The Worm Ouroboros

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

The Worm Ouroboros is the ancient image of a serpent consuming itself by its own tail — and the name of one of the almost-forgotten classics of fantasy:

“[T]he grandest heroic fantasy or sword-and-sorcery
tale in the English language”

— Fritz Leiber

“[F]orty-odd years ahead of its time…
the single greatest novel of heroic fantasy”

— L. Sprague de Camp

Before there was D&D, before there was Tolkien, and before fantasy even existed as a distinct, recognized “genre” of literature with its own imprints, dedicated small presses, and reserved shelves in libraries and bookstores, there was The Worm Ouroboros (1922). If today Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the work that defines fantasy, then once upon a time Eddison’s book was a major contender for the archetypal epic fantasy.

["I have read all that E. R. Eddison wrote."
"I... think of him as the greatest and most convincing
writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read."

— J.R.R. Tolkien on Eddison

Admired by fellow fantasists like Tolkien, C. S. Lewis (who liked the Worm so much he invited Eddison to visit the Inklings and read his works-in-progress[1]), H. Rider Haggard, James Branch Cabell, James Stephens (“he has added a masterpiece to English literature”), Fritz Leiber (who admitted preferring Eddison to Tolkien), and Ursula K. Le Guin (who placed him first among her examples of superb fantasy stylists, above Kenneth Morris, Tolkien, and Dunsany), Eddison pioneered what has come to be thought of as “Tolkienian fantasy,” the grand invented-world epic novel. His book, written over eighty years ago, even comes with the now-requisite paraphernalia: Although the Worm lacks a map, it does come with a timeline and guide to pronunciation, while Eddison’s later books (the Zimiamvia series) include not only these but maps of his imaginary realms, genealogical charts, and lists of dramatis personae, as well as a guide to citations. (Eddison’s characters, whatever world they’re from, have a tendency to quote Shakespeare or Donne or more obscure 16th and 17th century poets and playwrights.)

“[N]either allegory nor fable
but a Story to be read for its own sake”

— E.R.E.

“So Excellent Well Writ”

Eddison’s most outstanding characteristic is, of course, his language. The Worm Ouroboros is the only great fantasy novel written in Shakespearean prose. Other fantasies have been set in the 16th and 17th century (or fantasy-world analogues to Tudor times, give or take a half-century or so), such as Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), and Briggs’ Hobberty Dick (1955), but none featured characters who speak as if they were spontaneously reciting lines from Shakespeare. Eddison was particularly fond of Shakespeare’s lesser contemporaries, especially the Jacobean revenge dramatists, his favorite being John Webster (The Duchess of Malfi). He absorbed their vocabulary and phrasing so thoroughly that he could reproduce it perfectly to suit his own purposes:

Now spake Spitfire saying, “Read forth to us, I pray thee, the book
of Gro; for my soul is afire to set forth on this faring.”
“‘Tis writ somewhat crabbedly,” said Brandoch Daha, “and most damnably long.
I spent half last night a-searching on’t, and ’tis most apparent no other way
lieth to these mountains save… (if Gro say true) but one . . .”
“If he say true?” said Spitfire. “He is a turncoat and a renegado.
Wherefore not therefore a liar?”
“But a philosopher,” answered Juss. “I knew him well of old . . .
and I judge him to be one who is not false save only in policy. Subtle
of mind he is, and dearly loveth plotting and scheming, and, as I think,
perversely affecteth ever the losing side if he be drawn into any quarrel
… But in this book of his travels he must needs speak truth,
as it seemeth to me, to be true to his own self.”

Few writers display so much love of words for their own sake: Eddison at one point spends an entire page describing the hero’s bed, and he thinks nothing of devoting a paragraph or two to the magnificence of a villain’s clothes and accoutrements; his most prosaic passages are filled with vivid similes and memorable phrases. This verbal luxuriance helps create a heightened sense of drama that befits his larger-than-life cast. For if Tolkien celebrates everyman, the “little people” of our world, through his hobbits, then Eddison glories in the high and mighty: regarding “common men,” he has one of his more sympathetic characters say “better a hundred such should die than one great man’s hand be hampered.”[2] Accordingly, just as Richard III, Hamlet, and Macbeth focus on the doings of kings and princes, lords and ladies, rather than ordinary people, so too Eddison’s tale concentrates on the great lords and sensuous, strong-willed ladies of his invented world. Everything in Eddison’s world is grander, more intense, and more dramatic than in our mundane reality, from their speeches to their deeds to their passions.

Demons and Witches, Goblins and Imps, Pixies and Ghouls, Oh My

Like a black eagle surveying earth from some high mountain
the King passes by in his majesty. His byrny was of black chain
mail, its collar, sleeves, and skirt edged with plates of dull gold…
On his left thumb was his great signet ring fashioned in gold in the
semblance of the worm Ouroboros that eateth his own tail…
His cloak was woven of the skins of black cobras stitched together
with gold wire, its lining of black silk sprinkled with dust of gold.
The iron crown of Witchland weighed on his brow, the claws
of the crab erect like horns; and the sheen of its jewels
was many-coloured like the rays of Sirius
on a clear night of frost and wind
at Yule-tide.

— King Gorice XII of Witchland enters a banquet-hall

While most readers will have little trouble with the archaisms (those who do would be well advised to read the book in Paul Thomas’s excellent annotated edition,[3] which glosses the more unusual expressions), even those who get swept up in Eddison’s style and story often balk at his nomenclature. Rather than use real-world nations (English, French, Spaniard, and so on) or transparent equivalents (for example, Montaigne, Castille, Eisen, Vodacce in 7th Sea), Eddison opted to dub the heroes of his book the Demons and the villains the Witches, thus creating much confusion (the Demons are heroic and in his eyes wholly admirable; the Witches while treacherous are great warriors and most definitely male). The other nations are called the Goblins (who include the brilliant traitor Lord Gro), the Pixies (most notably the beautiful Lady Prezmyra), the Imps (a wild folk who have names like Fax Fay Faz, Philpritz Faz, and Mivarsh Faz), and the Ghouls (who have been exterminated to the last soul in a genocidal war by our heroes just before the story begins), but these names are just odd window-dressing: all these folk are human.

Besides the names of the nationalities, the personal names are also notably eccentric — the four heroes of the story, for example, are the brothers Lord Juss (king of Demonland), Spitfire, and Goldry Bluzco, along with their cousin Brandoch Daha (their subordinates include the lords Vizz, Volle, and Zigg). The villains include not only Gorice XII, Witchland’s sorcerer-king, but his generals Corund, Corinius, and Corsus (very distinct in personality but with names easily confused on a first reading) and the advisor Lord Gro. Place names similarly range from grand (Carce, Krothering) to simply bizarre (Kartadza, Melikaphkhaz, Thremnir’s Heugh). Occasionally Eddison’s eclectic, haphazard way of naming characters and places (not unlike those used by most modern-day fantasy novelists, or most DMs for that matter) strike gold (for example, Lady Mevrian), but all too often they flop (who can take seriously swashbuckling adventurers named Spitfire and Gaslark?).[4]

There but not Back Again

There was a man named Lessingham
dwelt in an old low house in Wasdale, set in
a gray old garden where yew-trees flourished
that had seen Vikings… in their seedling time

— Opening sentence of The Worm

One other element has deeply puzzled readers for eighty years: the “Induction.” Today most invented-world stories simply start in the world of the story, but that’s part of Tolkien’s legacy — earlier fantasy often devoted precious pages to establishing the relationship or “bridge” between the fantasy world and our own (cf. Alice’s falling asleep at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland). Eddison’s bridge is odd indeed: his story begins with a man named Lessingham, who falls asleep and is carried to Mercury in a dream, where he witnesses the events of the story. However, after the second chapter Eddison stops mentioning the invisible watcher and never returns to the frame story at the end. Many critics have simply assumed Eddison forgot about his point-of-view character since they are at a loss to otherwise explain his disappearance.

In fact, Eddison’s broken frame is a deliberate part of the book’s plan — yet another homage to the Elizabethan and Jacobean plays he loved. In this case, his model was Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which begins with an “Induction” where a sleeping beggar is dressed in a rich man’s clothes and told he’s a lord who had dreamed he was a beggar. The baffled beggar, a man named Christopher Sly, is convinced by what the hoaxers show him and begins to watch a play: this play is “The Taming of the Shrew” itself. In the anonymous play Shakespeare based his own play on, the story returned to Christopher Sly at the end, but Shakespeare includes only the set-up, not the pay-off. Performances of the play invariably omit the Induction and single later reference to Sly. Like Shakespeare, Eddison in his own Induction introduces us to an inset story which then takes on a life of its own, eviscerating the need for any return to the real world.

Similarly, though the narrator says he has been transported to Mercury (not via a conventional spaceship but in a chariot drawn by hippogriffs), he’s very obviously not on the first planet from the sun but a quicksilver fantasy variant of our own world — not only do the characters in the book quote Herrick, Donne, Shakespeare, old ballads, and the like but several references to telling time by the phases of the Moon establish that they are on Earth (albeit a weird fantasy version of our Earth). Eddison’s world is mercurial, not Mercury: quicksilver, ever-changing.

Perhaps the truest indication of Eddison’s intent lies in the poem with which he prefaced his work: a fragment from the ballad of Thomas the Rymer (14th century), telling of his meeting with the Queen of Elfland, who has come to carry him off to a strange world, neither Heaven nor Hell but full of marvels unguessed at by mortal men. The poem is unaccountedly omitted from the annotated edition, but its presence in the original suggests that Eddison intends to show the reader, like Lessingham, a wondrous new world somehow linked to our own but standing apart, with its own rules.

A Flawed Masterpiece Is Still a Masterpiece

“‘. . . none may come alive unto [Koshtra Belorn],
for the mantycores of the mowntaines will certeynely
ete his brains ere he come hither.’”

“What be these mantichores of the mountains
that eat men’s brains?” asked the Lady Mevrian.

.”. . . ‘The beeste Mantichora, whych is as much as to say
devorer of menne… These be monstrous bestes,
ghastlie and ful of horrour, enemies to mankinde,
of a red coloure, with ij rowes of huge grete tethe
in their mouthes. It hath the head of a man,
his eyen like a ghoot, and the bodie of a lyon
lancing owt sharpe prickles fro behinde. And hys
tayl is the tail of a scorpioun. . . And hys voys
is as the roaryng of x lyons.’”

– Brandoch Daha reads of manticores in Lord Gro’s book

For all its virtues, The Worm Ouroboros is too eccentric to capture a mainstream audience as Tolkien did. Despite being much admired, it is little imitated (though a few bits inspired by it did find their way into The Lord of the Rings — cf. Pippin’s theft of the palantir and Saruman’s attempted assassination of Frodo). Perhaps this is because the style, a major part of the story’s appeal, is simply too hard to fake; only someone who lived and breathed Jacobean drama could pull it off.

That the book, despite a revival in the 1960s (which saw its first paperback publication) and for a decade or two thereafter, has begun to sink out of sight in recent years is a great pity: there really is nothing else quite like it. For those who like adventure fantasy, the Worm has it all: evil sorcery, battles with monsters, impossible quests, battles by land and by sea, with swords and with bare hands, battles with the elements (particularly in an epic mountain-climbing sequence), a varied and powerful cast of well-motivated villains (including King Gorice, who is reincarnated in a new body each time the heroes slay him — e.g. Gorice X, Gorice XI, Gorice XII), scheming ladies perfectly capable of setting their own agendas, some discreet sex (most notably Brandoch Daha’s encounter with the Lady of Ishnain Nemartra, which he thinks lasts a single night only to be surprised afterwards to find an entire week has gone by; or Lady Sriva of Witchland’s avoiding her fiancé to arrange a tryst with his rival, only to stand both men up and go seduce her King instead), dungeons to escape from, kidnapped friends to rescue, powerful enchantments to be broken, and much, much more. Eddison sets the stakes high: whoever comes out triumphant in the all-or-nothing three-year struggle he chronicles will rule the world.

[W]ith a horrid bellow [the mantichore] turned on Juss, rearing
like a horse; and it was three heads greater than a tall man…
The stench of its breath choked Juss’s mouth and his sense sickened,
but he slashed it athwart the belly… so that the guts fell out. Again
he hewed at it, but missed, and his sword… was shivered into pieces.
So when that noisome vermin fell forward on him roaring like a thousand
lions, Juss grappled with it… [I]t might not reach him with its murthering
teeth, but its claws sliced off the flesh from his left knee downward to the
ankle bone, and it fell on him and crushed him on the rock, breaking in
the bones of his breast. And Juss, for all his bitter pain and torment, . . .
thrust his right hand, armed with the hilt and stump of his broken
sword… until he searched out its heart… , slicing [it] asunder
like a lemon.”

– Lord Juss’s hand-to-hand combat with a mantichore on a mountain-side

But of all his varied and vivid cast, none stands out like the treacherous Lord Gro, one of fantasy’s great villains. A former adventurer of spectacular accomplishments, Gro is smart, brave, witty, likable, and learned; an author and an explorer, popular with the ladies and invaluable when plotting strategy. Unfortunately, he has one fatal character flaw: he cannot stand to be on the winning side. When the side he’s on begins to win (often through Gro’s own efforts), he feels compelled to betray it and go over to their enemies. Rather than gain him a reputation as the champion of the underdog, this makes him a despised outcast, the eternal traitor, distrusted even by those who depend upon his help. Even so he continues to perform great deeds at extreme risk for first one side and then the other of this cataclysmic war, allying first with the Witches to help them conquer Demonland, then with the Demons to help them expel the invaders, and finally with the Witches again in their final extremity; he simply cannot help himself. Rarely has a fantasy author created such a sympathetic villain.

Ouroboros

“This sword Zeldornius gave me. I bare it at Krothering Side
against Corinius, when I threw him out of Demonland. I bare it
… in the last great fight in Witchland. Thou wilt say it brought me
good luck and victory in battle. But it brought not to me…
that last best luck of all: that earth should gape for me
when my great deeds were ended.”

– Brandoch Daha laments the passing of his enemies

“Would [the blessed Gods] might give us our good gift, that should be
youth for ever, and war; and unwaning strength and skill in arms.
Would they might give us our great enemies alive and whole again.
For better it were we should run hazard again of utter destruction,
than thus live out our lives [in peace] like cattle fattening
for the slaughter, or like silly garden plants.”

– Lord Juss wishes his enemies alive again

The most extraordinary thing of all about The Worm Ouroboros, however, comes at the very end; a final surprise that trumps everything that’s come before and leaves the reader stunned — either delighted or appalled. Eddison had provided a clue of his intent in the name he gave the book, “the wyrm (dragon) which devours its own tail”[5] — that is, the Midgard Serpent, who encircles the entire earth; anyone tracing its length would come in time back to his or her starting point and begin all over again. And this is exactly what Eddison’s novel does. Granted a wish by the gods after their great deeds, Lord Juss, Brandoch Daha, and the others cannot think of anything they would like more than the chance to do it all over again. Accordingly, time is looped back; their foes brought back to life; all their hard-fought victories undone and waiting to be achieved again.

To Eddison, and the Demons, this is the happiest of happy endings: the final paragraphs of the book repeat the scene from the first chapter, and his heroes will be able to battle his villains forever. It’s a frame of mind familiar to any D&D player who’s just completed a long, hard, challenging, but ultimately successful campaign: a tinge of regret that it’s all over and that combination of characters, players, DM, NPCs, and plot will never come again. Eddison offers a means by which his fictional heroes can go back and enjoy it all over again. Seventeen years before Joyce pulled the same trick in Finnegan’s Wake, The Worm Ouroboros loops back in a closed circle, and its events repeat over and over again forever.

Notes

[1] In addition to inviting him to Inklings meetings as an occasional guest, Lewis struck up a correspondence (in Middle English) with Eddison that lasted the remainder of Eddison’s life (he died in 1945). The “E. R.”, by the way, stands for Eric Rucker (Rick).

[2] Eddison and Tolkien debated their respective positions when they met, as Tolkien recounted long afterwards: “I read his works with great enjoyment for their sheer literary merit… I disliked his characters (always excepting the Lord Gro) and despised what he appeared to admire… Eddison thought what I admire ‘soft’ (his word: one of complete condemnation, I gathered); I thought that… he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty.” (JRRT, letter 24 June 1957). It’s hard to imagine, for example, that Frodo, or indeed any of Tolkien’s heroes, at the end of The Lord of the Rings would wish to repeat all the horrors experienced during the quest, as Eddison’s heroes do.

[3] The best edition of The Worm Ouroboros is the 1991 trade paperback edited, with annotations, by Paul Edmund Thomas (Dell; ISBN 0-440-50299-3; 1991, 448 pages). Unfortunately, this edition leaves out not only the prefatory poem (an excerpt from the ballad of True Thomas) but also all the illustrations that accompanied the original 1922 edition. While most of these are of only minor interest, the brooding portrait of Gorice XII and the swirling picture of his destruction (“The Last Conjuring in Carce”) are both sadly missed. Fortunately, they are included in the mass market paperback edition from Ballantine (ISBN 0-345-25475-9; April 1967, 520 pages), which is still readily available through used bookstores (and online through Amazon.com’s used books and bookfinder.com). (The mass market edition cover is shown in this article.) Two editions are currently in print: one in the Fantasy Masterworks series, published in Britain by Millennium Books (ISBN 1857989937; April 2000, 520 pages, £6.99); while only available in a limited number of bookstores in this country, it can be ordered direct from England via amazon.co.uk. The other is by Replica Books (ISBN 0735101396; 1999, 445 pages, $32.95).

[4] Part of the book’s eccentric nomenclature might be due to the fact that Eddison made up the story as a child and only wrote it down and published it years later, when he was forty. An unpublished picture book survives that he drew when he was ten (e.g., c.1892), which clearly illustrates scenes out of The Worm; it is now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

[5] Tolkien paid tribute to Ouroboros years later by borrowing the name for Farmer Giles’ sword, Caudimordax, or Tailbiter, these simply being the Latin and English equivalents, respectively, of the Greek “ouroboros” (JRRT, Farmer Giles of Ham, 1949). It is important to note that “the worm ouroboros” does not refer to a creature in Eddison’s book but the book itself — the story that never ends but always loops back and begins anew.

Other Works: Readers who enjoy Eddison might want to explore his other works. These include an attempt to create an authentic Icelandic-style saga (Styrbiorn the Strong, 1926), a translation of an actual saga (Egil’s Saga, 1930), and the Zimiamvia series: Mistress of Mistresses (1935), A Fish Dinner at Memison (1941), and The Mezentian Gate (1958), the latter left unfinished at Eddison’s death and published posthumously; all three were gathered with some additional material into an annotated edition, Zimiamvia, by Paul Edmund Thomas in 1992. The Zimiamvia series has tenuous connections to The Worm (Lessingham, the observer in the Induction, is a major character in Mistress and Fish Dinner) but is wholly different in tone, being more Eddison’s presentation of his private religion (a form of Aphrodite-worship) than an adventure novel. Still, the series does include two great characters: the elderly wizard-philosopher-councilor Dr. Vandermast (inspiration for a character in the Forgotten Realms Cormyr novels) and the villainous Horius Parry, a.k.a., “The Vicar,” as well as a bizarre and impressive scene in which King Mezentius creates Earth as a parlor-trick at a dinner party. Most readers of The Worm find the Zimiamvia books repellent, but they also have their admirers who consider them far superior to the better-known book.

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