My most recent project has been to re-read the fantasy novels of the Victorian author William Morris, whom the 20th-century fantasy-writer Lin Carter credited with having initiated “the first great masterpiece of the imaginary-world tradition.” One can certainly quarrel with the criteria Carter chooses to define this tradition, but in essence he has a valid point. Prior to Morris, most fantasy-worlds were depicted as being either the phantasms of dreams, as with Carroll’s two ALICE novels, or as existing in some obscure corner of the normative world, as with the strange lands described in GULLIVER’S TRAVELS or the pseudo-Arabian realms of William Beckford’s VATHEK. For better or worse, Morris gave birth to the archetype of the fantasy-domain not tied to earthly expectations, which would be more fully elaborated by later authors like Dunsany, Lewis and Tolkien.
I didn’t anticipate getting much fun out of my scholarly task. In my first reading of Morris’ fantasies over twenty years ago, I was less than enthralled with his adoption of an extremely archaic style of writing, which sought to emulate the convoluted diction of old medieval romances. However, though during my re-read I still found the archaic style to be distracting, it didn’t impede me from appreciating Morris’ primary theme: the quest for a romantic fulfillment Morris apparently did not experience in his lifetime. Thus his imaginary-world novels—all of which take place in a medieval England that shares no place-names or history with the real country—may be interpreted as what Tolkien calls “fantasies of consolation.” Prior to the fantasies, Morris had also written historical novels after the primary model of Walter Scott. But since the four novel-length fantasies were written consecutively during the author’s last years, the last being finished a few weeks before his death, it’s logical to assume that for Morris the idealization of love dovetailed with the idealization of an enchanted England that never existed in history books.
About two years I had already re-read the first novel, 1894’s THE WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, so this time I only spot-read the novel. It begins with a character named “Golden Walter,” who on the face of things sounds less like a medieval hero than a Walter Scott protagonist, being that Walter is the son of a rich merchant. Further, unlike the many unaligned medieval heroes Walter begins the novel married to a shrewish, unappreciative wife, and he leaves his comfortable town of Langton in order to forget his bad marriage. If the unnamed wife is even disposed of at some point, I may have missed it.
As Walter leaves Langton, he experiences strange visions of three strangers, a woman who apparently holds as slaves a younger woman and a male dwarf. Later he will encounter the two women and the dwarf in the flesh when he crosses the titular “Wood Beyond the World.” None of the three are given proper names, though the women are dubbed “the Maid” and “the Mistress.” One doesn’t need a degree in Jungian psychology to perceive that these are archetypes first and living females second. The Mistress is a sorceress, though one sees little actual sorcery in the novel. Implicitly, since she has the authority of an older, landed woman, she is symbolically a “Woman of Experience,” making her homologous with the shrew Walter leaves behind—and the opposite of the Maid, who is a younger “Woman of Innocence.” The dwarf-servant may represent the ugliness beneath the Mistress’ surface beauty. In later chapters Walter will see the Mistress being friendly with yet another unnamed fellow, known only as the King’s Son, who is implicitly her lover, but the Mistress also takes a shine to Walter, and becomes jealous when Walter and the Maid fall in love.
There’s no much action, or even forward momentum, in WOOD. Walter eventually kills the dwarf, but he doesn’t have a satisfying arc that fulfills his character at the novel’s end. Rather, by authorial contrivance he just stumbles across a city that chooses to make him their local king. The nameless Maid is a little more interesting: after Walter kills the dwarf the Maid gives him very specific instructions regarding the dead man’s burial so as to avoid occult consequences—meaning that she really is not as innocent as she appears, but shares with the Mistress a feminine grasp of magical matters. She enjoys the novel’s best scene as well. When the Maid suspects that the Mistress plots to come to the Maid’s bed at night and kill her, the clever young woman drugs the King’s Son and hides him in the Maid’s bed, so that the Mistress kills him instead.