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Mistress of Mistresses
E.R. Eddison
Orion Millennium, 401 pages

Frederic Leighton
Mistress of Mistresses
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
SF Site Review: The Worm Ouroboros
Bio-bibliography of Eddison
Essay on early British writers of high fantasy: "Thinking in Icelandic: The Bull Goose Loons and their Children"

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

This book is the 21st reissue in Gollancz' Fantasy Masterworks' series. While one might question the precedence in acknowledging it only after 20 others, in certain respects this is not surprising, as the author and his influence upon the genre has remained well outside the mainstream, almost an anomaly.  Originally published in 1935, more than 10 years after Eddison's more well-known and popular work, The Worm Ouroboros, Mistress of Mistresses is the first part of the larger Zimiamvia sequence, though, while published first, chronologically last in the events unfolding within the trilogy.  However, it possesses a narrative unity that allows it to be read on its own, even though it is an extension of events established in A Fish Dinner in Memison and, at Eddison's death, the only partially completed Menzentian Gate, the other two novels completing the cycle.  This is accomplished in part because time, locale and characters within Eddison's novels blur in identity, separated yet coexisting, almost, though in a very different fashion, as a pre-echo to Moorcock's multiverse.

Mistress of Mistresses opens with the strangely beautiful and evocative "Overture": observations held at a wake that looking back upon the life of the deceased, are yet oddly free of time's constraints, reflecting the natural setting of the chapter, an Arctic summer where the landscape and light are suspended seasonally "betwixt sunset and sunrise."  This foreshadows metaphors of setting and theme and atmosphere that are to run throughout the novel, acting and announcing a veil through which will be perceived shiftings that take place between the "real" world and alternate and coeval realities, much in the way that in earlier folklore a curtain of mist or shimmering twilight divides our world from that of the Other.  Drawing upon the cinematographer's knowledge of the "magic hour," Eddison's worlds shift and almost imperceptibly alter within the evanescent transience of light, tricks of illumination that transform and remind both his characters and the reader that what is seen or read is but a matter or moment of perception and experience, changing and yet ineluctably changeless.  The coexisting mutability of the author's worlds is announced immediately following the wake, where we rejoin the deceased, Lessingham, in a Renaissance-like world gripped in the throes and intrigue of a contested succession, where the death and life that preceded has not taken place, and yet odd glimmerings of its memory can be momentarily glimpsed; indeed, later within the novel existing simultaneously.  Nor, if one is familiar with Eddison's work, is this the only time one encounters this character: as here, he can be found elsewhere introducing the secondary world in Ouroboros, and is himself an incarnation or double for both the earlier Menzentius and his son, Barganax, all of whom exists as avatars of divine principles, both male and female, at once master and mistress.

If some of this smacks of mysticism, there is a certain mystical quality to Eddison's work, an embracing of deity within a sphinx-like riddling of themes, experienced as if in a waking dream, and disguised by a blurring of boundaries, both thematic and narrative, the divine remaining occult and ineffable, though notably lacking the religious overtones and morality of his contemporaries, Tolkien and Lewis, both of whom Eddison knew.  Here there is no guiding principle of Good and Evil, but instead, as in Ouroboros, a feeding upon itself, an almost ritual re-enactment in which the experience of existence in all its varied manifestations and guises supersedes any justification or informing philosophic or religious framework for the actions of its characters.  There is a sense of the primary characters living their lives to the fullest, free of conditions, allowing themselves -- no, insisting as by natural right -- to fully participate in the world in which they find themselves, and a recognition that if some guiding principle exists, it is beyond mortal scope or comprehension, unable to be apprehended in mortal terms.  Where deity exists, it draws from the classical, and remains just as seemingly capricious and inscrutable.

If there are any attributes exalted within Eddison's work, it is that of beauty and nobility, though the latter is defined by notions more analogous to having "stepped up to the plate" than chivalry or benevolence of purpose.  Heroism here is characterized by a self-interested defiance yet acceptance of the possibility of fate, having a hand in one's destiny, so to speak, even while acknowledging the existence of forces and circumstances beyond one's control, a suspicion of chessmen moved across the board.  Even the main villain of the narrative, the Vicar Horius Parry, possesses a brutish dignity that Martin's Gregor Clegane would understand.  This absence of traditional "virtues" led some of Eddison's contemporaries to criticize him for espousing an amoral hedonism.  And there is little question that the author revels in the pageantry and pleasures of his characters, depicting fetes and palaces with a detailed splendour rarely, if ever, equaled.  Further, his descriptions of feminine beauty border upon obsession, an almost fetishistic fascination when it comes to the line of a throat, the tilt of a chin.  But the true richness of his writing is reserved for his imagery of the natural world, which he lavishes with a vivid detail and a keenness of observation that misses not a nuance of movement, form, colour or light.  And he writes with an unfeigned romanticism that makes the efforts of some contemporary authors, such as Marillier or Haydon, appear crude and flaccid by comparison, spiced and garnished with a dash of eroticism.

Nonetheless, as in his own day, this novel will hardly whet the appetites of everyone.  Eddison writes with a cadenced flow of language lost to the spare prose and business letter epigrams that have followed Hemingway: rare today the compound complex sentence, or layered constructions of thought or image.  Scarcely is anything said simply, both speech and description labyrinthine, though one might argue this reflects the riddling nature of the whole.  And his style of writing would have been considered dense and floral even by the standards of the late 19th century, at times evincing great beauty of imagery and expression, only to turn in rout into convolutions of language guaranteed to frustrate.  Therefore, those who venture into this work will need to be prepared to read closely, at times going over the occasional passage, as well as willing to accept the abundant use of archaisms and erudite references and allusions with which the author delights.  The rewards of this, for those who are willing, is a work that in many ways is idiosyncratic and singular compared to the mass of genre fantasy that's followed, and, in part due to the language, as well as the author's more obvious and complicated literary intentions, will offer up new discoveries each time one chooses to reread it.   

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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