The Worm Ouroboros: A User’s Guide

The Worm Ouroboros

by E.R.Eddison

1972, Pan/Ballantine, 520 pages.

This book is so much better than it ought to be. Its faults are many. It opens with an almost pointless ‘induction’ and virtually admits itself as nothing but a dream. It apparently takes place on Mercury, though the venue bears no relationship to the planet we know, or that was known in 1926, which is when the copyright page suggests the book first appeared. Even once we get to Mercury, the story seems to take forever to gather momentum. It relates a battle between ‘Demons’, ‘Witches’, ‘Imps’ and the like, which sounds like a nursery rhyme, especially given the cartoonish names (people and places) like Fax Fay Faz, Melikaphkhaz, Eshgrar Ogo and Spitfire. The heroes are elitist war-mongers. The plot is weighted down by the author’s liking for lengthy descriptions of architecture, and is told in an idiosyncratic prose that smacks of some time past (a bibliography in the back gives sources for the verses and songs scattered through the text, and most come from within a few years of 1600, which probably offers a useful guide).

Obligatory cover scan.

Obligatory cover scan.

Yet I would without hesitation rate it as one of the handful of greatest fantasy stories I have ever read, and probably the greatest fantasy adventure, for adventure it is. The obvious comparison is with The Lord of the Rings, but the books are very different. Eddison is not interested in little people, and relatively uninterested in mythology. His baddies are not evil, in the way that Morgoth and Sauron come to embody evil, so much as naughty and callous. War is simply how one gets what one wants, be it money, power, land, women or glory. Eddison’s villains are the better. His language is richer and stranger — and more demanding.

So, be warned, there are a couple of simple rules you need to follow to appreciate this book, if you can be bothered. A hint is given in the dedication, where the author states:

“It is neither allegory nor fable but a Story to be read for its own sake.”

It is also a story written for its own sake. Eddison makes no allowances for the commercial realities of publishing. He had a vision, one apparently born in his mind’s eye when he was a boy, and embellished it for years. The book is therefore uncompromising, as much so as Ulysses or The Unnameable.

So the rules are:
(1) Be patient and keep reading. Get at least past ‘Conjuring in the Iron Tower’ before yelling ‘Aww nuts’ and throwing the book across the room.
(2) Even though the story moves a little slowly at first, don’t read too quickly until you have a good ear for the language. Here is a literally random sample — a relatively plain passage, as it turns out: ‘For four days they journeyed through deep woods carpeted with the leaves of a thousand autumns, where at midmost noon twilight dwelt among hushed woodland noises, and solemn eyeballs glared nightly between the tree-trunks, gazing on the Demons as they marched or took their rest.’ Dialogue tends to be more flowery. A random sample: ‘”Madam, I am a soldier. Truly mine affection standeth not upon compliment. That I am impatient, put the wite on thy beauty not on me. Pray you, be seated.”‘
(3) There is a mindset you might need to coax yourself into. These heroes are not modern in conception. They are more like Achilles and Hector than Harry Potter and Thomas Covenant. Forget about egalitarianism and equality and self-doubt. These heroes are not mere men. They are blessed by high birth and godly physique — and are favoured by the Gods. They are anointed by destiny to live larger than the rest of us, and they pay us no mind; even, perhaps especially, the heroes of the book are not terribly likeable the way a protagonist of a modern piece of commercial fiction would be expected to be. The world consists of them and cannon fodder. I found this quite hard to get used to.
(4) Demons. Witches. Imps. Goblins. They are just nations or kingdoms, and the names imply nothing about their physical appearance — there might be a couple of references to horns on the demons, but that’s about it. Again, you may have to train yourself to look past the terms. They do get in the way.
(5) If you like such things, there are some maps of the world Eddison created, deduced from the text by keen readers, and available for a cheap websearch.
(6) Maybe read it again a year or two later. I enjoyed the second reading more than the first.

Now, I generally avoid plot summaries, and I’m not going to give one here. But to try to indicate the spirit of the book… well… this is a mighty tussle between warriors, men who live for battle, relish a fight, love a beautiful woman wherever they find her, and count a day wasted if their lives were not imperiled. The villains are gloriously villainous, the heroes gloriously dashing, though arrogant, and every women is beautiful and brilliant, though they are kept in their place. The set pieces, particularly the Ascent of Koshtra Belorn and the Battle of Krothering Side, remain vivid long after the book is put down. The rank and file soldiers fall and die unheeded, merely there to help our heroes and their enemies manifest their prowess.

There are feats of magic and of strength; great battles won and lost; powerful men brought low; trusts betrayed; and women loved, lost and discarded — and avenged.

Eddison grasps, I suspect intuitively, one of the most important rules for writing epic nonsense: You must have great heroes, but even greater villains. While the King of Witchland, Gorice, is the ultimate force behind the baddies, in closer focus are Corund, Corsus and Corinius, of whom the latter two are magnificently unpleasant and the former oddly likeable and sympathetic. And in the middle of it all is Lord Gro, the traitor, and perhaps the realest figure in the book. He is worth meeting.

As I read it I could not help but think of the The Lord of the Rings movies. The book as it stands is unfilmable — every line of dialogue would have to be rewritten, half the characters and all the nations would need their names altered so that the audience does not laugh inappropriately, massive cuts would be needed near the start. But the story cries out for the same dramatic scenery, the same expansive treatment and swooping cameras we saw in LOTR. I want to see Koshtra Belorn in IMAX 3D or whatever the most vertigo-inducing technology going around might be. And by God it would entertain. And it’s so old there would be no bickering about rights — I’m pretty sure it’s in the public domain. I think you can find it on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.

This is a book unlike any other. That gets said often but in this case it is true. I struggled through the first 100 pages the first time I read it. But if you can buy into its world view and get into the rhythms of the prose — as noted in the introduction by James Stephens, it is the only language that could do justice to such a tale — it will entertain like few others.

Eddison also wrote a trilogy, the Zimiamvian Trilogy. It shares some qualities with this book but is also quite different. I suggest reading around the trilogy before you (decide not to) take the plunge; it is even more of an acquired taste and, to be honest, I fear I have failed to acquire it.

(Oh, and you can get The Worm Ouroboros for free here and here and many other places. My paperback has two introductions, a bibliography, and a chronology (‘Argument: with Dates’). It is also littered with illustrations and other decorations, so paper versions have their benefits.)

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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