It was the epic three-volume novel The Lord of the Rings that set the scene for what was to eventually become the enormous popularity of a genre that barely existed prior to the mid-1960s. However, as I mentioned in my article “Rites of Passage in Neustria” (NYRSF 323), heroic fantasy had its origins somewhat earlier, and one of the very first novels of its kind was The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison in 1922, a book that introduced violent action and dark sorcery to fantasy, features that came to define much of the field.
Eddison’s novel was thus of considerable significance, and while it is no way forgotten, its impact tends to be consistently understated as does its matchless entertainment value. It was written for the pure exhilaration of storytelling and with no ulterior motive—in his Dedication to the book dated 9 January 1922, Eddison stated “it is neither allegory nor fable but a Story to be read for its own sake.”
Essentially, The Worm is a compellingly written adventure, telling of the ongoing conflict between two warrior nations, two potent forces whose hatred of each other has roots that are generations old. There are mighty battles at land and at sea, base treachery, brave quests, powerful sorcery, and heroic characters, a mixture of ingredients that combine to provide readers with a hugely enjoyable tale.
As to the author himself, Eric Rücker Eddison (1882–1945) was an English civil servant with an abiding interest in Scandinavian Sagas; he was a member of the Viking Society and translated Egil’s Saga into English for publication in 1930, having previously adapted a part of another Saga for his novel Styrbiorn the Strong in 1926. His first published book, Poems, Letters, and Memories of Philip Sidney Nairn in 1916, was printed for private circulation as a tribute to a friend who had died in Malaya two years earlier.
It is, of course, Eddison’s second book that is the subject of this article—The Worm Ouroboros, which appeared from Jonathan Cape in 1922, excellently illustrated by Keith Henderson, who was Eddison’s brother-in-law. Cape had a unique book on their hands and must have puzzled as to its marketing, finally deciding to emphasize its distance from normal literary fare; according to the dust jacket The Worm is “a most curious, most original, but exciting story. Here is no photographic realism, no divorces, nor drugs, nor neurasthenics, but the humors and splendors of a spacious life, the clash of noble wills and circumstances.”
Many of the contemporary reviews were extremely favorable, this for instance from Time & Tide:
it is the combination of two gifts—rarely found together: the power to create an impalpable atmosphere, and to use it, upon occasion, to produce the most hair stirring tremors; and the power to render the material surface in such a way that the strangest scenes stand before the reader with a reality that compels complete acceptance—that Mr. Eddison has brought off the triumph of this book.
Less wordy and less strangely constructed were the comments in Saturday Review, which described the book as “a noble flight of the creative imagination, conveying a vivid impression of beauty, poetry and truth.” And from The Manchester Guardian:
an author whose cunning handiwork and sense of the genuinely romantic are impressed on every page.... His language is so consistently and inevitably beautiful, and withal gritty enough to save it from cloying us.... Its comeliness has not been matched by any of the publisher’s earlier enterprises in book production, which is saying a good deal.
Response to the later American publication of the novel (Albert & Charles Boni, 1926) was also enthusiastic with the Boston Evening Transcript saying it was “as imaginative as it is virile ... packed with beauty and incident”; the Baltimore Evening Sun commented that “this is truly a great book: a work of art eminently deserving of a place in that meagre company of masterpieces which fade not with the passing of years and of literary fads”; and the reviewer for The Independent stated, “I am bewitched: here, abruptly, by some magic far different from the common magic of the art I know, I am made aware of and become part of a new world. It is an amazing, a vast book.”
Other authors were also impressed. James Stephens wrote the Introduction to the American edition and concluded by saying, “from whatever heaven Mr. Eddison came, he has added a masterpiece to English literature,” while James Branch Cabell felt that “it is a majestic example of pure romance, which purchases, through its own unadulterated magic, and for no utilitarian ends whatever, the momentary ‘suspension of disbelief’ in many very beautiful impossibilities.” J.R.R. Tolkien later described Eddison as “the greatest and most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds’ that I have read, although he did have reservations about various aspects of the work and disliked most of the characters (with the exception of Lord Gro), while C.S. Lewis told Eddison that The Worm was “the most noble and joyous book I have read these ten years.”
So the book made quite an impression in various places and upon various people, but unfortunately that was not reflected in the sales of the first edition. The small print run apparently never sold out, the leftover copies being reissued by the publisher with a new title page and a jacket lacking cover art in a “new and cheaper edition” (7s. 6d. as compared to the original 15s.) in 1924. Sales were apparently not much better, but fortunately the novel was not forgotten and surely never will be.
For The Worm Ouroboros is to me unquestionably the best work of fantasy ever written, a stunning tour-de-force of enormous dimensions that has never been equaled. There has never been another book even remotely like it; once read, it will not be forgotten, and like many great works its effect is compounded on rereading.
Much has been made of what are seen by some to be “faults” in the book—there is first the setting of the action on the planet Mercury, when it is clearly not Mercury or indeed anywhere else in the known universe, and there is a clumsy “Induction” [sic] involving a man named Lessingham who is transported to Mercury to view the unfolding drama. When Lessingham arrives, his avian guide, a martlet, tells him
Thou, first of the children of men, art come to Mercury, where thou and I will journey up and down for a season to show thee the lands and oceans, the forests, plains, and ancient mountains, cities and palaces of this world, Mercury, and the doings of them that dwell therein. But here thou canst not handle aught, neither make the folk ware of thee, not though thou shout thy throat hoarse. For thou and I walk here impalpable and invisible, as it were two dreams walking.
Those dreams do soon dissipate, and Lessingham and the bird have completely disappeared from the story by the second chapter, having served only as a means of introducing the book’s location and heroes.
There are also the misleading names for the races of humans involved in the conflict, these including Witches, Demons, Goblins, Imps, and Pixies. The protagonists have nothing in common with the familiar conception of such beings although just once—in the first chapter—there is mention of horns on the heads of the Demons (Brandoch Daha’s are “dyed with saffron, and inlaid with filigree work of gold”), but this is then forgotten, going the same way as Lessingham and his martlet. The use of these incongruous names seems to have its roots in Eddison’s childhood, for there is in existence an 1892 exercise book of his, The Book of Drawings, in which this nomenclature occurs and in which basic early versions of some of the characters and also some of the scenes from The Worm are portrayed.
For many readers, the main stumbling block on initially approaching The Worm is the prose in which it is written. The language of the narrative is ornate and archaic, a mixture of Shakespearian and Jacobean, but which has a rhythm uniquely its own and which is one of the key aspects that make it such a great novel. Once the reader settles into the cadences of the language, he will find it difficult to escape its effect, which is so powerful and hypnotic that he can at times easily find himself thinking in the same idiom with similarly structured phrases; when the lure of the writing style has fully worked its spell, its smooth elegance becomes a major attraction rather than a distracting annoyance. Clearly it is the only way in which Eddison could properly have done justice to his grand tale. Certainly the book needs careful attention—it is not something to be rushed through but is instead a dish to savor slowly so that its impact can be fully enjoyed.
The heroes of The Worm are Juss, his two brothers Spitfire and Goldry Bluszco, and their cousin Brandoch Daha, lords of “many-mountained” Demonland. They are noble, courageous, and principled; their bitter enemies from “waterish” Witchland are led by the evil King Gorice XII, and include Corinius and Corsus, treacherous, devious, and base, and Corund and Laxus, good men fighting for the wrong side, while the exiled Goblin Lord Gro has loyalties that are subject to change, and he seems fated to follow what appear to be doomed causes. They are all larger than life, and as Orville Prescott says in the introduction to the 1952 edition, “even the villains are heroic in their monumental villainy.”
The Witches seek to control the world and obliterate the Demons, having already betrayed them at the naval battle at Kartadza Sound, leaving them to fight the final crucial battle against the man-eating Ghouls alone. Gorice XI is then killed by Goldry Bluszco in the Foliot Isles in a mighty “wrastling” match despite the King’s underhanded attempts at cheating. He is immediately replaced by Gorice XII, whose magical sending then sees Goldry spirited away by a demon. Juss has a magical dream telling him that he can find his brother on the distant mountain of Koshtra Belorn, and he and Brandoch Daha set off to rescue him, a task they eventually achieve on their second valiant attempt. In the meantime, the Witches have taken advantage of their absence to invade and ravage Demonland, but when Brandoch Daha and the two brothers return to join forces with Spitfire once more, the tide of the war inexorably turns. In desperation, Gorice resorts to one final massive conjuring in his Iron Tower at Carcë....
Such broad details fail to even hint at the glorious descriptive passages that so embellish the storyline or the intricate developments and elaborate machinations of the plot or the many memorable scenes scattered throughout the forceful narrative. These include the atmospheric siege of mist-shrouded Eshgrar Ogo; Juss’s harrowing and bloody battle with a mantichore on the grim slopes of Ela Mantissera; the scaling of the tallest mountain in the world, the hostile peak of Kostra Pivrarcha; the rescue of Goldry Bluszco from his grim imprisonment at Zora Rach nam Psarrion; the epic battles at Krothering and Carcë; and of course the remarkable way in which the book ends.
All of the main characters, Demons and Witches alike, are proud, arrogant and self-centered, seeming to care little for the many hundreds of lives lost in the violent battles fought across the land which have very few survivors but always ample reinforcements. Each race has a lust for fighting, but the fundamental difference between them is that the Witches are vindictive, boastful, and aggressive, resorting to dark sorcery to achieve their aims, while the Demons are more dignified and less antagonistic, preferring to use magic lightly and fight chivalrously. When a less than honorable course of action is suggested to Brandoch Daha, his reaction is immediate: “did any man with serious intent dare bid me do a dastard deed, he should have my sword through the dearest part of’s body.” However, as the dramatic and unforgettable end approaches, we do see that peace is an uneasy option to them. As Gorice perceptively says to Juss at Carcë, “war is to thee thy pearl and thy paramour.”
The Demons tend to be fascinating but lacking any real depth. For Eddison, Demonland itself takes center stage, and his Lords are symbolic of its values; they contribute to the drive of the story but are incidental to it rather than shaping it with their individual personas. The four Lords are archetypes that could easily have been amalgamated into one or two, but by having more than may seem necessary, Eddison was able to bring more varied incident to his narrative and compress it within the same time frame: simultaneously, Goldry suffers infernal imprisonment in a citadel of brass on Zora Rach, Juss and Brandoch Daha travel the unhallowed landscapes of Impland to climb forbidding mountains, and Spitfire battles heavy odds in Demonland, winning on the Rapes of Brima before being heavily defeated at Thremnir’s Heugh and Switchwater Way.
The Witches show more variety of character. Witchland itself is not depicted as an entity in its own right, and consequently its master represents all that Demonland is opposing. Gorice is malevolent to the core and agelessly evil, for as Juss discovers from Queen Sophonisba in Koshtra Belorn, all of the Gorices are the same person—on death, his essence is transported to a new body to become the next King. Of his major lieutenants, there is the murderous Corsus, the valiant Corund, and the intriguing turncoat Lord Gro, but most notably there is also Corinius, an impressively original creation, amoral and reckless, a man who has one of the most memorable lines in the book—as Brandoch Daha attempts to comfort him as he lies dying, Corinius with his last breath still manages an insult, referring to his sacking of Brandoch Daha’s castle—“How look thy womanish gew-gaws in Krothering since I towsed ’em?”
Lesser players also stand out—La Fireez, the Demons’ salvation when they are held captive in Carcë; the three great generals Zeldornius, Helteranius, and Jalcanaius Fostus, doomed to follow a circular route pursuing each others’ armies around Impland but never able to catch and confront their enemy; Mivarsh Faz, whose obsession that he will die at the jaws of a crocodile proves to be the very impetus that brings that about; King Gaslark, whose improvident actions include arriving a day too early to reinforce the Demons at Krothering and thus being beaten by Corinius, who is then able to defeat Spitfire at Switchwater Way; the unsung Bremery of Shaws, who with just seventy men holds Galing against the might of the Witches’ forces until Spitfire arrives; and Arnod of Holt, whose graphic description of the battle of Krothering Side is one of the book’s many highlights.
In such a masculine world, there are, however, some surprisingly strong female characters. There is the manipulative and scheming Shivra; the splendid Prezmyra, whose poignant final scene underlines her inherent dignity and which is amongst the best in the book; Mevrian, whom men find far too easy to love but who never returns their love; and the immortal Queen Sophonisba, who is to have a shattering impact in the final analysis.
The war in Demonland is depicted with astute pacing and a gripping vigor as the battles turn first one way and then another, but with the Witches remaining in the ascendancy until at last, two of the three missing Lords return. Then Brandoch Daha leads seven hundred men over the mountains at night in fearsome weather to attack Corinius from the rear while Juss launches a frontal assault in the decisive battle of Krothering Side.
Having driven out the invading Witches after this victory, the rescue of Goldry Bluszco from his imprisonment on Zora Rach finally completes the foursome and gives Demonland its true strength, In the aftermath of the loss at Thremnir’s Heugh, Volle had told Spitfire “Thy brethren will come home again: doubt it not,” and Mevrian mused that “were they at home ... thou shouldst not see outlanders insulting in arms on Krothering Side.” This is the key as far as the Demons are concerned, for the whole in this instance is unquestionably greater than the sum of its parts and it is only when the four lords at last reunite that Demonland is complete again and can take the battle confidently and positively to the enemy. First they defeat the superior enemy fleet in the Straits of Melikaphkhaz and then, with the Demons very much on the front foot, they attack Carcë. This is compellingly depicted and finely balanced to the very end, as Gorice’s disastrous final conjuring combines with betrayal and death amongst his commanders.
The book’s conclusion is extraordinary. Unexpected but completely appropriate and fitting, it presents a final two sentences that will long remain in the reader’s mind. It also demonstrates that the Worm of the title is not only the symbol on Gorice’s signet ring but an icon that encapsulates the circular and never-ending nature of the tale.
Further books set on “Mercury” followed: the Zimiamvia trilogy, comprising Mistress of Mistresses (1935), A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), and The Mezentian Gate (unfinished, but published in 1958). However well written as they certainly are, these books lack the sheer exuberant gusto of the world of The Worm, although the author was not trying to emulate that epic but going in a somewhat different direction. But as Juss tellingly says when looking at the fabled land of Zimiamvia from the heights of Koshtra Belorn, “I had rather row on Moonmere under the stars of a summer’s night than be a King of all the land of Zimiamvia.” More in keeping with the tenor of The Worm was the previously mentioned Styrbiorn the Strong from 1926, a historical novel set in the time of the Vikings, but the lack of any significant supernatural element, monstrous creatures, or fancifully embellished locales means that ultimately it cannot compete or compare.
But then again, nothing can. It is worth repeating the earlier quotation from James Stephens: “from whatever heaven Mr. Eddison came, he has added a masterpiece to English literature.” The word “masterpiece” is much overused, but in this instance Stephens was absolutely right—The Worm Ouroboros is an incomparable classic, and yes, a masterpiece without question.
Mike Barrett lives in Wilmington, Kent.