The Wood Beyond the World
by William Morris
Not as big a fan of this book as I hoped to be. I think that I like William Morris the Person, and I like William Morris the Wallpaper Artist, and so I was hoping to like William Morris the Author. It's not as though I couldn't recognise his wordskill, or the influence he had on fantasy that came after—but I think that it, like a lot of medieval-inspired chivalric romances and a lot of the Pre-Raphaelite stuff, just isn't for me.
Our hero leaves his home to escape his awful wife, finds out that his wife's family has killed his father. He keeps having visions of a dwarf, a Maid, and an enchantress before trying to head home. His ship is knocked off course and he winds up on mysterious shores. He wanders into the wilderness and meets the enchantress and her Maid and the dwarf, who seems to be her lackey. There's also a King's Son, who courts the enchantress. After a little while, the enchantress kills herself out of love for the hero, the Maid and the hero escape from the forest, stumble through an unlikely loophole into becoming the King and Queen of some city-state, and live happily ever after.
I can see the general thread that runs from The Wood Beyond the World to early modern fantasies like the Lord of the Rings and then to the modern high fantasy stuff. I think that this lays the groundwork for a lot of the world-building. Maybe we needed something like this to kick us all off. It probably would have been really fantastic at the time, something totally new.
From 2019, though, I think that there are two approaches to the book, and neither of them really left me feeling satisfied. The first takes the novel as an early fantasy story and sets it in the context of all of the work that it inspired. The second takes the novel as an ode to medieval storytelling and chivalric romances, and sets it in the context of a lot of work that inspired it.
I think that a lot of the intervening criticism of Morris's work deals with the story-as-fantasy. But while I recognise the debt that a lot of ensuing fantasy owes to Morris for laying the fantasy groundwork, something about The World Beyond the Wood remains uncompelling to me as a fantasy story.
I know that there are as many approaches to fantasy as the day is long, but one thing that's always drawn me to fantasy stories is the way that a lot of fantasy authors build out the world. I think it's something that's allowed stories like The Lord of the Rings (or, if you're feeling controversial, Star Wars) to endure. The world built by Tolkien or Lucas has always been, first and foremost, a background for the specific story that the author wants to tell—a youth leaves his childhood home, a place of safety, and with the help of a world-wise elder, confronts an absolute evil. The central story always winds up being the monomyth.
But the genius of Tolkien, Lucas, Rowling, Pullman, or any other doesn't lie in their reinterpretation of the monomyth, but the ability to craft a world so fine and internally consistent, that any number of other plausible stories suggest themselves almost without you (as a reader) noticing. We obsess over side characters and mythologies, we spin off stories and backstories and histories behind offhand comments. This suggestive world is the real draw of fantasy for me, and for a lot of other readers, I feel like.
Morris's world lacks that charm, for me. The world that Golden Walter travels through almost seems movie-set-ish, somehow. I got the sense that, rather than contributing to the world that Morris was trying to build, set pieces were shuffled around as if to suggest world-building. That we were supposed to interpret what they meant rather than what they were. What happened with the lion that was attacking the enchantress? Was she testing Walter? Why a lion? What was up with the King's Son? It felt like he got done away with offscreen. What was the significance of their meeting with the Bear-people? Was it just to show that the Maid had magic powers too? Is there a significance to that—because when they got out of the mountains and Walter was unceremoniously crowned king, that didn't come back up at all. And why was he crowned king at all? Did Morris get bored of writing the story, so he just sort of shelved the characters with a trite happy-ending? Or was that sort of happy ending even trite back in those days?
I have a little bit less to say on this front because, while I was a big fan of fantasy novels back in the day, I've never really had a soft spot for medieval storytelling and chivalric romantic literature. I don't even know if that's what it's called. I guess what I'm referring to here is the original medieval style of romance, maybe a little bit of the medieval-inspired literature from the 15-1700s, and then the big resurgence of medieval-type art, literature, and mythology in the mid-1800s or so (of which I think this book is a part).
But so how well does The Wood Beyond the World hearken back to old medieval romances? Pretty well, I think, actually. The writing, of which I'm sure a lot has been said, evokes a sort of old, French, poetic style of writing, a little overwrought but never really out of place. The quest that Walter finds himself unable to resist is very medieval—at least, it feels very Sir-Gawain-ish. As if there's a sort of loose premise that needs to be got out of the way so that the hero can be thrust into an unusual world where only his heroism and valour can save him.
I think that Golden Walter's commitment to the Maid seems very medieval, as well. Morris sees no fault in Walter doing as the enchantress bids him—even unto her bed—since Walter is pure of heart and has, really, in his soul, loved no other than the Maid. I liked the part late in the novel where Walter gets lost in a storm and is separated from the Maid, and when he finally finds her, she reveals that she could hear him all through the previous night and didn't reveal herself to him, because he was just bemoaning how much he loved her (and her body), out in the dark, to nobody at all, and she was so taken with it. And then he fell to kissing her face, whereat she swooned, &c, &c.
Women certainly held a strange position in a lot of medieval literature, from what I understand, and this is no exception either. I think I'm remembering, specifically, The Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend. She's portrayed as this ultra-mysterious/ultra-powerful, um, enchantress, I guess, who provides Arthur with Excalibur, and if I'm remembering right, I think she was also Lancelot's mother? The point is that she has a lot of power, and she wields that power to help men get ahead. The enchantress in The Wood Beyond the World isn't like this, using her power instead to make men fall in love with her (or at least be her squires)—but the Maid is. It's not ever totally clear what her relation with the enchantress is, since the Maid can also do magic; we're told the the Maid is basically the slave of the enchantress, but the Maid tends to do what she wants, until she goes to kill the enchantress (who in the end kills herself). And then the Maid tricks all of the Bear-people into thinking that she's their god by telling them that she can prove she's their god by bringing rain, but that she needs to go off somewhere to do it—and when she goes off, she actually does bring the rain; so maybe she's an actual incarnation of the Bear people's god? Especially since I think that the Maid is the first one to bring up the Bear-people, out of nowhere, some halfway through the book.
(Actually maybe the first guy who wandered into the wood, who's living on the beach where Golden Walter gets stranded, mentions the Bear-people first.)
Anyway the point here is that The Wood Beyond the World functions alright as a modern retelling of a chivalric romance, but at any rate, that's not really my bag.
I appreciate what Morris did. It was beautifully illustrated (illuminated), and it was a decent kick-off to fantasy as a genre. But it didn't really deliver, for me, what I generally look for in a book (well, in a fantasy book).
3.5 out of 5: read it if you're a big fan of Tolkien.