Book Review: The Wood Beyond the World

The Wood Beyond the World cover

Are you a fan of very old style writing?  Do you want a new Medieval fairy tale? Enjoy reading cramped, calligraphy-like typeset?  Well, then I have the book for you! William Morris created his own publishing company, Kelmscott Press in 1890, which wanted to emulate a certain level of Medieval style. The volume I read is a facsimile of Morris’s 1894 edition.  The pages look beautiful, with a very Medieval manuscript appearance, even including red printed bits on each page.  

Unfortunately, it’s fairly difficult to read.  It took quite a while to train myself on how to interpret certain symbols, when words were supposed to be separate (sometimes there’s no space between them), etc.  And of course, he’s emulating archaic language. I’m reminded of reading Lovecraft, especially his Dream Cycle stuff, where he was trying to capture the language of the 17th Century.  Here’s a writer from the 17th Century trying to capture a vibe from maybe the 10th. Sooth, it can be a slog.

The story itself is quite odd.  There’s a bit of Marco Polo, a bit of Gulliver, and plenty of just plain peculiar.  A young man flees a loveless marriage for a life of adventure. He follows a vision both terrible and wonderful of a monster dwarf, a frighteningly beautiful woman, and a maiden.  He travels to strange lands, confronts various mysteries, gets into some pretty twisted Susan Lucci-level romantic difficulties, and worries a lot about doing the right thing.

If I’m being honest, it didn’t really keep me.  The book starts off well, with a kind of Edgar Rice Burroughs/Arthur Conan Doyle adventure, filtered through Thomas Malory.  But once he meets the main players…well, it all kinda grinds to a halt. Scene after scene of being confused by conflicting words and emotions.  Scene after scene of finding out the ‘real truth’ which turns out not to be the ‘real truth’ two scenes later. What I thought was going to be a stopping point along a longer journey turns out to be the lion’s share of the book.  When that part is finally finished, it feels like key elements happened ‘off screen’ and our hero didn’t really do very much. But then, in spite of what turns out to be the major conflict of the story being resolved, the book doesn’t end, and there are finally some further adventures.  Sadly, by this point they feel rushed and tacked on.

This is the kind of book where you could open up to a random page, read a sentence or two, and then use that as inspiration for something totally unrelated.  For example, I just flipped to page 151 and read: “The Maid followed her; but or ever she was quite gone, she stopped and made the sign.” Great. That’s super cryptic and would make a great quote to drop into a Call of Cthulhu game about The King in Yellow.

For a certain type of reader, I’m sure this book will be a fascinating time capsule.  Perhaps even an entertaining read. I’m not that reader. I do think I’ll photocopy some pages, age them up with tea stains, and use them as handouts for a tabletop RPG at some point.  Otherwise, I can’t really recommend this one.


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