The Worm Ouroboros
by E. R. Eddison
Ballantine Books, New York, 1967
[Challenge # 48: A high fantasy]
The Worm Ouroboros is one of the great granddaddies of fantasy, sandwiched between Lord Dunsany, who was an influence, and J.R.R. Tolkien, who received its influence. As such, it’s a kind of a bridge, but one that harkens back to earlier eras, drawing on elements of the great Norse and Germanic sagas and combining them with Elizabethean prose and, at times, Victorian sentimentality.
A bit of backstory about the edition pictured. First published in 1926, Worm was re-released in paperback form in 1967 by Ballantine Books, with a cover by Barbara Remington who also did the covers of the first official paperback of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (without even having access to read them, though it does appear she got to read Worm.) Ballantine was clearly trying to capitalize on the trilogy’s success. This was the same paperback I saw in the library of my SF-loving uncle who was a member of First Fandom, and the book I picked up to read as child… … and immediately put back, for the thickness of the prose. It seemed too adult for me, too heavy and ornate. Happily, forty years later I sought again to tackle it, and I was glad I did.
Eddison, though not a professor like Tolkien, was a scholar of the same things that interested him, and using those same materials he created an amazing pastiche of heroes, villains with outlandish names and all too human flaws, mythic creatures, mighty battles, and quests. I found the prose still heavy, but also delightful and surprising. The book is not to be savored quickly. Like a rich desert it is best small slices, the simplicity of the action aiding in this.
Eddison’s world is planet of Mercury, though it’s clear this is just lip service to the otherworldly aspect; no retrograde summers here or lead-melting temperatures. The countries of Demonland, run by good guys Lord Juss, Goldry Bluszco, Lord Spitfire, and Brandoch Doha, and Witchland, led by Gorice the reincarnating sorcerer-king (he gets 12 turns, like Dr. Who) and his generals, come into conflict when expansionist Witchland demands freedom-loving Demonland submit to its rule. The four lords say nay… and the action begins with a nude wrestling match, a death, a sorcerous storm, the loss of Goldry Bluszco who is exiled to the top of a frozen mountain peak, and his rescue; there’s an immortal Queen on the mountain who makes her entrance with a momentous chord, and intrigue in the sorcerer-king’s court, including a Lady MacBeth subplot; there’s also manticores and hippogriffs, a treacherous advisor, and talking birds… it sounds complicated, but was all pretty straightforward, presented by the author as a rousing he-man tale told around the fire, not an examination of more complicated themes, as Tolkien’s work was.
I also think Eddison was not as serious about it; I could tell he was having a rollicking good time with the writing and evinced an impish sense of humor about it as well. For example, many of the bizarrely-named characters and places — Fax Fay Faz, Pixyland, and Lord Spitfire — came from childhood make-believe games he played with his friends. Admittedly, these names were a big hurdle for a serious reader to get over at the beginning of the book, but eventually I became normalized to them, and I do admire Eddison’s boldness for incorporating pieces of his own childhood like that. Other names, particularly those of the Impland mountains, sound based on Tibetan and Nepali, not surprising since the author was an accomplished mountaineer and likely read first hand stories of Himalayan ascents, which shows in sections of the epic.
The framing device of the book is also a hurdle to overcome: an English bloke named Lessingham astral-projects in the company of a talking bird who takes him to Mercury, where he serves as incorporeal fly on the wall narrating the first chapter’s events. This device is soon done away with however, and the story proceeds in a normal way. The narrator never returns, but at the end, you’ll see why; it has to do with the book’s title.
The main draw of the book, however, was lots and lots of ornate language and hyper-descriptive porn (18th-century poetry was also an influence)… there was sky and sunset porn, landscape porn, food porn, mountaineering porn, Galadriel-beautiful-virtuous-lady porn… oi!
I’ll open up the book at random to give a sample.
|Men were roused and lights brought, and Brandoch Daha surveyed that which he held pinioned by the arms, caught by the entrance to the fortalice; one with scared wild-beast eyes in a swart face, golden era-rings in his ears, and a thick close-cropped beard interlace with gold wire twisted among its curls; bare-armed, with a tunic of otter-skin, and wide hairy trousers cross-stitched with silver thread, a circlet of gold on his head, and frizzed dark hair plaited in two thick tails that hung forward over his shoulders. His lips were drawn back, like a cross-gained dog’s snarling betwixt fear and fierceness, and his white pointed teeth and the whites of his eyes flashed in the torch-light.
Now that’s thick. (And also, unfortunately, a stereotypical “savage” character, but the book was written in the early twentieth century.)
There were also a fair amount of archaic words, which to my mind added to the enjoyment: martlet, fustian, myriapod, deflagration, alembic, to name a few. The prose also demands the work not be evaluated as one would a more traditional novel, as the prose IS the novel and its main draw. But, I’ll go there anyway.
The plot reduced to its basic form is silly and kind of slapdash. Some crucial events are skipped over, and some subplots could have been skipped for a tighter work. There are few female characters in the story, but they are strong presences, often acting as the voices of chivalry and reason. The villains receive more examination from the author than the heroes; they are presented as having flaws, in the Greek tragedy sense, that facilitate their downfall, while the heroes, though having their quirks, are steadfastly noble and manly. All this should be easy to snark on, but I can’t, because the author himself didn’t seem to be totally serious about it. There were also surprising moments of emotional resonance at times despite the over-the-top pathos, such as when Lord Juss finally rescues his brother and believes him to be dead, and thinks all his sacrifices have come to nothing.
Like Tolkien, there was also a fair amount of Ho-yay! — elements that from a modern viewpoint could be interpreted as showing male homosexual desire. There’s that nude wrestling match, and many other sections where the men’s bodies are lovingly, sensually described. This may just be par for the course for writing of that time period, or from the ancient sagas that influenced the author.
In conclusion, I do recommend that both fantasy readers and writers tackle this work, daunting as it may seem. It’s a both vital piece of history of the field and an inspiration.