An exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in London has prompted me to choose one of the fantasy novels of William Morris as this week’s recommended book. Today, Morris is mainly remembered as a brilliant designer, pioneering conservationist and socialist thinker, but he was also a very versatile writer.  He was a poet, translator and pamphleteer. He adapted Norse sagas, wrote Utopian science fiction and virtually invented the genre of Epic Fantasy. In his novels he created his own imaginary worlds, based on his great knowledge of, and love for, medieval art and literature.  `The Well At The World’s End’ was first published in 1896, the year in which Morris died as one doctor put it of `having done more work than most ten men’. There is a two volume paperback edition of this novel published by Wildside Press and copies of the old Ballantine  edition are still around. Alternatively, you can read the text at an excellent website called MorrisonLine, or download it free via the Gutenberg Project.

This is a novel that influenced both Tolkien and C.S.Lewis and it has everything we now expect in a quest story – a brave hero, an evil overlord (called Gandolf), a feisty damsel, a beguiling sorceress, a wandering sage, a wild-man, magical objects, monstrous beasts, perilous forests, enchanted castles, sinister landscapes, fights, feasts and good fellowship. It begins in the quiet little kingdom of Upmeads. King Peter’s four sons long for adventure and the eldest three are allowed to travel. The youngest son, Ralph, is supposed to stay at home with his parents but he sets out anyway. He is eager to explore and intrigued by the legend of  a distant well whose water can grant healing, love and `maybe life everlasting’.  A friend gives Ralph a charmed necklace to protect him and at an inn he meets a young woman, Ursula, who is also minded to seek the Well At The World’s End. In the Wood Perilous, he encounters various armed men and kills a knight in order to rescue a mysterious beauty. She warns him against the murderous inhabitants of the town of Burg and advises him to go to Hampton before riding off. When Ralph meets Ursula again, she claims that the people of Burg are good folk  but that Hampton is dominated by the evil Fellowship of the Dry Tree. Ursula is on her way to find the Well but she won’t let Ralph come with her because he isn’t yet committed to the quest. As Ralph continues his journey he finds it increasingly hard to know who to trust. He falls in with cruel brigands and learns about a ruler known as the Lady of Abundance, who turns out to be the woman he rescued in the wood. It is only after Ralph’s passionate affair with the Lady of Abundance comes to a tragic end, that he is reunited with Ursula and they take the dangerous road to the Well At The World’s End, from which only the strong of heart can drink.

`The Well At The World’s End’ is a long, leisurely  and intricate book, packed with stories within the main story. I’m not going to pretend that it is an easy read. For many people, the archaic vocabulary and syntax which Morris chose to use will be a barrier. The dialogue can be hard to take seriously  (sample – `O wilt thou not tarry ?’ `Nay, my heart will not suffer it; lest I deem myself a dastard.’) but the language of the story is a vital part of the medieval world that Morris was trying to create. He wanted it to be very different from the language of his own day and because he was so well read in medieval prose and poetry he was able to evolve a style that is more than pastiche. You may still wonder if the story is worth the effort of adjusting to the style. I think it is.  Morris was a mass of contradictions-, a revolutionary who liked  to write romances about royalty, an enemy of Capitalism who produced art for the rich, an innovator who was in love with the past, a man of peace with a terrible temper, a romantic who couldn’t find happiness in love. Some of these contradictions manifest themselves in this novel and its hero. Ralph may be a prince but he has neither power nor wealth.  He’s a warrior who hates killing and he weeps after winning a battle. He questions the world order and makes frequent mistakes. He longs for beauty and falls in love with the wrong woman. He encounters societies that are failing because of selfishness, greed or brutality and tries to set things right. It is the difficult journey as much the mystic Well which enables Ralph to live and love and bring down `Heaven to the Earth for a little while’.

One thing which may surprise you is the strength of the female characters in this book. Women appear as wise advisors, gallant companions, powerful rulers and formidable enemies. Ralph may think he’s rescued the `Lady of Abundance’ but this is no helpless damsel in distress – `even as Ralph raised his sword and pricked forward, the woman sprang as light as a leopard on to the saddle behind the foeman, and wound her arms about him and dragged him back just as he was raising his axe to smite her..’   Morris knew all about dangerous and mysterious women because he was unhappily married to one. The ageless Lady in `The Well At The World’s End’ rules her own realm, is worshipped like a goddess and has had many lovers. She takes the initiative in the sexual relationship with Ralph and tells him an extraordinary story about her upbringing by a sorceress. We never really find out how much of it is true.  Some characters in the book accuse the Lady of being a wicked witch but she seems to go on helping Ralph from beyond the grave.`Brave and true’ Ursula (confusingly known as Dorothea in the early part of the book) is a different kind of woman. She comes from a humble background and feels a responsibility to right the world’s wrongs. She is shy about expressing her love for Ralph but capable of defending herself with an axe against a rampaging bear. By the end of the book, Ralph acknowledges that Ursula is more than his equal.

A final reason for taking the road to the World’s End is the beauty you’ll encounter. As you would expect from an author who was also an artist, reading this book is a very visual experience. There are glowing descriptions of aspects of medieval life that Morris loved:  greenwoods and flowery meads,  castles and throne-rooms, splendidly dressed knights and ladies,  swords, jewels and all the other objects that were the work of master craftsmen in a pre-industrial age.  It’s like having an illuminated manuscript unroll inside your head. Morris once said that his aim in life was to transform the world through beauty. As long as people enjoy his designs and read his books, he is still doing that. Until next week…