The Worm Ouroboros
by Eric Rücker Eddison
In last Friday’s post, one of the heroes of E.R. Eddison’s 1922 epic fantasy, The Worm Ouroboros, claimed a favor from the eerily beautiful lady of the dead lands of Ishnain Nemartra. Considering that the hero in question, Demonland Lord Brandoch Daha, was on a quest to find the lost warrior champion of his country, the sensible favor would seem to have been the successful completion of the quest. Unfortunately, Brandoch Daha is thinking with some part of his body other than his head. He opts for a night in heaven with the lady herself. When he wakes up enough to return to his quest, she curses him for leaving her. Instead of the peace he sought, she says, he will find only war.
Despite Brandoch Daha’s epic goof, the quest for the missing champion is fulfilled and Demonland eventual vanquishes its archenemy, Witchland. The victory was due as much to a massive goof on the part of Witchland’s sorcerer king, Gorice XII, as to the virtue of Demonland’s just cause. For the second time, Gorice attempts to call an unhallowed spirit to his aid. This time, without the aid of his once-trusted second, the ineffable traitor Lord Gro, the whole thing gets out of control. The spirit not only destroys Witchland’s fortress but drags Gorice’s soul, Faust-like, off in the process.
(Sorry about the spoiler, but you’ve probably been reading the complete text at Sacred Texts or other sites. If not, feel free to read the full account, if only for Eddison’s incredible language, praised by H.P. Lovecraft and others.)
In our world, with one World War already behind, the possibility of unleashing the energy stored in atoms was already being discussed when Eddison’s fantasy was published in 1922. Despite Eddison’s insistence in his dedication to the original edition that Ouroboros “is neither allegory nor fable,” it’s as difficult not to see a cautionary tale in the Witch King’s hubris as it is in the destructive power of the One Ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
In both epics, their respective worlds are devastated by war, as our world was after the first and second World Wars. Except that in Eddison’s case, the heroes long not for the peace to restore their world, but for the return of their brave enemies.
As Demonland’s ruler, Lord Juss, says, “We may well cast down our swords as a last offering on Witchland’s grave. For now must they rust: seamanship and all high arts of art must wither…thinking that we, what fought but for fighting’s sake, have in the end fought so well we never may fight again…”
What more can the gods of this strange land grant them, than a return of those beloved enemies? And they do. The Lady of Ishnain Nematra's prophecy is fulfilled: instead of peace, the heroes must wage war everlasting. And the Worm Ouroboros, a symbol for eternity, bites its own tail, and rolls endlessly onward.
Eddison, born in 1882, never served in a war, having instead a successful career as a civil servant and man of letters. In his last completed novel, 1940’s A Fish Dinner in Memison, a character says, “I can’t understand chaps like you. Hankering already for the next war, or a revolution.” To which the answer is: “Who’s going to stop it?”
This belief in the inevitability of war, as much as Eddison’s dualist philosophy, may have been at the root of Tolkien’s quarrel with him, despite his admiration for Eddison’s created world.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics begins a December of spiritual adventures with Plato’s The Symposium.)