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The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison

The Worm Ouroboros (1922)

by E. R. Eddison

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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 Bluzco, 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 Bluzco 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. ( )
3 vote Cobalt-Jade | Mar 26, 2018 |
I was first introduced to this book in the late 80's and never finished it. So I decided I needed to and what a difference some time makes. I've read somewhere that this book is probably the best representation of Elizabethan English prose in existence, or maybe the largest prose in that language. In any event, it is a dense book and takes time to read.

It starts as many books of the era (1920's) do with a journey to another planet via the means of the mind; this premise is quickly dropped and instead the narrator disappears into the elements of story. There are the Demons, most notably Brandoch Daha, Goldry Bluszco, Juss, and Spitfire, who are the heroes of this tale. They are matched, good for evil, by the Witches and their King, Gorice XII. Places are sailed and marched to, forces are pulled together to invade or protect, and precipices are climbed despite snow, ice, and manticores.

The origins of Gorice's kingdom are revealed mid-way through the tale, as are the few women characters who become a bit more involved and intriguing in their own right. Of course the numbers and the achievements on the Quests are above and beyond, but this book is about high fantasy and attaining one's desires. And in the end, it stands as a masterpiece of high, Questing fantasy that should be savored for its own sake. ( )
3 vote threadnsong | Mar 25, 2018 |
The Worm Ouroboros might be called world-building fantasy in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings but for two details: it was published 22 years before Tolkien's trilog, and it is much darker. In fact, though Tolkien himself called Eddison "the greatest and most convincing writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read," he also said Eddison "was certainly not an 'influence.'" The Worm Ouroboros definitely deserves its place in Moorcock's Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, and there were moments in the book that really captivated me, but overall it took quite an effort to finish the book.

Part of the problem for me was the Elizabethan prose Eddison employed, and part of it was the fact that I could not get used to the names of the characters and the lands. It's not that I couldn't pronounce the names, but rather that they seemed so arbitrary and disconnected, invented with little thought: Juss, Spitfire, Goldry Bluszco, Gro, and Gorice, for example. And none of them interested me as people. Most of them seemed small-minded and petty.

The names of the lands, too, seemed to be arbitrary. They certainly had little to do with the inhabitants. Demons do not dwell in Eddison's Demonland, nor do witches dwell in Witchland, imps in Impland, or pixies in Pixyland.

Still, all criticism aside, I'm glad I read The Worm Ouroboros, and not just for historical or academic reasons. It was adventurous, imaginative, and well-told. It is a flawed fantasy classic, but still a classic. Here is what Tolkien himself had to say about it, in a letter to Caroline Everette, dated June 24, 1957:

I read the works of Eddison, long after they appeared; and I once met him. I heard him in Mr. Lewis's room in Magdalen College read aloud some of his works--from the Mistress of Mistresses, as far as I remember. He did it extremely well. I read his works with great enjoyment for their sheer literary merit. My opinion of them is almost the same as that expressed by Mr. Lewis on p. 104 of the Essays presented to Charles Williams. Except that I disliked his characters (always excepting the Lord Gro) and despised what he appeared to admire more intensely than Mr. Lewis at any rate saw fit to say of himself. Eddison thought what I admire 'soft' (his word: one of complete condemnation, I gathered); I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly 'philosophy', he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty. Incidentally, I thought his nomenclature slipshod and often inept. In spite of all of which, I still think of him as the greatest and most convincing writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read. But he was certainly not an 'influence'.

Eddison may not have influenced Tolkien, but I think you can certainly see his mark on dark fantasy characters like Conan the Barbarian, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and Elric of Melniboné, not to mention more modern works of dark fantasy like Martin's Game of Thrones or King's Dark Tower series. If you're a fan of any of those characters or works, then The Worm Ouroboros is a must read. ( )
2 vote nsenger | Nov 20, 2017 |
Thundering heroic fantasy written in a unique style emulating 17th century epic prose. This story can be read as a straight adventure, but it also gives the first hints of the philosophy Eddison would develop further in the Zimiamvian trilogy. One of the great fantasy masterworks of the 20th century. ( )
  John_Thorne | Sep 12, 2017 |
Summary: A heroic fantasy of the warfare between Witchland and Demonland, including the quest to rescue Goldry Bluszco, after he is banished by spell to a remote mountain top in revenge for defeating and killing King Gorice XI of the Witches in a wrestling match.

This is a work of heroic fantasy that was praised by the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Ursula LeGuin as inspiration for their own work. And certainly the ideas of transport to an alien world, heroic quests, and great, and often seemingly hopeless, contests against evil powers find their roots in this work.

I came across this work first around the time I discovered The Lord of the Rings and saw Tolkien’s commendation. I never picked it up until recently, perhaps because of the obscurity of the title. Ouroboros refers to the worm (a term often used for dragons or serpents) who swallow their own tail, forming an endless ring. It is a symbol worn by the king of Witchland, and the idea of an endless cycle figures in the conclusion of the work, which I will not give away for those who haven’t read it.

The story is told through the eyes of one “Lessingham” who is transported from Earth to Mercury, where this story takes place. After the early chapters, Lessingham disappears from the story, not to reappear at the conclusion. The story really begins with brothers Juss, Spitfire, and Goldry Bluszco, and Brandoch Daha, the Lords of Demonland receiving the diminutive ambassador of Witchland who asserts the Kingship of Gorice XI, King of Witchland over Demonland. The Lords of Demonland decide to contest this via a wrestling match between Gorice, famed for his wrestling prowess, and Goldry, a formidable wrestler in his own right. If Goldry wins, they submit; if not, they retain their independence. Goldry defeats and kills Gorice XI, and in vengence, his son casts a spell that transports and imprisons Goldry on a distant icy mountain top. Juss and Brandoch think he is being held in Carce, the capitol of Witchland, and only learn in defeat and escape through an ally, of the spell that has sent him far away.

This sets up the remainder of the book, divided between the quest to rescue Goldry, and the wars against Witchland. Juss and Brandoch Daha pursue a year-long quest, including a battle against a terrifying manticore taking them to the mountain castle of Queen Sophonisba, who tells them Goldry can only be reached by finding the egg of a hippogriff, back in Demonland. Meanwhile, Spitfire unsuccessfully resists an attack by Duke Corsus on Witchland. He takes the castle, Krothering, of Brandoch Daha, and lays it waste. Brandoch’s sister escapes when Gro, a spurned adviser of Corsus turns traitor and helps her get free. Ultimately, Gro will turn traitor once more. Juss and Brandoch return in time to expel Corsus and the forces of Witchland, then Juss finds the hippogriff egg, rescues Goldry, leading, after defeat of the fleet of Witchland, to the climactic battle before the gates of Carce.

The book is not an easy read. The language is influenced by Elizabethan English (an odd choice for events taking place on Mercury), including written texts in period English (which sometimes look like the writing of someone who is spelling challenged–which may help in deciphering it). Some may contend that this is far simpler than Tolkien’s passages in Elvish, the languages of Dwarves, Orcs, and the Dark Tower. Some might complain about all the different names and kingdoms (in addition to Witchland and Demonland, there are Ghouls, Goblins, Imps and Pixies!). Eddison helps us somewhat with a chronology summarizing the relations of all of these at the end of the work.

What I struggled with, and perhaps it is an artifact of the heroic fantasy genre, is that I do not see any of the characters grow through the quests and battles they face. Courage and heroism there is in abundance, as is deceit, betrayal, and dark arts. But in the end, the horrors and travails of war, and the conquest of evil do not seem to eventuate in the love of peace or the wise pursuit of a better world. The main characters only seem to be defined by the quests and battles, perhaps an earlier version of Klingons who think it a shame to die a peaceful death.

On the one hand, it raises the question of whether tension, or some threat, is necessary to out the best in human beings, or whatever human-like races these beings are. And yet, these figures cannot envision quests that don’t involve killing or dying or battle. Is there not also a heroism that heals, that pursues peace, goodness, truth, and beauty–sometimes in the resistance of evil and deceit and ugliness–but also in the creation of cultural goods? As influential as this story was, what I saw in Tolkien that I miss in Eddison is a richer heroism, one capable of growth, that fights evil when it must but loves hearth, home, song, and good food, and a world where these might flourish. ( )
1 vote BobonBooks | Sep 10, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
E. R. Eddisonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cabell, James BranchPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Henderson, KeithIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prescott, OrvilleIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stephens, JamesIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tinkelman, MurrayCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0486447405, Paperback)

This is the book that shaped the landscape of contemporary science fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien acclaimed its author as "the greatest and most convincing writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read." Written in the best traditions of Homeric epics, Norse sagas, and Arthurian myths, it recounts compelling tales of warriors and witches.

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This is the book that shaped the landscape of contemporary science fiction. J. R. R. Tolkien acclaimed its author as the greatest and most convincing writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read. Written in the best traditions of Homeric epics, Norse sagas, and Arthurian myths, it recounts compelling tales of warriors and witches.… (more)

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