King Peter of Upmeads had four sons, who tired of their life in the small, unexciting kingdom, and they sought their father’s permission to seek adventure outside the kingdom. King Peter had them draw straws, with the short straw remaining with him, as he needed one son to help guard the kingdom. The youngest, Ralph, drew the short straw, but the next morning he left without telling anyone. He went south, exiting Upmeads and coming first to a cheaping-town (a town with a market), where he visited Clement and Katherine. Dame Katherine was his gossip (similar to a godmother), and wanted to love him as a son. She gave him a pair of beads for protection, and a bag of money. She also mentioned the Well at the World’s End (frequently written in all caps), and in answer to his questions, Clement said that drinking from the Well was supposed to remove pain and sorrow, extend life, and make the drinker irresistable. Taking his leave, Ralph crossed the downs, lunching and sharing his wine with the shepherds there. Shortly before the gates were closed that night he came to Higham-on-the-way, which he spent in the Abbot’s guesthouse.
The next day, on his way to the Wood Perilous, he lunched at a small alehouse, owned by a maiden and her brother. The maiden was sorrowful because her love had gone to the Wood Perilous some while back and was presumed killed by the men of the Dry Tree, who were known to be robbers. She said she would go to the Well at the World’s End to ease her sorrows. Ralph liked her, and the feeling was mutual, and they kissed much, but Ralph left. At the want-way (intersection of two roads) in the Wood, Ralph found several adventures. First he met a party of knights taking some captured robbers. They had to leave suddenly, and then came two men leading a woman with a rope around her neck. Ralph questioned them, and one set on him with a spear, so he killed them. The woman thanked him for rescuing her, although she suggested that perhaps she would have rescued herself shortly. She was very lovely, and she kissed him and left. Then the maiden came, but sensed that something had changed since the previous day, and that he was not in love with her, so she went to seek the Well by herself. After that he met a man, Roger, fleeing from bondage among the robbers of the Dry Tree, who led him to the Burg of the Four Friths.
Both the Burg and the man were a little sketchy. Roger seemed to not be telling the full truth, and seemed like he might be one of the Dry Tree himself, as he talked about a rescue of some prisoners. The Burghers themselves complained of a witch-woman who would continually set the prisoners free. The Burg had a number of scantily-clad, but beautiful yellow-haired slaves, which was odd, as was the fact that he could not buy arms in the town without a license. As time progressed, Roger pressed upon him the need to leave the town stealthily, as they would force him into their armed service in their war with the Wheat-Wearers otherwise. So, misgiving aside, he let Roger lead him out of the town. It transpired that Roger was, indeed, of the men of the Dry Tree, but he seemed to have no desire to harm Ralph. And he suggested that they go to a place he knew of, which would be a blessing for Roger and also a place where he could meet the woman.
The next day they arrived at the Castle of Abundance. The Lady of the castle was away for some time, but he was invited to stay there. The caretaker-woman (who was rather over-fawning of him) suggested various diversions for him. So he talked to the peasants in the fields about the castle, who were tending a bountiful crop. It seemed that all the men adored the Lady, while the women seemed annoyed with her, perhaps because she had always been young and beautiful for as long as they were alive. The people of the land knew little about the Well at the World’s End, save that it was perilous and that maybe only him who was loved by all women would be successful in reaching it. (Judging by the universal reaction of women to Ralph, he seemed a good candidate. But he was a king’s son and could only be admired from afar.) The caretaker led him to a book to read further of a woman who had drunk from the Well after many hardships and who held captive men’s love, for all men who see her loved her, to prevent them from seeking after the Well and doing the great deeds in the heart of man. He met a priest and asked him if the Lady of Abundance was a devil; the priest said she was pure and holy, serving the church well and aiding the people, and that those who said ill of her were jealous women.
Ralph was restless in waiting for the woman to arrive, for she took her time. Finally the caretaker-woman suggested he go to the Wood and see what would happen. So he went and found the woman in the company of several men. One of them desired her, but she desired him not. Certainly she had him in her power, for he would do whatever she said for love of her, including kill his best friend. Although she claimed that she did not ask him to kill his friend, and since the friend had not totally died, the woman used magic (quietly) to call a priest to come and heal him. During the night she came to Ralph and they escaped. It turned out that the man was her husband (by force), but he treated her cruelly, and she did not want to live with him. Instead, she wanted Ralph. She did seem to be much older than her appearance, since she seemed to occasionally call Ralph “child” lovingly. Ralph was totally in love with her. She told of meeting the maiden in the Wood, and instructing her in the way to the Well. She said that the maiden was more fit for Ralph that she, but Ralph said she was all he wanted, and they had several days of passion, while they traveled and she told her story.
The Lady of Abundance grew up as a virtual slave of a witch who lived near the Well. Eventually she escaped with a seeker after the Well, and they loved each other, and eventually made it to the Well themselves. He was a king’s son, but there was little welcome when they returned, and their return brought civil war shortly afterwards, so they fled. They lived at the Castle of Abundance until his father died, and they were invited back to the kingdom. But, eventually he died, and she was driven out of the kingdom as a witch. The Lady’s story made her seem kind and gentle. And now she took Ralph to a nice cave that she had prepared, and Ralph was looking forward to the Chamber of Love, but as he was returning from bathing, the Lady’s husband came back and killed her.
Ralph made a cairn over her and then wandered forlornly towards the town of Whitwall. On the way he met his brother Blaise, who happened across warriors who had sacked a town and were selling the goods cheaply to convert them into money. So he bought cheaply and sold for full price in the next town, which gave him capital to continue buying and selling as he traveled. A week into his stay at Whitwall he had a dream, where the Lady of Abundance came to say goodbye, and then also sent a sending of the maiden from the alehouse, who said her name was Dorothea. King Peter had sent a trusted servant with each of his three sons that were officially sent out, and Blaise’s servant Richard loved Ralph. Richard saw Ralph’s sorrow, told him about the Well, and said he would visit his village (which was nearby) because three youth had set out for the well when he was young. Ralph also met Clement, who was trading at Whitwall, and he said that the way to the Well at the World’s End went past the Dry Tree, from which the robbers had taken their name. Richard returned from the village, bringing news that none who had set out had returned, that the old sage of village had also set out (and not returned), that a number of others had come through the village asking about the Well (and not returned), and that a few days ago an attractive maiden wearing the same necklace as Ralph had passed by—presumably the alehouse maiden. And after hearing Ralph’s tale of his lost love, Richard suggested that perhaps the Lady had faerie blood, and even if not, she knew that the love could not last—she would become tired of Ralph, since she was so much older—which is why she had given the necklace to the alehouse maiden and told Ralph that the maiden was such a good match for him.
Clement was going to Goldburg, which was relatively close to the mountains called the Wall of the World, and invited Ralph to travel with them for safety. At an inn a couple days out the lady keeping the inn told Ralph that she had seen a maiden taken captive by the mountain thieves, and she had on a necklace identical to his. She refused his gold for the information, taking instead some of his curly locks. When the came to the mountain pass, they were attacked by the mountain thieves, just as they feared, but they set them to flight, and Ralph even deftly captured one. This one he made his thrall, albeit with some bargaining: Bull would not fight against his countrymen, and if Ralph beat him except in hotness Bull would put the knife in him; Ralph found these fair, but said that if Bull fought against him he would kill him outright. Bull felt that Ralph would make a good master, and even gave him information on where his fellow thief had likely taken the girl, namely to Cheaping Market, which was on their way.
Cheaping Market was not a pleasant place. Clement took Ralph around to the market and the slave trader, where he got information that the girl had been taken to Whiteness, because she was too proud (and promised to harm anyone who touched her flesh) to be sold. Presumably her owner would sell or give her to the lord of Utterbol for a gift, because he seemed unwilling to make her learn obedience. The lord of Utterbol was not well-spoken of. At Whiteness he found out that she was taken to Goldberg, but riding without her hands bound. Then on the way to Goldberg they found Bull’s relative, the one who had captured the maiden, killed. After some hotheadedness between Ralph and Bull over the possibility that the maiden had killed him and therefore Bull was honor-bound to take vengeance on her, it was discovered that the relative had been killed by a very manly stroke. The maiden exonerated, Bull and Ralph both were seeking the same thing—the killer—although for different reasons. The party granted Bull leave to bury his relative.
Goldberg was a fair town, and was churched (although somewhat strange to the traditions), and was elegantly constructed. However, the town did not seem more prosperous than the others around. No one in Goldberg had seen the maiden, and asking about the lord of Utterbol (either directly as Ralph did or indirectly as Bull did) froze everyone’s lips. Goldberg was ruled by a queen, and Clement took Ralph to see her, for perhaps she knew. The queen (like all other women), was in love with him and invited him to stay in Goldberg, but he was completely oblivious to it. She said that Utterbol was on the way to the Well at the World’s End, but that one of her ancestors had sought it and come to a bad end. As he went to leave, Clement brought him to Morfinn the Minstrel, who had a let-pass signed by the lord of Utterbol himself. As Morfinn was going to Utterbol, perhaps they should travel together, as the area was not safe and the let-pass would speed his journey. Ralph freed Bull, who had grown to like Ralph, and gave him a specially woven grass in token of friendship, which his fellow-men would honor.
The journey started easily, although Ralph asked the minstrel not to ask him about the maiden, and when Ralph asked whether the lord of Utterbol was a nice man (since the minstrel said he had been eying the maiden), the minstrel asked him not to speak of his lord. The way was definitely filled with people who would likely have done ill to Ralph, but after seeing the let-pass, they let him go on his way. As they journeyed Ralph saw what he took to be a cloud, but the minstrel said it was the high mountains of the Wall of the World, and confirmed that folk did indeed say that the way to the Well at the World’s End lay past those dizzyingly high mountains. Eventually they came to a some tents on a field, and then Ralph learned that the minstrel had betrayed him. The let-pass was given as an agreement that the minstrel would receive payment for people he brought to serve in the army.
Ralph was well treated, but definitely a prisoner, as they journeyed to where the lord of Utterbol was camping. There Ralph was entered into the joust, being told by that captain that he needed to perform well or he would have a hard lot. The first man was very much afraid and Ralph won easily, but did not kill him as he could have. Ralph continued to best everyone, including the captain himself. Now, the Lord of Utterbol’s wife desired Ralph, and her handmaiden hatched a plot to bring Ralph to her. Richard, the man who Ralph first bested, came to Ralph out of thankfulness that Ralph had asked the Lord of Utterbol to spare Richard. Richard said to Ralph that he was as good as dead if he allowed himself to come to Utterbol, but that the road ran near the forest in a couple days hence, and that he would arrange for an escape. This he did, providing a horse for Ralph to escape.
During his escape, Ralph encountered a maiden in distress for her mistress, and knightly Ralph offered to help her, but when they came to the location, the woman told her truthfully that the whole thing was a fake, so that Ralph might meet the Lord of Utterbol’s wife and be persuaded to love her. But Ralph naysaid this, and continued on his way. A few days later, in the middle of a wood at night he encountered another rider, who eventually turned out to be the maiden he had been trying to rescue from Utterbol. She had made her own escape from that horrible place, and so now they journeyed together.
The maiden’s name was Ursula, and she knew the way to the hermit who dwelt around those parts and was said to know the way to the Well at the World’s End. They arrived, and after they had dressed in white and gone to a special place in the woods, he read the lore from a book that he had, and learned them the signs of the way, making them repeat it to ensure that they knew it. After protecting them by magic from being found by the search party (which had no great desire to bring Ralph back to certain doom), the hermit accompanied them across the maze of paths in the lava fields to the statue at the pass to the high mountains.
It was nearing winter, so after coming out of the pass and to a lower elevation, Ralph and Ursula wintered in a cave in the valley that the sage had recommended, making flour from acorns and with Ralph shooting deer. They lived together as friends, although Ralph loved Ursula. One day in the spring, a bear surprised Ursula bathing in the stream; she screamed and Ralph rushed out, discovered the bear and killed it just in time. Then he asked her if she loved him, and she said that she loved him very much. So he asked her to marry him that night, and she agreed, except that she considered that a marriage needs witnesses. Fortunately, a group of people from the plains below arrived with wagons of supplies, in case there was anyone seeking the Well (and gratified they were to finally find some). They agreed to witness, and built a marriage bower for them; so did Ralph of Upmeads take Ursula as his wife.
The plains people led them to a small city, which celebrated them, and led them all the way to the great desert. The Lady of Abundance had requested that they help anyone wishing to drink from the Well as a favor, and so they did, although in living memory the only one who had passed since she did was an old man (who they knew was the hermit), and he many years ago. They themselves had no desire to seek the Well, as they treated each other very well, and worried that if one of them became great, this happy state of affairs would end, as it had in years passed. As Ralpha and Ursula traveled through the desert they came across more and more dead people from all ages and places, preserved in the dry air, who had died in the desert without reaching the Well. After some twelve days they came to valley with a Dry Tree sitting in a pool of water, with rows of dead people seated facing towards it with painful grins on their faces. They were very thirsty and Ralph insisted on drinking the water, but after Ursula saw a bird drink from it and die shortly afterwards, and seeing that Ralph could not be dissuaded, told him that they needed to look to their horses, for she saw the glint of helmets on the top of the valley. Ralph, concerned, scrambled up out of the valley, and when he came to his senses, he thanked Ursula for saving him.
A couple days later they came to the end of the desert, and shortly afterwards they arrived at a promontory at the edge of the ocean. They slept in the grassy area, and then climbed down the stairs the next morning to find the Well at the World’s End. There was writing there, which, like the hermit, warned them not to drink of it unless they loved the world, for long life is not a blessing if one is tired of the world. They drank, and almost immediately afterwards fell asleep and slept until dusk. They examined themselves and found that old scars had disappeared, and so they judged that the water of the Well had worked. According to the descriptions, the water gave unusual strength, slowed aging, and seemed to give a measure of foresight. And as events transpired, so it had done.
Their return was fairly uneventful. The hermit had returned to wait for their return at the entrance to the pass, for he had decided to give up his solitude and come back with them. When they came to the lands of Utterbol, they found that the former, evil lord had died, and that Bull was the new king. According to him, he had found a lion being sold in a market and tamed it, and paid his way with the lion, as he sought revenge on the lord of Utterbol for killing his brother. Eventually he came to Utterbol and was performed with his lion outside the lord’s tower, who then invited him up to talk with him. Instead of talking, he killed the king. The captain of the guard then insisted that he become king, for he assessed Bull as a good man. And so he was, having even made the land so much freer and more prosperous in just his short time. They were glad to see each other, and Ralph invited him to visit Upmeads.
When the came to the pass east of Whitwall, they were feasted by Bull’s tribe in the woods, for Bull had given them an special knot of grass by which they knew that he was Bull’s friend. By the time they returned to Whitwall, Ralph had a premonition that Upmeads was in danger. After meeting his brother’s retainer, Richard, who had been a trusted man-at-arms of his father, and sharing the success of his adventure, they hastily left Whitwall. Then they passed through the Land of Abundance, and they informed that people there that the Lady had died, whereupon the people implored Ralph to be their lord and gave him the castle and requested that he come to their aid in arms if need be, to which he agreed. Shortly afterwards, they found that the Men of the Dry Tree had taken over the Burgh of Four Friths, and freed the wheat-eaters that the Burgh had enslaved, even taking some to wife (for the Burghers had killed all the males they found). Having no need of their stronghold, they gave it to Ralph out of love for the Lady, who had been their queen (and to avoid having enemies in a strong place nearby).
Then Ralph learned that there were, indeed, people who looked to plunder the Upmeads. In addition to the men that the men of the Dry Tree (now Burghers) sent to him, Ralph also went to the shepherds of the Downs, just south of Upmeads, who were gathering to defend their land, and he pledged himself to their protection, so they added a few hundred stout men to his army. He came to Clement’s cheaping-town, which was also arming itself, and where his ageing father and mother had fled, along with the others who could not defend themselves. His unexpected return and confidence in overcoming his foes led to these men joining him, so that his army numbered around a thousand, albeit the foemen were two or three thousand.
After spending the evening telling his story to his gossip, she told him that when she had been to a certain city with Clement, she heard about the wisdom of the woman ruling the city and desired to see her. Eventually, she did, and the woman learned her wisdom, with the price that she would give a pair of neck beads to a male that had great need of them (for their magic only worked if given to someone of the opposite sex). Dame Katherine judged that the ruler had called her to her (for she died soon afterwards), and had foreseen Ralph meant the beads to come to him.
The next day, his foes fled before him, because the Well had given him strength and a poise that bespoke wisdom, so that his enemies were inclined to fear, while those who were neutral or supportive were inclined to friendship. Then he brought his mother and father back to their house, and they met Ursula. His father made Ralph king in his place the next evening, because he could see that Ralph had become wiser than he, and would rule the people well. On so he and Ursula did, beloved of everything, and enjoying the friendship of Bull and the others, and keeping their commitments to the Land of Abundance, even to their deaths on the same day.
The Well at the World’s End seems to be inspired by medieval Romances and flavored with some Norse values. As a Knight, Ralph must needs help those in distress, especially women, which he fulfills with eagerness. As people recognize him as a kindly man and a King’s son, he is asked to provide military protection in exchange for allegiance, and he gladly fulfills this as well. The Norse aspect comes in the use of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, a need for a young man to prove himself with glorious deeds, the generosity of a good king, and a smattering of ideas tucked here and there such as the weird (“wyrd” in the old spelling), which is a sort of inevitability (similar to fate, but less preordained by external decision than inevitable due to how the world is).
Morris does a good job of creating a vivid world. Each place has its own character to it, which sometimes a a bit one-dimensional, but it is always well-fleshed out with motivations and a history. Most importantly, it is believable. Perhaps this is because the physical description is relatively sparse, while describing Ralph’s feelings and impressions about the situation more precisely (but still concisely). So the reader can populate the details with whatever medieval-ish understanding they have but still get an accurate sense of the situation. His characters definitely have a value system that is not modern—a common failing in fantasy—although it is not fleshed out in detail. Morris’ use of grammar and word-choice also helps give a feel of being in the setting. The grammar is somewhat Elizabethan, but only in certain elements like double-negation for to express a positive (“He’ll not find that to his distaste, I’ll wager.”), so it feels Elizabethan if unexamined, but reads a lot more smoothly. He has a stock of words which he substitutes for modern ones (“wot” for “know”, “trow” for “to think/believe”), especially for architectural features, clothing, and armor, but not so many words that you miss the point, even if you choose not to look them up. He also uses kennings on occasion (“want-way” for unmarked intersection on a road/path) which lend an Anglo-Saxon feel. Compared to the much more accurate Elizabethan language in The Worm Ouroboros, it gives a more nebulous feel, with elements of old Anglo-Saxon, medieval, and Elizabethan features.
The presentation is of an oddly un-Christian world, yet there are echoes of Jewish/Christian value for the world. The culture is quasi-medieval, so there are churches in every town, and an abbot near to Upmeads. The characters will occasionally say “praise the saints” or somesuch, and Ralph is attached to his patron saint Nicholas. However, God is mentioned only twice, and certainly never praised. A monk greedily tries to get him to give away his necklace. Furthermore, Dame Katherine tells Ralph under no circumstances to have his necklace blessed by a priest, and the hermit insists on reading of the book of wisdom concerning the Well in a special, formerly-pagan place in the forest, while they were special, white clothes. It is clearly the old, pagan flavor that is highlighted, while Christianity is just a veneer maintain the medieval illusion. This is unlike the actual medieval society, which actually believed the religion, and which was part of the essence of the culture. At the same time, though, the heroes value the simple joys of living in their community and serving it with their lives. The author of Ecclesiastes comes to a similar conclusion about enjoying the simple pleasures, and for that matter, God himself says that the world is good in the very first chapter of the Bible. Later Christians mistook the “world” that Paul talks about for the physical world (whereas Paul is talking more about the world-system) and many see the physical world as evil, but that is certainly not the Jewish view. Christianity also calls us to serve others in love, just as Christ served us, so the actual values of the characters of enjoying the simple goodness of the physical world and giving oneself in service to the community is quite compatible with Christianity.
This is a very memorable book. It certainly is quite an adventure, and exhibits some of the stories-in-stories of Phantastes and The Worm Ouroborous, although not nearly to the extent of either. The heroes are people that you want to succeed, and are the kind of person you aspire to be: pure, courageous, loving, and generous. Furthermore, Ralph earns your respect, moving from a naive boy in a simplistic love-affair (which, truth be told, is hard to see as anything other than either him being a boy-toy of the Lady or fantasy girlfriend) to someone who faces uncertainty and risk of failure with open eyes but with courage, and in so doing he gains wisdom and strength. But even the magic of the Well does not protect against from the sword, so even a Friend of the Well, one still needs wisdom and appropriate caution (although they are more likely to be lucky in finding what they need). But even so, there is a certain wistfulness about it, that even C.S. Lewis (who thought very highly of Morris’ fiction) hard-pressed to find an explanation, eventually offering that it was the Icelandic Norse worldview that life is hard, that noble effort does not necessarily produce success, but that life can be enjoyed anyway that is the essence of what is hard to describe. (See, for example, see this essay on the topic.) Like the worlds of Lewis and Tolkien, who was also influence by Morris, this is a world that you wish actually existed.