Have you ever walked into a bookstore and browsed around the fantasy/sci-fi section only to find yourself convinced that of the 10,000 or so novels adorning countless shelves that only about 10 of them are worth reading? Modern fantasy is chalk full of endless series of Dragonlance spin-offs and 1000 page multi-volume behemoths that somehow manage to say very little. All of this can put one in a predicament: which books are good books? The answer: those that have stood the test of time. So instead of wading through piles of junk trying to find a good read here and there, let’s go back to the beginning.
William Morris (according to Lin Carter) is the founder of modern fantasy literature and The Well at the World’s End is his masterpiece. And after reading this book and the little that I have about the author I find it odd that his works are not more widely read or discussed in the fantasy literature community. I searched the internet and various bulletin boards and found a few isolated discussions or worthy mentions, but nothing like what this novel or its author deserve. So here I am, giving credit where it’s due.
The Well at the World’s End employs an archaic style of prose and a clear mastery of the novel form to tell an old fashioned bardic story of an imaginary medieval land. Ralph of Upmeads, the son of a little known King of a northern land, plays our eager adventure-seeking hero. We travel through a host of towns and villages, forests and castles as Ralph seeks the enigmatic Well that everyone has heard about, but only a handful have ever been there or returned alive. At the beginning of the novel Morris’ style was a little of a burden for me. There is a quite a bit of archaic vocabulary I had to get used to in addition to the rather formal style. Even through all of the 560 pages I had to read this book more slowly than most books lest I find myself unable to understand the often unfamiliar arrangements of Morris’ words into sentences. All of this can get tedious or repetitive at times but at other times I found myself stopping to marvel at a perfectly realized sentence or piece of dialogue. And I have to give Morris credit for the poetry; although less abundant, it is better than Tolkien’s.
Tolkien was heavily influenced by Morris, and some of the elements in The Well at the World’s End will be curiously familiar to fans of Lord of the Rings. There’s a horse named Silverfax, a Fellowship of Champions, a Lord named Gandolf, a rock sea-plain surrounding a volcano (Mordor?), and a scene where the old hiding-under-the-magical-cape-that-looks-like-a-rock trick is employed. Even the ending resembles the scouring of the shire (the hero comes home only to find his homeland in upheaval). But the only vague similarity I could find between Tolkien’s Ring and Morris Well is when a certain character references the power of the Well and his unwillingness to use it lest he should abuse it (sounds familiar). Of course, both novels also center around the idea of the heroic quest. The difference is that Morris’ story veers toward romance (and indeed it is a romance in its own right) whereas Tolkien strays into more universal issues like divine providence, anti-industrialism/modernism, etc. In this respect Tolkien’s story seems to be more applicable to the modern individual.
So now for the big question: is it better than The Lord of the Rings? Well, not exactly. In comparing Tolkien to Morris on the basis of their two masterpieces I would say that Morris displays a more developed sense of the technical side of storytelling but falls short of Tolkien when it comes to world-building, historical authenticity, and emotional involvement of the reader. The Well at the World’s End has a very “tight” storyline in that Morris never strays into tangents or gets sidetracked. The entire book is highly linear and chronologically regular (that is the ratio of time passage to a given number of pages remains constant). All this results in what one might call near perfect style but it also means that we miss those interesting quirks that are so abundant in Tolkien’s writings. All of those “flaws” (Bombadil) and “overly elaborate” descriptions (just about the whole of LOTR) give Middle Earth a sense of history and the reader a sense of discovery that isn’t quite matched by Morris. Of course, Morris wrote as long before Tolkien as Tolkien did before modern authors so the fact that his works stands up in comparison is a tribute to his abilities. Indeed, it is surprising to learn that Morris was not a writer by trade given the quality of this book.
One might say that Tolkien felt a little bewildered by the modern world and wanted to go back to an earlier time when man was not constrained or corrupted by modern devices of his own making. The medieval period of northern Europe was the perfect place for his stories and for the stories of many fantasy authors both before and after him. I felt a similar desire to go back…to the very first of those books that brought us the magic of modern fantasy.