The Worm Ouroboros
[Reading Challenge 2018]

The Worm Ouroboros, 1967 Ballantine edition, artowork by Barbara Remington

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.

An illustration from the original edition

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.

Original dust cover, 1926, for The Worm Ourobors by E.R. Eddison

Original dustcover, 1926

Worldbuilding Wednesday 3/21/18: The Lord of the Things, Part III

Swedish book cover, “The Saga of the Ring” in Celtic illuminated manuscript style

One of the important differences between Lord of the Rings and earlier fantasies is in Tolkien’s protagonists. Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam are not high-powered warriors like those in Germanic and Norse legend, exemplified by Lord Juss and Brandoch Daha in E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, which I’m reading now. Neither do they fit the American mold of pulp heroes like Conan, Tarzan, or Doc Savage. The Hobbits stand for Everyman, and more importantly, as stand-ins who observe the doings of the great and mighty and narrate them back to the reader. Though they are central to the plot, they only participate  in small ways and their choices do not drive it. In this they are more like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz than, say, Beowolf.

Here are some more tweaked names of characters from the books, if you want to create your own vision of Middle Earth.

Lord of the Rings Name Variations

PIPPIN

Pöllin

Pipka

Piptrin

Pipov

Poppyog

Peppin

Pipprut

Nippy

Pöffin

Puddin

Pinnchaus

Pipzin

MERRY

Merü

Marzy

Merré

Joiry

Morny

Merro

Merré

Mischa

Mauny

Merrigan

Manthë

Ganumy

SAMWISE

Samwyve

Samchure

Shamise

Gamwis

Sankhise

Halwise

Saywise

Sarwothye

Samhor

Södise

Sashwise

Hamwyst

SAURON

Saarof

Seudron

Selgauron

Mauron

Seyuron

Saerod

Sochron

Szedaur

Yauron

Sanjeuron

Smaurág

Chaurog

FARAMIR

Estamir

Faracress

Faroky

Faranul

Farael

Alfamiran

Faragn

Alfamir

Faraidin

Faracor

Farageny

Faraelly

DENETHOR

Denlanüsh

Denadior

Denethín

Denaër

Annethör

Denizor

Candethor

Denellisor

Denethos

Denezor

Denudonor

Denteiroch

In Praise of Oliphaunts

Artwork: Oliphaunt am I, by Wynahiros


Grey as a mouse,
Big as a house,
Nose like a snake,
I make the earth shake,
As I tramp through the grass;
Trees crack as I pass.

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Oliphaunt”

Oliphaunts, or mumakil as Tolkien also called them, are one of the mythical creatures most identified with the trilogy. It’s clear they are based on the elephant shock troops of India, with howdahs housing bowmen as the animal itself provides brute power for destroying fortifications and crushing impeding fighters; such stories from British Colonial India would have still floating around in Tolkien’s youth. Yet it’s also clear from that mumakil are a species apart and meant, by their name, to remind the reader of mammoths and other prehistoric pachyderms. That they are never described in depth means artists can make their interpretations of the beast.

Mumakil from The Lord of the Rings movie [oliphaunt]

From Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy

Jackson’s mumakil is a titanic creature larger than even indricotherium, the largest land mammal known to have existed. Yet the movie mumakil is twice as tall. Its oversized bulk may not be realistically possible, but fits in with the oversized scale of everything else in the movie. The extra tusks lend the creature a sinister prehistoric air and are again derived from ancient proboscideans such as stegotetrabelodon, as well as modern boars. All in all a very good design at capturing the fantastic.

Mumakil design by Curtiss Shaffer [oliphaunt]

Mumakil design by Curtiss Shaffer

But some artists have other ideas. This rendition of a mumakil / oliphaunt has hooves and a triceratops-like bony frill on its head, which is set on high shoulders like a modern giraffe’s. And it looks mean.

Tolkien Art by Sergei Iukhimov

Art by Sergei Iukhimov

This mumakil is scaled more realistically so it’s the style that stands out — Russian Orthodox religious iconography.

Southern Support by psychohazard

Southern Support by psychohazard

This mumakil cribs from the movie version, but there are differences. Its extra tusks curve downward and backward from its lower jaw, like the prehistoric elephant deinotherium, the largest known member of the elephant family. Its doleful, floppy ears lend an interesting touch. How carefully it steps to avoid squishing something!

Elephant Illustration by Rodney Matthews

Illustration by Rodney Matthews

Rodney Matthews, who has other Tolkien illustrations in his portfolio, created this vision of the mumakil in their home country. Well, maybe not, since the riders have four arms. But it’s an interesting, psychedelic take.

Elephant-like creature by Frank Frazetta

Illustration by Frank Frazetta

I don’t know if Frazetta intended this animal to be a mumakil either, but it’s huge, angry, four-tusked (and two-horned) and so could serve.

Mumakil by CG-Warrior on DeviantArt

Mumakil by CG-Warrior on DeviantArt

Mumakils in battle. They are huge, though not excessively so, and attack aggressively going by that poor horse. They combine both mammoth and deinotherium tusks and wear armor to protect their eyes and sensitive upper nostril region.They are not the speedy, marching beasts of Jackson’s version, but bulky, bellowing brawlers who are untroubled by all the arrows they’re collecting. In short, close to definitive for me.

Artwork by Piya Wannachaiwong [ oliphaunt ]

Artwork by Piya Wannachaiwong

Another battling mumakil, this one with six tusks, two of them bloodied, and spiked cuffs on its feet which are put to bloody use as well.  It is also a carnivore, going by their teeth. Is it sentient, serving its dark master willingly? The huge scarlet banner is a nice touch, as well as the details of the armor which is similar to that used by the Indian Mughals.

Illustration by Daniel Ljunggren [ oliphaunt ]

Illustration by Daniel Ljunggren

Now THIS is an oliphaunt! Not sure what happened to its trunk, though.

Three Editions Through Time

Three editions of the trilogy over the years. The top one is the first, unauthorized paperback version. Note that the Nazgul on the cover of The Two Towers is a pegasus and not the reptilian creature that was actually in the book. The artist got other details right, like the black-robed, faceless Nazgul, and others wrong, like Gandalf the Yellow, so whether it was their fault or the publisher’s is up for grabs.  Donald Wollheim of Ace books  was the one who released this edition. He realized the property was hot and would sell well, but Tolkien refused to agree to a paperback version — in his mind , these were associated with pulpy trash. Wollheim published them anyway in 1965, believing they were not under copyright in the U.S. While the legal battle was being fought, Tolkien agreed to an authorized version with Ballantine books, realizing from his fans that there was a demand for a mass-market edition. He urged them to buy the Ballantine — the “official” — release, which was rush-released in 1966 to compete with Ace’s version.

The Ballantine is the second version pictured above, with psychedelic covers by New York artist Barbara Remington. The publication was so hurried she didn’t even receive a copy of the book and had to rely on descriptions from friends who had read it. The complete painting was divided in three, each section appearing on the cover of each volume. The whole remains an iconic images from the 1960s, gracing many a hippie wall. Remington picked up extra work from Wollheim doing the covers for E.R. Eddison’s books, which were released in paperback form to jump on the high fantasy bandwagon. (I’ll be reviewing one later.)

The last version is from a boxed set of the trilogy released in the late 1970s by Ballantine Books. This is the one I got for Christmas. They were oversized trade paperbacks, thick and fat, at a time when trade paperbacks, with slipcovers, were a novelty.

Plagiarism, Hobbit Style

Looking through my Pinterest feed for Tolkien images, I found this cover for a French edition of The Hobbit. It looked awfully familiar to me. Then I figured out where I had seen it before.

Now, I wish the artist had been just a little more creative and not cribbed what is obvious, particularly as Frank Frazetta, whose illustration this is, is not known for his depictions of dragons. Human figures, big cats, horses, werewolves, fine. But his dragons looks like lazy, oversized Gila monsters. While Gila monsters can be vicious and poisonous, they do not have the dragon-like qualities of intelligence, speed, flight, and fire. The warriors in the pic are  reacting far too quickly for the threat before them. They should be dividing and backing off, holding their swords for a deep thrust and not in a hack n’ slash fashion.

As an artist myself, I don’t like the French cover at all, and I doubt the artist even read the book, or the relevant sections of the book. Bilbo is not depicted at all, instead the human bowman gets the glory while holding his odd perspective. And Smaug looks too much like a giant bat which is suspended strangely on the clouds.

Worldbuilding Wednesday 3/14/18: The Lord of the Things, Part II

Eowyn bitchslaps the Captain of the Nazgul

Here we are moving on to more characters in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, with more variations. So hypothetical Freudno Buffins of Buff End can have brave-hearted companions like Gjori the Dwarf and Laegolach the Elf.

There are other Tolkien name generators, of course. Most of them, to my eyes at least, work on the syllable or phoreme principal, Chinese-menu style — pick one from Column A, one from Column B, one from Column C.

Here’s a few:

Dragon’s Mark Name Generator
Tolkien names are toward the bottom. Includes Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, Orc, and swords.
Examples (Dwarves): Gloli, Rosin, Glogan, Magnar, Hignus

LOTR Race Name Generators from Fantasynamegenerators.com
More racial names, including Balrog and Maiar
Examples (Maiar): Kilénd, Suawam, Nenmainde, Ruanor, Sólmume

Ent name generator, from Seventh Sanctum
Treebeard-type generators are few and far between, which is why this one is nice.
Examples: Beardtrunk, Birchcrown, Brownlock, Craftwillow, Madthicket, Weedlock

Sindarin Elf Name Generator
Very useful one here, utilizing the actual Sindarin language as Tolkien would have intended. Lists can tweaked by gender, age, locale, and other details.
Examples: Duirronis, Forobes, Tathardis, Cíchanar, Laerguldir 

Age of the Ring Translator
This one gives multiple Middle Earth names based on your own name.
Example:

If you were a Hobbit, your name would be Frebo Proudfoot
and if you were a (male) Man, your name would be Laddyn
and if you were an Elf, your name would be Isil-Gar
and if you were a Dwarf, your name would be Tosil
and if you were an Orc, your name would be Gadash
Your nearest Tavern might be called The Orange Necromancer
and your sword would be called Glamallos

 

Lord of the Rings Name Variations

LEGOLAS

Zágolas

Sjigolas

Vexolus

Leyülan

Megolys

Lagylas

Legozas

Legolaph

Laegolas

Laegolach

Larothös

Lebrulas

GIMLI

Dmirí

Gzimni

Dophi

Glanae

Gjori

Gobli

Gissi

Gimlo

Graveni

Grili

Gospun

Geubri

EOWYN

Aiffwyn

Aeülan

Eantha

Eorhyn

Eloutha

Eandris

Eythis

Aéwyn

Eálandra

Yawyn

Iowyn

Eulina

THEODEN

Throudlan

Thücarnen

Thíroduist

Theodeil

Thyoden

Thymunen

Heoden

Fëoden

Theodley

Treoden

Theodini

Tethoren

SARUMAN

Sarmankh

Sarran

Ciruman

Surumand

Saradian

Saryan

Serushin

Gabruman

Sarumaz

Baduman

Söruvan

Suphoran

ELROND

Elkhynd

Elröch

Elrind

Olphond

Elründ

Álründ

Elmond

Aelrond

Ülrond

Élrosol

Ellond

Alyond

The Fellowship of the Ring Chinese Cover

Cover for Chinese edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, 2014, by artist Jian Guo

This beautiful cover, reminiscent of Chinese jade carvings, was part of a competition by WenJing Publishing to release the trilogy for an Asian market.  I like it when the books receive artistic interpretations of the country they are released in.

Smaug the Terrible

There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; a thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber. Beneath him, under all his limbs and his huge coiled tail, and about him on all sides stretching away across the unseen floors, lay countless piles of precious things, gold wrought and un-wrought, gems and jewels, and silver red-stained in the ruddy light.

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Smaug is probably the most famous dragon in fantasy fiction. With a starring role in The Hobbit, he’s been interpreted countless times by different artists, some off the cuff, others more faithful to the book. Let’s look at some of them.


Tolkien’s version of Smaug

Though J.R.R. Tolkien described himself as not much of an artist, this is actually a decent rendition that would not disgrace a children’s book today. Here Smaug looks appropriately smug and lazy, but his size is… well, underwhelming. There’s nothing here of the evil power and majesty of the creature from the book. Bilbo’s proportions (if that is Bilbo at the right foreground of the treasure pile) also look off; he’s more humanlike than hobbitlike. I get the feeling Smaug might swallow him whole, but it would be a struggle for him.

Smaug by Tim Kirk

As I wrote in this post, Kirk’s Smaug remains my favorite, even though his coloration is not true to the text. His eyes with their horizontal pupils — like a goat’s, that animal of Satan —  are different, and hypnotizing in their alien aspect. The skeletons in the foreground add a gruesome touch and are indicative of his great size

Smaug by Ted Naismith

Along with Alan Greene and John Howe, Ted Naismith is one of the most prolific Tolkien illustrators. I have to say he has a better hand with landscapes and buildings than characters though — his Smaug looks too spindly and static to be much of a threat, even though, by his nasty expression, he thinks he is. I’m reminded more of Gollum hissing, “My Precious.”

Alan Lee’s Smaug

Alan Lee was instrumental in designing the delicate, pastoral look of Peter Jackson’s movies, yet like Naismith he misses the mark on Smaug, who is just too ethereal and pretty here to be a man-eater as he sleeps gently coiled and dreaming on his nest.

Smaug, by the Brothers Hildebrandt

From pretty Smaug we move to this massive creature by the Brothers Hildebrandt, which graced a Tolkien calendar in 1976. The color is right, the treasure, the size, the power… yet, he could be any dragon. There’s nothing here that says Smaug. He’s neither coiled nor sleeping on his treasure heap, and his expression is just… BLAARGH! MAKE FIRE! Plus, his butt is too huge to belong to Tolkien’s snakelike coiler.

Ian Miller’s Smaug

Ian Miller, who has also done other Tolkien illustrations, contributes an abstract, tissoplastic version. His technique recalls Victorian-age scientific illustrations like this. It’s interesting, yet doesn’t much recall Smaug either.

John Howe’s Smaug

Howe does a wonderful Smaug here. His color, size, expression, and sleeping habit make him the dangerous antagonist of the book. My only quibble is his head is too long and narrow for his body.

Smaug from an Italian edition of The Hobbit

Smaug gets extra goofy here (admittedly, so is Bilbo, at lower right.) His size is way too small considering the open treasure chest by his side. And why the lion paws?

Smaug by Katarzyna Kniecik

Kniecik gives us a wonderful version here inspired by movie Smaug yet not adhering 100% to it. Smaug is red-gold, large, greedy, and coiling on his pile — in fact he is dwarfing it — and his downturned jowl, pouched neck, and hooded eyes suggest malice and craftiness, and the ability to swallow things whole. Bilbo can only stand before him in awe, perhaps a little too closely. The watercolor technique recalls Alan Lee’s version.

Smaug from the 1977 Hobbit movie

Rankin/Bass made an animated  television special of The Hobbit which was aired in 1977. It’s pretty fun, but not definitive. Smaug is a strange creature in this pic, with a wolflike face, furry back, and bloated red body, but the depiction was effective in motion combined with the voice acting, done with gravelly roughness by actor Richard Boone. When he utters,  “And my breath… death!” he takes aim at a suit of armor and melts into slag. That’s the Smaug I love!

The Desolation of Smaug, by Mas Barlett

DeviantArt, a showcase site for fantasy artists, has many wonderful versions of Smaug that are as good as, or better than, the older ones from the 70s and 80s. This one by Mas Bartlett captures the dragon’s size, suspiciousness, and power. He is not exactly “red-golden” but his underside glows from the internal flames within.

 

Worldbuilding Wednesday 3/7/18: The Lord of the Things, Part I

The Council of Elrond, Lego style

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy has been a major influence for many, many, fantasy writers, myself included. (Or course, many fantasy writers detest it also.) And also like me, probably, at some point, budding young fantasy writers made up people, places, and things that sounded very much like Tolkien’s, in his inimitable naming style. Many, many Boromirs have bitten the dust in some junior high dungeon adventure, and many, many Galadriels and Arwens wielded magic in some fantasy kingdom, not to mention barked or purred if they were female.

If you still have a liking for Tolkien’s names and don’t want to give them up because they fit your character so well, try some of these variations.

FRODO

Frodá

Frodí

Glodo

Clodü

Smerri

Glodí

Frodé

Frojalo

Szodo

Snumo

Snodo

Frovillí

GANDALF

Hanalf

Gandulus

Gandbar

Gandius

Barralf

Granbar

Grisalve

Gandthan

Gandeart

Gandbor

Gandián

Boryalf

ARAGORN

Arazhor

Perorn

Aragës

Aragairn

Aragobra

Sephorn

Shenorn

Imlürn

Zillárn

Wynnorn

Aragéton

Aragyr

GOLLUM

Woddum

Gílltaun

Goddfer

Golljer

Gollaik

Glossum

Tollum

Zhollum

Gïrrum

Gállanul

Smodae

Zaffum

GALADRIEL

Phaladriel

Zhalamelly

Gyladrieth

Gamorriel

Wihodhiel

Sobraniel

Khuzaziel

Rhábbathiel

Grévodiel

Vhurakiel

Kashyriel

Lyrabriel

BOROMIR

Borovaler

Boräbrin

Baryzim

Alfomich

Boroshen

Boroelf

Zarömir

Athümir

Boravins

Borovat

Bestomir

Auromir

Der Kleine Hobbit

German edition

This German cover of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit changes the title slightly to “The Little Hobbit” and pairs a bloated, toadlike, crazy-eyed Smaug with a tap-dancing Hobbit waving a top hat. The whole is enclosed in a trompe l’oeil frame with a spider crawling on the bottom, which alludes to the dwarves’ misadventures in the forest of Mirkwood. One could say the artist didn’t bother to read the book, but it’s also common practice in publishing for the project manager to give them a description of what they want, not the whole book, and those descriptions are open to interpretation, or omit what’s clearly in the text. Thus, “red-gold” Smaug becomes greenish-gray and sprouts butterfly wings. Nevertheless, I find it delightful.