Published in 1894, The Wood Beyond the World is the fourth of Morris's early prose romances and the second, after The Glittering Plain (1891), to combine the essential elements of the fantasy genre—a purely imagined medievalesque world and the supernatural. Together with The Well at the World's End (1896), it has a title capable, as the later fantasist C. S. Lewis pointed out, of evoking a feeling of wonder. From the earliest folklore and fairy stories, the wood has been the locus of the mysterious, the dangerous, and the marvelous, but how then did this one get beyond the confines of this world? How does one get there? In one sense the book's title insures its success, for we are compelled to read it to find out. The Wood Beyond the World moreover makes us ask other questions, for its characters and the situation it presents invite us to exercise our interpretive imagination—to construct allegories, say, or seek covert autobiography, or hunt for symbolism. The book is the one late prose romance where Morris seems to be crafting a plot for more than the pure joy of the literal narrative.
But there is still plenty of narrative interest. The Wood Beyond the World is the story of a young man from a rich mercantile family named Golden Walter, whose happiness is undermined by his unfaithful wife. After gaining permission from his powerful merchant father he leaves his home to embark on a long trading journey at sea and thus to escape his painful domestic situation. But right before he leaves he sees a vision at the harbor of three figures—a beautiful and rich lady, her serving maid, and a dwarf. They disappear without speaking to him, yet he is profoundly moved by this vision—one which is repeated later on during his journey. After a few weeks of successful voyaging, Walter receives word that his father has been killed in a conflict arising from the repudiation of Walter's unfaithful wife. The voyagers set sail for home, but a storm arises and forces their ship off course. They are finally driven ashore in a strange new land.
There they meet an old man who lives alone by the sea, who tells them that the country is a wasteland only inhabited far inland, over a wall of cliffs, by a savage folk called the Bears, who are said to worship a female deity and who are rumored to practice the human sacrifice of wanders in her worship. Walter is intrigued by all this, resolving to take the adventure at hand. So he secretly abandons his fellow mariners and heads for a pass in the cliffs and, as it turns out, to a new life.
At first his adventure starts out uneventfully, for the land is truly a wasteland, a desert where food is scarce and no one is encountered. He wanders for days until suddenly he comes upon the evil dwarf he had seen in his visions. The dwarf mentions the Lady, warns Walter of the creature he calls the “Wretch” (who turns out to be the Maid), gives him some food, and leaves. Shortly Walter encounters the Maid. She too warns him—of the treacherous situation in which he is about to find himself: the dwarf is evil, and the Lady has a willful and petulant lover, the King's Son, who has begun to turn his unwelcome amorous attentions towards her. The visions have occurred so that the Lady, who is a sorceress, can entice Walter into supplanting the King's Son as her new lover. But the Maid has intuited that Walter's love is really directed at her instead; they profess their love to each other, but the Maid warns him not to touch her, for the Lady would then know of their love and thus take a terrible revenge upon them. The Maid counsels Walter to be cunning and use subterfuge if need be, appealing to him for forgiveness if she too is forced into deception and seeming betrayal. With these preliminary ground rules in place, the Maid leaves him, and Walter arrives at the Lady's house.
The Lady is rich beyond compare, and there she receives him at first with reserve, while her lover the King's Son treats him with disdain. But Walter is allowed to stay in her house and is given enough food and drink to meet his needs. Several days pass during which Walter is mostly ignored, but he observes the enmity of the dwarf, Lady, and King's Son have towards the Maid, the latter because the Maid has been rebuffing his overtures of love. Finally the Lady's demeanor towards Walter changes, and she graciously requests he serve as her huntsman on a hunt she wishes to pursue. It is during this hunt that she begins to snare Walter as her new lover. A lion has appeared, the Lady feigns terror, Walter slays it, and she rewards him with a kiss. The next day the Lady draws him into her pleasure garden, and he succumbs to her seductive beauty, but without forsaking his love for the Maid.
This seeming betrayal might jar a reader used to the faithfulness of lovers in both medieval romance and later fantasy novels. But Morris's moral universe is always cloudy, and sexual relations in Morris's prose romances are always complex. The momentary surrender to the embraces of the Lady he does not love is, of course, part of the wily subterfuges Walter and the Maid both must use to gain their eventual safety and freedom. The Maid understands this, and she will soon go part way down Walter's road by pretending to submit to the King's Son's attentions.
She soon employs a subtle stratagem to effect their escape. First, she seemingly arranges a lover's tryst with Walter while the evil dwarf is overhearing them. Later she rescinds the request, telling him—this time with no one overhearing—to wait in the hazel bushes outside the house at the time originally appointed for their tryst. Meanwhile she has invited the King's Son to the original place she had first planned with Walter, thus setting up the mistake of identity that will free them. The Lady responds to what she supposes to be a lovers' meeting between Walter and the Maid by commanding him to come to her chamber late that evening to spend the night. The Lady, in other words, has determined to force Walter to decide between them, not knowing that the Maid is manipulating the situation to her own advantage. For when Walter fails to come to the Lady's chamber, she seeks him out at the Maid's and deals a death blow with her knife to the King's Son, who she thinks is Walter. In the consternation of rejected love, she stabs herself to death. Walter and the Maid flee the house but are followed by the evil dwarf, who wounds the Maid superficially with an arrow before Walter's return arrow shot kills him.
Having escaped the web of betrayal and deceit of the Lady's house, Walter and the Maid now must find a way through the wasteland and reintegrate themselves into society. The first step in this process of socialization involves their dealings with the savage folk of the Bears. If the Lady had been a great sorceress, the Maid is not without some skill in magic; she had indeed cast a spell over the King's Son before the Lady killed him to make him look like Walter. The Maid thus develops a stratagem based on magic to deal with the Bears, who, we remember, have a custom to offer up in sacrifice to their goddess wayfarers who wander into their country. The goddess they have worshipped, moreover, is the now deceased Lady. The Maid explains that they must be convinced to take her as their new goddess by some show of supernatural power. She knows how to revivify wilted flowers magically, so she arranges herself in a garment decorated by them, and suddenly makes them fresh and blooming when she and Walter arrive in the land of the Bears and are confronted by them. They accept her as their goddess and Walter as her consort and desire her to remain with them. But she promises to go away, accompanied by Walter, and bring back much needed rain to alleviate a severe drought.
The two leave and are briefly separated in the mountains, but they are soon reunited, resolving to seek some place to live among civilized society. They arrive at a city, named Stark-well, that has just lost its king, who has died without an heir. Its custom is then to choose a new king who is a stranger wandering into the city and who must pass subsequent tests by proving he has a body without flaw and possesses courage. Walter passes these tests and is crowned king with the Maid as his queen. They prosper in their new life, and the Maid visits the land of the Bears with tools and seeds, offering them instruction in the art of tillage, thus socializing them as well.
This summary of the plot of The Wood Beyond the World necessarily omits its non-narrative characteristics. Morris, for instance, maintains an erotic tension throughout and invests the maneuverings of love with subtle complexity. And true to his roots in painting and the decorative arts, Morris offers vivid descriptions of things and events. We see the rift in the cliff-wall that so invites Walter to begin his adventure, and we smell the eglantine the Maid wears on her garment. The book's prose style is the curious archaizing, pseudo-medieval English that he first developed a decade and a half earlier while working on his translations out of Old Norse. This style has both been criticized and praised; in its defense it has a certain dignity and is not as hard to decipher as some have claimed.
The ways the book nudges us towards interpretive adventure are perhaps the most distinguishing feature of The Wood Beyond the World among the body of Morris's late prose romances. When the faded flowers on the Maid's garment come to life, for instance, we may take this as somehow symbolic: she is a nature or fertility goddess who revivifies not only the land of the Bears but also the barren emotional life to which Walter has fallen victim. Certainly the storm-tossed ship is somehow symbolic of Walter's emotional state and the voyage at sea of his journey through life. The dwarf symbolizes the tendencies towards violence that Walter must overcome (he never takes revenge on his unfaithful wife and her family for his father's death). But these and other symbolic gestures are sporadic and sometimes run counter to each other. Walter's journey through the wasteland on foot, for instance, symbolically duplicates the sea voyage, while the Maid's iron ankle ring makes her as much a symbol of enslavement as nature or fertility.
The book's covert autobiography is similarly suggestive yet misleading. Anyone familiar with Morris's life can see something of his troubled marriage to Janey Morris in Walter's relationship with his unfaithful wife. But Morris never publicly repudiated Janey; if Morris somehow is Walter, the escape never took place—except perhaps emotionally. Like Walter, Morris too had a rich father who died early, but William Morris Senior's death occurred well before Morris's troubled marriage began and was caused by ill health exacerbated by business stress.
Perhaps the most compelling way to interpret the book is by developing a socialist allegory. Walter must choose between the rich Lady and the Maid who serves her: The Lady, though beautiful and capable of raising Walter's desire, is treacherous, deceitful, and evil. The Maid, though poor, offers Walter genuine love and is capable of leading him to freedom. To augment the allegory of the Lady as Capitalism and the Maid as Socialism, the evil dwarf, perhaps, represents the viscous means by which Capitalism operates and the King's Son perhaps a perceived complicity between the capitalists and the royalty of late nineteenth-century Europe. Though he had labored hard in the Socialist cause in the decade leading up to the writing of The Wood Beyond the World, Morris rejected this seemingly compelling socialist allegory as a valid means of interpreting the book.
He may have done so because authors usually bristle at interpretive schemes that are reductive, as this one clearly is. Perhaps Morris originally intended the socialist allegory when he first plotted out the book. But then the romance took on a life of its own. Autobiographical content not given to socialist valence interposed, and the erotic complexities of the main characters shifted to the book's forefront. It is notable that Walter and the Maid end up as king and queen—not suitable roles for young socialists to emulate. In the end The Wood Beyond the World is itself—a medievalesque romance and proto-fantasy novel whose narrative wanderings produce in us a sense of wonder.