1896’s WELL AT THE WORLD’S END benefits from a more forthright hero, the inauspiciously named “Ralph of Upmeads.” In a clear evocation of folktales in which three brothers leave their home to seek their fortunes, Morris begins WELL with four princes of a small kingdom. All four want to seek their fortunes, but the king asks them to draw lots, so that one will stay behind to comfort the king and his wife their mother. The three older brothers win the right to leave, and Ralph is expected to stay behind. Yet in contrast to the folktale “three brothers” motif, where the older brothers fail at some task that the youngest one fulfills, the three brothers barely re-appear in the novel. Ralph chooses to break faith and go forth anyway, seeking the fabled “Well at the World’s End.” He has heard that a drink from the well gives one not immortality but unblemished youth for the rest of one’s life. But the author’s real goal is for Ralph to find a perfect feminine companion to remain with him during that blessed life.
Ralph actually meets this helpmate almost as soon as he embarks upon his quest, but the young woman—confusingly called first “Dorothea,” and later ”Ursula”—apparently recognizes their joint destiny before he does. She follows Ralph on his quest, but remains conveniently far behind him as Ralph has his first adventures, coming in conflict with a pair of towns at war with one another. But the real reason for Ursula’s prolonged absence in this section is that this leaves Ralph free to encounter a “Woman of Experience” paralleling the character of the Mistress seen in WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD.
The new character, known only as “the Lady of Abundance,” has suffered bondage under an evil, older female, just as did the characters of “the Maid” and “Birdalone” from the earlier two Morris novels. Like the Maid, the Lady of Abundance gains a degree of supernatural wisdom from her association with a tyrannical witch, and as a result of that wisdom the Lady has managed to drink from the Well at World’s End. Ralph never explicitly worries about how old she really is, but even after their lovemaking he does start worrying about how many lovers she’s had before him. But any Freudian repercussions are literally cut short when one of those former lovers, a battle-skilled knight, catches her alone and slays her. Though this grieves Ralph, for the author it may have been more like exorcising another baleful image of femininity, so that a Woman of Innocence can enter the picture.
Morris does not emulate those authors who preferred women to be distressed damsels, though. Ursula’s courage in joining Ralph on his quest is obvious. In a scene that’s become almost archetypal in fantasy-fiction, Ursula gets naked in a forest to take a swim, and is promptly attacked by a gargantuan bear. Though Ralph does have to come to her rescue, she does attack the beast with a knife rather than waiting to be saved. In addition, one of the many incidental off-to-the-side battles between opposing factions mentions a conflict in which the women of a town don armor and battle male opponents.
WELL’s most problematic aspect is just this “off-to-the-side” resolution of several conflicts, as if Morris didn’t wish to waste time building to a climax. Ralph and Ursula are separated when an evil lord—with the amusing name “Gandolf”—kidnaps Ursula. But not only is Ursula freed from captivity without Ralph’s aid, Gandolf is killed in battle by opponents who are of tangential importance to the story. The fates of the witch who enslaved the Lady and of the murderous knight are also tossed off with no emotional impact. Worst of all, given the novel’s title, one might expect that Ralph and Ursula might have to overcome some obstacle in order to drink from the magical well. But there is no obstacle; they simply drink and then begin making their labyrinthine way back to Upmeads, on their way hearing stories about how their enemies were undone in their absence. At least Ralph does participate in one climactic fight, as he finally decides that one of the two townships he encountered earlier deserves his help, and he aids those townspeople in defeating their hereditary—but not very interesting—enemies.