The Wood Beyond the World Critical Essays

William Morris


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

William Morris was a poet, artist, craftsman, defender of ancient buildings, and prominent spokesman for Marxist socialism. Late in his life he turned to the writing of prose romances, possibly more for his own amusement than for any potential readers. His earliest works, such as A Tale of the House of the Wolfings, and All the Kindreds of the Mark (1889), were historical fiction, but in The Wood Beyond the World Morris broke away from history to heroic fantasy and by so doing became a forerunner of that popular genre.

There are similarities between Morris’ historical fiction and his later fantasies. The Wood Beyond the World is set in what is best described as an idealized medieval world, a world of great deeds, beautiful maidens, evil villains, sword-bearing warriors, and kings and queens. Golden Walter’s world is not precisely that of the Middle Ages. The most obvious difference is the element of magical power possessed by the Lady and also by the Maid until she escapes from the Golden House. The Maid had the ability to disguise the King’s Son as Walter in order to mislead the Lady. In addition, there is almost no mention of religion, except for a corrupted reference to Muhammad. Of Christianity, which loomed so large in the Middle Ages, there is nothing except that Walter was crowned in an unspecified church, “for that folk was not miscreant.”

The landscape is also generalized. Morris obviously created a pre-or a postindustrial world, but there is nothing in the novel to give the reader any clue that the story is set in any specific environment. The title suggests that Morris consciously set his tale in a land “beyond the world,” meaning the real world.

His literary style and his choice of words and phrases also strongly suggest a medieval influence. There is an archaic quality to the writing, which could be defined as neo-gothic. Many figures from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, from Morris’ own friends, such as artist Edward Burne-Jones, to William Blake, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and the many architects who were choosing the neo-gothic style, were reacting against the increasing urbanization and industrialization of England, choosing the Middle Ages as an alternative. Morris, at the end of his life and the end of the nineteenth century, transcended that historic if idealized Middle Ages to create true fantasy.