My rating: 3 of 5 stars
William Morris is one of those craftsmen/artists/thinkers that intrigue and inspire me — one of an old breed of mediaevalist who believed in mediaevalism and the romantic ideals of a pre-industrial world. The same sort of spirit that invigorated his friends the Pre-Raphaelites in their paintings or his own old-fashioned press for beautiful books runs through The Wood Beyond the World, one of our earliest modern(ish) fantasy novels, dating to 1894 and which has a few sequels.
The story is, plotwise, relatively simple and fairytale-like. Our middle-class adventurer is drawn beyond his known world into the sphere of influence of an enchantress of dread and great beauty who seeks to seduce him while he himself has fallen into the natural enchantment of love for the Lady’s maid. Also, there is a creepy dwarf who yells all the time. Adventure ensues.
Golden Walter, however, strikes me as both a bit thick and a bit naive. I don’t think that the first time you come upon a pretty girl in the woods you should trust everything she says. And when someone says, ‘I have a plan,’ you probably shouldn’t start fearing for your life when you know that the plan hasn’t even got rolling yet.
Nonetheless, in other ways Walter embodies the romantic, chivalric ideals of gallantry towards women and bravery in the face of danger — be that danger of human, animal, or magical origin. At one stage in the story (trying to avoid too many more spoilers), Walter demonstrates the ‘noble’ trait of charity towards the poor and mercy towards the imprisoned.
This idealising of the mediaeval noble class is precisely the sort of thing that made Mark Twain blame Sir Walter Scott for the Civil War, since the wealthy in the South decided that they, too, should have homes in baronial style and act like mediaeval nobles. However, when we see the ideal behaviour that Romantic novels such as this are meant to evoke in the reader, the acts of mercy and compassion and the seeking of the betterment of those less fortunate are meant to weigh much more highly in the nobleman’s heart than the building of ridiculous yet beautiful places such as Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.
That is to say: If romanticised visions of mediaeval life exacerbated existing disparities in the 19th century, the blame lies not entirely in the artists but more in the audience.
My great complaint and lament about this book was something of which Farah Mendelsohn and Edward James warn the reader in A Short History of Fantasy: the stilted, fake, olde Englishe that forsooth doth lie all about this here booke. Nonetheless, the going gets easier after a few chapters.