I was introduced to this book by the writer Clive S. Johnson, and as new editions of this and the other novels in Eddison’s Zimiamvia series were published in the UK last summer, it seemed like a good opportunity to investigate one of the key writers of Twentieth Century fantasy.
E.R. Eddison was a civil servant at the British Board of Trade when he published what Ursula Le Guin calls his “eccentric masterpiece” in 1922. Inspired by the Icelandic sagas, Homer, and Jacobean drama, The Worm Ouroboros tells the story of the epic battle between two fantastical realms, Witchland and Demonland, for lordship of the earth. It is dark, violent, and many of its characters are essentially two-dimensional – traits often found in fantasy fiction – yet it is written in a florid, over-the-top style which carries the reader along, and seems to delight in its own ridiculousness:
Five nights and five days the Demons and Mivarsh dwelt in Morna Moruna, inured to portents till they marked them as little as men mark swallows at their window. In the still night were flames seen, and flying forms dim in the moonlit air; and in moonless nights unstarred, moans heard and gibbering accents: prodigies beside their beds, and ridings in the sky, and fleshless fingers plucking at Juss unseen when he went forth to make question of the night.
Tolkien greatly admired Eddison’s prose, though he was put off by his politics – there is more than a whiff of the übermensch about the Demonlords, Juss, Spitfire, Brandoch Daha, and Goldry Bluszco – and they’re meant to be the heroes. The villains – the Witches – are arguably more interesting and complex, especially Lord Gro, who betrays his own people, the Goblins, and serves the sorcerer King Gorice XII:
Now the King poured forth wine, speaking a charm over the cup, and when the bright wine had revived Lord Gro, the King spake saying, ‘It is well, O Gro, that thou hast shown thyself a philosopher indeed, and of heart intrepid. Yet even as no blade is utterly tried until one try it in very battle, where if it snap woe and doom wait on the hand that wields it, so must thou in this midnight suffer a yet fiercer furnace-heat of terror…’
In his foreword, Douglas E. Winter writes that, “like a vintage wine a taste for Eddison’s prose is expensively acquired”, but it’s nevertheless well worth imbibing, and when the story is this exciting – heroic feats, mighty battles, hidden kingdoms, beautiful, unearthly women – any qualms the reader may have about the structure of the narrative (especially Eddison’s awkward device of introducing his tale through the time-traveller Edward Lessingham, who may or may not be out of his mind on opium) can be put aside. It is, above all, enormous fun.