Some spoilers ahead.
According to Lin Carter's Foreword to the 1970 Ballantine paperback edition, The Well at the World's End is William Morris's 228,000-word masterpiece of heroic fantasy. Carter goes on to state that both he and his friend and fellow author L. Sprague de Camp consider Morris the founder of the heroic fantasy genre because although there were fantasies written before the 1895 publication of Morris's other fantasy novel, The Wood Beyond the World, Morris told his tales as if they were real, as if the places where the action happened were real places in a world we just somehow didn't know about. John Moreton Drax Plunkett, known to the world as Lord Dunsany, would call this location "beyond the fields we know," but not beyond existence.
This is all an important commentary on The Well at the World's End, because there is much about the actual setting of the tale that has to be reconciled.
In almost any fantasy, and maybe especially in those that blend over into other genres such as romance and mystery, the characters have to be reasonably identifiable as human, in thought and action and psychology if not species. The trappings of imaginary worlds and magical powers can't make up for characters the human reader can't identify with.
The cast of characters in The Well are all very human. The hero Ralph of Upmeads is a perfectly ordinary young knight of medieval Earth tradition. His father is King Peter of the small kingdom. His brothers are Blaise and Hugh and Gregory. Though many of the characters in the novel don't have given names, those who do are both familiar and commonly spelled: Katherine, Clement, Ursula, Walter, Richard, Roger, Stephen, even Joyce and Agatha.
Likewise, the places have a distinctly English ring to their names: Hampton under Scaur, Whitwall, Utterness, the Wood Perilous, Wulstead, the Burg of the Four Friths, Valley of the Sweet Chestnuts, the Wall of the World. Towns and villages have churches and abbeys; there are enough references to saints to recognize that this world is Christian even before Morris states it.
And though these folks whereunto we shall come, are, some of them, Christian men by name, and have amongst them priests and religious; yet are they wild men of manners, and many heathen customs abide amongst them; as swearing on the altars of devils, and eating horse-flesh at the High-tides, and spell-raising more than enough, and such like things, even to the reddening of the doom-rings with the blood of men and of women, yea, and of babes: from such things their priests cannot withhold them.
Morris, William. The Well at the World's End: a tale (p. 131). . Kindle Edition.
At one point Ralph comes into possession of a Turkish bow, and one particular place on his journey is likened to a Roman theater.
so that the said valley was like to one of those theatres of the ancient Roman Folk, whereof are some to be seen in certain lands.
Morris, William. The Well at the World's End: a tale (p. 233). . Kindle Edition.
The wild creatures Ralph encounters are also quite normal, albeit often called by archaic names: hart and hind, neat, bears, lions, rabbits and coneys.
The effect of all this familiarity is to make the world of The Well less important than the story. Little needs to be explained; most readers will know the difference between a forest of oak trees and one of pine trees.
So to say that Morris succeeded in setting his tale in an imagined world that was still recognizable to his contemporary readers is pretty obvious.
The problem is that he spent so very much time describing Ralph's travels through this landscape, each hill and valley, each ridge and down, and far too little on the things in that landscape that made it fantastic, that set it apart from the fields we know.
Unlike Tolkien, Morris didn't provide a map of his world. I found that, as I read each stage of Ralph's journey, I tried to impose the geography on a map of Middle Earth as I remembered it from The Lord of the Rings and of course that's not possible. At the beginning, when Ralph and his three brothers set out from Upmeads, each heads in a different direction. After Hugh and Gregory and Blaise have gone north, south, and west (not necessarily respectively), Ralph is left with going east. Though there are references to his following various streams or rivers heading in that direction, I never got a clear sense of where he was going in relation to where he had been.
In other words, what's the geographic relationship between the various towns? Which is east or west or north or south of the other? How far is Utterbol from the Plain of Abundance? What's the difference between the Wood Perilous and the Wood Debateable? Where did the Wheat-wearer people live? Where was Swevenham in relation to Whiteness?
I think anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings knows roughly where the main theatres of the Fellowship's adventures are. The Shire is a real place in the imagination, as are Rohan and Mirkwood and Weathertop and Mordor. The reader gets a real sense of what Rivendell is like, and Lorien, and Shelob's Lair, the mountains, and so on. Tolkien built on Morris's foundation, a foundation that was solid but dull and boring.
Morris established a world that the reader could believe was real, that the reader could fall into and mentally see because that world was all around her. Tolkien and the others who came after Morris embellished that reality and allowed the reader to believe in the unbelievable.
The only thing that's unbelievable in The Well at the World's End is the well itself. It's the only magical thing in the story; all the rest is ordinary and almost boring. Sometimes there's no "almost" about it.
The story begins with Ralph and his three brothers deciding that they are tired of little Upmeads and they want adventure. They draw straws, with the shortest being forced to stay home and take care of the parents. Hugh, Blaise, and Gregory get to go adventuring, while young Ralph gets left behind. The very next day, he runs away to have his own adventures.
Nothing forces him to do this. There's no real opening motivation other than boredom. Nothing happens. If you look at most novels written in the past 300 or so years, something outside the main characters forces them to act. The suddenly orphaned Regency heroine is facing her third Season with no prospects and if she doesn't find a suitable spouse, she will be forced to marry her odious Cousin Chermondey or be on the streets. The successful stock broker heroine is caught up in a web of financial chicanery and her only hope of avoiding life in prison is to team up with a government investigator who thinks she's guilty as hell. In other words, the situation the protagonist finds her/himself in is NOT of their own making.
But Ralph's adventures are of his own making. There is no outside event that forces him to act, and this seriously reduces the dramatic tension throughout the novel. And that makes for a very long 228,000 words.
There is also no defined antagonist in The Well. Ralph goes on his quest and he meets with some bad guys, and sometimes he just makes stupid decisions that get him in temporary trouble, but there's no real over-arching villain.
Consider the standard forms of conflict in fiction:
1. Character against nature/supernature
2. Character against character
3. Character against self
4. Character against society
5. Character against technology
Ralph is never pitted against any of these in terms of the whole book. He has occasional skirmishes against other characters -- conflict #2 -- but for the most part he just plods along on his search for the Well.
Again, to compare this to LOTR, the Fellowship has a clear cut mission in its quest to destroy the One Ring. And they have a distinct adversary in Sauron. Along the way there are other conflicts, whether confrontations with the Nazgul or the debacle in Moria or the battle against the Orcs at Helm's Deep; but all these separate obstacles are related to and structurally supportive of the underlying quest to destroy the ring. All of that is missing from The Well at the World's End.
Ralph's journey is long. He crosses many plains and a couple of deserts. He rides through a lot of woods. He climbs a lot of mountains. He eats and sleeps and gets up. He hunts for game and puts on his armor. And to be honest, that's what most of the book is about.
The actual quest for the Well occupies about fifteen percent of those 228,000 words. And even that part isn't particularly exciting. Ralph -- now accompanied by Ursula -- encounters no major obstacles to reaching the Well. He's been advised ahead of time how to watch for the signs that he's on the right path. He has a (more or less, kind of, sort of) magic talisman to get him there. No horrible beast is guarding it. Reaching the Well has absolutely none of the drama of Frodo and Sam's climb up Mount Doom.
Ralph and Ursula reach the Well, find the special gold cup, and drink the water, and it's all accomplished in three or four pages. . . with a full quarter of the book yet to go!
And nothing happens.
Ralph and Ursula are somewhat changed, made somewhat superior to normal humans, but the world doesn't change. And they now have to go back to Upmeads by the same road, the same boring road. Across the deserts and the plains, up and down the mountains, through the woods. As they make their return journey, they fight a few foes to bring peace and plenty to all the little villages and towns and pseudo-countries they previously passed through. There are some reunions and some revenges. On the whole, however, it's boring. There's just not enough conflict and tension.
And of course they arrive at Upmeads to find all in turmoil and villains about to take over the little kingdom and do bad things. Ralph assembles an army that defeats the bad guys -- with virtually no loss of life to the good guys -- and his father King Peter relinquishes the crown to him. And they all lived happily ever after.
Now, given all the weaknesses I've already pointed out, you might be wondering why I still list it at 4.5 stars and place it in my personal canon.
Because what Morris did accomplish was pretty amazing.
The plot, as I've already described, is rather weak by today's standards. The style is outrageously overweighted with telling instead of showing. Backstory is often given via one character literally sitting up all night with another to tell the tale of whatever. Sometimes the "whatever" has little to no relevance to the basic plot, but it's just there anyway. Description is weak, as if Morris deliberately made the countryside so familiar that it didn't need much description, even though that left out so much that later writers would add.
But Morris made it real. He didn't rely on "it was all a dream" or any other device to explain his world. Everything belonged. He didn't call it Middle Earth, and if there was any magic at all it was minimal to the point of well, maybe it was magic and maybe not.
He used archaic, pseudo-medieval language throughout, and yes, it takes a bit of getting used to. It's one thing to have the characters speak in a distinct patois, but Morris takes the device to the narrative as well. This pulls the reader further into that imaginary world. Even when, at the end, he writes the contrivance of having Ralph tell one of the local priests the whole story of the adventure and the priest writes it all down to form the basis of the novel, the style remains the same.
I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time in about 1966/67, when Ballantine came out with the authorized paperback edition. The two-volume Ballantine edition of The Well at the World's End was published in 1970, and from what I can tell, that's about when I acquired my copies. I also bought some of the other Ballantine editions, but most disappeared over the years; I've replaced a few with either used copies or digital editions. LOTR remains dramatically far superior to The Well, but the evidence of connections between the two are obvious.
For that reason, I do recommend The Well at the World's End to anyone who takes a serious interest in the genre of heroic fantasy as something more than mere entertainment. This is the root that leads to the branches. More important, however, is the value of this book to the writer of heroic adventure, not as a plot template but as an example of immersion in style and creation of a world-ness, not just a world. Morris establishes that this is a fictional, fantastical medieval landscape, and he never deviates from that. Via language and syntax and even punctuation, he creates the atmosphere and sticks with it.
I wish he had had an editor who could have punched up the drama and conflict. Perhaps as a movie this would have been improved the way the film version of Practical Magic improved on the book. Yes, it was a bit of a slog to get through all 228,000 words. I still don't know where the town/village of Swevenham was or why the Sage thereof ended up where he did. I still don't know exactly how Ursula got her beads, or what they meant. I still don't know what happened to Falcon or Gregory. And I'm not going to go back and reread to find out!
But I am glad I made the journey again.