Books and Code · A Miscellany

The Wood Beyond the World, by William Morris (A Review)


I am convinced that all ratings of this book are inflated by at least one star because people know going in that Morris was a key figure in the development of modern fantasy and an important influence on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Granted, there are several of good ideas here which are utilized much more effectively by Morris’ intellectual heirs–archaism, medieval revival, appropriation of myth, etc. However, these are not deftly applied here. This book simply cannot stand on its own without the post-hoc crutch of superior derivative art. The plot is plodding and disjointed–rampant with loose ends, coincidence, and characters devoid of plausible motivation.

Walter’s unhappy marriage and the tedious love triangles practically beg a modern reader to draw parallels with Morris’ own unhappy marriage and the blatant affair between his wife and the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. From this angle, the story doesn’t feel romantically hopeful or even cathartic, just desperate and pathetic.

One redeeming feature is that my copy is a facsimile of the Kelmscott Press edition. Kelmscott Press was a Morris venture for reviving old-school bookmaking. Originals must be truly gorgeous works of art. This certainly adds to the effect Morris is going for in the narrative.

The Wood Beyond the World is only worth reading today as a scholarly exercise. If you want medieval romance, read actual medieval romances. If you want quality fantasy, read the authors he inspired.