Pre-Raphaelite Reading Project: The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End

For the November book selection, I’ve chosen The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End, both by William Morris.  This differs a bit; my past classic selections were books read by Pre-Raphaelite artists.   These are later works(1894 and1896) and are not the subject of any Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

We’re heading into winter and my cocooning instincts are kicking in.  I’m in the mood to explore a fantasy world and I find William Morris compelling.

Via Wikipedia:  In the last nine years of his life, Morris wrote a series of imaginative fictions usually referred to as the “prose romances”. These novels — including The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End — have been credited as important milestones in the history of fantasy fiction, because, while other writers wrote of foreign lands, or of dream worlds, or the future (as Morris did in News from Nowhere), Morris’s works were the first to be set in an entirely invented fantasy world. These were attempts to revive the genre of medieval romance, and written in imitation of medieval prose. Morris’ prose style in these novels has been praised by Edward James, who described them as “among the most lyrical and enchanting fantasies in the English language.”

On the other hand, L. Sprague de Camp considered Morris’ fantasies to be not wholly successful, partly because Morris eschewed many literary techniques from later eras. In particular, De Camp argued the plots of the novels are heavily driven by coincidence; while many things just happened in the romances, the novels are still weakened by the dependence on it. Nevertheless, large subgenres of the field of fantasy have sprung from the romance genre, but indirectly, through their writers’ imitation of William Morris.

Early fantasy writers like Lord DunsanyE. R. Eddison and James Branch Cabell were familiar with Morris’ romances. The Wood Beyond the World is considered to have heavily influenced C. S. Lewis‘ Narnia series, while J. R. R. Tolkien was inspired by Morris’s reconstructions of early Germanic life in The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains. The young Tolkien attempted a retelling of the story of Kullervo from the Kalevala in the style of The House of the Wolfings; Tolkien considered much of his literary work to have been inspired by an early reading of Morris, even suggesting that he was unable to better Morris’s work; the names of characters such as “Gandolf” and the horse Silverfax appear in The Well at the World’s End.

Sir Henry Newbolt’s medieval allegorical novel, Aladore, was influenced by Morris’ fantasies.  James Joyce also drew inspiration from his work.

The Wood Beyond the World:

Free at Project Gutenburg

Also, free at Morris Online Edition with images from the original publication from Kelmscott Press

Paperback via The Wood Beyond the World (Wildside Fantasy)

The Well at the World’s End:

The Well at the  World’s End can be read online at Morris Online Edition.

Also available for free download at Project Gutenberg.  You can read it there online or download it to read on your Nook or Kindle.

If you are interested in purchasing a paperback copy:

Check Alibris for a previously owned copy.  

This page at Barnes & Noble offers both paper back copies and Nook books.

UK Residents can find it at
The Kindle edition at Amazon is free. (You don’t have to own a Kindle. You can use Kindle cloud and read it on your computer).

16 thoughts on “Pre-Raphaelite Reading Project: The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End”

  1. I just checked the Dover site, and it looks like none of Topsy’s masterworks are currently available. I have Dover’s reprint of “The Wood Beyond the World” (which has a superb frontispiece by Ned), and “The Story of the Glittering Plain, or the Land of Living Men” (which has woodcuts by Walter Crane, who, for my money, is not quite as superb as Ned, but a close second). I also have the selected pages from the Kelmscott Chaucer, which I’m surprised is not currently available. I know it would make the ghost of Topsy’s artsy heart fume, but I sure hope someone creates an affordable facsimile library of his works, using today’s technologies.

  2. Here, here, Stefan! I may just have to try to find used copies of the Dover books. The bookstore where I work has several copies of the Kelmscott Chaucer but the illuminated pages are mixed up with straight modern text. (I’d prefer it to be an straightforward facsimile so you can read it Kelmscott-style…)

  3. Ah yes. I saw that edition recently, and was excited and thrilled… until I opened the book. (Sad trombone.) Doesn’t anyone appreciate hand-cut fonts any more? Or recite in middle English, for that matter? I’m gonna be an awesome grumpy old man, that’s fo sho.

  4. Yes, I’ll be starting with The Wood Beyond the World first since it was written first. I’m sorry I wasn’t very clear about it in my post. I had originally meant to rad just one book and then at the last minute it occurred to me that I should read both. I’m so glad you’ll be reading it as well!


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