Prince Ralph, youngest of four and apple of the king and queen's eye, steals himself away, against their will, on a quest to find adventure and see some of the world beyond the land of Upmeads. He finds adventure, love and honour, performs brave deeds, drinks from The Well at the World's End (which extends life and youth) and finally, comes home to rescue his kingdom from foreign invaders.
As with all the William Morris stories I've read so far, there is no character development of the conscious, deliberate sort that we've come to expect from modern fantasy writers. The characters are delineated by their deeds, by the difficult and dangerous situations they have to overcome and the terrible tyrants they have to deal with or fight. So in some ways the tale is related almost like a television news story, just telling what happened without going into any depth about the reasons for the events or how those involved felt about them, but perhaps giving a brief description of their reactions to the things that happened. It's clear that Ralph is a good lad and his main faults seem to be a shortish fuse and a lack humour. Both the women he falls in love with are brave and kind. Even though the author hasn't furnished us with their deep and complicated inner workings, we know enough about them to care when bad things happen to them and their lives are in danger.
Morris had a wonderful imagination and I'm glad he shared it with us. When he started writing these fantasy stories, he had no pattern to follow (being the first) and I wouldn't criticise him for not putting in all the ingredients that the fans of modern fantasy have come to expect. The criticism of the previous reviewer, that the story is full of references to Jesus seems quite unfair. Morris loved the mythology of northern Europe and he tried to give us the spirit of these sorts of myths in stories that would be more easily digestible to modern readers. The stories are set in *this* world, at some imaginary locations in northern Europe. He wasn't much interested in organised religion but his earlier tales of the Goths ("The House of the Wolfings" and "The Roots of the Mountains") had frequent references to their Pagan religious beliefs and practices - because that was the situation at the time those stories were set in. "The Wood Beyond the World" and "The Well at the World's End" are set in an era when the Roman Catholic religion was dominant, so he includes references to it in his stories. The only thing that marred the story for me was the final battle: there was a big build-up to it but then it was over in a couple of short paragraphs. Apart from that slight disappointment, the book kept me more than adequately entertained from cover to cover.
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