E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros
by Ryan Harvey
And in the midst of this, publisher Jonathan Cape of London released an epic heroic fantasy written in Jacobean English by a public servant with the British Board of Trade who had a love of Icelandic sagas and sixteenth-century stage drama.
I would love to tell you that E. R. Eddison’s novel The Worm Ouroboros was a runaway sensation when it first appeared, and that its style that went so strongly against the grain of current writing struck a responsive chord with millions of readers. However, that is not what happened. Originally published in 1922 with cover artwork and interior illustrations by Keith Henderson (two of which are reproduced here; click on them for larger versions) and the subtitle “a Romance” appended to help readers identify it as something unlike contemporary literature, The Worm Ouroboros initially fared miserably with buyers. The first small print run failed to sell-through, so the publisher tried to resell the book in 1924 in a “newer and cheaper” edition (or so it was advertised), which was nothing more than the remaindered copies with a price reduction. This also produced no results with the reading public.
Eric Rucker Eddison (1882-1945)
However, someone must have paid attention and guided the book into the right hands, since when The Lord of the Rings turned into a fantasy phenomenon in the 1960s, The Worm Ouroboros returned to print and achieved success with the newly fantasy-hungry public. Historians of speculative fiction acknowledged that Eddison’s work belonged to the small collection of British fantasies that had a tremendous impact on the genre before Tolkien. Along with The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany, The Well at World’s End by William Morris, and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peak, The Worm Ouroboros forms the fourth corner of the square of pre-Tokien British fantasy. And in terms of its effect on later writers it is the most important corner. Dunsany’s mature fairy-tales have great power, but few imitators. The Well at World’s End created fantasy’s first secondary world, but its fame rests on its innovations, not its literary qualities. Gormenghast is a wonderful work, but Peake’s style and story remain so idiosyncratic that the novel exists isolated in its own small circle of light. The Worm Ouroboros, for all its elaborate language drawn from the stage of William Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd, and John Marsten, echoes through all the heroic fantasy that followed it. From Michael Moorcock to R. A. Salvatore, all have directly or indirectly eaten The Worm. The epic battles and warring wizards and glorious quests to find ensorcelled items to defeat powerful foes…you will find all of them present in Eddison’s poetic journey through a fantastic world immersed in total war.
Any modern reader of fantasy fiction will find the storyline of The Worm Ouroboros familiar. A land that resembles Medieval Europe—with a dash of Renaissance gallantry—serves as the backdrop to an epic of a war of extinction waged between two nations, Demonland and Witchland. (Eddison’s use of the terms “Demons” and “Witches,” as well as “Pixies,” “Goblins,” and “Imps,” to describe the completely human inhabitants of these countries might at first confuse readers who have preconceptions of these words’ meanings. Eddison does initially describe the Demons as possessing horns, but then forgets about it entirely.) The King of Witchland, Gorice XI, arrogantly demands that the Lords of Demonland pay homage to him. The proud Demons, led by the powerful Lord Juss of Galing, refuse; they offer to settle the challenge to their honor with a wrestling match between King Gorice and Lord Goldry Bluszco in the neutral location of the castle of Red Foliot. Goldry defeats and kills Gorice in the match, but the traitorous Witches plot to murder the Demons during the night. The Demons receive a warning in time to escape the slaughter. Not to be robbed of a chance to eradicate his greatest foes, the new King of Witchland, Gorice XII, raises a magical storm to sink their ships. The Demons survive the attack, but Lord Goldry Bluszco vanishes in the maelstrom.
The story may sound like a synopsis of a George R. R. Martin novel or an RPG tie-in, but it does not remotely describe the odd experience of actually reading the book. It resembles nothing published in fantasy today. This explains why, even though The Worm Ouroboros has returned to print in the U.S. and the U.K., few people read it today. Eddison’s plot elements and ideas have transferred to other fantasy, but his writing style and ethics remain unique to him and strange to us.
For a 1962 edition of The Worm Ouroboros, Orville Prescott provided a glowing introduction. Prescott’s name no longer means much to readers, but he was once one of the most powerful literary critics in the U.S. From 1942 to 1966 he served as the daily book critic for The New York Times. Considering the dismissive attitude that literary critics of this era often showed toward fantasy and science fiction (take Edmund Wilson’s hatred of The Lord of the Rings, which he called “juvenile trash”), Prescott’s praise of Eddison’s epic fantasy is refreshing. He has such confidence in the novel that in his introduction he decides to tell the readers…
…what Eddison’s story is actually about….Prescott offers a stirring defense of fantasy, but I think there is much more to Eddison’s novel than this. The Worm Ouroboros has a special quality to it. It is nothing but itself, and because of that, it is also something other than itself. To make sense of this nonsense, look at the symbol of “ouroboros,” from where the novel derives its name. A serpent that grips its tail in its mouth, turning into a self-devouring eternal circle. The serpent will continue to devour itself until it reaches the end, where it begins again. You cannot tell where it truly starts and stops, it creates itself as it destroys itself, and it confounds the eye with a geometry that appears simple until you take a close look at it. In the same way, The Worm Ouroboros tells more than it seems, perhaps more than its author intended it to tell.
The Worm Ouroboros is both a joyous expedition into worlds divorced from our reality, and also a telling view of that reality. I cannot say if Eddison did any of this on purpose. He probably had no outward intention other than to echo the great dramas he admired and the heroic strength of the Icelandic Sagas that he loved. But in placing his story in a secondary world he also created a novel that has a striking power beyond its already potent aesthetic one. Writing a work that rejects all the concepts of its own time is itself a statement about that time.
In semantic terms, The Worm Ouroboros lies hundred of years away from 1922 and 2005. Eddison writes in Jacobean (early seventeenth century) English with absolutely no excuses. A typical piece of dialogue:
In a while the King said: “I sent for thee because thou alone wast so hardy as to urge to the uttermost thy counsel upon the King that is now dead, Gorice XI. of memory ever glorious. And because thy counsel was good. Marvellst thou that I wist of thy counsel?”The only popular fantasy novel with a comparable prose style is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which has a number of striking stylistic and structural similarities to The Worm Ouroboros. Tolkien acknowledged his respect for Eddison’s writing, so the similarities between the two novels may be more than coincidence.
Eddison also utilizes of a number of devices familiar from early English and ancient Greek drama which feel alien to modern readers. For example, he passes over one of the major battles by reporting it second-hand through a minor character, much in the style of a Sophocles play. A number of other sequences feel as if they come straight from the Athenian stage or the pages of The Iliad. A bloody finale in the Witches’ castle of Carcë reads like the last act of one of Shakespeare’s tragedies—most particularly Hamlet—with a rapid succession and poisonings and stabbings until almost no one remains alive for the “clean-up crew” army that barges in from outside.
But Eddison’s strangest borrowing from past theatrical tradition is his incomplete framing device. The novel starts in modern England, where a man named Lessingham dreams that a martlet guides him to the planet Mercury and shows him the contention brewing between Demonland and Witchland. Lessingham’s conversation with the martlet gives the reader the background of this strange world, but he and the talking bird vanish after the third chapter and never reappear. The conceit that the tale takes place on Mercury also fades away; the setting is clearly a mythic Medieval Europe where people invoke the names of very terrestrial gods like Artemis and Apollo. Readers today no longer need an explanation about the existence of fantasy worlds, but Eddison either felt the need to solidly situate his audience outside the realm of the everyday or else he reveled in the chance to create his own “induction” in the style of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama (see The Taming of the Shrew for a good example). Both probably influenced his decision, but it isn’t a structural choice that sits well with twenty-first century readers.
The Worm Ouroboros exists in a bizarre moral universe, and here it starts to creep back toward our own time. The conflict between good and evil dominates a significant part of heroic fantasy to the point that it has turned cliché and many authors have turned away from it to experiment with different value systems. Eddison neither embraces the black and white concept of good against evil, nor does he throw it out for shades of grays. The Demons clearly represent “good,” and the reader wants them to champion over the callous and brutal Witches, who dabble in dark magic and have streaks of vicious cruelty both to their foes and themselves. They will also use trickery and betrayal to achieve victory, while the Demons have a reputation for fair dealings with their adversaries. However, the Witches still live by a warrior’s honor, and the Demons admire the Witches as worthy foes and even respect their methods. The most conceited and bloodthirsty of the Witches, Lords Corund and Corinius, still believe in honorable combat and keeping their word. Sometimes, both sides get so swept up in the joys of war that they cannot consider obviously more intelligent tactical choices.
What Eddison has created isn’t a world of two opposing ideas colliding, but two essentially identical ideas clashing over attitude. Very little separates the Demons and the Witches except the extent to which they will go to achieve their goals.
The novel has only one character who stands apart from the nearly indistinguishable philosophies of Demonland and Witchland, and unsurprisingly he is the most interesting figure: Lord Gro. An exile from Goblinland, his Machiavellian stance puts him in opposition to the honor-bound nobles on both sides. Lord Gro above all else puts his trust in deception. He will advise a surreptitious murder under the guise of hospitality if it will avert a large battle, an idea repellent to both Demons and Witches. Eddison, however, does not make Lord Gro a perpetual villain, but the major tragic figure of the story. He describes the exiled Goblin lord as “a philosopher and a man of peace, [who] careless of particular things of earth, had followed and observed all his days steadfastly one heavenly star…” Lord Gro believes in the nobility of defeat; he only feels good about himself if he fights for the losing side. To fight for those who will have the victory to him seems wrong.
Eddison professes a faith in the aristocracy removed from the modern outlook in fantasy literature that cheers outsiders and more humble folk. When Lord Gro advises the Lords of Demonland to use their reputation as fair dealers with their enemies as a tool of deception, Lord Brandoch Daha responds:
“Tush,” said he. “’Tis but our way i’ the world. Moreover, ‘tis, I think, a natural thing in great persons, of whatsoever country they be born. Treachery and double dealing proceed commonly from fear, and that is a thing which I think no man in this land comprehendeth. Myself, I do think that when the high Gods made a person of my quality they raced tween his two eyes something, I know not what, which the common sort durst not look on without trembling.”The Worm Ouroboros, however, is not exclusively a war-mongering story. Eddison celebrates the glorious heroism of the Demons—and, to a lesser extent, the Witches—but has disgust for modernity. In this speech, Lord Gro might be talking about a retreat from our urbanized lifestyle that makes us “wax old before our time”:
“Surely,” he said, “the great mountains of the world are a present remedy if men did but know it against our modern discontent and ambitions. In the hills is wisdom’s fount. They are deep in time. They know the ways of the sun and the wind, the lightning’s fiery feet, the frost that shattereth, the rain that shroudeth, the snow that putteth about their nakedness a softer coverlet than fine lawn: which if their large philosophy question not if it be a bridal sheet or a shroud, hath not this unpolicied calm his justification ever in the returning year, and is it not an instance to laugh our carefulness out of fashion? of us, little children of the dust, children of a day, who with so many burdens do burden us with taking thought and with fears and desires and devious scheming of the mind, so that we wax old before our time and fall weary ere the brief day be spent and one reaping-hook gather us home at last for all our pains.”At the conclusion, The Worm Ouroboros reveals itself as a mirror image of its title: cyclical. It ends as it begins (minus the forgotten framing device), and the warring characters rejoice in the chance to stand up to battle again and relive the glory. They cannot even imagine a world where peace might reign; they are not built for peace and only yearn for it as the spoils of war, a reward they discover they do not actually desire.
It’s a striking ending, and one that immediately prompts the question: is Eddison praising his characters for embracing endless combat, or does he see that the world cannot live in peace and can only maintain forward movement through war? I would vote that Eddison believed the former. But the latter aberrant thought will grow in readers’ minds. Lord Gro, the most modern character in the story, plants the seed of doubt. His cynicism and celebration of failure puts a contemporary spin on The Worm Ouroboros that makes it impossible to dismiss it as just an escapist tale. How can you confront such a distant value systems without comparing it to the one in which you live? The Worm Ouroboros takes place in a land where the villains and heroes seem strangely alike, and where war renews itself constantly because no one can maintain peace. But doesn’t that description match our own world? Take away the hippogriffs, magical eggs, eldritch mountains, great armies storming castles, and the gorgeous language of Eddison’s pen, and this secondary world mirrors our own.
A work of literature should never be judged wholly on whether or not it presents relevant social issues or confronts humanity with a mirror of its condition. But neither should we praise a work for avoiding such issues entirely when, in truth, it doesn’t. The Worm Ouroboros has much to say about our world. You cannot retreat from the twentieth century as Eddison does without somehow saying why you want to retreat. You cannot present such a strange ethical paradigm without making your readers compare it to theirs…and maybe discover that the worlds of the highest fantasy and their own are not so far apart. Like the Worm Ouroboros itself, we lie so distant from Demonland and Witchland that we come full circle to where the head and tail meet.
About the Author
Ryan Harvey is the Managing Editor of Sword and Sorcery. He has lived most of his life in Los Angeles, although he attended Carleton College in Minnesota where he studied Medieval History, Classical Islam, and Film. He considers himself a full-fledged writer, with three completed novels, but has supplemented his income at various times as a speed reading instructor, reading development teacher, and magazine copyeditor. When not absorbing mounds of science fiction and fantasy literature and indulging in pulp, he swing dances wearing bizarre 1930s clothing. He also maintains his own website: The Realm of Ryan.
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