So I talked last week about a writer who used archaic language really poorly. I suppose this week I should be fair and talk about someone who used it well, just so I don’t imply it’s impossible. Mind you, it almost never works out well. I have a few reservations about this author’s work as well, just not this particular novel. Oh well, no one really cares. So. Ever heard of William Morris? He made wallpaper.
No, seriously. In fact, apparently his wallpapers were so popular, so ubiquitous, they’re nearly universal now. So probably you’ve seen some of his patterns somewhere. He also made chairs. He thought handmade furniture was better than factory-made furniture. Can you already see why he might be interesting to fantasy fans? Let me put it this way: if he hadn’t been quite so uptight (he was a Victorian, let’s be honest, it wasn’t as bad as people say, but it was sorta uptight) he would totally LARP. The Victorian period loved nostalgia, and so a large number of people fell back in love with the medieval period. Morris was the head of a group of people like that, who all started making their own stuff, and good stuff, too. Morris chairs sell for a lot of money now, they’re not only antiques, they’re fine furniture. So they were craftspeople. They were also writers and politicians. Morris was a vocal socialist.
OK, so what about the book, right? There’s a book at the end of this. A lot, in fact. Morris wrote poetry, novels, essays, all sorts of stuff. The novel I want to tell you about is The Wood Beyond the World. We already know what kind of weirdo Morris was (I joke because I love, I promise), so what sort of book would he write?
Very generally, books about medieval life. Wood is in archaic language, and my edition is a reproduction of his original. Morris made amazing furniture, he didn’t fuck around with his books. He printed it himself, with medieval Gothic font, and summary annotations like medieval scholars left in the margins of their manuscripts. So it looks like a medieval book you found in an old library or something. That’s pretty cool, I think. The language works pretty well, too. It’s not amazing, fantastic, orgasmic, but it doesn’t get in the way, Morris sorta seems like he knows what he’s doing there.
The book itself, the novel, the stuff you read. Walter’s our main character, and his wife bones another dude. Well, that’s cool. Damn. So he leaves his home to seek adventure. He sees a really weird procession at a port: two hot ladies, one in red, one in white, and an awful dwarf-troll thing following behind. Guess which of these two women will be the love interest?
If you guessed the woman in white, you were correct! If you guessed the woman in red, uh, well, you’re also correct!
OK, so here’s what happens. Walter decides to quest and find these women. He can’t decide which one he likes more. The woman in red is, of course, a witch, and has a little kingdom of her own in the wood beyond the world. She scryed looking for a new guy friend, bored of the old one, and picked Walter. Lucky guy, right? They flirt around, he kills a lion, and they get it on a few times. But the witch is jealous of her thrall, the woman in white, who has great magical power as well, but is trapped in service to the witch. Walter helps free her, they adventure around on their own, and end up ruling a kingdom by accident, because Walter picked the right suit of armor when offered a choice. Uh, woo?
All right, I’ll be up front with you here, the book is lacking from our point of view. The characters are a little flat, a little cliched, and the plot is more of a convenience than a set of events growing out of the characters interacting. But it’s still pretty fun.
It is about a guy going around and boning ladies, so there’s that to recommend it, I guess.
I will draw your attention back to the medievalism for a bit. Morris wasn’t a great historical scholar, but he put a lot of work into his attempts. The novel isn’t really set in any particular place, so it gets by a lot of problems it might otherwise have – like a culture not having such and such a thing at such and such a time, so on, so forth. Morris makes this book feel like a lived-in place, at least in the parts that are lived in. There are plenty of places that aren’t, and that’s the point. Weird shit abounds, too. That little gremlin dwarf servant thing gets around by rolling really fast, and Walter watches him from a long way off as he hurtles toward him and his white-clad lady friend. That dwarf thing also manages to be one of the most threatening things in the novel, so if you want weird, you’ll get weird.
What’s really interesting to us as fans of the history of fantasy is that Morris does a great job of having people react to most of this stuff as though these things just happen. Is the dwarf, and even the whole vision that started the novel, weird? Yes. But people stand at crossroads waiting on kings, hermits live off small gardens next to their shipwrecked boats, and crazy bear people worship anyone who can make flowers grow. That’s just what these people do. I have to wonder if the characters are flat partly to make it easier for Morris to portray such a thing, but in the end that doesn’t matter much.
So the novel doesn’t quite live up to any modern expectations you might have, because of the characterization and the like. But it’s still fun, and if you want to see where a lot of modern fantasy stuff comes from, you could do worse than read this book.