The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison. New York: Open Road Media, 2014 (originally published 1922).
Summary: A heroic fantasy of the warfare between Witchland and Demonland, including the quest to rescue Goldry Bluszco, after he is banished by spell to a remote mountain top in revenge for defeating and killing King Gorice XI of the Witches in a wrestling match.
This is a work of heroic fantasy that was praised by the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Ursula LeGuin as inspiration for their own work. And certainly the ideas of transport to an alien world, heroic quests, and great, and often seemingly hopeless, contests against evil powers find their roots in this work.
I came across this work first around the time I discovered The Lord of the Rings and saw Tolkien’s commendation. I never picked it up until recently, perhaps because of the obscurity of the title. Ouroboros refers to the worm (a term often used for dragons or serpents) who swallow their own tail, forming an endless ring. It is a symbol worn by the king of Witchland, and the idea of an endless cycle figures in the conclusion of the work, which I will not give away for those who haven’t read it.
The story is told through the eyes of one “Lessingham” who is transported from Earth to Mercury, where this story takes place. After the early chapters, Lessingham disappears from the story, not to reappear at the conclusion. The story really begins with brothers Juss, Spitfire, and Goldry Bluszco, and Brandoch Daha, the Lords of Demonland receiving the diminutive ambassador of Witchland who asserts the Kingship of Gorice XI, King of Witchland over Demonland. The Lords of Demonland decide to contest this via a wrestling match between Gorice, famed for his wrestling prowess, and Goldry, a formidable wrestler in his own right. If Goldry wins, they submit; if not, they retain their independence. Goldry defeats and kills Gorice XI, and in vengence, his son casts a spell that transports and imprisons Goldry on a distant icy mountain top. Juss and Brandoch think he is being held in Carce, the capitol of Witchland, and only learn in defeat and escape through an ally, of the spell that has sent him far away.
This sets up the remainder of the book, divided between the quest to rescue Goldry, and the wars against Witchland. Juss and Brandoch Daha pursue a year-long quest, including a battle against a terrifying manticore taking them to the mountain castle of Queen Sophonisba, who tells them Goldry can only be reached by finding the egg of a hippogriff, back in Demonland. Meanwhile, Spitfire unsuccessfully resists an attack by Duke Corsus on Witchland. He takes the castle, Krothering, of Brandoch Daha, and lays it waste. Brandoch’s sister escapes when Gro, a spurned adviser of Corsus turns traitor and helps her get free. Ultimately, Gro will turn traitor once more. Juss and Brandoch return in time to expel Corsus and the forces of Witchland, then Juss finds the hippogriff egg, rescues Goldry, leading, after defeat of the fleet of Witchland, to the climactic battle before the gates of Carce.
The book is not an easy read. The language is influenced by Elizabethan English (an odd choice for events taking place on Mercury), including written texts in period English (which sometimes look like the writing of someone who is spelling challenged–which may help in deciphering it). Some may contend that this is far simpler than Tolkien’s passages in Elvish, the languages of Dwarves, Orcs, and the Dark Tower. Some might complain about all the different names and kingdoms (in addition to Witchland and Demonland, there are Ghouls, Goblins, Imps and Pixies!). Eddison helps us somewhat with a chronology summarizing the relations of all of these at the end of the work.
What I struggled with, and perhaps it is an artifact of the heroic fantasy genre, is that I do not see any of the characters grow through the quests and battles they face. Courage and heroism there is in abundance, as is deceit, betrayal, and dark arts. But in the end, the horrors and travails of war, and the conquest of evil do not seem to eventuate in the love of peace or the wise pursuit of a better world. The main characters only seem to be defined by the quests and battles, perhaps an earlier version of Klingons who think it a shame to die a peaceful death.
On the one hand, it raises the question of whether tension, or some threat, is necessary to out the best in human beings, or whatever human-like races these beings are. And yet, these figures cannot envision quests that don’t involve killing or dying or battle. Is there not also a heroism that heals, that pursues peace, goodness, truth, and beauty–sometimes in the resistance of evil and deceit and ugliness–but also in the creation of cultural goods? As influential as this story was, what I saw in Tolkien that I miss in Eddison is a richer heroism, one capable of growth, that fights evil when it must but loves hearth, home, song, and good food, and a world where these might flourish.