The Water of the Wondrous Isles is a fantasy novel by William Morris, perhaps the first writer of modern fantasy to unite an imaginary world with the element of the supernatural, and thus the precursor of much of present-day fantasy literature. It was first printed in 1897 by Morris' own Kelmscott Press on vellum and artisanal paper in a blackletter type of his own design. For the wider reading public, a hardcover trade edition was published later that year by Longmans, Green and Co. The novel's importance in the history of fantasy literature was recognized by its republication by Ballantine Books as the thirty-eighth volume of the celebrated Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in November, 1971. The Ballantine edition includes an introduction by Lin Carter.
Morris considered his fantasies a revival of the medieval tradition of chivalrous romances; in consequence, they tend to have sprawling plots of strung-together adventures. These prose romances were written in a mock-Medieval style that modern readers may find arduous and fustian.
Stolen as a child and raised in the wood of Evilshaw as servant to a witch, Birdalone ultimately escapes in her captress's magical boat, in which she travels to a succession of strange and wonderful islands. Among these is the Isle of Increase Unsought, an island cursed with boundless production, which Morris intended as a parable of contemporary Britain and a vehicle for his socialistic beliefs. Equally radical, during much of the first quarter of the novel, Birdalone is naked, a highly unusual detail in Victorian fiction. She is occasionally assisted out of jams by Habundia, her lookalike fairy godmother. She encounters three maidens who are held prisoner by another witch. They await deliverance by their lovers, the three paladins of the Castle of the Quest. Birdalone is clad by the maidens and seeks out their heroes, and the story goes into high gear as they set out to rescue the women. Ultimately, one lady is reunited with her knight, another finds a new love when her knight is killed, and the last is left to mourn as her champion throws her over for Birdalone.