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The Worm Ouroboros by Eric Rucker Eddison

The Worm Ouroboros by Eric Rucker Eddison
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Book Name: The Worm Ouroboros
Author: Eric Rucker Eddison
Publisher(s): Gollancz
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: 1922

We all know what epic fantasy is supposed to be like. It should involve a vast war between good and evil (or at least between significantly better and significantly worse) for the fate of an exotic world, full of heroes and villains, strange races, superhuman feats of arms, and desperate quests to save the day at the eleventh hour. It should be big.

On the whole, this was missing from most early fantasy. Authors such as Morris, Dunsany and Cabell concentrated on personal quests of discovery and growth, while Howard and his fellow sword-and-sorcery writers chronicled the individual exploits of barbarian heroes. Then Tolkien put it all together, and epic fantasy as we know it was born.

Well, not quite. In 1926, eleven years before even The Hobbit appeared, E. R. Eddison published The Worm Ouroboros, a full-blooded fantasy adventure that not only ticks every box in the first paragraph, but perhaps shows more direct ancestry to much modern fantasy than Lord of the Rings.

Eric Rücker Eddison was born in 1882 and was a boyhood friend of the children’s author Arthur Ransome, of the Swallows and Amazons series. Most of his adult life was spent as a civil servant, working for the Board of Trade, from which he retired in 1938, after rising to the position of Deputy Comptroller-General of the Department of Overseas Trade. He died in 1945.

Eddison’s literary output wasn’t huge. Besides two books adapted from Viking sagas, he wrote three and a half fantasy novels – the half being unfinished at his death, although it’s been published with outlines replacing missing chapters. Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison and The Mezentian Gate (the unfinished novel) form the Zimiamvian Trilogy – unusual for a fantasy trilogy, in that each book is a prequel of the last. His first and (probably) best, though, was The Worm Ouroboros.

The story is nominally set on the planet Mercury, though this isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. What we’re presented with is a world somewhat like medieval Europe, or more particularly the world of the Norse kings and warlords of the Viking Age. It’s mostly referred to as earth – sometimes even as Middle Earth, originally the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Midgard, the world of mortals – it has a moon, and its inhabitants invoke Greek gods and quote classical poets. It’s likely that Eddison’s point was that this is a mercurial world, rather than any serious attempt even at science fantasy, let alone science fiction.

In the same way, the kingdoms which fight wars, making and breaking alliances, have names such as Demonland, Witchland, Goblinland, Pixyland and the like. The first description of the Demon lords, who are the heroes of the tale, refers to their horns, but that’s the only time any of the characters are presented as anything but thoroughly human.

Eddison’s vision of this world is one of noble heroes, and villains worthy to challenge them. The greatest threat to the world is the kingdom of Witchland, ruled by a succession of kings, all called Gorice, inhabited by a single spirit that moves into the next in line at the point of death. Against them stand the three brothers and lords of Demonland – Juss, Goldry Bluszco and Spitfire – and their cousin, Brandoch Daha, while the lands around ally themselves to one or the other, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

The story opens with a wrestling match, with the fate of Demonland hanging in the balance, between King Gorice XI and Goldry Bluszco. When Gorice is killed, his successor, a scholar of the Dark Arts, contrives to have Goldry carried off by magic, and then prepares to invade Demonland, contrary to the terms of the match. While Spitfire leads the defence, Juss and Brandoch Daha set off on a quest into the wild country of Impland. Only there can they find the egg of a hippogriff, which can carry them to Goldry’s magical prison.

The tale unfolds both the war and the quest in a series of epic set pieces played out by larger-than-life characters: noble heroes, dastardly tyrants, stunningly beautiful ladies and subtle counsellors. The conjuring by Gorice and his counsellor Gro, to raise the terrible sending that carries off Goldry Bluszco. Juss and Brandoch Daha fighting the manticore in Impland. The scaling of the great mountains, Koshtra Pivrarcha and Koshtra Belorn. The flight of the hippogriff. Countless battles, culminating in the final showdown between the Demons and the Witches. And, at last, the extraordinary prayer, granted by the gods, to restore the world to the moment of the story’s opening, like the worm swallowing its tail, so that the glorious battles and exploits can be fought again and again.

By contrast with The Worm Ouroboros, Eddison’s Zimiamvian Trilogy is quieter and more subtle, placing greater emphasis on plotting and politicking, as well as Eddison’s philosophy, than on feats of derring-do. Lin Carter, in his book Tolkien: A Look Behind The Lord of the Rings, discusses Eddison and is of the opinion, “The Zimiamvian books are less successful than the mighty Worm or, at least, they are less interesting to read…The Worm is Homeric; the Trilogy is Machiavellian: and most people enjoy reading Homer more than Machiavelli.”

This was doubtless true in 1969, and probably still is; but many modern epic fantasy writers (George R. R. Martin is an obvious example) have introduced exactly this kind of political plotting into their works, and Eddison is very much the spiritual ancestor of these works.

Zimiamvia is first introduced in The Worm Ouroboros, where Juss and Brandoch Daha look out over it from the vast, remote mountain of Koshtra Pivrarcha. It’s described as a Valhalla or Elysium where “no mortal foot may tread…but the blessed souls do inhabit it of the dead that be departed, even they that were great upon earth and did great deeds when they were living…”

In the Trilogy, although this concept does survive – particularly in the character of Lessingham, who is seen both in our world and in Zimiamvia – the tales are of kingdoms not unlike those in The Worm, and of the struggles for power in them.

The Worm Ouroboros is not without flaws. For one thing, the worldbuilding and naming is both haphazard and bizarre by modern standards: not only in the way Eddison calls his peoples Witches, Demons and the rest, but in the smorgasbord of personal and place names (brothers called Goldry Bluszco and Spitfire?) which appear to have neither rhyme or reason. The reason for this seems to be that Eddison began to create these lands and heroes as a child. In marked contrast to the development of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, he was clearly unwilling as an adult to change anything for the sake of making more sense.

The beginning of the novel is strange and somewhat pointless. In an Induction, we’re introduced to Lessingham, later developed in the Trilogy, at his home in the Lake District. A magical bird conducts him, on the back of a hippogriff, to Mercury, where they observe events unseen. This might have been an interesting conceit, as the bird explains to Lessingham what he’s witnessing. However, Eddison seems to have forgotten the idea – the invisible observers don’t appear again after chapter two – and a modern editor would have told him sternly to develop the concept or cut it.

The language in which the story is written is, essentially, Shakespearian English. Eddison handles it pretty well, but it doesn’t flow as easily as, for instance, William Morris’s neo-mediaeval style, and many readers might find it a bit of a slog. A fairly typical example, from the first chapter:

“Speak no word of ill omen,” answered Juss. “Whoso’er it be, we will straight dispatch his business and so fall to pleasure indeed. Some, run to the gate and bring him in.”

The aspect of the book that might put off more readers than others – and one that Tolkien criticised, while enjoying the story otherwise – is Eddison’s extreme heroic ethic. Almost all his characters are warrior aristocrats who love nothing more than warfare. In contrast with Tolkien’s concept of the little man (literally and figuratively) as hero, in Eddison’s work ordinary people are at best ignored, at worst despised and oppressed – by heroes and villains alike.

It’s difficult to feel sympathetic with this attitude; but, even so, The Worm Ouroboros has plenty to weigh down the opposite side of the balance. As pure escapism, it’s magnificent and exciting, and the characters, while unrealistic, are wonderfully vivid, none more so than the counsellor and serial traitor, Gro, who changes sides according to a very personal sense of right and wrong, usually involving a fine lady he’s fallen in love with. Fritz Leiber had commented that he sees a parallel between Gro, together with Corund, the most decent of the Witch lords, and his own Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The Worm Ouroboros has been praised by writers ranging from C. S. Lewis to Ursula LeGuin to Michael Moorcock to Clive Barker.

And then there are all of those set-pieces of action and wonder, such as Eddison’s description of the manticore’s attack:

“Swinging from hold to hold across the dizzy precipice, as an ape swingeth from bough to bough, the beast drew near. The shape of it was as a lion, but bigger and taller, and colour a dull red, and it had prickles lancing out behind, as of a porcupine; its face a man’s face, if aught so hideous might be conceived as human kind, with staring eyeballs, low wrinkled brow, elephant ears, some wispy mangy likeness of a lion’s mane, huge bony chaps, brown blood-stained gubber-tushes grinning betwixt bristly lips. Straight for the ledge it made, and as they braced them to receive it, with a great swing heaved a man’s height above them and leaped down upon their ledge from aloft betwixt Juss and Brandoch Daha ere they were well aware of its changed course.”

The Worm Ouroboros is what it is – flawed but magnificent, it stands at the outset of the modern fantasy epic. Whether for the wonder and excitement of the story, or to find the great-grand-daddy of some of your favourite authors, all lovers of epic fantasy should take the trip to Mercury by hippogriff at least once.

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Rating: 9.3/10 (4 votes cast)
The Worm Ouroboros by Eric Rucker Eddison, 9.3 out of 10 based on 4 ratings
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2 Comments

  1. Peter says:

    I read this about 20 years ago. I recall feeling, as was mentioned in the review, that the world-building & naming conventions were extremely odd. But that oddness combined with the archaic language leads to an unique reading experience. And how often do fantasy fans have true unique reading experiences? Fans of epic fantasy, but tired of Tolkien and his ilk could do worse than tracking down this novel.

  2. Bets Davies says:

    I know I am thumbing my nose at all Tolkien-ophiles and risk death, but I like Ourorboros better than Tolkien–other than the fact I’ve always loved Tolkien for choosing the ordinary to be extraordinary. Tolkien is a little less visceral. Eddison doesn’t make sense or pretend to as he introduces a fantastic world of cobbled together notions from all over. Incidentally, part of his obsession with the heroic hero I’ve always attached to his fascination with Norse culture and lore. He plays out a specific culture and mythology even as he mixes it with others.

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