Friday, 24 January 2014

E. R. Eddison - The Worm Ouroboros (1922)

The Story
The Worm Ouroboros could be considered the first book of the fantasy genre, it was written in 1922 and uses the old classic myths as templates but tempers them with Arthurian drama and Gaelic superstition. It's a little rough in places and can switch between the old descriptive style "cunning and brave Odysseus knew how to defeat the giant..." to a more modern style of dialogue and pace. 

The Worm Ouroboros is an adventure story filled with impossible quests, sieges and naval battles, honourable deeds and treacherous acts. In shortit is an epic (at 512 pages), in a format reminiscent of The Odyssey

In the world of The Worm Ouroboros, a war for complete dominion over the Earth is underway. The origins of the war lie far behind the book itself, born of old battles, betrayals and the death-throes of long-eradicated kingdoms. The warlords of Demonland, Pixyland, Witchland, Impland and Goblinland now battle for revenge, for the honour of slighted allies and to administer 'justice' for old crimes. 

The names initially seem… childish, but they work fine when you realise that they are actually all human. 

At the beginning of the tale, we meet the three golden lords of Demonland: Juss, Spitfire and Goldry Bluszco. Their adversary, King Gorice XI of Witchland, known for his treacherous nature, sends forth a herald to issue an ultimatum: that the lords of Demonland acknowledge him as their high king or he will invade. Infuriated by the rude proposal, Lord Goldry Bluszco challenges the Witch-king Gorice to a wrestling match and kills him.

Having lost the duel and his life, the spirit of the Witch-king flees his dying body and possesses the body of his own son so that he can retain leadership of Witchland. Aching with injured pride, he immediately begins to plot his revenge on the honourable rulers of Demonland, and in particular Goldry Bluszco, the man who killed him. Gorice, now inhabiting the body of his son (conveniently named Gorice XII), goes to the top of his great alchemical laboratory and, using fell magic, he conjures the primordial world serpent, Ouroboros, forth from the bottomless ocean to kill the three golden lords of Demonland. 

Two of the Demon lords, Juss and Spitfire, are saved from Ouroboros by a talisman that Juss wears, however the great worm manages to capture Goldry, spiriting him away to a land on the far side of the ocean, dragging him up an immense mountain and imprisoning him there atop a great tower.

Thus the epic is set in motion, Juss and his companions must travel to the end of the earth to recover their brother Goldry, but as they embark on their journey, the armies of Witchland strike and a great war erupts as the Witch-king Gorice XII moves to dominate all the world in their absencesoon the great kings of Demonland will have no kingdom to return to. 

The Tasty Bit
OK so the tasty bit of this story is barely a whisper behind the big bang of the Witch-king's summoning. The real event is the great change that the summoning of Ouroboros wreaks across the world. 

So you know, Ouroboros is a great world-serpent that is found in a number of cultures. It is often represented by the image of a snake in the shape of a circle holding its tail in its mouth. It was first found drawn on an ancient funerary slate in ancient Egypt, but has counterparts in Scandinavian, West African, South American and Greek mythology. Ouroboros is often seen as a symbol of eternity, infinity, union and self-destruction. 

When Gorice of Witchland summons the serpent forth, Eddyson's characters become stuck in a sort of personality loop. Like pieces in a great chess game, they move across the world trying to win their battles, but slowly it become obvious that they are walking the same patterns and making the same stupid mistakes again and again, like fairy tale creatures. 

The world changes as Ouroboros rises, becoming a strange, dreamlike environment, and from this point the characters are unable to grow, unable to change, unable to learn. Thus Ouroboros becomes the core around which the entire story revolves—the symbols of the great serpent, eternity and self-destruction, permeate Eddison's world.

The Verdict
I'm a true lover of Shakespeare, so the stylistic language that Eddison useswhich is neither fully Shakespearean nor old English, not Germanic, Arthurian or Welsh, but a mixture of them alldoesn't bother me all that much. Once you get into the swing of the faux-archaic style, the poetry and movement of the words are actually quite lovely. 

With that in mind, it took me two months to finish reading this book, something that hasn't happened to me since I last tried to read Wallace's Infinite Jest. I suspect that the rhythm of the book had something to do with it. The movement of the characters and plot ebbed and flowed strangely, and I didn't break into the rhythm until I was around 200 pages in. 

I am, however, a sucker for alchemy and alchemical accoutrements, mythical creatures and cool baddies, which this tale has in bucketloads. The book will make you work hard, but I would say that it's very-much worth it.  

Recommendation when reading: take each character at their word, they don't have any subtlety to their natures. 

Other Stuff
Good news is that The Worm Ouroboros has been re-published recently by Gollacz's Fantasy Masterworks, so it should be fairly easy to find. It's a neat old image on the cover too, an 1876 gouache painting by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. 

I haven't read any other Eddison as yet, but I'm open to recommendations!