Walter Golden, the son of a rich merchant in Langton on Holm, begins the book having married badly, to a beautiful woman who loves everyone but him. This situation makes Langton look pretty bleak to him, so he goes to seek his fortune on one of his father’s ships. Before he leaves, he sees a party of three—a hideous dwarf clothed in yellow, a beautiful maiden with an iron ankle ring, and an extremely beautiful woman—which pass him by. Surprisingly, the people about him do not seem to notice them.
Walter sails to several ports, and while they are conducting business at an extended stay at the last port, he learns of his father’s death, due to a feud with Walter’s wife’s family. He and the messenger see the party of three again, which vanishes mysteriously. The two depart for Langton on the fast clipper ship that the messenger arrived in. They make good time, but then are driven to an unknown land by a storm.
This land is inhabited solely by an old man and a race of mini-giants who call themselves Children of the Bears, who sacrifice any travellers to their woman-god. The sailors re-victual the ship with the fresh water, by hunting the deer on the island, and through the old man’s generosity. There are two paths leading inland; the old man says one leads to the Children of the Bears and one to a different land. Under some pressure, Walter discovers that the old man had to kill his predecessor in order to take the second path. Naturally, Walter is eager to explore the second path. He deceives the old man and while the sailors are hunting he leaves for the pass.
Climbing the pass is uneventful, and it leads him to a deserted high mountainous slope. It is fairly easy traveling and after a number of days he exits the mountains into a verdant wood. There he meets the dwarf, who was apparently sent to give him food. After the dwarf leaves, he journeys a little more and meets the maiden with the iron ankle ring. The two love each other instantly, but the maiden is a thrall (servant) to the Lady, who is very jealous of her. This Lady has decided she is in love with Walter and has brought him there. So although the maiden would love to fall into his arms, she abjures him not to touch her, as the Lady would find out through her magic. Furthermore, she informs him that he is in a very dangerous situation, that they must not pay any attention to each other, and that he must at least appear to be in love with the Lady.
So he walks to the Lady’s house, a magnificent marble house with a columned porch, a many-vaulted blue hall with dark floor and a golden fountain. The Lady is seated on a high dais talking lovingly to a young man known as the King’s Son. She pays little attention to him, giving him directions to a room and then resuming her conversation with the King’s Son. He sees them a few times on his wanderings in the forest near the castle, but the Lady pays no attention to him and the King’s Son treats him disparigingly.
After a few days he overhears a conversation in which the Lady speaks well of him, the King’s Son not, and the King’s Son is given to know that she is no longer interested in him. Walter is not entirely sure that the Lady did not know of his presence. Her subsequent attitiude towards him changes dramatically and she acts appreciatively towards him. He offers his services as her squire, but she is unsatisfied with him acting as a servant and invites him more as an equal. He accompanies her on a hunt, which results in losing the stag, but Walter rescues the Lady from a lion. (Walter later discovers that the lion never existed) The Lady places him in situations where he is attracted to her beauty and he ends up spending the night with her, as he could see no way out of it.
Eventually the maiden tells him to meet her in the evening. She realizes that she was overheard by the dwarf, so she meets him again and changes the location. The Lady invites him to an excellent meal and tells him to call on her in the late evening. Walter chooses to tryst with the maiden, who is a bit late, arriving some time after a blood-curdling yell. She informs him that the Lady is dead and they flee the country. They are discovered by the dwarf, whom Walter kills.
They pass the mountain-plain uneventfully, with the maiden telling what happened to her, repeatedly asking his forgiveness of her unladylike actions and in fear that he would reject her. She explains a bit more of the evil of the Lady and explains the apparitions of the three of them to him, which the Lady caused with her magic. When the dwarf overheard her tryst with Walter, she told the King’s Son, who was pushing her to give herself to him, to meet him at the time. She gave him a sleeping potion, but joined him in bed so that the Lady would know that she had been there. The maiden has a certain store of magic herself, which she used to transform the King’s Son into a likeness of Walter. The Lady, when she saw that Walter stood her up, came to the tryst room, saw him apparently lying there, and killed the King’s Son. Then, regretting her decision to kill her (apparent) lover, killed herself.
In order to leave the island, the two must pass through the land of the Children of the Bears. (It is not explained why they could not return the way Walter originally took.) In order to not be sacrificed to their god, the maiden plans to convince them that she is the new deity, since they have gone through several women gods over the many years. She dresses herself in garlands of flowers, which wilt quite nicely by the time they arrive. They are greeted by the Children of the Bears and ask to speak to the entire tribe (which they would have been forced to do anyway). They are fed nicely and sleep. In the morning they arrive at the Doom-circle and there the maiden proclaims herself the god, promises them rain, and proves her deity by making her wilted flowers become alive and fragrant. The Children of the Bears send them on their way and the maiden gives them a new command to not sacrifice any more foreigners to her.
The maiden runs ahead and Walter is separated from her in the fierce rainstorm that follows. (It is unclear if the rain was her doing) He spend the next couple of nights in misery, crying out for her. He finds her in the field the next day, discovering that she had overhead him and that she was much amazed and relieved at his love for her. They continue on the road and arrive at a pavilion of warriors, whereupon they are grandly escorted, separately, to the city of Stark-wall.
After an evening’s rest, he is taken, naked, to a bath, and then escorted, still naked, through a row of warriors. He is then shown two sets of clothes: that of a peaceful ruler and that of a warrior. He chooses the latter and a great cheer is given by the assembled crowd of warriors. It is then explained to him that when there is no heir to the throne, it is the city’s custom to choose as their king a wanderer from the pass. If the wanderer is unblemished in body, he becomes a thrall. If the wanderer chooses the peaceful raiment, his wisdom is examined. If he is unwise, he becomes a thrall, otherwise he becomes king. If he chooses the warrior’s garb, he automatically becomes king, as this is apparently the choice of Character.
He sends for the maiden, who comes kneeling at his feet, amazed that he is really a king. He invites her to the chair next to him and they are greeted by the crowd. They then go to the church where they are crowned (and presumably married). She is much beloved by the people and he defeats his enemies, leads the empire to greatness, and founds a long and strong dynasty.
This is one of those stories that strikes one as truly novel. This is perhaps partly because it is an attempt by Morris to resurrect the medieval romance, which has values alien to modern thought. It is also partly because it seems to be exactly what a fairy-tale is about: defeating evil, finding your true love along the way, and becoming great. Perhaps, too, it is because so many other works have clearly borrowed from it. The Green Lady of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair is reminiscent of Morris’ Lady, in the type of evil, and in the way her consort addresses her. (The children in the book also travel through a land of giants and the rescued prince becomes King of Narnia.) The city and the love story of the movie “Stardust” are also reminiscent of this book.
An important factor in the effectiveness of the story is the quality of the love story. It does strain the belief that two people would fall so deeply in love with each other at first sight that they would risk their lives for each other, and rather more is mentioned about physical beauty than about character (partly because character is apparently immediately visible to the people in the book). But the descriptions of love seem effective: the longing for each other when separated, the fear that the other does not really love them, the fear that the other person will not forgive their unseemly actions, and the appreciation of the woman for being valued. At one point the maiden (who is never given a name) confesses that she is afraid of the wilderness, because of her fear that the Lady is somehow still alive. Walter replies that he is not fond of towns, given his experience with his wife, although he will live in one for her sake. This exchange, among others, gives the characters depth and reveals the love to a commitment to he other’s well-being, not just an emotional, physical love.
The book is a bit difficult to read, partly because the calligraphy is not easily read (although it is nice looking). But forsooth, the language is archaic, and fillest with words which we moderns wot not. But those are minor points. The story is engaging, the love story well done, and has interesting ideas. The work is known to have influenced both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, and I can think of no better endorsement.
Obviously this book will be around in 100 years. Somehow it fulfills the archetype of fantasy stories. I only have a few minor complaints. One is that the language is archaic, but the setting seems to be in the mid to late 1800s, which seems out of place. The second is that while I like calligraphic lettering, it is not well suited to ease of reading.
|The Lady||Can project herself and people in remote places. Also has ways of telling if her maid has touched someone in love, although these seem partly psychological. Can create visions of things that do not exist (e.g. the lion). Has access to hidden locations (the house where they spend the night)|
|The maiden||Has a store of maiden-magic. She can make things appear differently. Can restore life to dead vegetation. Does not appear to be offensive magic. Her magic ends when she ceases to be a maiden.|
- Value: Character is better than beauty
- Value: Good character is rewarded, bad character punished
- Value: The King should be wise, the Queen beautiful, and both revered by the people
- Value: Women of good character remain pure. (Men it seems like it is merely recommended)
- Uses kennings from time to time.
- Uses archaic language to try to capture a medieval feeling.
- The fear that the other will cease loving or not be able to accept the other’s bad actions is a recurring theme.
|Walter Golden||25 years old, loves his father, good character. Seems drawn by beauty, although always appears to prefer the maid, even in the visions. Does not seem to have much attachment to the people he travels with (the maiden aside), although this is probably a literary artifact.|
|The Maid||Does not remember much of her past. Was taught maiden-magic by an old woman. Because the Lady’s thrall, and when the Lady discovered her magic, she became jealous|
|The Lady||Extremely beautiful, but very self-seeking. Draws men to her to satisfy her, particularly sexually, then tires of them and they end up dying. Abuses her thrall, but has some motive for not outright killing her. Lies and seduces to get what she wants.|
|The dwarf||King of the dwarves in the Lady’s land, but is substantially smarter than the rest. Is very beast-like in appearance, and his speach is like that of an animal. Wants to despoil the Maid, but is prevented by the Lady and, later, Walter.|
|Children of the Bear||Pseudo-giants. Primitive humans, somewhat larger than normal. Foreigners are either sacrificed to their god, killed (if they are of bad character), or listened to if they come bearing requests of help from a foreign land (apparently this is rare). Dress in skins, although they apparently come by pure copper and gold (which they do not have a use for).|
|Old man||Lives alone on the land. Farms and trades with the Children of the Bear. Killed someone who prevented him from taking the road to the Lady’s domain. Probably is the third man of good character referred to by the maiden.|
|Bartholomew Golden||Father of Walter. Successful businessman who loves his son. Does not like his unloving wife, and fights (ultimately dying) for his family’s name because he sent her back to her parents’ home after Walter left.|