This review will contain spoilers!
In many sentences:
I was surprised when I started reading Well how archaic the language was. I knew it was written in the 1890s, so I was expecting more Lord of the Rings than Cantebury Tales. To be honest, I wasn't very happy and at about page 20 I was considering putting it down and giving up. I only continued because of what I had read about the book being an influence for Lord of the Rings. I am very happy I stuck with it.
Other than the difficultly I had with the archaic language at the beginning (by the end, I didn't even think about it, and was able to read with relative ease) was the fact that this is only Volume I of the whole story. To make this even worse, the book wasn't written as two volumes, but instead split to reduce the publishing costs. Thus, the book ends abruptly and with absolutely no resolution. I will absolutely be picking up the second volume as soon as I can.
From what I can gather from volume I, this will be a classic hero's quest tale. This isn't a surprising or unique insight, but it does allow for some interesting analysis. If this is a quest then Ralph's overt goal (finding the Well at the World's End and Dorothea) are not really the most important thing. What is important is what Ralph learns on the journey. However, since the journey is only halfway done, I can only guess what he will really learn. The book gives us some clues, though, and even if there are bigger lessons he learns in the end, there are definitely some conclusions we can draw so far.
First, I think Ralph will learn not to take for granted what he has around him. From the very beginning, he seeks the next step, the next accomplishment. It begins when he leaves the happy life he would have at Upmeads, and continues each step along the way. First, he passes up the Abbey, where he could have led a content life as a member of the Abbey. He was even told to stop there and go no further, for he could not expect to be more content than he would be at the Abbey. Next, he finds a beautiful young woman at Burton Abbas, but continues on because he is still seeking adventure and the Well. Passing along this happiness is particularly interesting since he eventually begins to seek after her as part of his end goal! At the time, however, it was not adequate.
After leaving her, passing through the woods, and foregoing the Burg, he becomes restless in the Castle of Abundance waiting for his Lady. Then, once they are together, his thoughts are again on the Well. Next, he passes on a life of happiness with the Queen of Goldburg so that he can find Dorothea and the Well.
The Queen even calls out this behavior: "For they mind looketh on thy deeds to come, that they may be shared by some other than me" (259). She also questions if perhaps his happiness will be found at home (perhaps a foreshadowing of a return to Upmeads, where it all began?) and not on the adventure: "Maybe thou art seeking for what is not. Or maybe thou shalt seek and shalt find, and there may be naught in what thou findest, whereof to give thee such gifts as are meet for they faithfulness and valiancy. But in thine home shouldst thou have all gifts which thou mayest desire" (257). It will be interesting to see how this theme is carried through the second volume.
There was another quote that I found interesting when you consider this an influence on Tolkien. When worrying about the journey, the Lady says to Ralph "O fair boy! the crossing will be to-morrow and not to-day; let to-morrow cross its own rivers; for surely to-day is fair enough, and fairer shall it be when thou hast been fed and art sitting by me in rest and peace until to-morrow morning" (187). I couldn't help but be reminded of this quote from The Children of Hurin: "Let the unseen days be. Today is more than enough" (74). Not that this theme was invented by Morris, but perhaps there is a connection.
Speaking of connections, the evil lord of Utterbol is named Gandolf, and the friend of the Knight of the Sun who almost dies is Walter the Black (as in King's Dark Tower series).
Ultimately, I actually appreciated the use of the archaic language in this book. It really made it feel like you were reading the tale of a long lost adventurer, and I think much of the charm would be lost if the language were modernized. Charm is important, too, because it's much of what makes this books o enjoyable. The tale is simple, but in its simplicity there is a quaintness that makes it charming and very enjoyable. I am reminded of Don Quixote, but I'm not sure why, exactly. So, I'm going to read it again to see if the connection is valid.
As a random aside, I think it's interesting (if not downright humorous) how everyone who sees Ralph loves him, and I was surprised by the fact that the Lady died. Yes, it was early in the book, but I wasn't expecting such heartbreak.
I didn't think I would be saying this, but I think anyone who enjoys fantasy should read this book. By the end of this volume I was enthralled, and couldn't wait to find out what happened next. The language takes some getting used to, but after 40 or so pages it will be natural, and will add much color to the experience of reading. Plus, knowing the influence it had on Tolkien, and almost all modern fantasy writers, makes it fascinating in the historical sense.
"Maybe thou art seeking for what is not. Or maybe thou shalt seek and shalt find, and there may be naught in what thou findest, whereof to give thee such gifts as are meet for thy faithfulness and valiancy. But in thine home shouldst thou have all gifts which thou mayest desire."William Morris in The Well at the World's End Volume I