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The Worm Ouroboros
E.R. Eddison
Orion Millennium, 521 pages

Sir Edward Burne-Jones
The Worm Ouroboros
E.R. Eddison
Eric Rucker Eddison (1882-1945), born in Yorkshire, was a slender man of 5'10" and a lifelong and eventually high-ranking British civil servant. Working in the Board of Trade from 1906, he distinguished himself in his bureaucratic work to the extent that he was made Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in 1924, Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1929, and reached the rank of Deputy Comptroller-General of Overseas Trade before retiring in 1937 to a new home in Marlborough, Wiltshire. There he lived with his wife and married daughter until his death in 1945.

Eddison began writing stories when he was 10. His interest in Norse sagas led him to study Icelandic so he could read them in the original. At Oxford he became enthralled with Homer and Sappho, and also became fluent in Greek, Latin and French. Besides his interests in animals and wildlife, music, ballet, the theatre and art (he once owned a Matisse) he was also an avid mountaineer. Eddison was a close friend of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, and knew J.R.R. Tolkien. In 1916, Eddison edited and privately printed the works of a close friend: Poems, Letters, and Memories of Philip Sidney Nairn. In 1922, his masterpiece The Worm Ouroboros was published, but it never attained any significant popularity, except among aficionados like James Branch Cabell, until the fantasy renaissance of the 60s. In 1926, Eddison published a Norse historical fantasy, Styrbiorn the Strong, based on some brief passages in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla (c. 1200). 1930 saw the publication of his translation of Egil's Saga: Done into English Out of the Icelandic with an Introduction, Notes, and an Essay on Some Principles of Translation. Near the end of his public service, in 1935, Eddison returned to fantasy with Mistress of Mistresses, a Vision of Zimiamvia, the first of three books making up the Zimiamvian Trilogy. A Fish Dinner in Memison, a prequel to Mistress of Mistresses, followed in 1941. He then began work on another Zimiamvian novel, The Mezentian Gate, had written a bit less than a third of it, including the beginning, the end, a few chapters in between, and a very detailed outline of the remainder, when, like Mervyn Peake with the third book of Gormenghast, Eddison died. Eddison's widow later (1958) published the material. The trilogy was reprinted in paperback by Ballantine in the late 60s.

E.R. Eddison, the author
ISFDB listing
Review: The Worm Ouroboros-1

Reviews of The Worm Ouroboros
Review: The Worm Ouroboros-1
Several Reviews: The Worm Ouroboros-2
Reviews: Der Wurm Ouroboros-3 (in German)
Review: Der Wurm Ouroboros-4 (in German)

Mythology of the Ouroboros worm General overview

Miscellaneous E-text of excerpt of "Chap. 4: Conjuring in the Iron Tower" in The Worm Ouroboros

Further non-Internet material on E.R. Eddison and his works
De Camp, L. Sprague. 1976. Superman in a bowler: E.R. Eddison. p. 114-134. In: Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers. The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House.
Prescott, Orville. 1977. Introduction. p. xiii-xvii, In: The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine. 10th printing (Intro, reprinted from a 1962 E.P. Dutton edition)
Stephens, James. 1977. Introduction. p. xix-xxii, In: The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine. 10th printing (Intro, reprinted from 1926 E.P. Dutton & Co. first American edition).
Attebery, Brian. 1983. The Zimiamvian Trilogy. In Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature (F. Magill, ed.).

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

The Worm Ouroboros is a unique masterpiece of heroic fantasy. It is like nothing published in fantasy today and few works could compare to it in its time or since. At its publication even Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was compared to the benchmark of Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros, and these comparisons haven't always gone in Tolkien's favour. Besides its lush Shakespearean English, and its sources in Homeric and Norse epics, it was probably the first fantasy work to include (like Tolkien and his lesser clones) appendices on historical time lines in the imaginary world. One reason such a work as Eddison's couldn't possibly be created today (besides the fact that no modern editor would allow it) is that, as pointed out by L. Sprague de Camp in his essay on Eddison (see sidebar at left) and by others elsewhere, nobody today receives the broad Classical Oxford/Cambridge educations that the great British fantasists like William Morris, H. Rider Haggard, Lord Dunsany, C.S. Lewis, Mervyn Peake and E.R. Eddison did.

On to the story: Juss, Spitfire and Goldry Bluszco and their cousin Brandoch Daha are the four top lords of Demonland under King Gaslark. When King Gorice XI of Witchland wrestles Goldry for the fate of Demonland, and is defeated and killed, his successor Gorice XII uses high-stakes sorcery to capture and imprison Goldry atop the Mountain Zora Rach. Bloody and ruthless war ensues between Witchland and Demonland, during which time the three remaining Demon lords attempt to rescue Goldry, but must first ascend the dizzying peak of Koshtra Pivrarcha to discover where Goldry is hidden. Ultimately, Gorice XII, when cornered, defeats himself by going once too often to the font of sorcery, and his men die poisoned by a traitor. This, of course, barely scratches the surface of the plot.

The Worm Ouroboros by most standards, even those of Ouroboros devotees, is a flawed masterpiece. So convinced am I that the overall brilliance of the work will draw you in, I will first enumerate the most grating of these flaws. Then it will be time enough for me to explain why they can all be ignored.
The author's introduction to the setting of The Worm Ouroboros is particularly awkward. The story begins on Earth, where a man named Lessingham, relaxes after dinner with his wife, goes to bed, and dreams (?) that he flies to the planet Mercury on a hippogriff-drawn chariot, where he then witnesses events. Besides the fact that he never actually returns to close out the book, and completely disappears by the end of the third chapter, the whole episode adds nothing to the story.
The action takes place on our innermost planet Mercury, but with an Earth climate and humanoid life forms -- a more logically consistent or even a vague, unspecified venue would surely have been a better choice.
The various peoples are called Demons, Goblins, Witches, Imps and Ghouls, though they have nothing whatsoever to do with the Earthly folklore equivalents. This I must admit was particularly confusing when I first read the book at 17.
These Mercurian heroes are constantly quoting/singing 16th and 17th century English and ancient Greek passages from Earth, besides acting in ways consistent with Homeric, Norse and Arthurian epics.
J.R.R. Tolkien once criticized Eddison for his lack of etymological research in naming his places and characters (though admittedly Tolkien took this a bit to extremes), and certainly there doesn't seem to be any consistency in origin between characters such as Fax Fay Faz, Brandoch Daha, Zeldornius, and Prince La Fireez.
The Worm Ouroboros, though largely a product of the time it was written, reflects a definite caste/aristocracy system and a romantic notion of war. The noble heroes couldn't care less about the devastation of war or the poor guy whose home just got burned to the ground, as long as they get their kicks lopping off people's heads and having grand adventures.
As with the book's beginning, the ending ("une fin en queue de poisson" as one would say in French) is, to say the best of it, unexpected. After finally defeating the Witches, the Demon lords find life ever so tedious, so in answer to Juss' prayers, the gods allow him to turn back time to the very beginning of the story, thus presumably completing the Ouroboros that eats its own tail.
The Elizabethan prose may be just too much for modern readers.

So far The Worm Ouroboros is batting oh-for-eight -- so what are we going to do? Offer 10 good reasons to read it? Well, actually, only two:

Eddison is a brilliant storyteller, and
his prose defines (in my mind) what fantasy prose should be.

Eddison's storytelling was inspired by an intimate knowledge of the best mankind had to offer in terms of heroic fiction: Homer, the Norse Epics, Thomas Malory, to name a few. Some authors, like Eddison, regardless of their linguistic quirks, are simply very gifted storytellers. The Worm Ouroboros' story ranges from great battles on earth and sea, perilous quests, doomed traitorous sycophants, majestic villains and equally heroic good-guys (well, at least in a relative sense). Great scenes abound: the wrestling match between Gorice XI and Goldry Bluzsco, Juss and Brandoch Daha's defeat of the Mantichora, the ascent of the impossibly high mountain Koshtra Pivrarcha (Eddison was an accomplished mountaineer), the Goblin lord Gro's betrayals of all he associates with. While some have criticized Eddison's characterization of the main Demon lords as rather thin, certainly lord Gro with his doom to endless treason is a wonderful character, as are the opportunistic scoundrels who are the Witch lords Corund, Corsus, and Corinius.

When it comes to prose... well the book at times is more one of lush description than action, but such description as has only been equalled by the likes of A. Merritt, and Lord Dunsany. Certainly having an extended 16-17th century English vocabulary comes in handy, but after a few pages the eloquence and poetry of the writing should overcome any reading difficulties. In that sense The Worm Ouroboros uses archaic English to much better effect than William Hope Hodgson in his classic end-of-the-world horror epic The Night Land (1912). Right from the first chapter, one is treated to Eddison's rich evocative prose in a short portion of his description of Lord Juss' throne room:

"Its walls and pillars were of snow-white marble, every vein whereof was set with small gems: rubies, corals, garnets, and pink topaz. Seven pillars on either side bore up the shadowy vault of the roof; the roof-tree and the beams were of gold, curiously carved, the roof itself of mother-of-pearl. A side aisle ran between each row of pillars, and seven paintings on the western side faced seven spacious windows on the east. At the end of the hall upon a dais stood three high seats, the arms of each composed of two hippogriffs, wrought in gold, with wings spread, and the legs of the seats the legs of the hippogriffs; but the body of each high seat was a single jewel of monstrous size: the left-hand seat a black opal, asparkle with steel-blue fire, the next a fire-opal, as it were a burning coal, the third a seat in alexandrite, purple like wine by night, but deep sea-green by day."
These lovely descriptive passages occur throughout the text, as when the heroes climb the mountain Koshtra Pivrarcha in the gathering dusk:
"By then was the sun gone down. Under the wings of night uplifted from the east, the unfathomable heights of air turned a richer blue; and here and there, most dim and hard to see, throbbed a tiny point of light: the greater stars opening their eyelids in the gathering dark. Gloom crept upward, brimming the valleys far below like a rising tide on the sea. Frost and stillness waited on the eternal night to resume her reign. The solemn cliffs of Koshtra Belorn stood in tremendous silence, death-pale against the sky."
But lest we forget, The Worm Ouroboros is a work of heroic fantasy:
"And now grim and woundsome grew the battle, for the Demons mightily withstood the onset of the witches, and the Lord Brandoch Daha rushed with an onslaught ever and anon upon Corund and upon Corinius, nor might either of these great captains bear up long against him, but every time gave back before Lord Brandoch Daha; and bitterly cursed they one another as each in turn was fain to save himself amid the press of the fighting men. Nor could one hope in one night's space to behold such deeds of derring-do as were done that night by Lord Brandoch Daha, that played his sword lightly as one handleth a willow wand; yet death sat on the point thereof. In such wise that eleven stout sworders of Witchland were slain by him, and fifteen besides were sorely wounded. And at the last, Corinius, stung by Corund's taunts as by a gadfly, and well night bursting for grief and shame at his ill speeding, leapt upon Lord Brandoch Daha as one reft of his wits, aiming at him a great two-handed blow that was apt enough to cleave him to the brisket. But Brandoch Daha slipped from the blow lightly as a kingfisher flying above an alder-shadowed stream avoideth a branch in his flight, and ran Corinius through the right wrist with his sword. And straight was Corinius put out of the fight. Nor had they greater satisfaction that went against Lord Juss, who mowed at them with great smashing blows, beheading some and hewing some asunder in the midst, till they were fain to keep clear of his reaping. So fought the Demons in the glare and watery mist, greatly against great odds, until all were smitten to earth save those two lords alone, Juss and Brandoch Daha."
This Millennium edition of The Worm Ouroboros presents very little information on E.R. Eddison himself or discussion of his works, even misprinting his birth year as 1812. Unlike the Ballantine editions of 1967-onward, it omits the earlier introductions to the work by Orville Prescott and James Stephens (author of the fantasy classic The Crock of Gold), though it does retain Keith Henderson's classic illustrations.

The Worm Ouroboros is not a book you can expect to read quickly over a couple of days; it is a book whose story and the prose which tells it must be savoured slowly, so rich is it in everything heroic fantasy is meant to be. It's uniqueness, like that of great works by Dunsany, Tolkien and the like, precludes comparison. Admittedly, The Worm Ouroboros is perhaps a bit overwhelming for a novice fantasy reader, but certainly reading it before one becomes ingrained in the post-Tolkien fantasy paradigm may leave one a bit more conscious to what heights the genre has reached and hopefully can reach again. Then again, if the quotes and the e-text excerpt (linked above) don't embody for you everything that high fantasy and heroic fantasy should be, then by all means don't read The Worm Ouroboros -- but then I really don't know what to call whatever else it is you may have the impression is heroic fantasy.

Copyright © 2000 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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