‘The Wood Beyond the World’ by William Morris
This post is part of our on-going 2016 Spring Reading Spree. Kick off your own reading spree this spring by giving some love to the unread books on your shelf!
Oh, William Morris, you just did everything, don’t you? You were not content to merely create beautiful design or start the entire trend of Victorian medievalism or lead the Arts and Crafts Movement or create utterly lovely books. No, you had to also go ahead and invent the modern genre of fantasy fiction with your novel The Wood Beyond the World. Just couldn’t help yourself, is that it?
William Morris (who, in case you couldn’t tell, I adore) wrote The Wood Beyond the World in 1894 — that’s roughly 30 years before Lord Dunsany produced his fantasy urtext The King of Elfland’s Daughter and two years before Morris’ own influential The Well at the World’s End.
In other words: this is it, folks. This is the first adult fantasy novel.
The Wood Beyond the World tells the story of Golden Walter, a brave, but somewhat dense young man who, after a series of mishaps, finds himself in a strange, magical kingdom ruled by a wicked enchantress. There, he meets the Maiden, who is enslaved to the evil enchantress, and together they proceed to win their freedom, fight magic, have adventures, and eventually live happily ever after. Or, I should say, the Maiden proceeds to win their freedom and generally rescue Golden Walter with her own awesome powers. (Why hello proto-feminist fantasy fiction!)
It’s a pretty great little story with a fair dash of Maloryesque legend and style. Morris combines that medieval style with something new for the time: magic and invented lands. While Malory’s legends all took place in some kind of distant English past, Morris takes that idea and pushes the spirit of creative invention a bit further and into a whole new genre.
Thirty years later, Lord Dunsany would pick up the thread and refine it to the point of recognizability for modern fantasy readers. In Dunsany’s stories, it’s easy to sense where modern fantasy writers echo Dunsany, but the whole genre really started here with Morris, Golden Walter, and the Maiden.
Plus, the book itself is gorgeous. Morris published it on his own Kelmscott Press and, accordingly, the book looks like a medieval manuscript with beautiful illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones and frequent red marginal glosses. If you can get a copy of the Dover reproduction — both cheap and beautiful! — I highly recommend doing so. I’m not sure the experience of reading the book would be quite the same without Morris’ design.