The Worm Ouroboros
by Eric Rücker Eddison
Last week’s post about E.R. Eddison’s stupendous 1922 fantasy, The Worm Ouroboros, had left the kingdom of Demonland apparently triumphant over its rival Witchland following the Witch king’s death in single combat. OK, names like Demonland and Witchland may evoke giggles. Eddison was building on stories he had begun to write as a 10-year-old, and it took an entire fantasy epic to shake the crazy names out of his system. Don’t let that keep you from reveling in the heroic adventure in a book H.P. Lovecraft raved about to a friend: “As you value your aesthetic soul, don’t fail to read (it)!!!”
In today’s post, we’ll take a peek at the revenge of the new Witch King, Gorice XII.
(All the Witch kings are named Gorice, and although Eddison states specifically that there have not been any sorcerer kings since Gorice VII of unhallowed memory, I’m guessing that each succeeding Gorice is conjured up by witchcraft, since there don’t appear to be any Mrs. Gorices. Not that the absence of Witch queens keeps the kings from engaging in dalliance, as we’ll see later this month. As I mentioned in last week’s post, this is more Game of Thrones than Lord of the Rings-style chaste fantasy.)
After the Demon champion Goldry Bluszco kills his antagonist on a neutral island, Witchland’s ships race for home with the news. Lord Gro, adviser to the late king, hopes the latest in the line of Gorices, the twelfth, will channel his inner sorcerer in order to deal a magical blow against the Demons and their champion. He doesn’t wish in vain. No sooner have the ships reached the marshy shores of Witchland than the new king summons Gro to his fortress for help in summoning the same unholy spirit that killed Gorice VII.
Courageous, complex and enigmatic, not to mention quixotic, Gro is the only character of Eddison’s huge cast that J.R.R. Tolkien professed any liking for, although Tolkien admired Eddison as a “most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds'…”. Before the Worm story begins, Gro has already treacherously transferred his allegiance from his native country (and Demonland ally) Goblinland to its enemy, Witchland. He will turn his coat again before the story is over.
For now, though, he is the only one Witchland’s new king, Gorice XII, will trust to help him in conjuring a devilish spirit whose name “it is a sin to utter.” For though Gorice XII is undoubtedly the brainiest Witch king in generations, he fears that the strain of conjuring the unhallowed spirit will weaken him so much mentally and physically that he may not be able to utter the final word needed to control it.
And as he casts first one spell, then more, “then went a crash through earth and heaven, and a blinding wildfire through the chamber as it had been a thunderbolt…and a beating of wings, like the wings of some monstrous bird.” With the last of his strength, the king bids the spirit to destroy his enemies, only to realize he is unable to utter the word that will dismiss the spirit before it destroys him and his own kingdom. Only Gro retains the presence of mind to find the page in the king’s book of magic where the dismissing word is written and is able to speak it even while he feels the monsters claws close around him.
The effect of all this sturm und drang on Witchland’s enemies: the sudden and mysterious disappearance of Demonland’s warrior champion, Goldry Bluszco. The quest for the missing hero will form the matter of the book, and of next Friday’s post.
(I’m indebted to the discussion at Skulls in the Stars for the quotations from Lovecraft and Tolkien as well as additional information about their responses to Eddison’s work. Also, as I mentioned previously, the entire text of Ouroboros is available online at Sacred Texts.)