Well At World’s End: Pagan Themes in Speculative Fiction
“From dragons to spaceships, from unicorns to time travel, join me around this campfire blog to explore Pagan themes in fantasy and science fiction, and all the subgenres in between. Reading just got interesting.”
Welcome to the Well at World’s End!
If you know your fantasy history, you’ll spot that the title of this blog comes form the very first fantasy book written by William Morris in 1896. For the first time, Morris deviated from writing “reality” and ventured into another realm, one inhabited by otherworld creatures, like giants and wise hermits, a place governed by the laws of magic.
In Well at World’s End, Morris takes the reader into a mythical region where a magical well grants the drinker immortality. He quests with helpers to find the well, facing danger at every step. The story sounds familiar, because we’ve seen similar ones over the ages, like Percival who quests for the Holy Grail, or Ponce de León’s journey for the Fountain of Youth.
But if we go a little deeper we will find that even this road leads right back to Pagan origins. Morris, like Tolkien years later, saw that magic once held an integral part of daily life, but had slowly faded from the countryside. His book, if nothing else, is a reminder of what was, and more so what could be.
Digging even deeper, we can make comparisons to Morris’ well and the cauldron—the giver of life. The Well at World’s End is essentially a retelling of the Holy Grail quest, which can be traced to the Legend of Tuatha de Dannan.
“They brought the cauldron of Dagda which would later be known as the Holy Grail.”
Dagda’s cauldron was said to be bottomless and granted the user unlimited fulfillment.
The well is also similar to Bran’s cauldron of regeneration found in the Mabinogion, which restored health to those even mortally wounded. In Greek mythology, Demeter places her son, Celeus, in a cauldron above a special fire in order to make him immortal. In Norse mythology, the magic cauldron, Odhrerrir, made by dwarfs, contained a potion that granted wisdom.
In today’s Pagan ritual, the well can be found on the altar as the chalice, which can represent the ebb and flow of life. And also the cauldron, which represents rebirth and regeneration, just as it did in Morris’ day.
But are we surprised to find fantasy fiction steeped in Pagan origins? Not really. What we can consider is the reminder these books bring to the modern world—the magical world is all around us, not separate, and we need not quest to find it, but rather, maybe it’s right in our own backyard.
Morris’s book is the perfect starting place for this blog, because many of the books that come after it, explore similar themes. As we get started on our very own quest—a quest for Pagan themes in speculative fiction—we’ll be visiting the trenches of writers throughout history and modern times. We’ll venture through dragon lairs and time warps, and steampunk trains to get at the Pagan.
If you have suggestions for future books, drop me an email at email@example.com with Pagan Themes in Spec Fiction as the subject header. Want to read along, email for a list of upcoming books. Let the quest begin!
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