Long ago there was a little land, over which ruled a regulus or kinglet, who was called King Peter, though his kingdom was but little. He had four sons whose names were Blaise, Hugh, Gregory and Ralph: of these Ralph was the youngest, whereas he was but of twenty winters and one; and Blaise was the oldest and had seen thirty winters.
In the 1890s William Morris
turned his attention from Arthurian
romances to wholly invented countries: The Well at the World's End
is the largest and most consistent of his epic romance
s, published in 1895 between The Wood Beyond the World
and The Water of the Wondrous Isles
It is written in deliberately archaic language, echoing the archaism of his precursors Malory and Spenser. It has a strange, distancing effect; it does not always flow as easily as it perhaps should, since sometimes he looks out for more archaism than necessary. As well as all the "thou mayst" and "therewith" that you quickly get used to, you have to remember that "meat" always means food, whereas meat is "flesh", and men and women are always carles and queans or carlines. But we shouldn't be hurrying through it in a paperback anyway: we should be turning over the red-highlighted thick black letters of Morris's own fount, printed by his own Kelmscott Press. Or tucked up into an armchair imagining we are, at least, with the wind blowing outside and the light fading.
The world of these books is of knights, damsels, monks, castles, forests, tourneys, and quests. It is a medieval England in a Christian Europe, but wholly deracinated of its history and geography: there is no London in this world, and no Camelot or Lyonnesse either. The only places are of Morris's invention: Upmeads, Higham-on-the-Way, the Wood Perilous, Hampton-under-Scaur, the Burg of the Four Friths, the Castle of Abundance, Whitwall, Goldburg, Utterbol, the Wood Under the Mountains, the Sea of Molten Rocks, the Vale of Sweet Chestnuts, the Dry Tree, and in the uttermost east the WELL AT THE WORLD'S END.
There are brief mentions of legends such as Rome, Babylon, Hercules, and Venus, almost unimaginably distant in space and time. Unlike Middle-earth, Morris's world doesn't seem to be a reshaped Europe. There is no map, nothing to overlay; there might be regions beyond that vaguely resemble the Mediterranean, the Arctic, the steppes, but you can't orient yourself by them. You're always in a medieval never-never land, consisting simply of the next castle with its fierce denizens, the next wood haunted by its evil robbers, a mountain range in the distance.
Ralph is one of the four sons of King Peter of the peaceful little kingdom of Upmeads. They crave adventure, and go their ways. Ralph, the youngest, follows them. A dear friend gives him a necklace as a token for his wayfaring.
Therewith she went to an ark that stood in the corner, and groped in the till thereof and brought out a little necklace of blue and green stones with gold knobs betwixt, like a pair of beads; albeit neither pope nor priest had blessed them; and tied to the necklace was a little box of gold with something hidden therein. This gaud she gave to Ralph, and said to him: "Gossip, wear this about thy neck, and let no man take it from thee, and I think it will be salvation to thee in peril, and good luck to thee in the time of questing; so that it shall be to thee as if thou hadst drunk of the WELL AT THE WORLD’S END."
Ralph is young and somewhat foolish at the beginning; he is untried by the world, but he is valiant
and true, and has the interesting property that all women who see him love him. Fortunately there are one or two damsels of exceptional beauty lolling around in the nearby woods who have the property that all men who see them love them. This causes trouble. This causes a lot of heartache
, in fact. It is remarkable that, given the stiffness of the archaic language, there's quite a lot of psychological depth to many of the main characters. They can be hurt, suspicious, jealous, uncertain, in realistic ways. The female characters are also quite strong: though they do need rescuing from time to time, they're quite capable of giving as good as they get. Ralph and his lady are good companions on the long and difficult quest
of the two to the Well at the World's End. It is also a love story
of piercing beauty, tragedy
(tragedy that makes you want to wail and die), and joy
Read it all at:
and Morris's other works: