William Morris’ medieval romances derive largely from Thomas Malory and Geoffrey Chaucer. Morris’ fiction invariably relies on the quest for the Grail; that quest is not Christian but primitive. Morris shares Chaucer’s love of story as entertainment, but Morris, haunted by the gothic, dreamlike elements of fantasy, lacks Chaucer’s humor. C. S. Lewis has said that Morris was medieval by accident: Morris was not interested in Christian mysticism or courtly love but furnished his imaginary world with the remnants of the Middle Ages.
Morris turned down the post of poet laureate in 1892 to write prose romances. The Well at the World’s End, generally considered his best, was published in 1896, the year of his death. In speaking of Morris’ influence on fantasy literature, critic Lin Carter has suggested that all the later worlds of fantastic literature, including L. Frank Baum’s Oz, C. S. Lewis’ Narnia, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, descend from the lands created in this novel.
The Well at the World’s End is a quest not so much for immortality or power as for love. William Butler Yeats suggested that Morris’ central female characters are all women of sylvan enchantment. In this prose romance, Ralph’s power to attain the gifts of the Well is driven by his complementary attraction for the powerful, seductive Lady of the Wildwood, the Lady of Abundance, and Ursula, his companion in travel, his steady...
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