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The Well at the World's End: 2 Paperback – Import, 4 Oct 2016
|Paperback, Import, 4 Oct 2016||
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I'm not sure if Morris can be considered the ur-author from which all epic high fantasy eventually emerged but I'm pretty sure the case had been made at one point or another. For one, reading it at times can feel like a proto-Tolkien without the insane attention to details of history and language. Heck, there's even someone named Gandalf who appears at one point, and a lot of other details are going to be familiar to anyone who has spent many an afternoon with their nose buried in a story about some strange and distant land where everyone carries a sword and says "thee" a lot. You've got that here as well but Morris wound up beating almost everyone else to the starting gate by publishing his book in 1896 (to put that into perspective, when Tolkein was about four years old) where he basically had the whole fantasy section in the bookstore to himself.
Not that there weren't fantasyesque books that existed before his, but what set Morris apart was his creation of an entire realm that clearly wasn't set in the distant past or existed in a sort of dream state or forgotten land (Morris' previous book, 1894's "The Wood Beyond the World" has plenty of fantastic or supernatural elements but also clearly takes place on Earth, just on a part that's not super easy to get to). For some reason this had never really occurred to anyone before and while I don't know how popular it was among the public at the time, it wound up being a little like the Velvet Underground, where even if you've never heard of them pretty much every band you like is influenced by them in some way.
But of course the problem with these first out of the gate books is that sometimes there's a reason they tend to remain obscure and you tend to approach it cautiously, like taking a chance by sitting next to that stranger on the train who might regale you with a witty anecdote or tell you a rambling boring story for the next few hours. Just because people thought it was swell at the turn of the last century doesn't mean it plays as well now. Society thought human zoos were a reasonable thing as well around that time. Sometimes its best to leave things where they are.
But surprisingly you can generally see what people like HG Wells and Lewis and Tolkien all saw in this book, as its got a certain charm to it that's pretty undeniable. The plot mostly centers around Ralph, the son of King Peter, who allows three of his four sons to head off on adventures so they can see the world. Ralph, not wanting to stay behind, decides to sneak off to find the fabled Well Beyond the World's End, the water of which is supposed to bestow wondrous vitality on all who drink it. Well, eventually that becomes his goal. Before that he just kind of wanders around until someone gives him the idea.
And that right there should tell you what kind of book you're walking into. Anyone who has read books written in the nineteenth century probably has figured that their idea of "thrilling" wasn't quite the same as ours and a gentle, easy pace was their version of "pulse pounding." If you're looking for a deep plot or Tolkien's epic pitting of good against evil, you may have to head back into Hobbit country because is a kind of paen to old time Romantic literature, where the plot exists, but its mostly an excuse to have a series of adventures that tie back to the main thrust in a general sense, giving it a very episodic feel.
Its also written in a style that is unabashedly medieval and while its not quite you-swear-he-wrote-it-while-wearing-armor-in-a-castle level of insanity that Eddison committed to during "The Worm Oroborus" to say it takes a while to get used to it is probably putting it mildly. Sentences play out languidedly, like a cat stretching in the sun, words like "therewith" are used without any irony and there's enough "Thou"'s to make even hardcore LARPers ask to dial it down a notch. Its a book that you probably have to decide to read for lengthy periods, only because once you immerse yourself in the rhythms of the language it gets easy but diving back in repeatedly will make you feel like one of those people who voluntarily run into freezing cold water. Get the shock over with it and plow onward, its easier that way (I read most of the second volume on a long plane flight).
Still, is it good? I say yes, with some qualifications. The early stages before the plot really kicks in can be rough going in spots because its mostly Ralph wandering and having reasonable conversations with people and while the fantastic setting has some merit, just because its set in a fantasy world doesn't automatically make it fascinating. There's very little feel of magic at play and not in the wizardy sense but a sense of strangeness and otherness that comes from existing right on the edge of what's known.
Fortunately, the Lady of Abundance shows up and rescues us all.
Her appearance, nearly a hundred pages in and for some people probably in the nick of time, finally gives you an idea of what people saw in this book, as she tells Ralph the story of her childhood and her encounter with the well, a sequence that honestly feels like watching a myth of the collective unconscious being born before your eyes. Her presence not only gives the book a focus but also an added emotional heft that wasn't quite present earlier . . . a sequence where Ralph mourns the death of someone close to him feels honestly touching even through the flowery language.
From there its more episodic encounters but now with a little bit of focus we actually feel like we're going somewhere. The addition of a possible love interest (though either hotties are scarce in Ralph's world or they're all a bunch of hippies because pretty much every lady with eyes falls in love with Ralph, making this truly a fantasy) and an evil warlord gives the proceedings a bit more spice and by the time the first volume closes I had to admit I was being fully entertained, even while my brain was screaming at having to slog through deciphering the language into the simple words and sentences it craved (keep a reference for medieval words on hand is my advice). By the time I had reached the end of the first volume (because its fantasy, so of course it takes place across multiple books) I was honestly curious to see where he was going with this. Archaic as it comes across, it has a feel both new and old, where it taps into a sense of a long-ago past to create something entirely different and even if it feels like well-trod territory now, its really only because everyone else has been following and messing up the landscape with all their stomping around.