy that is commonplace to modern mores. Love, true Love, is very much a thing as is the lustful admiration the many dames hold him in.  

Then the monk scowled, but presently he enforced himself to speak blithely, and said: “Such matters are over high for my speech or thine, lord; but I tell thee, who knoweth, that there are men in this House who have tried the world and found it wanting.”

Ralph smiled, and said stammering:

“Father, did the world try them, and find them wanting perchance?”

Then he reddened, and said: “Are ye verily all such as this in this House? Who then is it who hath made so fair a lordship, and so goodly a governance for so many people? Know ye not at all of the world’s ways!”

“Fair sir,” said the monk sternly, “they that work for us work for the Lord and all his servants.”

“Yea,” said Ralph, “so it is; and will the Lord be content with the service of him whom the devil hath cast out because he hath found him a dastard?”

There is not much in the way of guile or clever strategy in his adventures, and Ralph is more often then not duped by trickery, which he considers the province of dastards. Ralph often depends on his considerable martial prowess to carry the day [2], though there are times when he is met with such overwhelming force that he is forced to choose his words carefully. Unlike it’s considerably more famous successor, there is no central antagonist to oppose Ralph (and later Ursula), rather a series of challenges, requiring different tactics to bypass, though generally these tend to fall in the camp of either A) follow sage advice or B) Thwack with sword. In the end victory is gained through bravery but also his propensity for making allies. When the villainous Lord Gandolf is slain by Ralph’s thrall Bull Nosy, for example, it is his kindness in sparing his life early on that pays itself back twice over.  

The Well at the World's End Index
Ralph and the lady Ursula

The Quest for the Well goes into no supernatural realm but the forlorn nature of the last part of the journey, a place truly beyond the knowledge of all men Ralph Encounters grant it a status that is every bit as otherworldly as Hades or Mordor. Across the Wall of the World, through lands blasted by rivers of fire, they meet the Innocent Folk, who dwell closest of all men to the well, yet have never ventured beyond because they see no need for the longevity and power offered by it, and later they cross a great desert, littered with the corpses of those who came before them and failed on their quest. The Well’s last guardian comes closest to the truly supernatural. The Dry Tree is a skeletal thing that stands above a pond of sparkling water, surrounded by the dead. All who come near are compelled to drink from its waters ‘heavy with poison.’  

For a while they looked down silently on to this marvel then from both their lips at once came the cry THE DRY TREE. Then Ralph thrust his sword back into his sheath and said: “Meseems I must needs go down amongst them; there is naught to do us harm here; for all these are dead like the others that we saw.”

Ursula turned to him with burning cheeks and sparkling eyes, and said eagerly: “Yea, yea, let us go down, else might we chance to miss something that we ought to wot of.”

Therewith she also sheathed her sword, and they went both of them down together, and that easily; for as aforesaid the slope was as if it had been cut into steps for their feet. And as they passed by the dead folk, for whom they had often to turn aside, they noted that each of the dead leathery faces was drawn up in a grin as though they had died in pain, and yet beguiled, so that all those visages looked somewhat alike, as though they had come from the workshop of one craftsman.

On his journey Ralph encounters various characters, understated by today’s standards, but nevertheless written with a distinctive voice. The mentor-like Richard, the proud Bull Nosy, the wise Sage of Svevenham, the duplicitous Roger and Ralph’s three brothers, perhaps well among the most characterized despite the fact they appear for mere chapters. There is less variety in the female characters, with the Lady of Abundance and Ursula being fairly interchangeable, though they can be sharply contrasted with his motherly Gossip or the treacherous pair of court dames in Utterbol.

Blaise is wise and prudent, but no great man of his hands. Hugh is a stout rider and lifter, but headstrong and foolhardy, and over bounteous a skinker; and Gregory is courteous and many worded, but sluggish in deed; though I will not call him a dastard. As for Ralph, he is fair to look on, and peradventure he may be as wise as Blaise, as valiant as Hugh, and as smooth-tongued as Gregory; but of all this we know little or nothing, whereas he is but young and untried. Yet may he do better than you others, and I deem that he will do so. 

The book has its share of short fight scenes and ends with a climactic battle for the fate of Upmeads against the Burg-men. Driven from their fortress by an alliance of their enemies, they surge across the kingdoms like a storm, taking towns and striking terror in the northern men. They are a departure from the usual chaotic evil beastmen, coming across as a crossbreed between Prussians and Spartans. A ruthless, disciplined warrior-people, taking the women of their foes as slaves and putting the men and men-children to the sword, they are a predator city, each citizen a trained soldier. Their evil is pragmatic and dispassionate. It is unclear what force causes them to break, whether it be divine intervention or a property of the Well, but when they face Ralph in the climactic battle their normally tenacious ranks falter before his might.

Said a burgher somewhat stricken in years, “Nought but sooth; peaceable men like to me eschew such servants; all the more because of this, that if one of these queens misbehave with the knife, or strayeth from her master’s bed, the laws of the Burg meddle not therein. For the wise men say that such folk are no more within the law than kine be, and may not for their deeds be brought before leet or assize any more than kine. So that if the master punish her not for her misdoings, unpunished she needs must go; yea even if her deed be mere murder.”

“That is sooth,” said a somewhat younger man; “yet whiles it fareth ill with them at the hands of our women. To wit, my father’s brother has even now come from the war to find his thrall all spoilt by his wife: and what remedy may he have against his wife? his money is gone, even as if she had houghed his horse or his best cow.”

“Yea,” said a third, “we were better without such cattle. A thrust with a sword and all the tale told, were the better way of dealing with them.”

Well at the World’s End is a 9000% medieval romance in a land that never was that kicked off the fantasy genre with a resounding ‘Amen’ and is well worth reading even today. Quests, tourneys, cheapings, festivals, romances, tragedies, hunting, duels, midnight escapades, intrigues, travels, battles, crownings. If you can get used to the pacing, it is absolutely singular.

POSTSCRIPT: Ye mandatory autistic level-assignation.

Ralph of Upmeads is a tough cookie, taking his place in his share of battles and defeating foes one or even two at the same time. He shoots a bear, kills the maddened champion turned wildman of the Lady of Abundance and he only loses to the Knight of the Sun, only to shoot him in the face later on, and in the tourney at Utterbol he defeats all of Gandolf’s Men. At the same time he is nothing godlike, as he is quickly captured by a band of riders of the Lord of Utterbol and can clearly not escape the Burg of the Four Firths without aid. Before he drinks from the Well, he would be a Fighting-man of about 3rd or even 4th level. Afterwards it is clear to all that he has changed, though never to the point of supernatural ability. When he faces off against the heathen King of Cheaping Knowe and his many men (outnumbered 5 to one or more), it is only the aid of wildmen that allows them to emerge victorious. Given the reactions he draws from the people of Hampton Under Scaur and the Valley of Abundance, who all ask him to be their lord and the army he eventually comes to lead numbers five hundred and fifty four, thus if you use the character frequency rules in something like the 2nd Edition Skills & Tactics, or the variant tables in ACKS, one might place him as high as 6th or 5th level.

Of all the wizards or mystics in the Well, none of them perform feats that would be above the ken of a 1st or 3rd level wizard or cleric. The Sage of Swevenham hides Ralph and his companion from the wrath of the Lord of Utterbol’s Men, a feat equivalent to a Sanctuary or Phantasmal Force spell. The most impressive feat is the dream-like sending that visits Ralph in his sleep, possibly sent by the Lady of Abundance, who on account of her great age and her having supped from the Well, should be considered 5th level. Her witch mistress she dispatches by dagger, but such a thing was unexpected, and is difficult to translate. One can consider the Knight of the Sun the most formidable combatant in the realm, with the Black Baron, Richard, Bull, Otter and Blaise all falling below him and Ralph. The one exception is perhaps the Champion of the Lady, who is cut down as he assails the party, mad with grief, but who at his prime was clearly a most formidable character, possibly equal to Ralph.  

[1] One forest is literally dubbed The Wood Perilous
[2] Indeed, there is but one opponent in the whole of the book that gets the better of him. The cruel Knight of the Sun knocks him out cold in an honest duel, and even he is later killed by an arrow through the visor after he jealously slays Ralph’s first love, the Lady of Abundance.


7 thoughts on “[Booktalk] The Well at the World’s End (William Morris)

  1. This is another one I’ve had sitting on the shelf unread for many years. I read The Wood Beyond the World and found doing so enough of a chore that I couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to take on what looked to be more of the same, only about five times longer. Maybe someday I’ll gird my loins and step up to the challenge…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you the Wood Beyond the World is a boring slog, particularly because it is essentially an endless repetition of audiences followed by clandestine meetings in the hedges in the same location. I also found it very dull, despite the gorgeous language. Well at the Worlds End is structured much more like a traditional epic, and far more engaging. Discovery, varied characters, excitement etc. all of this is mostly absent from Wood.

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  2. I found the best way to enjoy Morris’ work is through the free audio books on LibriVox (can also be found on Youtube). The reader, Cori Samuel does an amazing job of bringing the story to life and the archaic langue flows much better when read aloud. She’s recorded both The Well at World’s end and also The Wood Beyond the World.

    What’s amazing about William Morris is that being the world’s first fantasy author was something of a sideline; he is better known for his poetry and most especially for being one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement in textiles and architecture.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Regular fucking reinassance man, aye, he also did translations (Volsunga Saga anyone?).

      Libri-Vox has been recommended to me as a place to practice doing audiobooks, I’ll check it out. I read it to my girlfriend but it was not to her taste (unlike, say, Tales of the Dying Earth or Dune).


    1. Not really. I am not a huge afficianado but I had my share of Dutch lit in high school and thought it sucked, by and large, compared to the stuff I read now. Its all pretty dolorous, serious literature stuff, very incenstuous because its relatively tiny too. W.F. Hermans made some halfway decent books; De Donkere Kamer van Damocles (The Dark Chamber of Damocles) is a sort of Dutch WW2 fight club, Nooit Meer Slapen (Never Sleep Again) is a meditation on the random, pointless nature of existence but is well written (I don’t know if it ever got a translation and if it would actually translate). Then there’s Harry Mulisch, the famously narcissistic writer, who would actually refer to some of his own works in his books, who did actually make The Discovery of Heaven, a bizarre, magnificent book about an astrologist who discovers heaven, which might be decent but I read it in 4 days for a report so I wouldnt fucking know. In terms of more entertainment related writing, not really, there’s just not a lot of dutch fantasy and sf that I know thats any good.

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