E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros makes me wish I could be a novelist in 1922. This was a time, apparently, when one could publish a strange fantasy book written entirely in sixteenth century English, and people would want to read it. This book influenced many fantasy writers to come, including Tolkien, and it’s easy to see why.
Many have criticized the difficulty of the language, and The Worm Ouroboros certainly required more time per page than most narrative fiction. Speed reading this book is not an option. The dialogue, for example, tends to read as such:
“I like not the dirty face of the Ambassador,” said Lord Zigg. “His nose sitteth flat on the face of him as it were a dab of clay, and I can see pat up his nostrils a summer day’s journey into his head. If’s upper lip bespeak him not a rare spouter of rank fustian, perdition catch me. Were it a finger’s breadth longer, a might tuck it into his collar to keep his chin warm of a winter’s night.”
When someone in the story reads a letter, it gets even more complicated, for the lords of Witchland and Demonland have their own unique ways of spelling, and the words must be sounded phonetically in order to understand.
For me, that’s the appeal of this book. The language carries weight, and it sets a tone uniquely suitable for this particular epic. It took a great amount of time to consume each page, but the language made me want to take my time, and to enjoy each phrase. I found myself highlighting passages along the way, not for their meaning, but for their lyrical beauty.
So rowed they till day broke, and a light wind sprang up fresh and keen. Juss waked, and stood up to scan the gray glassy surface of the sea spread to vast distances where sky and water faded into one. Astern, great clouds bridged the gates of day, boiling upwards into crags of wine-dark vapour and burning plumes of sunrise. In the stainless spaces of the sky above these sailed the horned moon, frail and wan as a white foam-flower blown from the waves. Westward, facing the thunder-smoke of dawn, the fine far ridge of Kartadza was like cut crystal against the sky: the first island sentinel of many-mountained Demonland, his topmost cliffs dawn-illumined with pale gold and amethyst while yet the lesser heights lay obscure, lapped in the folds of night. And with the opening day the mists swathing the mountain’s skirts were lifted up in billowy masses that grew and shrank and grew again, made restless by the wayward winds which morning waked in the hollow mountain side, and torn by them into wisps and streamers.
My examples may give the impression that the book is an exercise in evocative imagery and pretentious, flowery dialogue, but The Worm Ouroboros is much more than that. Between the dialogue and imagery, there is action and heroism of epic scale. If you can enjoy the archaic language, it is a fun book from beginning to end. Every time I put it down, I felt a moment of regret and wanted to pick it back up.
Interestingly, E. R. Eddison wrote this book at 40, but the book was based on stories he imagined at the age of 10 (around 1892), and many of the names and conceits never changed. Many of his critics, including Tolkien, have criticized this, but it added to my enjoyment because I could sense that blend of the elaborate, mythical, and mature with the young Eddison’s playfulness and imagination.
Despite my deep enjoyment of the book’s language and narrative, its themes and apparent messages are often sharply contradictory to my own inclinations. War, in The Worm Ouroboros, is not a horrific nightmare, nor even is it a cruel necessity. Instead, it is treated as the instrument of grand deeds and adventure. When the heroes are not fighting or preparing for battle, they are heavy with yearning for it. Without violence, the book seems to say, men become empty vessels, unmoored and lost. A man can ask to achieve no greater than to leave a trailer of bodies before ending in a bloody death at the hands of one’s enemies.
To make matters worse, not all men appear to be capable of grand deeds and heroic character. Great heroism, the book implies, is reserved for the highborn. Never have I read such an unapologetic paean to the aristocracy. While the Lords and Kings send men to die by the tens of thousands—men treated as mere pieces on a game board—the death of a single of those Lords is treated with deep reverence and honor by all. Even when an enemy combatant dies, and even when that enemy combatant dies in a moment of cowardice and betrayal, he is still treated as a great man, worthy of posthumous praise and somber grief. Forget the many thousands who threw themselves at swords in hopeless battles for no other reason than to protect those Lords’ honor.
At one point, a critical piece of the narrative is told from the perspective of a common soldier. One might think this is the time to finally give at least a moment of tribute to the sacrifices of these soldiers. Instead, the soldier relays his utter admiration for the Lords, whose strength, heroics, and brilliance are unparalleled. This soldier treats even himself as merely a cog in the machinery, expendable so long as the Lords breathe and battle.
This is all, somehow, forgivable, given the book’s strengths. We are not reading a mere story of humanity and its struggles; we’re reading a myth, set in a world where dangerous and compelling demigods walk and rule, concerned only with their own need for glory and affirmation in blood and battle. As such, no other book has so transported me to its alien land. The unwavering honor of the demons is infectious and likable as the Lords of Demonland set aside every defensive impulse in the monomaniacal pursuit of a lost brother—and the love and devotion between brothers are about as endearing as I’ve come across. The witches are fun, balancing the occasionally bravery and heroics with internecine bickering, martial wit, and the occasional dark magics.
There were some confusing and inconsistent bits that I found perplexing. The story is set within a framework that was abandoned after a few chapters, never to return. This isn’t possibly an oversight, which tells me that an intentional creative choice was made, and yet it seems an odd one. Much has been made by his critics about the abandonment of the framework, but the more I consider it, the more I believe that choice, in itself, has some meaning…or perhaps Eddison wanted his readers to speculate and make their own interpretations—which they have.
Despite my criticisms, The Worm Ouroboros affected me in some profound and ineffable way. Yes, its violence was glorified without apology, and the aristocracy was shamelessly romanticized, but the underlying goodness and honor of the demons of Demonland moved me, and the prose kept me deeply immersed. This is a book that I will read again.