Quote of the Moment

"What's Past Is Prologue." - William Shakespeare

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Baiting the Reader in The Wood Beyond the World

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read The Wood Beyond the World there are spoilers in this essay.

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The Wood Beyond the World contains a lot of classic markers of modern fantasy, including adventure, an otherworld, foes to overcome, and a happy ending. That happy ending, though, isn't a surety throughout the novel. William Morris baits the reader and implies that things could turn out much differently, much darker.

Richard Mathews states, "William Morris and George MacDonald are the pioneers of fantasy as a modern literary genre" (16). And in Morris's The Wood Beyond the World we can see some of the themes that have become popular today. Our protagonist, Golden Walter, yearns to see more of the world and thirsts for adventure. So, instead of doing what is expected of him, he sets out on a journey, seeking people he saw in visions, and not knowing where his next step will lead him. He enters a strange land, where he isn't sure what the inhabitants actually are, and subtle magic surrounds him. To be with the woman he falls in love with, he must contend with a queen and a dwarf, as well as later a primitive people that would sacrifice him to their god.

However, the journey must always come to an end, and so much classic fantasy contains the happy ending, including The Wood Beyond the World. Walter gets to be with his love, the Maid, and both become King and Queen of a land which they rule well.

That happy ending may not have come to pass if Morris had taken a different turn. Throughout the novel there are hints and indications that mislead the reader, that suggest things might not be as happy and perfect as they seem, that good intentions could in fact hide manipulation.

Walter sees the images of three people--they appear and disappear before his eyes like apparitions. So, wanting to know who they are, he starts his journey. And the first of the three he comes across is a dwarf. In this meeting, Morris plants the first seeds of doubt in the reader. The dwarf speaks of the Maid as if she were some monster, calling her a Wretch and Thing. "'But thou, fool, wilt repent it thereafter, as I did. Oh, the mocking and gibes of It, and the tears and shrieks of It; and the knife!'" (Morris 429). This makes the reader wonder if the Maid is truly a monster, and when Walter finally crosses her path and falls in love with her, the reader then wonders when she'll reveal herself, when we'll finally see what she truly is, instead of the innocent Maid she appears to be.

But Morris draws us deeper in, adding touches to confirm those doubts, to make the reader consider even more that the Maid may be manipulating Walter all along. She tells him one thing, but he overhears the opposite when she's speaking to the King's Son. And then, when the Maid finally makes her escape with Walter, after a scream pierces the night, she keeps putting off the telling of her tale to Walter, making excuses about why she cannot speak of it. The delays in the telling lead the reader to believe she has something to hide, that the love she professes to Walter might not be true.

And finally, when we near the end of the tale, Walter loses track of the Maid in the mountains. Walter thinks she may have lost him on purpose. "And now once more the thought came on him, that the Maid was of the fays, or of some race even mightier; and it came on him now not as erst, with half fear and whole desire, but with a bitter oppression of dread, or loss and misery; so that he began to fear that she had won his love to leave him and forget him for a new-comer, after the wont of fay-women, as old tales tell" (Morris 1645). This begins to confirm the doubts and fears that Morris had planted for the reader to follow.

But of course the Maid eventually finds Walter and allays his fears. They both come across a city, and Walter is chosen to be their new king. He takes the Maid as his queen, and she finally gives her innocence to him. She doesn't turn out to be a monster after all.

I must admit, the dark fantasist in me kind of wished for the hidden reveal, that the Maid was truly the Wretch and Thing the dwarf had claimed her to be and had played Walter as a fool all along. But Morris laid things out wonderfully, misleading the reader into thinking that this evil was a possibility, which made The Wood Beyond the World a great read. And yea, I verily look forward to reading more of his novels at a future time.

Works Cited

Mathews, Richard. Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination. Routledge: New York, 2002.
Morris, William. The Wood Beyond the World. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1913. Project Gutenberg, 2007. Kindle Edition.

NEXT UP: A list of some Classic Fantasy must reads!

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