Lately I’ve been trying to read as much ‘classic’ fantasy as I can. My main criteria for counting a work as a classic has been (1) the work or author is prominent in Gygax’s Appendix N; or (2) it was written before the resurgence of epic fantasy in the early 1980s (which I, rightly or wrongly, attribute largely to the success of D&D and the renewed interest in the Lord of the Rings due to the film, television specials, and general fantasy revival of the period), or (3) it is mentioned in the wargame Hordes of the Things.
The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison certainly meets criteria (2), and for some reason I thought I’d seen it listed in BOTH the Dungeon Masters Guide and Hordes Of The Things, but somehow neither mention it. I must have just run into repeated references to it in other sources…otherwise I’m not sure why I held it in such esteem, sight unseen. I suppose I’ve seen it mentioned positively in various blogs and surveys of fantasy literature, but however I first heard of it, I’m glad I did. It is magnificent. I agree with a lot of other readers who comment that the ‘induction,’ which introduces the story as taking place on the planet Mercury, visited by an Earthling after a dream-like journey, is very odd; the more so because the Earthling disappears from the story around chapter two, without ever being of any import to the plot. Odd but not a fatal flaw by any means.
There are reviews and synopses aplenty all around the internet, so there is not much for me to add, except to say I found it much, much better than I expected. I had read some criticism of the goofy names and place-names (apparently Eddison had created the characters and story as a child, and returned to it as an adult to actually write it, but did not have the stomach to change the names), and I was a little put off at first by the extremely antiquated prose, although as I read on, I grew to like it more and more, and savored it. The Elizabethan prose is really beautiful, even when the narration describes death and dismemberment. It is not a book you can tear through in one night, but why would you want to? The story line is interesting, the characters are vivid (although you may want to keep notes to keep some of the names straight), and world draws you in.
The world of the book is called “Mercury” although really it is an alternate Earth; in fact the Greek gods are invoked by the characters and the world is inhabited predominantly by humans though they call themselves Demons, Witches, Ghouls, Imps, Pixies, Foliots, and Goblins. An early chapter mentions that the Demons are horned, but this is never mentioned again and it may be a reference to their helmets.
The story tells of a war between the Demons and Witches, which involves several pitched battles, and an expedition to recover a Demon lord who is magically kidnapped to a surreal ‘underworld’ (which is actually atop a mountain). His brother eventually reaches the mountain-prison, after battling a manticore and taming a hippogriff. Part of his journey is obstructed by various hellish visions, including one of his trapped brother:
Darker grew the mist, and heavier the brooding dread which seemed elemental of the airs about that mountain. Pausing well nigh exhausted on a small stance of snow Juss beheld the appearance of a man armed who rolled prostrate in the way, tearing with his nails at the hard rock and frozen snow, and the snow was all one gore of blood beneath the man; and the man besought him in a stifled voice to go no further but raise him up and bring him down the mountain. And when Juss, after an instant’s doubt betwixt pity and his resolve, would have passed by, the man cried and said, “Hold, for I am thy very brother thou seekest, albeit the King hath by his art framed me to another likeness, hoping so to delude thee. For thy love sake be not deluded!” Now the voice was like to the voice of his brother Goldry, howbeit weak.
But the Lord Juss bethought him again of the words of Sophonisba the Queen, that he should see his brother in his own shape and nought else must he trust; and he thought, “It is an illusion, this also.” So he said, “If that thou be truly my dear brother, take thy shape.” But the man cried as with the voice of the Lord Goldry Bluszco, “I may not, till that I be brought down from the mountain. Bring me down, or my curse be upon thee for ever.”
The Lord Juss was torn with pity and doubt and wonder, to hear that voice again of his dear brother so beseeching him. Yet he answered and said, “Brother, if that it be thou indeed, then bide till I have won to this mountain top and the citadel of brass which in a dream I saw, that I may know truly thou art not there, but here. Then will I turn again and succour thee. But until I see thee in thine own shape I will mistrust all. For hither I came from the ends of the earth to deliver thee, and I will set my good on no doubtful cast, having spent so much and put so much in danger for thy dear sake.”
So with a heavy heart he set hand again to those black rocks, iced and slippery to the touch. Therewith up rose an eldritch cry, “Rejoice, for this earth-born is mad! Rejoice, for that was not perfect friend, that relinquished his brother at his need!” But Juss climbed on, and by and by looking back beheld how in that seeming man’s place writhed a grisful serpent. And he was glad, so much as gladness might be in that mountain of affliction and despair.
Eddison clearly has read his Arthurian romances, Norse sagas, and Greek myths, and the heroes of his story tend to be much more like Nietzschean ‘blond beasts’ than the sort of characters that populate modern fantasy novels. In fact there is another scene on the mountain where Lord Juss is ‘tempted’ by a vision of despair at the ‘meaninglessness’ of his struggle, but he eventually overcomes it by sheer force of will. I understand Tolkien disliked this work’s ‘morality’ (and terrible names) while praising the world-invention and writing. Like Tolkien and many other readers, I found Lord Gro — the Goblin traitor — to be the most likeable character, and probably this is because he is the one character least at home in the book’s world.
I wish I’d found this map and printed it out while I was reading this book, but as usual I did most of my research after finishing it.
One of the most interesting aspects of the invented world to me is the number of proverbs and sayings Eddison has his characters recite. I think that on my next reading* I might even try to extract all the “Mercurial proverbs” into a future post. They are very colorful and would help bring alive an alien, archaic world for a RPG. I am guessing that some or most are actually drawn from literature, just as the songs and poems in the story are (Eddison even provides a list of sources for these in an appendix, as well as a chronology, including many ‘off-screen’ events).
Another clever stylistic device is the use of even more archaic English when letters or books are read. Here is an example from a letter:
Unto the right high mighti and doubtid Prynsace the Quen of Implande, one that was your Servaunt but now beinge both a Traitor and a manifiald parjured Traitor, which Heaven above doth abhorre, the erth below detest, the sun moone and starres be eschamed of, and all Creatures doo curse and ajudge unworthy of breth and life, do wish onelie to die your Penytent. In hevye sorrowe doo send you these advisoes which I requyre your Mageste in umblest manner to pondur wel, seeinge ells your manyfest Overthrowe and Rwyn att hand. And albeit in Carcee you reste in securitie, it is serten you are there as saife as he that hingeth by the Leves of a Tree in the end of Autumpne when as the Leves begin to fall. For in this late Battaile in Mellicafhaz Sea hath the whole powre of Wychlande on the sea been beat downe and ruwyned, and the highe Admirall of our whole Navie loste and ded and the names of the great men of accownte that were slayen at the battaile I may not numbre nor the common sorte much lesse by reaisoun that the more part were dround in the sea which came not to Syght. But of Daemounlande not ij schips companies were lossit, but with great puissaunce they doo buske them for Carsee. Havinge with them this Gowldri Bleusco, strangely reskewed from his preassoun-house beyond the toombe, and a great Armey of the moste strangg and fell folke that ever I saw or herd speke of. Such is the Die of Warre.
Even some of Eddison’s characters stumble over written documents, and while it does add another level of difficulty to an already difficult book, it certainly increases the feeling that you are observing a real, if strange, world.
I was tempted to look for a ‘meaning’ to the story, despite Eddison’s straightforward rejection of such in his dedication:
It is neither allegory nor fable but a Story to be read for its own sake.
This reminded me immediately of Tolkien’s statement that LotR is not an allegory either, not that anyone believes him. Taking Eddison at his word, The worm Ouroboros is a great story, capturing a strange but believable world inhabited by the kinds of heroes we find in Viking or Celtic legend: a world at war, and with heroes who live for war. It is not surprising that Tolkien would find the unabashedly pagan heroes and their love of battle distasteful, but taken as a story, and not a morality play, there is much to enjoy in the doings and sayings of these barbaric nobles.
*Yes, this ranks with The well of the unicorn, Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, and Lord of the rings as something I’ll be re-reading.