The Worm Ouroboros by E R Eddison

cover to the 1991 Dell edition, by Tim Hildebrandt

cover to the 1991 Dell edition, by Tim Hildebrandt

It’s hard to think of E R Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros as being published in 1922. How can any character — and the most heroic of the novel’s heroes, no less — say, with such regret, so close to the end of the horrors of the First World War, ‘we, that fought but for fighting’s sake, have in the end fought so well we never may fight more’? But, when you consider the elements that make up this mercurial novel, it can, perhaps, be understood as a response to the First World War, though not, for instance, in the same way as T S Eliot’s The Waste Land (also published in 1922). The Waste Land tried to capture a world shattered into meaningless fragments; The Worm can be seen as trying to contain all the things that made the world into a meaningful whole before the war — at least, the things that made it a meaningful whole for Eddison — in an act of what Tolkien thought of as the key function of fantasy: Recovery.

Tolkien called Eddison ‘the greatest and most convincing writer of “invented worlds”’, but criticised him for his ‘slipshod nomenclature’. In contrast, Rider Haggard, writing to Eddison to thank him for a copy of The Worm, said, ‘What a wonderful talent you have for the invention of names.’ And Eddison surely can out-Dunsany Lord Dunsany in the coining of lyrical, evocative, fantastical names: Zajë Zaculo, Jalcanaius Fostus, the Salapanta Hills, Krothering, Fax Fay Faz, Melikaphkaz, Queen Sophonisba, as well as a very homely clutch of English-sounding place-names such as Owlswick, Lychness, Elmerstead, and Throwater, all found in Demonland. And it is, no doubt, that ‘Demonland’ that Tolkien found so grating, along with the other names Eddison chose for his peoples: the Witches, the Imps, the Goblins, the Pixies.

Cover to Laura Miller's The Magician's BookUnlike Tolkien, who grew his secondary world from a single seed (his invented languages), in The Worm Eddison used something closer to C S Lewis’s omnigatherum approach to world-building, where every fragment of myth, folklore, fairy tale and daydream Lewis liked was thrown into the Narnian cauldron without any particular care for consistency, driven by what Laura Miller, in The Magician’s Book, termed so wonderfully ‘readerly desire’. Eddison did the same, mixing the characters that populated his boyhood stories (and illustrations) with an adult enthusiasm for Homer, Norse saga, and Jacobean tragedy.

If The Worm Ouroboros has a flaw, for me, it’s that some of these elements don’t quite mix. The heroes, the lords of Demonland, are action heroes, straight out of boyhood daydreams. They’re defined entirely by what they’re up against: by the fiercely-contested battles they fight, by the impossible mountains they climb, by the terrifying monsters they face, and, most of all, by the dastardliness of their enemies.

The_Worm_Ouroboros_book_coverBut their enemies, the Witches, are of a different order. They aren’t characters from boyhood daydreams, but from Jacobean tragedy. Selfish, cruel, envious, mocking, deceptive, cunning, and destructive they may be, but at least they have the passions, lusts, angers and jealousies that drive them to such nefarious plots, counterplots, and dastardlinesses. The Demons are undeniably the heroes of The Worm Ouroboros, being the most admirable in the actions they perform, but after a while their company can get a bit boring. Not because they lack for wonders to witness or heroic deeds to accomplish, but because that’s all they do — witness wonders and accomplish heroic deeds — things even Lord Dunsany, in a story such as ‘The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth’, can spin out for only so long. The Witches — well, put them alone together in one room, and they’ll soon play out countless dramas, before killing one another in the cruellest ways. The Demons are heroic but one-dimensional; the Witches are unheroic, unadmirable, but at least interesting.

Conjuring in the Iron Tower, illustration by Keith Henderson

Conjuring in the Iron Tower, illustration by Keith Henderson

Although the two sides clash many times on the battlefield, the real collision point for this oil-and-water mix is, I think, when the Demons, having broken into the Witchland stronghold of Carcë, find only Queen Prezmyra left alive. The ever-honourable Demons assure her she’ll be treated honourably and restored to queenhood in her native land, but she throws their words back at them. Everyone who ever mattered to her has just been killed. The Demons express regret, but you can’t help feeling they don’t actually know what regret is. There’s a feeling of a boy’s game gone horribly wrong. Then Prezmyra joins her loved ones, and it’s all forgotten.

There is, though, a hint of the The Waste Land in The Worm. When Lord Juss climbs the immense mountain Zora Rach Nam Psarrion (a ‘mountain of affliction and despair’), to the citadel of brass where his brother Goldry Bluzsco is held, he glimpses something of Eliot’s existential — and Lovecraft’s cosmic — dread, feeling ‘a death-like horror as of the houseless loneliness of naked space, which gripped him at the heart.’ When he finds his brother apparently lifeless, the despair deepens:

‘…it was as if the bottom of the world were opened and truth laid bare: the ultimate Nothing… He bowed his head as if to avoid a blow, so plain he seemed to hear somewhat within him crying with a high voice and loud, “Thou art nothing. And all thy desires and memories and loves and dreams, nothing. The little dead earth-louse were of greater avail than thou, were it not nothing as thou art nothing. For all is nothing: earth and sky and sea and they that dwell therein. Nor shall this illusion comfort thee, if it might, that when thou art abolished these things shall endure for a season, stars and months return, and men grow old and die, and new men and women live and love and die and be forgotten. For what is it to thee, that shalt be as a blown-out flame? And all things in earth and heaven, and things past and things for to come, and life and death, and the mere elements of space and time, of being and not being, all shall be nothing unto thee; because thou shalt be nothing, for ever.”

Yet, a moment later the despair begins to lift:

‘In this black mood of horror he abode for awhile, until a sound of weeping and wailing made him raise his head, and he beheld a company of mourners walking one behind another about the brazen floor, all cloaked in funeral black, mourning the death of Lord Goldry Bluszco. And they rehearsed his glorious deeds and praised his beauty and prowess and goodliness and strength: soft women’s voices lamenting, so that the Lord Juss’s soul seemed as he listened to arise again out of annihilation’s Waste, and his heart grew soft again, even unto tears.’

So, it’s a story that brings Juss back from despair, the story of Goldry Bluzsco’s heroic deeds. And perhaps this is what Eddison, too, was doing after the ‘mountain of affliction and despair’ that was the First World War — telling a story of heroic deeds, and using it to luxuriate in a cultured, poetic language, and in oodles of bejewelled detail, as if to remind himself, and the entire waste-landed world, of what life was supposed to be about.

Worm_DelReyEddison’s version of what life’s supposed to be about, though, is a somewhat refined taste. His ideal was the heroic aristocrat, one whose great deeds defied death and despair through sheer vivacity, and who lived a life of fine things in luxurious surroundings. In Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, Moorcock & Cawthorn say, of Eddison, ‘Seldom has any author conveyed so convincingly the sheer joy of being consciously a hero’, but also point out that his heroes ‘are a fine, full-blooded crew with a truly aristocratic disregard for the wider social implications of their deeds.’ Hundreds die in massive battles and it doesn’t matter, but when Goldry Bluzsco is taken away, the world itself seems to weep.

Eddison’s Mercury is a fine reminder of what life is supposed to be about, yes, but only if you’re one of the heroes. However, this is a fantasy, so perhaps there’s room enough on Mercury for everyone to be a hero. That is, after all, how fantasy works.

Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore

Catherine Lucille Moore wrote six tales featuring her sorcery-fighting swordsmistress Jirel of Joiry, published in Weird Tales between October 1934 (“Black God’s Kiss”) and April 1939 (“Hellsgarde”). The second, “Black God’s Shadow”, appeared in the December 1934 issue alongside Robert E Howard’s “A Witch Shall Be Born”, the story in which a crucified Conan bites back at a vulture.

Weird Tales, October 1934

Margaret Brundage cover to Weird Tales, showing Jirel of Joiry and the Black God

Impetuous, fearless and undaunted by danger, Jirel shares many characteristics with her sword and sorcery stablemate, but her stories are nothing like Conan’s. In each adventure, having been set up as a dynamic “female warrior queen and spitfire of the fifteenth century” (as Sam Moskowitz puts it), Jirel is usually plunged straight into the sort of situation where her physical prowess and combat skills count for nothing. The classic Jirel of Joiry tale, after a brief and deftly sketched actionful introduction, has her being transported to another realm, usually a highly surreal one, where magic and dream-logic replace the straightforward adventure-style jinx you expect from sword & sorcery. This makes Jirel something of a puzzle. Whereas Conan cuts through the pretensions (and the major arteries) of sorcerers, priests and eldritch things with brute force and barbaric common sense, the situations Jirel finds herself in can usually only be solved by fighting fire with fire — by finding some ally, or some weapon, as magically powerful and dangerous as the opponent she’s facing. This means her adventures can feel somewhat arbitrary, bookended as they are by magics that both get her into a fix and out of it. But it’s between these points Jirel’s real heroism comes to the fore, and it’s heroism of a strange sort, though one she shares with most 20th century pulp-style heroes from Conan to James Bond. Although, when you think of, say, Conan or Bond as heroes, you think of their way with a sword, a gun, or a fist, or their general ability at taking down a villain, the point at which these pulpsters really prove their heroism is usually a moment in which they’re being helplessly tortured or tormented — think of Conan nailed to that cross in “A Witch Shall Be Born”, or Bond making his way through Dr No’s torturous and tortuous obstacle course on his way to a date with a giant squid (or the line everyone remembers from Goldfinger: “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die!”). Moore seems to have refined this moment to make it the centrepiece — almost the entire tale, in fact — of her Jirel stories. As Moorcock & Cawthorn put it in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books:

“C. L. Moore excels in the evocation of a pervasive, miasmic atmosphere of evil. This is achieved to a great degree by her descriptions of the distress and degradation evinced by its victims…”

Jirel of Joiry“Black God’s Kiss” starts breathlessly, with Jirel of Joiry already captured and being brought before her gloating conqueror Guillaume, who has just seized control of Castle Joiry. Delighted to find Joiry’s commander is a woman, he forces a kiss, then has her sent to a dungeon. Jirel, fired up with the need for revenge, travels to another dimension to find a means of getting her own back. Fortunately, Castle Joiry has a House on the Borderland-style trapdoor in its lowest cellar, a strange corkscrew helter-skelter passage to a black-lit world of nightmare visions. The bulk of the story is Jirel’s combined horror and awe as she crosses this land in search of a weapon to revenge herself on Guillaume. She witnesses a stream of weird and frightening sights, but at no point is she required to do anything but witness them:

“Half-way across, she saw one of the white blotches approaching her with slow, erratic movements. It bumped along unevenly, and at first she thought it might be inanimate, its approach was so indirect and purposeless. Then it blundered nearer, with that queer bumpy gait, making sucking noises in the ooze and splashing as it came. In the starlight she saw suddenly what it was, and for an instant her heart paused and sickness rose overwhelmingly in her throat. It was a woman — a beautiful woman whose white bare body had the curves and loveliness of some marble statue. She was crouching like a frog, and as Jirel watched in stupefaction she straightened her legs abruptly and leaped as a frog leaps, only more clumsily, falling forward into the ooze a little distance beyond the watching woman. She did not seem to see Jirel. The mud-spattered face was blank. She blundered on through the mud in awkward leaps…”

This realm Jirel has slipped into seems rather Freudian — that degraded woman hopping frog-like through a swamp could be an image of Jirel’s shame at Guillaume’s treatment, but also a sort of reversed fairy tale transformation, with the dark anti-prince kissing our human heroine and turning her into a frog.

Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore, Stephen Hickman cover

Jirel of Joiry by C L Moore, Stephen Hickman cover

Jirel travels to the centre of this weird realm, and finds a one-eyed statue of the Black God. Kissing it (as she feels compelled to do), she feels “something cold and stunning; something alien beyond any words” enter her. Returning to her own world, she repays her degradation by passing Guillaume the “dreadful, cold bleakness” of the Black God’s kiss — and then, in a very un-Conan-like twist, realises too late that beneath the humiliation and anger she felt attracted to this powerful man. The second tale, “Black God’s Shadow”, sees her trying to right this wrong, and returning to that weirdly black-lit world to free the dead Guillaume.

My main reaction to the Jirel stories is to find them, on the one hand, genuinely weird and wildly imaginative, and on the other, turgid with so many internalised battles with fiercely-felt but abstract emotional tussles, that they were a combination of fantastic thrills and solid drudgery to read. It’s perhaps unfair to quote a sample passage out of context, but this is the sort of thing I mean, when Jirel finds the statue of the Black God:

“Gradually the universal focusing of lines began to exert its influence upon her. She took a hesitant step forward without realising the motion. But that step was all the dormant urge within her needed. With her one motion forward the compulsion closed down upon her with whirlwind impetuosity. Helplessly she felt herself advancing, helplessly with one small, sane portion of her mind she realised the madness that was gripping her, the blind, irresistible urge to do what every visible line in the temple’s construction was made to compel…”

The passion behind even these abstract passages is undoubtable, but it can also feel so much like wading through mud, at times, having to read through so much deeply felt but abstract prose. Sam Moskowitz puts it best, I think, in his chapter on Moore in Seekers of Tomorrow:

“The climax of each story found Northwest Smith [Moore’s other series hero] or Jirel of Joiry in the formless haze of spiritual battle with the unknown. The plot situations were rarely solved by a logical sequence of events, but instead by a burst of rhetorical hypnotism.”

A young C L Moore, from the Teller of Weird Tales blog

A young C L Moore, from the Tellers of Weird Tales blog

Jirel’s adventures feel shamanic. She passes from this world to another, to face some magical evil in a world where none of the logic of this one applies — and so none of the usual action-story resolutions can be applied, either. Perhaps it’s wrong-footing to think of them as sword & sorcery because, although the Jirel of Joiry tales do include swords and sorcery, the swords and the sorcery almost never meet. In fact, the thing the Jirel stories remind me of most are fever dreams — something I thought of only when I read that, when she was young, Moore suffered from ill-health and had to spend a lot of time bed-bound, which is where she developed her love of imaginative stories.

It’s the flashes of (often horrific) imagination for which I’ll remember these tales — as at the beginning of perhaps the best of them, “Hellsgarde”, where Jirel approaches a mist-shrouded castle, expecting it to be abandoned, and finds herself confronted with a small troop of motionless soldiers. Then she realises: the guards are dead, propped into a standing position by having their own spears driven through their throats. She rides gently between them, then:

“Was that motion among the ghastly guard? Her heart leaped to her throat and she gripped the saddle between nervous knees with a sudden reflex action that made the horse shudder. For one of the men in the row before her was slipping silently toward the flagstones. Had the spear-butt slid on the bloody tiles? Had a breeze dislodged his precarious balance? There was no breeze. But with a curious little sigh from collapsing lungs he folded gently downward to his knees, to his side, to a flattened proneness on the stones. And a dark stream of blood trickled from his mouth to snake across the pavement as he lay there… Only in a nightmare could such things happen.”

Only in a nightmare, or in the stories of C L Moore.

Witch Wood by John Buchan

I bought James Cawthorn & Michael Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books in a sale back in 1992, and have carried on a sort of book-by-book conversation with it ever since. I don’t know if I intend to read every one of its suggested hundred — I’ve just ticked off my 59th with John Buchan’s Witch Wood — but I’m often referring to it, wondering if this or that title has made the Cawthorn & Moorcock grade, or browsing it for reading suggestions. One thing I have come to learn is that their definition of fantasy is not necessarily mine (Moby Dick, for instance), nor is their definition of best (L Sprague de Camp’s Tritonian Ring, for instance), but that’s the fun of such lists. They’re only annoying if you forget they’re just one (or in this case two) person’s opinion and expect them to be in some way definitive.

Witch Wood (published in 1927) was Buchan’s favourite of his own novels (The Thirty-Nine Steps being everyone else’s). It’s set in the mid-seventeenth century, in rural Scotland, where a young minister, David Sempill, has just taken up a post in the kirk of Woodilee. There’s plenty of thick Scots dialogue (“Haste ye, sir, and help me off wi’ thae Babylonish garments, and that weskit o’ airn — what for sud folk gang to the smith for cleading and no to a wabster?”), and plenty of Scots Jacobean religio-politics. The edition I read had a three-page glossary at the back to help with some of the dialect, but as often as not it didn’t have the words I was looking up. (The second part of the above line, by the way, translates as: “why should folk go to a smith for their clothing, and not to a weaver?”) The politics, which I tried to skim past at first, eventually required a brief trip to Wikipedia to get through — Buchan was, after all, of that educated class that expected its readers to understand Latin, and have a far more detailed knowledge of the country’s history than modern readers (and I’m shamefully ignorant of everything Blue Peter never taught me). But the story itself was compelling, though it wasn’t till the penultimate chapter that it really clicked what type of story it was. And knowing what type of story is being told is key, really, to enjoying a book.

So, what type of story is Witch Wood? It earned its place in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s list because of the new minister’s discovery that, as well as attending kirk every Sabbath, a good portion of his parishioners disappear into the wood (the wonderfully named Melanudrigill, or just “the Wud” to the locals, who fear to name it) to take part in Devil-worshipping rites around an old pagan altar. The new minister learns of this practice when, having got lost one night in an attempt to overcome his fear of a place that a man with God on his side ought not to fear, witnesses his flock, masked as animals, dancing round the altar and, in Buchan’s own delicate phrasing, kissing “some part of the leader’s body, nozzling him like dogs on the roadside”. Yes, we all know where witches are supposed to kiss the Devil, thank you very much.

Sempill sets about trying to uncover and denounce the coven, but soon finds himself set against both the superstitious fear of his parishioners, and the bigotry of his kirk elders. This may make it sound like a sort of proto-Wicker Man or historical Devil Rides Out, but although Witch Wood is definitely in the ancestry of both those stories, its emphasis is different. It’s not really a horror novel (though it contains some wonderfully atmospheric description of the Wud at night: “The clouds had thinned and the struggling moon showed Melanudrigill before them, rising and falling like an ocean of darkness.”), nor is it a fantasy novel (part of its denouement could be taken as an act of God, but it might just as well be the effect of conscience, or superstition, and there are no really fantastic occurrences). As well as the Devil-worship plot, there’s a pretty much separable love story, and a subplot involving David Sempill’s agonising over his political allegiances — all of which, for the bulk of the novel, are kept separate, meaning the Devil-worship subplot lies fallow for whole chapters at a time. It was only in the penultimate chapter, when the effect of these three strands come crashing down on the young David Sempill that the book clicked for me and I realised it was really the story of an idealistic young man learning to see the world’s hypocrisy, superstition, and sheer human pig-headedness in all its disillusioning glory. Not a vicar-versus-witches adventure story, then, but something more psychological.

And at this point, it became quite powerful. The previously ingenuous, and often slightly soft-spined Sempill gained a new, dark hardness, which allowed him at last to face up to his foes and deal with them in his own way. (But not, as in another devil-worship-in-rural-Britain story — Blood On Satan’s Claw — by wielding a huge sword. Sempill uses words alone.)

So, not a fantasy book, though certainly one that may appeal to fantasy or horror readers. I’m certainly glad I read it. One more to tick off my Cawthorn & Moorcock list.