Monday, February 10, 2014

The Well at the World's End

If folk tales can be divided by age group, then The Well at the World's End is definitely a "youth" tale: the king's youngest son sets forth on a quest, finds a bride, and returns home in triumph.* Only it's a whole lot longer than the longest fairy tale.

The Well at the World's End (the location, not the book) is a surprisingly modest goal: it doesn't convey immortality or invincibility. Some people, apparently, have made the journey and returned home only to get promptly stabbed in the back. At best it conveys, in role-playing terms, a bonus to all stats: those who drink of it are stronger, healthier, longer-lived, healed of all past hurts, more loved by their friends and feared by their foes, better-looking, and just plain luckier. If you go when old, it will make you young again. But given the rigors of the trip (which, after all, takes you out to the world's end), few can make it in old age, so it seems safer to go while young. (Technically you can go back indefinitely, but few seem to manage that feat, even should they wish it.)

 Ralph himself seems to be luck's darling before the trip begins, not to mention so handsome he practically has to beat women off with a stick, but that's the way of it. You can't even make it to the well unless you already have a lot of advantages. The Well is not an equal-opportunity quest. (Ursula, though not royalty, is certainly not without advantages either.) The question is not, can everybody get there, but what do those who get there do with it?

At one point on their journey, a sage who has made the trek himself gives them a caution before guidance:
"I will say this much unto you; that if ye love not the earth and the world with all your souls, and will not strive all ye may to be frank and happy therein, your toil and peril aforesaid shall win you no blessing but a curse. Therefore I bid you be no tyrants or builders of cities for merchants and usurers and warriors and thralls . . . But rather I bid you to live in peace and patience without fear or hatred, and to succour the oppressed and love the lovely, and to be the friends of men, so that when ye are dead at last, men may say of you, they brought down Heaven to the Earth for a little while."

In other words . . . don't let this quest go to your head. Come back home and live a good life. And in the end, that is what they do--Ralph returns to his little home kingdom, clears out the robbers, and takes back on the tasks he fled from at the beginning of the book. In the end, what the great quest equips him for is simply to do his duty.

At the same time, there's a subtle counterpoint story that is more of a midlife tale. At the beginning of his quest, Ralph is given a set of beads that will serve as a talisman to guide him, a gift from his "gossip" Katherine. ("Gossip" is, apparently, an obsolete word for "godmother," and Morris won't use a modern word when he can dig up an obsolete one.) Katherine is no elderly fairy, but the middle-aged wife of a local merchant, who held Ralph as a baby when she was a teenaged bride, and retains for him an affection that is a trifle too warm to be strictly maternal. She's had no children and although she and her husband are fond of each other, there's a hint that the humdrumness of their life is wearing on her. She's still pretty and strong and active enough to take her turn on the walls when the city is threatened, but you can feel the big 4-0 is staring her in the face.

When Ralph comes back in triumph with his new bride, she tells the story of the beads . . . how she obtained them, how she was to give them to a man not of her blood in need and they would lead him to the Well at the World's Men. She'd tried to give them to her husband, Clement, a few times, but he thought the whole thing was a myth (though he later gave much help to Ralph in his quest) and preferred to stick to his regular merchant runs. And so they were saved and given at last to Ralph, who was young and crazy enough to think the tales true.

After the great battle when Ralph sweeps away the invaders and restores the kingdom, he runs to tell her the news.
Quoth Ralph, "Rejoice, gossip! for neither is Clement hurt, nor I, and all is done that should be done."

She moved but little, but the tears came into her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.

"What, gossip?" quoth Ralph, "these be scarce tears of joy; what aileth thee?"

"Nay," said Katherine, "Indeed I am joyful of thy tidings, though sooth to say I looked for none other. But dear lord and gossip, forgive me my tears on the day of triumph; for if they be not wholly of joy, so also are they not wholly of sorrow. But love and the passing of the days are bittersweet within my heart to-day. Later on thou shalt see few faces more cheerful and merry in the hall at Upmeads than this of thy gossip's."
Behind the scenes of Ralph's youthful triumphs, Katherine must come to terms with the end of her own youth; that fairy-tale romances and quests out of dreams are past for her, but she can take it with good grace and pass on what she could not use herself. She puts off meeting Ursula at first, but in the end, it says, " . . . she loved and cherished Ursula and lived long in health of body and mind."

* There are also midlife tales, which tend to be about losing the magic of youth, and elder tales, which I think are about dying. And, although I've never seen anyone else use this classification, there are nursery tales, which, in contrast to the message to the youths: "Go forth and seek your fortune," convey the message to smaller children: "If you go out in the world, things are going to try to EAT you."


Diary of an Autodidact said...

I love your categorization of tales by age group. Brilliant!

Queen of Carrots said...

I borrowed the youth./midlife/elder distinction from others. But the "nursery" classification is my own.

Darren said...

I love this book. And your classification by age is brilliant.