OK, so I’m talking about William Morris again. This time it’s not going to go so well. But let me lighten up your life a little before I drag you through a land of briars and disappointment. Here, look at this picture of William Morris. Just look at it. Damn, but he’s not fucking around, is he? That’s all I’ve got. Let’s start in on The Well at World’s End.
So in a nice, peaceful little kingdom called Upmeads there lived a king, his queen, and their four sons. All four sons wanted to go adventuring because that’s what you did on a Friday night back in the fucking medieval era. What do you do, go down to the bar? Karaoke? Fuck that noise. All of the kids are broad stereotypes of prince characters. One’s really violent, one’s pretty much a merchant, one I don’t remember, and one is Ralph. Our hero. Ralph. No, he doesn’t have a motorcycle. He has the standard array of hero characteristics: he’s the youngest, he’s the kindest, he’s the politest, and he’s the so on so forth. OK, he’s missing one thing; his parents aren’t dead. But other than that, he’s got it all.
The king and queen can’t bear to part with all their kids, so they ride out to the border of their lands, getting everyone excited as hell, and tell them to draw straws. Short straw comes back home and minds the farm. Figuratively. Hell, maybe literally, this is a small pasture-land kingdom we’re talking about here. Ralph gets the short straw. Later that night he runs away anyway.
So he runs into this woman he knows in the next town over, and her husband, who are both friendly, feed him, and agree not to tell his parents they saw him. The woman gives him a necklace. Wait. Hold on.
THE WOMAN GIVES RALPH A NECKLACE.
Maybe I have achieved half of the obvious foreshadowing there that Morris achieves in this scene.
Ralph wanders around, meets a priest who wants to steal his necklace, and runs away. He fights some brigands, befriends another brigand, and becomes embroiled in some sort of town-based feud that makes no fucking sense and is important to the plot, but which no one reading will ever understand. Ralph becomes friends with both sides sometimes, except sometimes not, I guess, whatever.
He saves a totally hot lady from one set of town people. And it turns out she drank from the Well at World’s End, which I guess I should have mentioned before now is what Ralph has arbitrarily decided he’s looking for. Drinking from it does stuff, mostly good, I guess, and maybe it makes you immortal? Except not really, I don’t know. They make eyes at each other, get separated, and Ralph meets Ursula, whose lover is going off to war or something. Ralph and Ursula make eyes at each other, but then Ralph remembers his lady, mystical and hot and shit, all in samite I guess, and wanders off without coming on to her. Well, ok, he did a little, but not much.
Offscreen Ursula’s lover dies and she goes off to adventure as well, becoming totally badass and a better candidate for protagonist than Ralph.
Ralph meets his witch lady again, they get it on a lot, mostly in the woods, and then the lady’s former lover shows up, fights Ralph, kidnaps the lady, and some guy kills her while the lover’s off gathering wood or something. Oh, and then kills the lover. Ralph stumbles on her as she’s dying.
Well, ok. She gave Ralph some hints about the well, so he decides to do that. He gets captured by some dudes, forced to fight in tournaments, and beats hell out of everyone because he needs to so the plot can make him the erstwhile favorite of the evil king whose forces captured him.
That out of the way Ralph finds out Ursula passed this way, and is being held at the evil king’s castle for him to come back and ravish a lot. His wife isn’t happy about that, and arranges a meeting with Ralph to ravish him in turn. Ralph says no, escapes, fights people, runs away, meets Ursula, they wander around, they meet a hermit dude who sends them on their way to the well.
Then they do nothing for like six months. A bunch of weirdos from the other side of the mountains show up. All this time Ralph and Ursula have been living together like they were married, in a shack in the woods. They put on their armor again, follow the weirdos, and find the well. There’s something about the first well poisoning people, and the second one heals you and makes you shiny and awesome, but only if you’re naked, and then they walk around on the beach, put some clothes on, and head back home.
I should let you know now this book is fucking long. I’m not even joking. My edition is actually two books. It’s so long they had to split it in two just to print it.
By the way, that necklace is I guess what lets people drink from the well without dying, I don’t know, it’s sort of hand-waved in near the end.
Ralph and Ursula go back, save Ralph’s home from brigands by trailing all the people they’ve helped over the course of the book behind them as an army, and the book ends.
All right, it’s not all bad. Just almost all. The parts with Ursula are pretty good, Morris continues to be decent at coming up with good female characters. The mysterious lady is decent, but not as good. But then, when you get to her dying you can tell Morris just didn’t put in the effort since he was going to kill her anyway.
Historically the book’s pretty important, I suspect. Both Lewis and Tolkien were vocal about their debts to Morris, and the ending of this book sounds quite a bit like the scouring of the Shire from Lord of the Rings. But be prepared to read it like you read those terrible fantasy novels you read in middle school: quickly and without bothering about every single word. Or paragraph.