The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris
I read The Wood Beyond the World largely because I enjoyed the author’s The Well at the World’s End so much. I was disappointed in it, though. It doesn’t have the depth of the slightly later book (they were published two years apart), and the story itself is not as satisfying, nor is the main character as strong.
Golden Walter is what I call a spoiled protagonist. He ends up with benefits that he doesn’t earn. In fact, he’s not particularly admirable, despite the author’s constant Mary Suing of him. When the book opens, he’s having marital problems: his wife is unfaithful (totally not his fault, the author assures us). Instead of confronting this in any way at all, he tells his wealthy merchant father, “I’m off to sea on one of your ships, Dad. Deal with the unfaithful wife thing, would you?” (Except in a long-winded pseudo-archaic style which, while very competently done, does get a bit tedious.) He sails off, and eventually gets word that his father has been killed in a confrontation with his in-laws over the way he dealt with Walter’s wife. He starts sailing back, not very keen to deal with the situation (still), and is actually quite glad when the ship is blown off course.
In a strange country (where everyone speaks his language; this happens throughout the book), he meets an old hermit type who gives him some information, and he walks off, abandoning his responsibilities to his crew and his family and everyone else, because (on no grounds whatsoever) he thinks he might find three people who he’s several times had visions of: an ugly, misshapen dwarf, a beautiful maid, and a drop-dead gorgeous lady.
He does, in fact, find them. The maid is a thrall to the lady, and the maid and Walter fall instantly in love. They don’t exchange names, though, and he doesn’t mention that he’s still technically married (I’m not sure that this ever comes up between them at any point). She’s just “the Maid” throughout the book. In other words, she’s not so much a character as an archetype.
She’s in need of rescue from the lady, though in the end he doesn’t rescue her. The lady has magical powers; the maid does also, though not so strongly. There’s some complication about a king’s son who is the lady’s current lover, but they’re tiring of each other, and the maid, knowing her mistress, forgives Walter in advance for letting himself be seduced by her (since not only is she very attractive, but she’s also very powerful, and saying no to her isn’t really an option). Walter rescues the lady from a lion, but it turns out to be an illusion. He doesn’t rescue the maid from the king’s son, who wants to sleep with her, though to be fair the maid says she’ll handle it herself (and does).
The maid tricks the lady into killing the king’s son, thinking she’s killing Walter, and then the lady, acting very much out of character, kills herself, all while Walter is elsewhere — so neither of them have to kill the lady, which would be both difficult and kind of not the right thing for heroic characters to do, even though she’s evil in some never-really-defined way.
The maid goes and joins Walter outside, and they flee. He kills the dwarf (about the only unambiguously protagonistic thing he does in the whole book). They can’t have sex yet, because the maid’s magic will go when she loses her virginity. It’s maid’s magic. So they travel through the country of some relatively noble savages (who are dark-skinned, but only by suntanning, not like those nasty blackamoors, says the narrator), and the maid fools them into thinking that she’s their goddess in order to get them through.
They enter a civilised country, and it turns out completely by chance that the king has just died without an heir, and in those circumstances they have a custom of meeting travelers from the mountains on this road and making them king, randomly. They have to deserve it, but the bar appears to be fairly low, and Walter, more by good luck than good management, does the right thing and ends up as king without having to earn it. He declares that the maid is his queen (they don’t appear to go through anything so formal as a marriage ceremony, and since that would be bigamy for him that’s probably just as well), and they live happily ever after.
As a pseudo-medieval story, complete with old-fashioned vocabulary, prejudice against Muslims and Africans, pious Christian words that never translate into anything that might affect behaviour, heroes who randomly succeed just because they’re heroes, and women who are either whores, maids or witches if they’re not good wives and mothers, it is, I suppose, faithful to the source material. That doesn’t make it a good story today, and I suspect it didn’t in 1894, when it was published.
Too bad. I liked The Well at the End of the World. Thanks for this guest review, Mike — you saved us from having to read this!
Oh, Good Lord! Well, I won’t read the book, but this review was hilarious!