Out of the great forest of Evilshaw there came a witch, searching for a girl child to steal from the nearby town of Utterhay. She found a poor widow woman with a beautiful little baby girl, and pretending kindness and sympathy, she tricked the woman and stole her child. Her purpose was to enslave the child and grow her into a temptress to trap men for her. She called the little girl Birdalone and treated her roughly and called her "thrall" - that's an unpaid servant, a slave. They lived in a small cottage between the edge of the great forest and the shore of a great lake, dotted with islands. Birdalone grew strong, clever and beautiful. She was secretly befriended by a lady of the Faerie who loved her and taught her and worked against the dark purposes of the witch. She advised Birdalone on how she might escape her enslavement and start the adventure of her life.
This is one of William Morris's last books. Most people who have heard of him just seem to associate this author with lovely wallpaper designs these days but he was actually a man of many talents - as it says in the blurb on the back cover of the book, he was "master of all trades and jack of none". And all we lovers of fantasy novels, whether we know it or not, have William Morris to thank for the genre because he started writing magical/mythical stories set in some imaginary, northern European, medieval, space/time. The heroine of this story was not typical of story-book heroines back in 1896 (or 1897), when the book was published. She's sweet and feminine (typical), but she's also strong, courageous and adventurous. Even though she's terrified of the witch and the witch's evil sister and the dastardly red knight and so on, she defies them all and puts herself at risk to help her friends and maintain her own integrity. She dares every adventure, launching herself into unknown dangers all alone, learning each lesson life has to teach and growing in wisdom. This was not so typical of female characters in 19th century literature. From Morris's treatment of Birdalone, I have the impression that he probably liked and respected women. He wrote his fantasies in an old style designed to suggest a medieval origin (the period from about the 5th to the 16th centuries AD) to the stories. Even so, it's much easier for the modern reader to understand than, say, Chaucer or Shakespeare. Still, it might put some modern readers off a bit. Here are the first few words of the book, to give you an idea whether you might like it: "Whilom, as tells the tale, was a walled cheaping-town hight Utterhay, which was builded in a bight of land ...". It looks a bit difficult at first glance but 'hight' and 'bight' occur fairly regularly and they are about the most alien-seeming terms you'll come across and it's usually pretty clear from the context what they mean. If you want the precise definitions, you may not find the unknown words in a small modern dictionary but I had fun searching for and finding them in my favourite internet dictionary - one that actually speaks the word when you click on a little speaker icon next to the word definition. (Any good search engine should be able to find this excellent dictionary if you search for 'thefreedictionary'.) The prose style suits the story wonderfully in my opinion. I recommend that anyone who enjoys fantasy should read this book at least once. I've just read it for the second time, having hunted for it since first reading a borrowed copy about 30 years ago. I thank Wildside Press for bringing it back into print.
When people think of William Morris, if they think of his fantasy novels at all, they probably think of the two classics the Wood Beyond The World and The Well at The World's End and probably miss this one. Which is a pity, for, while it's not perhaps quite up to the level of the other two, especially for new readers, it's still a great fantasy novel.
The language takes some getting used to, as, like Morris' other books, it's all archaic English to match the medieval setting. This can be a struggle at first, but once you've got into it doesn't present too many problems. The plot is fairly episodic, too, which means that you can pick it up and put it down and go back a few days later without really losing your idea of what's happening. You can read a couple of chapters a day and still enjoy it.
The basic plot is simple: a wicked witch steals a small child - the rather unfortunately named Birdalone - and keeps her prisoner. Birdalone escapes and embarks on a series of adventures on different islands, on one of which she is saved by three women, who ask her to track down their respective beaus. And so she does, and the book wends its leaisurely way through their adventures.
There are few outright sword and sorcery moments in this book; it's not really in the realm of Lord of the Rings. Instead, the theme is romance and thwarted love, and sacrifice. All thoroughly enjoyable.