The Wood Beyond the World represents a transitional style for Morris in a conceptual sense: he is still experimenting with how far to push the “transition” to the fantasy realm. The opening of the novel stresses an ordinary and mundane reality—Golden Walter is a wealthy eligible son snatched up by a women who is probably a social climber. A relative innocent, he feels strong sexual attraction for her; she gratifies his desire, but at the same time services a select company of attractive young men in the town. He finds himself unable to continue in this kind of situation. The opening scene with his father is quite credible in its realism; the father asks first if she is pregnant.
When Walter makes up his mind to leave, directing his energy toward the boundless sea (limitless possibly for the future), he begins to see, or to hallucinate, the three weird figures who eventually become his primary reality. Whether they are real or imaginary is interestingly in doubt. A verification of their existence occurs when they are witnessed and described by the accountant who comes to deliver the news that Walter’s father is dead. But even then, with the group suddenly disappearing, there is still the possibility of simultaneous hallucination.
Throughout this opening section there is a curious tension between language and circumstances. The direct, rhythmic, and “artificial” (in the best sense) prose counterpoints a sordid and mundane state of affairs. From the very beginning, the elevated language used to describe a sordid and ordinary marriage gives us a sense of the book’s direction: by altering our perspective, we can enhance our ability to alter our destiny and bring it more in line with our ideals. The realistic novel moves in precisely the opposite direction. The roughness of contemporary life—exemplified by particularly explicit sexuality—is rendered in profane and mundane literalness. Transcriptions of the Nixon tapes, complete with expletives, show how low life and low language cling to one another. Morris uses the vocabulary, syntax, and rhythm of his writing to avoid the everyday, predictable, or expected, encouraging an elevation in language which may in turn elevate our thoughts and aspirations.
Wood is the only one of his fantasies prompted by an unfaithful woman. Golden Walter undertakes his journey to escape the negative feminine instinct of pure desire without the virtues of faithfulness, love, or idealism. Earlier, Morris’s hero was prompted to the quest by defense of country, or the protection of love; but here he is driven from a land of commercialism by the threat of a future generation, promulgated by unregulated desire without loyalty, appetite without identity. Morris is quite frank about the situation, sacrificing his style. Walter’s father asks him whether or not his wife if pregnant: the lad responds, “I wot not; nor of whom the child may be.” Walter finds the situation intolerable and knows there must be something better. He decides to clarify his purpose and identity, and while he is not clear regarding his ultimate objective, he does seek to establish his masculine identity: “Yet if we do meet, father, then shalt though see a new man in me.”
They never meet again. This is the first time a hero does not return to his tribe or people at the end of a Morris novel. And here is another reason why one should recognize that this book, published before Well, thematically and stylistically comes after it. Increasingly, Morris looks to his heroes to forge and form their own identities, and to establish a new order within a larger human family where the insights of the hero and heroine can be promulgated. Once Walter has decided to sail away—the journey by water suggests an entrance into the unconscious—he moves ever closer to a place he has never seen, and ends his life as ruler of a people who are strange to him. The omens or phantoms which lead him forward include a dark, hideous dwarf, a grey-eyed young maiden with an iron ring on her ankle, and a glorious lady, tall and beautiful.
With his ship blown off course by winds beyond his control, Walter will be drawn into an adventure with these mysterious figures. Coming to an unknown land, he meets a primitive man clad in skins and learns about the tribe of “Bears” who serve a mysterious and powerful lady as their god. After traversing a rocky mountainous wall, he sees before him a terrible waste land, and later discovers a “strange and sweet land” where he meets the maiden dressed all in green, a woman who begs to be delivered from a plight common to many of Morris’s characters, “from this death in life.” Realizing that they are both caught in nets of deception, they vow to help one another even though deceitful means, and to forgive these deceptions later (ends justifying means, in Marxian terms?). Finally, Walter discovers a house “with gold and fair hues,” with a roof of “tiles…of yellow metal, which he deemed to be of very gold,” and “a fountain of gold, whence the water ran two ways in gold-lined runnels.” Here lives the wondrous lady clad in gold and jewels.
The rich house and its trappings give clear indication of the great isolation from nature this environment represents. It connotes high artificially, exemplified in the decadence of the Lady who is “walking with the King’s Son, and he clad in thin and wanton raiment, but she in naught else save what God had given her of long, crispy yellow hair.” The difference between the Lady and the Maid is accentuated by the Lady’s manipulation of clothing (and the lack thereof) to alter her appearance as it suits her; Walter finds himself “astonished at the change which had come over her,” wile the Maid “was clad even as she was before, and changed in no wise.” Sexual faithfulness and physical constancy in dress and appearance are linked symbolically in the book, just as the sexual promiscuity in the opening pages seems to be associate with the urban and commercial life of which Golden Walter is the offspring. Images of gold in the tale suggest deceptive potential; as in The Glittering Plain, all that glitters is not gold.
The dwarf, the maid, and the Lady constitute a deceptive trinity. They seem to operate on a transcendent plane, where the Lady is worshiped as a God. Though she seems to dress “as the hunting-goddess” at one point, and is clearly associated with Diana and concupiscence, the Lady is obviously helpless in confrontation with the lion, an image of the raw force of nature. Her smooth and polished speeches are reduced to “a kind of gibbering cry without words.” By slaying the King of beasts to reduce the Lady, Walter symbolically slays her incestuous current lover, who is both king and son. Straightening out this situation is a way of compensating or balancing the unfaithfulness of his own wife. If the feminine principle represents sexual desire alone, it is bound to lead to decadent rule, “dwarfing” the only man who can remain loyal under the circumstance.
Walter moves through numerous deaths and murders in the course of the story. His leaving home seems to lead indirectly to his own father’s death—there are some slight parallels to Hamlet. He later slays the lion, and then supports the Maid as she liberates herself from her Lady “mother’s” evil slavery. Finally, he kills the dwarf in a particularly ugly scene, burying the “Evil Thing” with its head by its buttocks, to make certain it is irrevocably dead. The dwarf (recall the dwarf-wrought hauberk which tempted Thiodolf) seems consistently a negative image in Morris, an image of man diminished, degraded, perverted, subjected, and tyrannized.
But Walter’s “murder” of his father is accidental, and his first direct killing turns out to be a phantom. It is only when he is teamed with the Maid that he gains stature as an effective heroic force, suggesting that neither the male nor female instincts, neither the conscious nor unconscious mind, is effective in isolation. The murders in the book are inevitable as part of revolution to escape oppression. The daughter (the Maid) has been enslaved by the mother—just as Walter had been caught in the “Golden” commercialism of his father with a glamorous but promiscuous wife. The heroism of the book is shared by the couple, and the main thrust is toward liberation of the repressed famine principle, important since the Maid compensates ultimately for the promiscuous habits of Walter’s wife.
By the end of the book Walter drops the “Golden” from his name, and is moving, in Jung’s terms, “from a sexual system into an intellectual or spiritual system.” The Maid magically demonstrates, in fact, the spiritual redirection of sexual energy when her very touch is able to bring wilted flowers to life. Unlike her masters, the dwarf and the Lady who represent deformed moral and physical humanity, the Maid (with Walter) emphasizes a balanced spiritual and physical union: “Thus we say to each other; and to God and his Hallows we say: ‘We two have conspired to slay the woman who tormented one of us, and would have slain the other; and if we have done amiss therein, then shall we two together pay the penalty; for in this have we done as one body and one soul.’”
Before they can safely conclude their escape, Walter and the Maid must journey through the hill-country of the Bear-folk, a primitive people close to the earth who had worshipped the mistress as a God. But the Maid demonstrates a moral victory so complete that she even has command of time, together with a close attunement with Nature. This is a complete reversal of the image in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where, physical values have overtaken spiritual ones. The Bear-folk use stone-age weapons, but their brute force is powerful enough to carry out their threat to drown the Maid should she be judged a “light liar.” In a striking parallel with Ophelia, the Maid dresses herself with greenery and flowers, seemingly to be the “Mother of Summer,” complete with the power to awaken the dying flowers: “The eglantine roses opened, and all was as fresh and bright as if it were still growing on its own roots.” The Maid’s proclamation to the Bear-folk is one of resurrection and renewal: “Now, then, is the day of your gladness come; for the old body is dead, and I am the new body of your God, come amongst you for your welfare.” Morris presents her flowery attire in vivid pictorial detail which calls to mind the minute flowers which surround Ophelia as she is swept along the river in Millais’s painting. But Morris’s portrait of Ophelia is victorious. There is a suggestion in Hamlet that if the brooding self-conscious hero could only overcome his incestuous preoccupation with his mother and improve his own conduct toward Ophelia, the outcome of Shakespeare’s play might have come closer to the world “set right” toward which Morris’s fantasy flows. Having moved beyond the world to find “one body and one soul” the Maid and Walter return to the world at the end of the book with a clarity and vision capable of establishing a new city. Equality is the basis for the world set right, and Morris concludes the tale with the observation that under his revolutionary new order, “folk had clean forgotten their ancient custom of king-making.”
From Richard Mathews, Worlds Beyond the World: The Fantastic Vision of William Morris, 1978, pp. 44-46.