The Worm Ouroboros
by Eric Rücker Eddison
There is no such thing as an ugly woman in the writings of E.R. Eddison. The author of the 1922 epic fantasy, The Worm Ouroboros, couldn’t stand to write about unlovely women any more than he could write about cowardly men. Which doesn’t mean that either sex were morally upright. He was willing to allow the male characters of his tales of aristocratic mayhem to be cruel, lecherous and treacherous. And the women, beautiful though they are (and beautifully dressed) are equally chancy, as the adventurer-hero Brandoch Daha learned to his discomfiture.
Sometimes it makes me wonder what Eddison’s marriage was like.
In last Friday’s post, the mythical kingdoms of Witchland and Demonland were once again at war following the treacherous sorcery of Witchland’s King Gorice XII that caused the disappearance of Demonland’s warrior champion and co-ruler, Goldry Bluszco. (For those just tuning in, Witchlanders are the bad guys and Demonlanders the good guys, sort of. (Eddison’s odd names for his other-worldly world apparently date back to stories he imagined as a boy, and he wasn’t able to shake himself loose from his fixation with weird appellations until after the publication of this first of his fantasy novels.)
Goldry’s two brothers (and co-rulers of Demonland), Lord Juss and Spitfire, along with Demonland lord Brandoch Daha and their various allies wage war against Witchland while also searching for the lost Goldry.
In the course of the quest, Juss, Spitfire and Brandoch Daha journey to the great mountain ranges of Demonland to ask for the counsel of the semi-divine Queen Sophonisba. Along the way, they catch a glimpse of the holy mountains of the land of Zimiamvia (which will become the locale of Eddison’s later novels) and encounter adventures reminiscent of the medieval tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table (and perhaps also of the tales that unhinged the reason of that later knight, Don Quixote). And not the least perilous of these is what Eddison terms, “the amorous commerce of Brandoch Daha with the Lady of Ishnain Nemartra.”
Here is a portion of Eddison’s description that that amorous adventure, from Chapter X of Ouroboros: “They journeyed by the southern margin of a gravelly sea, made all of sand and gravel and no drop of water, yet ebbing and flowing always with great waves as another sea doth” until they saw, in a barren land, “in the lustre of a late bright-shining sun a castle of red stone. . .”
Inside the apparently empty castle a table is spread for a feast. When they dare to eat, they are visited by the lady of Ishnain Nemartra, who offers them the choice of a sorely-needed night’s rest or of staying awake all night to receive any earthly thing he may desire. Brandoch Daha takes on the adventure. When the lady visits him after his successful completion, readers might expect him to make the sensible choice of asking for the return of the vanished champion Goldry Bluzsco, who they’ve come so far to rescue.
But if you expect sensible choices, you don’t know Eddison’s heroes. Brandoch Daha demands a night of love with the lady, although she warns him, “Of all things earthly mightiest thou have taken choose; but I am not earthly.” (Italics mine.)
Brandoch Daha should have paid more attention to the terms of the contract. Before their time together is over, the lady is in love, but when Brandoch Daha insists on leaving her to take up his quest again, she curses him with war instead of peace. And Goldry Bluzsco is yet to be found.
(Next Friday, how it ends – or doesn’t. And why the Worm Ouroboros chases his tail in a never-ending cycle.)