Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Worm Ouroboros

High ranking British civil servants from the 1920's and 30's are not generally known for their flights of fancy, but that's exactly what Eric Rucker Eddison, author of some of the most amazing pre-Tolkien epics, was.

I'd never heard of The Worm Ouroboros before starting this challenge. I'd seen it, but never picked it up before. The title conjured up images of a Conanesque tale with a mighty thewed, fur clad hero creeping through caves and catacombs, sword in hand, looking for a monster (the worm or 'wyrm' of the title) who was terrifying the locals. The Worm Ouroboros does have the mighty thews and some of the heroes wear furs, most of them carry dirty great swords that are lovingly described down to the very last detail. Robert Jordan has nothing on Eddison in the intricate description stakes. The rest of it, though, I was way off the mark there. The Worm (based on the Norse legend of the mighty world encompassing snake that swallows it's own tail) never actually appears in the book, it's the design of a signet ring that seems to give the near immortal villain of the piece; King Gorice of Witchland, power.

The story is set on Mercury, which has prompted some to call it a form of planetary romance, but the Mercury of Eddison's saga has more in common with Middle-earth than it does with the second planet from the Sun. It's rather like Eddison found every form of mythology and legend he could and tried to pack them into the one story. There's bit of Norse and Celtic legend and mythology in there. The Arabs get a look in as well. Readers encounter Demons, Witches, Imps, Pixys, Ghouls, there's gryphons and basilisks, there's even a talking bird based on a heraldic device.

The plot is fairly basic. Lord Goldry Bluszco of Demonland beats King Gorice XI of Witchland in a wrestling (the author calls it wrastling, which kept making me think of Hulk Hogan taking on Randy Savage) match and inadvertently kills him. This sparks off a war between the two superpowers of Mercury and that takes up most of the rest of the book. Matters are complicated by the devious Imp lord Gro, who seems to delight in protracting the fight. For love he eventually throws his lot in with the Demons and dies nobly.

Like a number of the older fantasies The Worm Ouroboros is big on description, Eddison's command of the language and his descriptive pieces are top notch, and I'd be surprised if Tolkien wasn't inspired in part by some of them. However the character and plot development suffer at the expense. I didn't get to really know any of the characters and therefore didn't much care what happened to them. Due to Eddison's use of archaic Jacobean language I had trouble picking the characters apart, to the extent that the females spoke exactly the same as the males. The insistence on using Jacobean language made the book fairly hard to understand and in fact to read for a modern reader, the passages with letters or excerpts from books were done in Middle Ages English and were virtually unintelligible. There was also the issue of beginning with using a native of Earth; Lessingham, as a narrator with the help of a martlet, but he seemed to have been forgotten by about the third chapter and was never mentioned again. I assume the poor bloke is still kicking about there up on Mercury.

It was an interesting read and modern day readers owe E.R Eddison a great debt, because it was writers like him who broke the ground for Tolkien and Lewis. Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg and Clive Barker have all been admirers of his work.

If you wanted to read something similar, but more accessible I'd advise you to look at some of L. Sprague De Camp's and Fletcher Pratt's Harold Shea Incompleat Enchanter books which do cover similar ground when Shea visits worlds like that of Spenser's Faerie Queene. There's also Edgar Rice Burroughs Princess of Mars, which I know is classified as science fiction, but Eddison's Mercury is about as scientific as Burrough's Mars is.

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