Tuesday, July 9, 2013

E.R. Eddison - The Worm Ouroboros

By the time it wraps up, 2013 will, I am sure, have more Fantasy novels with imaginary kingdoms warring in invented worlds than anyone could possibly read. 1922 had one. The Worm Ouroboros is a strange beast to read now. Back then, three decades before Tolkien’s masterwork, it must have been utterly, overwhelmingly bewildering. But it is not only interesting historically. Though seriously flawed, The Worm Ouroboros is an interesting beast indeed, a novel that reads something like what might have happened if Shakespeare had written an alternate universe Epic Fantasy version of Homer’s Iliad.

Readers looking for purely second world, immersive fantasies might be confused by the book’s opening. Eddison begins with a man named Lessingham that, due to entering a strange room in his house, is transported to Mercury to observe what his guide insists will be something extraordinary. It’s a less than stellar opening that reads like Eddison sticking his toe into the then-uncharted waters of secondary world fantasy before he can quite summon the courage to dive in.

But dive in he does. The world he creates ceases to be the barren, overheated lump of rock we call Mercury as soon as Lessingham arrives, and Lessingham himself is quite literally forgotten about within the first few pages, never to be mentioned again. In his place, the reader finds themselves in an imagined world dominated by the struggle between vast nations. These nations, it must be admitted, have atrocious names. Demonland and Witchland are the main combatants, with Impland and Pixyland showing the caliber of the rest of Eddison’s nomenclature. The lack of skill in naming, however, does not translate to a lack of skill in world-building. Though it doesn’t seem to have much at all to do with demons as we conceive them, Demonland (and the other nations that Eddison creates) is a richly imagined place with a wide cast of characters and a well considered history.

The war between Demonland and Witchland begins with a challenge issued by the cruel King Gorice XI of Witchland and the “wrastling” match that commences. When the Witches’ reincarnated leader, now Gorice XII, proves disinclined to honorably back down, he summons the fearsome Worm Ouroboros. When the Worm takes one of the four brothers that rule and lead Demonland and tosses him to some godforsaken corner of the world (for… some reason?), the others set off to save him as the war begin the two nations begins.

The war is a fought solidly in the heroic register. It is a matter of great champions and their quest for glory, one where the heroes believe that “all occasions are but steps for us to climb fame by” (p. 118). As such, these battles are welcome, for it is through them that glory may be won and great deeds done. As our protagonists say: “Are not all lands, all airs, one country unto us, so there be great doings afoot to keep bright our swords?” (p. 129)

The cost of this register is that these characters are more collections of grand deeds than they are complex personalities. To briefly give you the chief cast of Demonland: Juss is the strong but wise (ish) leader, Goldry Blusczo is the great fighter seized by the Worm, Brandoch Daha is the pretty boy master swordsman with a wonderful name, and Spitfire does seem to on occasion spit fire. That about sums them all up. The cast of villains is somewhat more interesting but, with one exception, is not greatly so.

One of the few different notes is Gro, who is essentially a normal fellow forced into this superhuman world. He is the savvy, amoral manipulator of the bunch, and the few times we see him fight do not end particularly well for him. He is also an explorer and a writer, a man that has realized that it is all but "a fable of great men that arise and conquer the nations” (p. 311). Truly, glory fades with death and time, so he has aimed himself at, instead of it, “to love the sunrise and the sundown and the morning and the evening star ? since there only abideth the soul of nobility, true love, and wonder, and the glory of hope and fear” (p. 312). He may be no more moral than the rest of our cast, but he seeks a quieter kind of hedonism, a glory not of great deeds but of love and the enjoyment of life. It doesn’t go well for him, but I loved him all the same.

The other variances from the shallow but epic heroics that make up most of the cast are the female characters. Alas, they are different but not well done. The female nobility we see spends their time being seduced, wooed, and threatened with rape. One particularly uncomfortable scene has a woman sent by her father to the king to try and seduce him towards the father’s point of view. King Gorice laughs off the attempted persuasion but does enjoy her body after he finishes explaining how futile her errand was and how powerless she is.

Despite the shallowness of the characters, Eddison thrives in his depiction of the grand deeds that his creations accomplish. Mountains are climbed, beasts are slain, battles are fought, and each encounter comes through to the reader with impossible richness. Much of the success of the novel’s atmosphere, and of how Eddison imparts its almost hedonistic heroic code, come from Eddison’s prose. Eddison writes like a time traveller from Jacobean times. His every word and phrase is strange, but it is a managed strangeness that he crafts without a misstep, and it soon begins to read not so much like an actor desperate for a role in Shakespeare as it does like the standard dialect of this distant, heroically elevated world. For an example of it at its height, witness Gorice’s calculated decision to use magic against his foes: “But I, that am skilled in grammarie, do bear a mightier engine against the Demons than brawny sinews or the sword that smiteth asunder. Yet is mine engine perilous to him that useth it.” (p. 54) But while Eddison’s writing is heavy, it is not without its playfulness, and the grandiosity of his style also allows for profoundly silly moments, such as one’s character’s exclamation: “devil damn me black as buttermilk” (p. 143).

Still, moral problems with this kind of fiction creep in. The characters are shamelessly elitist. They refer to the “common muck o’ the world” (p. 150),and uncountable numbers of those that make up the muck are slaughtered in the grand battles in which Juss and his brothers win their glory. When the lords of Witchland conquer Demonland, we hear of how they oppress the populace. But the reader comes to wonder long before the end of the book whether the lords of Demonland are actually any better. Celebrating glory becomes hard to do once you realize that the glory is attained by slaughtering one’s fellow (albeit, if you ask your heroes here, lesser) man.

But the novel’s ending shows that Eddison was aware of that problem throughout. [Note that a discussion of the ending will, obviously, contain SPOILERS.] Having finally defeated Witchland, the heroes of Demonland see the hollowness of glory and become despondent. “Thinking that we,” they say, “that fought but for fighting’s sake, have in the end fought so well we never may fight more; unless it should be in fratricidal rage against each. And ere that should betide, may earth close over us and our memory perish.” (p. 431) They realize that glory must be constantly renewed, that, once the fighting is over, it fades and death returns. Without a new battle to fight, they are not only prevented from doing new deeds but must see their old deeds fade: “We […] have flown beyond the rainbow. And there we found no fabled land of heart’s desire, but wet rain and wind only and the cold mountain-side. And our hearts are a-cold because of it,” Juss says (p. 432).

And so Eddison, in the last pages of his work, brings forth his final and devastating twist: the Gods grant the heroes of Demonland their prayer. Their war is eternal. It began an infinite amount of time before The Worm Ouroboros did and will continue forever after. Gro was right, and the glory of the strong will fade with the years until they, eventually, die like anyone else. The only way for them to escape that fate is to fight on, to fight for ever. And so the Lords of Demonland fight an endless war, causelessly slaughtering the common man again and again for all of time so that the great might retain their glory and greatness.

The Worm Ouroboros is a bizarre book. It lacks the characterization that fans of modern Fantasy no doubt expect to find. But that is not to discount it. Eddison simultaneously succeeds at the best modern evocation of Homeric heroism that I have read while also managing to critique and ultimately expose the horrors of that ideal, creating a book that both thrills the reader and makes them question even the ideals of heroism, greatness, and war in their modern form. After 1922, Fantasy developed down a very different path from this. But The Worm Ouroboros is a unique beast that is very much worth looking at, one that exists and immerses the reader in its own archaizing language and elevated cosmos.


  1. Look at it and then throw it across the room more like.

  2. I've never quite understood what these major flaws everyone seems to find in The Worm Ouroboros. Fantasy has never seen a better writer than Eddison and that alone is reason enough that any serious fantasy fan should read his works. Yes, many common men die in the battles between the Demons and the Witches, but this is a fantasy novel not a social treatise! I've noticed that for many people it is difficult to put aside notions of just warfare when reading The Worm Ouroboros. It is in fact difficult to imagine a world in which morality and violence are largely divorced but that is one of the terms of this book, and especially with a fantasy book it is imperative to read by a narrative's own terms. Eddison was a man thoroughly out of his time and however much he idealized the past (and he did a great deal), this book was never intended to be read with modern political notions in mind. Eddison does not record a note of dissatisfaction amongst the common man because that is not what The Worm Ouroboros is about; what The Worm Ouroboros is about is heroic deeds performed for the sole purpose of glory. Not a single living fantasy author could write a book of this magnitude by that premise.

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