The most interesting thing about 1895’s THE WATER OF THE WONDROUS ISLES is that, if one does regard Morris’ works as the first in the “imaginary-world tradition,” then WATER is the first such work to focus upon a female protagonist. The central character Birdalone is a clever young innocent like the Maid from WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, and she begins her novel as the Maid does: as a serving-girl to an unnamed sorceress known only as “the Witch-Wife.” However, though the Witch-Wife also has a sister in sorcery, Birdalone also gains an ally, a mysterious woman named Habundia (“abundance”) conjures up a magical boat with which Birdalone escapes via the ocean to other lands.
However, Birdalone’s first stop takes her to the land ruled by the witch-wife’s sister, who has under her thrall not one but three maidens: Aurea, Viridis, and Atra, who are “named for the hues of our raiment.” Birdalone makes yet another escape and later encounters a similarly color-coded group of three knights who are lovers to the three damsels, and later, a knight for Birdalone herself. But I quickly became bored with all these minimally characterized figures, who displayed no more depth than mirror reflections—and in a psychological sense, the three sisters are just Birdalone times three, and the three knights are just reflections of her destined lover. In addition to the witches—who, like the one in WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, do very little actual magic-- there’s a hostile Red Knight who fights with some of the goodguy knights, but these conflicts did not increase my involvement. The only interesting aspect of this rather turgid and self-referential fantasy is that Morris gave it the structure of a labyrinth. That is, after Birdalone has used her magical boat to visit various isles, she reaches the narrative “center” of the story and begins to travel back, visiting all the sites she visited before, though some of them have altered by the time of the second visit. Morris would use this narrative strategy again in his best-known and longest fantasy-novel, THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END.