13 January 2018

The Wood Beyond the World

Gentle readers of this blog, you are likely all-too-well aware of my abiding love for English Romanticism and all of its representative figures and works – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ruskin and the Pre-Raphælites. You are likely also aware of the deep influences I’ve taken from the literary work of GK Chesterton, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers, who represent a later turn in the same tradition. You will also be aware of my deep love for Yugoslavia. And, of course, the increasingly left-wing bent of my politics will be no surprise to you.

Thus, naturally, the name of William Morris has not gone unmentioned here. His intimate connexion with John Ruskin; his socialism, anti-war activism and pro-Russian, pro-Yugoslav geopolitics; and his literary and artistic influence on all of the later authors listed above; all of these are well known to me. He’s probably better-known in the United States for his influence on the Roycroft community in East Aurora, upstate New York, and thereby also on the American Craftsman and early Modernist style of Frank Lloyd Wright. Given that I’ve heard so much of him and that my worldview, interests and even politics overlap so much with his, it seems I’ve been sorely remiss in leaving his books on my shelf so long unread.

The Wood Beyond the World is one such of Morris’s ‘prose romances’, styled after mediaeval tales and involving touches of the supernatural in its storytelling, that were so influential on Tolkien and Lewis. Morris’s language is deliberately antiquarian and uses a number of Old English archæisms, which can make reading The Wood Beyond the World rather daunting, but if you can get past the forbidding elder-Teutonic portentousness of his prose, one can see fairly easily just why Lewis and Tolkien loved his fiction so much.

Wood is the story of Walter, the son of well-to-do merchant Bartholomew Golding in the port town of Langton-on-Holm. Being young and somewhat foolish, Walter marries a pretty girl from the Redding family who turns out to have a venomous and unfaithful character. Walter seeks to divorce her quietly so as not to provoke a feud between the families (a move which sadly fails), and travel by boat to another city. At the docks, he catches a glimpse of three people: an evil-looking dwarf, a sad-looking girl, and a beautiful lady, whose image haunts him terribly. A series of misfortunes befall him at sea, and he gets the news that his father has been killed by his wife's family. On his way back to avenge himself on the Reddings, and he and his captain and crew are storm-blown to a strange land where only one inhabitant, an old man, lives. This old man tries to warn Walter away from exploring a certain pass, but—what do you think?—he does so anyway.

Walter is drawn into the vicious web of the beautiful lady who appeared to him, who turns out to be an evil sorceress with a taste for pretty young men (until she gets bored with them), worshipped by the bear-men as a goddess. He befriends the girl he saw following her, and together they make a plan to escape the enchanted house and woods which she rules, as well as the bear-folk who worship her.

This plot can be somewhat difficult to follow, again, on account of the antiquarian language. It can take a while to get into the story, but once you do, it is a very good read. The plot is brisk, the characters are well-drawn and colourful, and the intrigues and digressions are well put-together. This is probably not coincidental, given William Morris’s and Shota Rustaveli’s shared interest in Persian literature, but at certain points Wood reminded me of the Georgian Golden Age verse epic Man in the Panther’s Skin. Obviously, the two works share a genre, both being chivalric romances, and thus there are some conventional and tropic similarities. But the two of them both have a tinge of the exotic and a willingness to dabble in supernatural explanations. Walter’s character in particular has shades of Avtandil, a brave warrior who is nonetheless somewhat willing to engage in deceit and strategems to achieve his goals and save his beloved Maid.

In spite of these similarities, the character of the story is very English, coloured by a Blakean Romanticism and a longing for an older order, including even possibly its pieties and superstitions. But it is still very much a work of speculative fiction, with certain magical rules which attain in his version of Elfhame and some fine creative effort put into describing the fictional societies of the bear-folk and the people of Stark-wall. By the end of the story, you come to appreciate even the archaic affectations of the language, which lend the account of the journey of Walter and the Maid such an epic flavour.

This is one of those stories that I wish I’d come across much earlier in my fantasy-fandom, alongside Tolkien and Chaucer and Malory, and of course I’m quite glad I read this ‘prose romance’, both because it is culturally important and for its own merits as a story. Personally I’m looking forward greatly to delving further into Morris’s work.

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