E R Eddison The Worm Ouroboros HarperCollins 2014 (1922)
The author has been lauded by Tolkien (“the greatest and most convincing writer of invented worlds”) and by Ursula Le Guin (“unequalled in the vigour, the vividness, the passionate intensity of his imagining”), so it’s unsurprising that Eddison’s early fantasy — despite being written nearly a century ago — is a tour de force which continues to amaze through the sheer brilliance of its author’s conception. Magic, wars, heroic feats, splendid scenery, the titanic battle between Good and Evil: all are commonplaces of epic fantasy but Eddison invests his world with unique features and finishing touches.
Firstly, his world: in theory this is the planet Mercury, but we mustn’t imagine that barren inhospitable body racing closest to the Sun. Instead we should remember the associations and attributes of the classical god — eloquence and cunning, communication and travel, fate and divination, heraldry and boundaries — all of which and more are to the fore in this novel. Bearing in mind that Mercury’s symbol is the caduceus, a staff with intertwined serpents, it’s only to be expected that the book’s title should reference a snake biting its own tail.
The denizens of this world are identified as Demons and Witches, Goblins and Imps, Pixies and Ghouls, each with their own lands, but don’t be put off by these labels or picture traditional devils; even if some have horns on their heads or tails to their behinds we’d best imagine all these as Renaissance personages, princes and peoples. It’s not just that they speak in flowery Jacobean language or sport Elizabethan clothes and armour, Eddison includes texts from contemporary ballads, poetry and song. The principal actors of this tale hail from Demonland and Witchland, the former portrayed as beings whose minds are “pranked with many silly phantasies of honour and courtesy” and the latter under their sinister King as utter dastards, with few exceptions. Associated first with one and then the other are significant individuals from other lands, an intriguing Goblin called Lord Gro and a bold Pixy prince called La Fireez. The action shifts between Demonland in the northwest, Witchland in the northeast and Impland in the southeast, with Goblinland taking up some of the last quarter of this world. Between them stretches the sea, scene of naval battles related at some remove. Some impression of how we might view the geography of Mercury can be gained by imagining a map similar to those produced by Mercator and Ortelius in the 16th century — continents gracing the four quarters of a circle, an inner sea with the occasional island, navies scudding back and forth to battle or plunder.
And yet the surface Renaissance veneer scarcely conceals a Viking mentality — such as that contained in the Icelandic sagas which Eddison also admired — with honour and courtesy counterpoised by evil intent and revenge. Eddison’s heroes were conceived as early as 1892, when the author was ten years old and friends with the young Arthur Ransome. Juss, Brandoch Daha, Spitfire and ‘Goldy Blusoe’ (Goldry Bluszco, as he later became) — all lords of Demonland — feature in the pages of the boy’s sketchbook, along with battles with adversaries such as King Gorice of Witchland and Fax Fay Faz of Impland. Incredibly these same characters and many of their adventures appeared in print 30 years later when The Worm Ouroboros was published.
Witchland is the antithesis of Demonland: ruled by a succession of kings called Gorice, who conveniently reincarnate in another body after death, it constantly seeks to gain absolute power over this whole world, by foul means in preference to fair. The latest Gorice is a sorcerer who will resort to anything to achieve his ends, playing his principal commanders — Corsus, Corund and Corinius — against each other as much as against the Demons; nevertheless there can be honour amongst thieves where some of the lords of Witchland are concerned. The Demons have a different philosophy of life, Brandoch Daha believing “treachery and double dealing proceed commonly from fear, and that is a thing which I think no man in this land comprehendeth.” And yet the Demons require conflict to justify their raison d’être for without activity they languish. There appears to be no likelihood of entropy on this mercurial world.
In this world heraldry and symbols count for as much as names and language do (Corund, Corsus and Corinius for example all have prefixes that recall Welsh cawr, a giant). The tail-biting worm Ouroboros that figures as Gorice’s personal seal is no less than a symbol of eternal strife. The zodiacal crab (often depicted as a crayfish) is Witchland’s heraldic beast, its capital Carcë clearly related to Greek karkinos, the crab. Demonland is represented by the hippogriff, half horse and half griffon (the latter itself the offspring of an eagle and a lion) though the original editions of The Work Ouroboros depicted it as a Pegasus. Another fearsome beast is a Mantichore, an agile lion with a ravenous human face, met with in Impland and therefore a fair indication of the perils to be met with in that dangerous land.
At a key point during the climax to the narrative one character has a vision of meteors emanating from the constellations of Cancer and Leo, neighbouring zodiacal figures and emblematic of the two warring polities. This is during a siege, and it’s noteworthy that Eddison — whether consciously or not — neatly structures his narrative in almost exactly equal thirds by featuring a bloody investments of a fortress, Eshgrar Ogo in Impland (chapter XI), Krothering in Demonland (chapter XXII) and the aftermath of the siege of Carcë in XXXIII. (Perhaps Tolkien borrowed this template for The Lord of the Rings with the mines of Moria and the citadel of Amon Hen, Isengard and Helm’s Deep, and Gondor and the Shire providing anchoring points for the plotting of the trilogy.)
Now, deconstructing a story is all very well, but does it still work when put all together again? Well, of course. Who can fail to be thrilled by the ebb and flow of narrative peopled by such striking characters? For it is the principals of the cast that stick most strongly in the mind: the bold and honourable Demons, each one distinctive and with differing strengths, whether in diplomacy, mountaineering, wrestling or reliability; the sheer dominating personality of the Witch King, and his generals, the straight-as-a-die Corund, the brutish Corsus, the young but capable whippersnapper Corinius. The few women who appear, they too have real personalities, from the determined Lady Mevrian to Corsus’ daughter the cunning Sriva and her attempt to affect regal decisions. But the really fascinating figures of this tale are not those engaging in bravado: they are the turncoat Goblin Lord Gro and the Pixy Prezmyra, Queen of Impland, tragic and complex individuals both.
This is an epic to rival Le Morte d’Arthur in tone and scope, set in magnificent landscapes of snow-capped mountains, emerald green dales and barren wastelands. After a slightly confusing opening I found I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next, and that’s not something I thought I would confess to in a fantasy involving extreme posturing and bloody warfare!