The Worm Ouroboros
by Eric Rücker Eddison
I could hardly believe my eyes when, searching for overlooked pre-Tolkienesque fantasies, I found Listverse’s “Top 10 Underrated Fantasy Stories Before 1937,” and its mention of E.R. Eddison’s 1922 magnum opus, The Worm Ouroboros. “My favorite novel,” gushed the Listverse writer. And I thought, wow, who knew anybody but me loved Eddison’s work?
Ouroboros is the tale of the warring kingdoms of Witchland and Demonland, set ostensibly on the planet Mercury, whose history endlessly repeats itself. The title refers, not to any of the characters, but to the dragon (“worm” in Old English) of Norse mythology that swallows its own tail, with no beginning or ending. And it’s told in a 16th century idiom reminiscent of Shakespeare in an opium dream.
Although J.R.R. Tolkien had some praise for Ouroboros, which got a 1950’s reprint following the success of at his Lord of the Rings, at this point you may understand why Eddison’s works haven’t exactly become cultural icons.
Still, I think his books may yet get their due in 21st century fantasy realms. His “Demons” and “Witches,” along with his other nations of Pixies, Imps, Goblins and Ghouls don’t sound as bizarre to readers steeped in paranormal fantasy today as they must have in the early decades of the previous century; his byzantine, sexually-charged plot twists familiar ground to Game of Thrones enthusiasts.
And computer-generated animation seems made to delve into Eddison’s sometimes descriptions of setting, such as this one for the audience chamber in the palace of Lord Juss, ruler of Demonland, whose support pillars are each topped with a precious stone “carved by the hand of some sculptor of long ago into the living form of a monster: here was a harpy with screaming mouth, so wondrously cut in ochre-tinted jade it was a marvel to hear no scream from her: here in wine-yellow topaz a flying fire-drake:…there a star sapphire the colour of moonlight, cut for a cyclops, so that the rays of the star trembled from his single eye….”
Eddison lavished similar detail on everything from the dresses of the highly decorative princesses and damsels accompanying his heroes to Himalayan-rivaling mountain ranges. His characters are equally baroque: heroes inimitably brave, strong and good; villains equally brave, strong and evil. The action is tremendous, beginning with an epic single combat, a wrestling match between the evil king of Witchland and Lord Juss’s brother, the Demonland champion, for domination of their world.
But Witches are witches. No, actually, they’re not. Their kings are powerfully evil sorcerers more like Tolkien’s Saruman than Halloween (or even Shakespearean) crones stirring cauldrons. So they’re not about to let the Demons’ win in the wrestling match keep them from plotting more villainy. In Eddison’s viewpoint, there are no shadows, no in-betweens. And neither side ever, ever gives up.
As the introduction to the 1952 edition states, perhaps with a hint of wistfulness, “There are no complications, no reservations and no excuses here. Pagan these warriors may be (actually, Eddison is notably short on religious overtones) and semi-barbarous, but they are not oppressed by weasel-faced doubts or whining uncertainties…and life itself is joyful and wonderful.”
But there, I haven’t even gotten to the melancholy traitor Gro (the only character with any approach to complexity, little good though it does him). Or to the Scarlet Pimpernellish Demon Lord Brandoch Daha or the May-December romance between lovely Prezmyra and Witchland’s cunning old warrior Corund. I’ll continue this discussion next Friday, although readers who want to read (or reread) will be able to see the entire story here.