The Well at the World's End
Covers of The Well at the World's End, vols. 1–2, Ballantine Books, 1970
|Publisher||The Kelmscott Press|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
The Well at the World's End is a fantasy novel by the British artist, poet, and author William Morris. It was first published in 1896 and has been reprinted a number of times since, most notably in two parts as the twentieth and twenty-first volumes of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in August and September 1970. It is also available in one volume along with a similar Morris tale, The Wood Beyond the World, in On the Lines of Morris' Romances: Two Books that Inspired J. R. R. Tolkien.
Using language with elements of the medieval tales which were his models, Morris tells the story of Ralph of Upmeads, the fourth and youngest son of a minor king, who sets out, contrary to his parents' wishes, to find knightly adventure and seek the Well at the World's End, a magic well which will confer a near-immortality and strengthened destiny on those who drink from it. The well lies at the edge of the sea beyond a wall of mountains called "The Wall of the World" by those on the near side of them but "The Wall of Strife" by the more peaceful and egalitarian people who live on the seaward side.
Ralph meets a mysterious lady who has drunk from the well, and they become lovers. Together and separately, they face many foes and dangers including brigands, slave traders, unscrupulous rulers and treacherous fellow travellers. The lady is killed, but with the help of Ursula, another maiden whom Ralph meets upon the way, and the Sage of Sweveham, an ancient hermit who has also drunk of the well, Ralph eventually attains the Well, after many more adventures. The outward journey takes more than a year. Returning from the well, Ralph, Ursula and the Sage find that some of the poor oppressed folk they had helped on the way to the well have righted grave wrongs, increased prosperity and reduced the level of strife in the city-state kingdoms along the way. The wayfarers must now decide whether they can settle down to a righteous but stodgy life at Ralph's home kingdom now that they have learned so much and become near-immortal, or are called to further heroism in the wider world.
Reception and influence
On its publication, The Well at the World's End was praised by H. G. Wells, who compared the book to Malory and admired its writing style: "all the workmanship of the book is stout oaken stuff, that must needs endure and preserve the memory of one of the stoutest, cleanest lives that has been lived in these latter days". 
Although the novel is relatively obscure by today's standards, it has had a significant influence on many notable fantasy authors. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien both seem to have found inspiration in The Well at the World's End: ancient tables of stone, a "King Peter", and a quick, white horse named "Shadowfax" are only a few.
The Ballantine one-volume paperback edition has what appears to be a quotation from C. S. Lewis on the back cover: "I have been more curious about travels from Upmeads to Utterbol than about those recorded in Hokluyt. The magic in THE WELL AT THE WORLD'S END is that it is an image of the truth. If to love story is to love excitement, then I ought to be the greatest lover of excitement alive!" This passage is actually a pastiche of phrases from Lewis' essay "On Stories" (anthologised in several collections, including Of This and Other Worlds, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., Glasgow, 1982: pp. 25–45), and distorts Lewis' original meaning. He does not say that "the magic in the book" is an image of the truth, but that he is "not sure, on second thoughts, that the slow fading of the magic in The Well at the World's End is, after all, a blemish. It is an image of the truth" (p. 45).
As for "excitement," which Lewis defines as "the alternate tension and appeasement of imagined anxiety" (p. 29), his original point is not that he is a great lover of excitement, but that some readers, including himself, seek literary experiences other than excitement in tales: "If to love Story is to love excitement then I ought to be the greatest lover of excitement alive. But the fact is that what is said to be the most 'exciting' novel in the world, The Three Musketeers, makes no appeal to me at all" (p. 29). Lewis is thus explicitly not the "greatest lover of excitement alive."
In an October 1914 letter to his future wife, Tolkien told her, "Amongst other work I am trying to turn one of the short stories [of the Finnish Kalevala] ... into a short story somewhat on the lines of Morris's romances with chunks of poetry in between."
The same title was used by Scottish writer Neil Gunn for his 1948 book.
The Well at the World's End, Folk Tales of Scotland, retold by Norah and William Montgomerie was first published in 1956 by The Hogarth Press. The latest edition is now named The Folk Tales of Scotland. The Well at the World's End and Other Stories, retold by Norah and William Montgomerie, published in 2005 by The Mercat Press and, more recently by Birlinn Ltd. (in 2008).
- The Well at the World's End title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- The Well at the World's End at Project Gutenberg