Review: The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris

The Wood Beyond the World CoverThe Wood Beyond the World is an 1894 novel written by William Morris. This novel is one that could be called pre-fantastic, as it was originally published before the modern genre was born, but was later re-published in 1969 in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series (the series which, arguably, formed the modern genre). The Wood Beyond the World tells the story of Golden Walter, who leaves home after finding out his wife has cheated on him, and the story of how he eventually gets lost at sea and has adventures in the fantastical place that he finds himself in.

The first thing that any reader of the story is going to notice is the language. Morris intentionally attempted to emulate English as it was written in the late Middle Ages, around the turn of the 16th century. Having heard that, I expected the language to be more of a challenge than it actually ended up being: while the language is definitely archaic, it is highly readable, and it didn’t take me long until I was immersed enough in it that I hardly noticed it.

So, the language is readable, but is it good? I think the language is very suitable to the kind of story it is telling, and does a quite good job of putting you into the right mindset for that kind of story. That said, I did not consider the slanguage in itself to be a huge highlight of the novel.

I think the most important thing for a potential reader to know about this book is its genre. While it can be considered to be a work of pre-fantasy, the work is perhaps more accurately defined as a chivalrous romance, which is the specific genre that Morris wanted to evoke through the language. What this means is that the plot is a sprawling one, composed of adventures leading to further adventures. The take-away here is this: if you go into this book expecting a modern narrative structure, you will be sorely disappointed, because that is not how a chivalrous romance’s plot works. That said, if a sprawling narrative structure sounds good to you, then I think you will find much to like here.

However, The Wood Beyond the World is undoubtedly enjoyed best by readers who not only know what kind of narrative structure to expect, but also have a certain level of familiarity with traditional chivalrous romances. The reason for this is that Morris’s novel intentionally plays with many of the tropes from that genre, and it is hard to appreciate that playfulness if you don’t have that familiarity. What I was particularly surprised by is how this novel plays with tropes from that genre relating to gender.

So, the conclusion is this. If you both enjoy and have a knowledge of chivalrous romances, then I recommend this book to you without hesitation. If you don’t have a knowledge of that genre, but the sound of a sprawling narrative structure sounds interesting to you, or you are curious to expand your horizons in terms of how a plot can be constructed, then I hesitantly recommend the book. In all other cases, I suggest you skip over this one.

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