“But Juss answered and said, ‘Know that not for fame are we come on this journey. Our greatness already shadoweth all the world, as a great cedar tree spreading his shadow in a garden. But the great King of Witchland, practising in darkness in his royal palace of Carce such arts of grammarie and sendings magical as the world hath not been grieved with until now, sent an ill thing to take my brother, who is dear to me as mine own soul. And they that dwell in secret sent me word in a dream bidding me, if I would have tidings of my dear brother, inquire in Koshtra Belorn. Therefore, go with us if thou wilt, but if thou wilt not, fare thee well. For nought but my death shall stay me from going thither.'” -E.R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros 1
Like millions of viewers over the last few years, I found myself enthralled by HBO’s spectacular television series, Game of Thrones. Based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, it introduced the world to a brand of fantasy famous for its mix of high production values, compelling themes, and gritty realism.
But once upon a time, fantasy was not a hot commercial property. Toward the turn of the twentieth century, the forces of naturalism had all but conquered the literary landscape. Yet a few wordsmiths had a different vision. Taking inspiration from the imaginative legacy of the Romantic movement, they sought to forge a new type of fiction from myths, fairy tales, and chivalric legends. Writers like William Morris and Lord Dunsany approached the nascent genre with high artistic intentions. Perhaps the most ambitious work of this kind is E.R. Eddison’s 1922 novel The Worm Ouroboros. And Since its publication, generations of delighted readers have taken flight aboard this enchanted chariot of words bound for a Mercury that never was.
The novel begins prosaically enough on Earth. A man named Lessingham sits in his country cottage garden, reading and chatting with his wife, Mary. But their conversation is not long in turning curious as they discuss a mysterious chamber in their house called the Lotus Room. From their oblique hints, we realize that something magical and even dangerous may occur if a person spends the night within those enchanted walls. Lessingham claims that he shall sleep there alone that evening and, in the middle of the night, is whisked away to the first planet in our solar system.
This, of course, is not the Mercury of scientific fact, not a scorched ball of metal and rock whose days are longer than its years. Instead, Lessingham finds himself in a fantasy world of medieval courtiers that blends elements of Homeric myth and Icelandic legends with a unique epic style. Lessingham wanders about as a fly on the wall, for his guide tells him, “here thou canst not handle aught, neither make the folk aware of thee.”2 But, like a dream, he soon fades from the narrative, and we find ourselves caught up in the unfolding drama.
The day is an auspicious one as Lord Juss of Demonland celebrates his birthday. But the festivities are rudely interrupted by an ambassador from King Gorice XI of Witchland who demands that Juss and his brothers present themselves at his castle of Carce to kiss his big toe as a sign of fealty.
Of course, the Demons will have none of this and challenge the king to settle the issue in single combat. The king accepts, but later his courtiers express concern. One of them seeks to dissuade Gorice from this course. “I will not hide it from you, O my Lord the King, that in my sleep about the darkest hour, a dream of the night came to my bed and beheld me with a glance so fell that the hairs of my head stood up and pale terror gat hold upon me. And methought the dream smote up the roof above my bed, and the roof yawned to the naked air of the midnight, that laboured with fiery signs, and a bearded star traveling in the houseless dark. And I beheld the roof and the walls one gore of blood. And the dream screeched like a screech-owl, crying, Witchland from thy hand, O King! And therewith, the whole world seemed lighted in one flame, and with a shout, I awoke sweating from the dream.”3
But the king is adamant, and soon the dream proves prophetic, and he is killed. We might think this is the end of the tale, but Eddison’s magical kingdom is full of mysteries, and we learn that whenever one Gorice is slain, another immediately rises to take his place. As a character later explains, “There is but one Gorice. And by the favour of heaven, this cruel and evil one, every time whether by the sword on in the fullness of years cometh to die, departeth the living soul of him into a new and sound body, and liveth yet another lifetime to vex and oppress the world.”4
By turns erudite, heroic, violent, and strange as any dream, Eddison’s tale gets into our blood like the chorus of the Carmina Burana. The writer demonstrates a gift for creating characters that, though not complex, are memorable and fun. From the noble Lord Juss to his sybaritic cousin Brandoch Daha, the sad, traitorous Lord Gro, or the terrifying and spectral Gorice himself, Eddison peoples his tale of derring-do with heroes that we love and villains that we love to hate.
But perhaps the real hero of this tale is its language. Eddison’s prose is baroque, but the dedicated reader will find themselves well rewarded. Echoes of Shakespeare, Webster, Spenser, and Sidney delight our ears while the novelist’s poetic periods paint out his dreamworld in vibrant colors of epic grandeur.
The Worm Ouroboros has been called a flawed masterpiece. Eddison first conceived of this tale as a young boy, and some elements may strike us as childish. And the alert modern reader will find passages that belie the writer’s racist and sexist assumptions. Despite their protestations that they never do “a dastard deed,” Even the best of the characters in the story demonstrate a kind of ruthless imperialism, thinking nothing of invading and conquering other lands for their own ends.
Yet despite its defects, the novel remains a high watermark in imaginative fiction. I am reminded of Virginia Woolf’s commentary on The Faerie Queene. While we read it, “we live in a great bubble blown from the poet’s brain,”5 and every few years, I find that, like Lessingham, I must sleep alone in the Lotus Room.
- Eddison, E.R., The Worm Ouroboros, Ballantine Books, p.195
2. Eddison, p.8
3. Eddison, p.32
4. Eddison, p.235
5. Woolf, Virginia, The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf, My Books Classics, p.3135
The Rhetorical Kingdom of E.R. Eddison, copyright 2022, Jonathan Golding. All Rights Reserved
Artwork: Illustration by Keith Henderson