Yet I think those who love fantasy in the vein of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien – two writers whose own works owe a debt to Morris' tale – this book belongs on the must-read shelf.
The story is basic, an echo of many tales found in folklore and in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm: Ralph, the fourth and youngest son of a minor king, sets out in search of the Well at the World's End, a magical source that confers near-immortality and strengthened destiny on those who drink from it. After many adventures – including the loss of a lady he loves – Ralph and two companions find the well, and drink from it. The three then face a new decision, whether to settle down to a righteous but stodgy life in Ralph's home kingdom, or set out as almost immortal heroes to right the wrongs in a wider world.
In spite of – or maybe because of – the familiarity of the tale, Morris' book was well received on publication. H.G. Wells compared the book to the writings of Malory, calling the book's workmanship “stout oaken stuff.” And, among parallels to the world Tolkien creates in Lord of the Rings, when Ralph finally returns home after all his adventures, it's to find his homeland overrun by brigands that must be conquered. He uses the strength he has gained on his quest for the Well to rouse the countryside and drive them out.
Author of the Well, William Morris wrote and published poetry, fiction and translations of ancient and medieval texts throughout his life. He also was a textile designer and socialist, and he had a lifelong interest in architecture that led him, in 1877, to found the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
He was associated both with the English Arts and Crafts Movement and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – the latter an organization of English painters, poets and critics who rejected the classical poses and compositions of Raphael in particular as being a corrupting influence on art. Pre-Raphaelites were fascinated by medieval culture, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative integrity lost in later eras.
Morris began the series of “prose romances,” works that included The Well at the World's End, during the last nine years of his life. They were attempts to revive the genre of medieval romance. In fact, as the first novels set in an entirely invented fantasy world, they paved the way for the later works of authors such as Lewis and Tolkien.