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.

Mary Rose by J M Barrie

MaryRoseMary Rose is, literally, a sinister play: right-handed J M Barrie, suffering writer’s cramp, wrote it with his left hand. It is, in a way, the anti-Peter Pan, dealing not with the wonderful adventures of children in Never Never Land, but with the loss felt by those left behind — an adult play, rather than one for children, and a post-World War play, too, rather than one set in the Arcadian Edwardian era of long, golden summers.

It starts with a young man, Harry, visiting the house he used to live in before he ran away to sea at the age of 12. Now empty and a long time on the market, the house is reputed to be haunted, though its stony caretaker, Mrs Otery, is not to be drawn on the matter. The second act gives us the back-story: when she was eleven, a young girl called Mary Rose disappeared, for twenty days, on a small island in the Hebrides, where she had been sketching whilst her father fished. Her parents were frantic; but then Mary Rose returned thinking only a few hours had passed. As a grown-up woman she apparently remembers nothing of the incident, though feels a vague fondness for the island. She tries to convince her husband-to-be Simon to spend their honeymoon there. He, having been told what happened, thinks better of it, until several years into their marriage, by which time they have a two-year-old boy, and Simon has grown to disbelieve the story about Mary Rose’s disappearance. They visit the island, and she disappears again — not for twenty days this time, but twenty-five years. When she returns, she’s not a day older. Everyone else, of course, has aged: her parents are now old, her husband is grey and used to being alone, her baby boy has grown up and run away to sea. The play, which for much of its time is a lightly comic portrait of a rather idealised, Edwardian ‘perfect’ marriage — with the man being decent, strong and a little stupid, and the woman being quirky, wilful and doting — is bookended by a sense of utter loss, both loss-through-absence and an even worse sort of loss, when the presence of someone longed-for or loved but irretrievably changed only serves as a reminder of all that is lost. Mary Rose’s parents, Mr and Mrs Morland, lose Mary Rose (at first through marriage, though she continues to live at home, then to the mysterious island); husband Simon loses his wife; Mary Rose loses her parents and her husband and her child. When she returns after her second absence, the years have come between her and those that remain, and she can only pine for her baby, who is now not only grown up but run away. This multi-generational, omnidirectional sense of loss is even more concentrated on the boy, Harry, whose running away at the age of twelve isn’t explained, but could be seen as an attempt to lose even himself, having spent his early years so overshadowed by the loss of his mother.

coverOften described as a ghost play (because, even though she’s said to have died, Mary Rose somehow lingers in the house to which she returned, acting as both a playful, absent-minded child, and a pining mother), Mary Rose resonates just as much with fairy stories about people who disappear — as in Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, or, much more intensely, Alan Garner’s Boneland — or who disappear then return — as in Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale — only to feel severed from those they once loved. The key fantasy element, Mary Rose’s disappearance, is never explained. (The island is known as ‘The Island that Likes to be Visited’, though as a local notes, ‘an island that had visitors would not need to want to be visited’.) Perhaps this is why the overlap between the ghostly and the fairy seems to work so well: it gives the play an uncompromising feeling of dropping you into an utterly unexplained abyss, a terrible fact that is just there, and which can never be assimilated or ameliorated. Which is, of course, what loss feels like.

J M BarrieIt’s easy to see parallels with J M Barrie’s life. When his elder brother (his mother’s favourite) died in a skating accident just before turning 14, Barrie tried but failed to take the boy’s place. Later in life he adopted the Davies children (one of whom inspired Peter Pan), after both their parents died; then Barrie’s favourite of those children, George, died in the War. But it’s odd the play doesn’t feel, to me, to be about death, as such, but about a mix of both absence and presence — and a very physical presence, at that (Mary Rose, as a ghost, is not insubstantial, though the caretaker Mrs Otery says ‘she’s as light as air’, linking her with Peter Pan). Of all the parallels in J M Barrie’s life, Mary Rose herself seems most like Barrie’s mother, depressed after the death of her most beloved child, and failing to recognise that child in Barrie himself, who was trying to play the role.

Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a film of Mary Rose, though it feels like, with Vertigo, he already did, as that film is also about a very physical haunting, centred on a woman who seems trapped in the past and unable to make an emotional connection the male lead desperately needs. If any film captures Mary Rose’s sense of sudden, utterly unexplainable loss, though, it has to be Picnic at Hanging Rock.

tartarus_2004One more connection I’d love to make — and it almost but perhaps doesn’t fit — is with David Lindsay’s second novel, The Haunted Woman. Both Lindsay’s novel and Barrie’s play start with someone going over a house being put up for sale, and both deal with a room in that house which is sometimes, unexplainably and supernaturally, inaccessible. (In Mary Rose, the room is the nursery, whose door, though unlocked, is sometimes ‘held’; in The Haunted Woman, there’s a staircase that appears to some people, not to others, and only at certain times, giving access to an area described as ‘far and away the oldest part of the house’ — just as the ‘held’ room in Mary Rose is also ‘the oldest part of the house’.) I like to think of Lindsay — whose books make a lot of reference to theatres, plays, and so on — going to see Barrie’s play and getting the seed of an idea which sparked off his own, very strange, reinterpretation. Mary Rose was first performed on April 22nd, 1920 at the Haymarket Theatre, London; David Lindsay, apparently, began work on The Haunted Woman immediately after the acceptance of his first novel, which was finished in March 1920. Does this fit? I don’t know. But both times I’ve read Mary Rose, the opening reminds me of Lindsay’s second novel.

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

Tolkien and the Great War, by John GarthIn The Wand in the Word, a collection of interviews with fantasy writers published in 2006, one of the questions Leonard S Marcus asks (of those writers who are old enough) is how they were affected by living through the Second World War. “Several, it seemed, had turned to fantasy both as readers and writers,” he says, “not to ‘escape’ reality, but as the truest way of coming to terms with wartime terrors that for them lay almost beyond words.” Lloyd Alexander’s response to the question is: “For the first time in my life, I had come up against real power.” And Diana Wynne Jones’s “…from the time I was five years old until the time I was getting on to twelve, the entirety of the world as far as I was concerned was stark-staring crazy in a most menacing way. It left me with the feeling that the most appalling and peculiar things are liable to happen at any time.” J R R Tolkien, of course, spent a certain amount of effort denying that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of the Second World War, with Sauron as Hitler and the Ring of Power as the atom bomb, but John Garth, in Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth explores how the First World War — the conflict Tolkien himself served in — shaped “the legendarium” of Tolkien’s writings.

An essential element of Tolkien’s wartime experience was rooted in the close friendship he had with Christopher Wiseman, Rob Gilson and G B Smith. Together, they formed the TCBS — the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (referring to the tea room at Barrow’s Stores where they’d meet) — a fellowship that dated back to their school days. The TCBS seemed to be a sort of furnace for the forging of these four young men’s ideals and goals. “Tolkien,” Garth says, “had told them that they had a ‘world-shaking power’, and… they all believed it.”

After the start of the Great War, but before any of them had seen any action, the four met for what they dubbed “the Council of London”:

“For Tolkien, the weekend was a revelation, and he came to regard it as a turning point in his creative life. It was, he said eighteen months later, the moment when he first became conscious of ‘the hope and ambitions (inchoate and cloudy I know)’ that had driven him ever since, and were to drive him for the rest of his life.”

Which made it all the more difficult when the war killed first Gilson, then Smith. It’s impossible to read about the TCBS without remembering that the first book of The Lord of the Rings is called The Fellowship of the Ring, and how important the fellowship is within the narrative — the most surprising part of which, to me, has always been Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo and Sam into Mordor, but to try to save Merry and Pippin from the orcs, something which has much less strategic value, but which nevertheless embodies the core of what the Fellowship is fighting for. Throughout the First World War, the surviving members of the TCBS continued to write to each other, and Tolkien’s early poems did the rounds. It’s often said that writers need a “perfect reader” in mind when they write, and the TCBS seems to have been Tolkien’s. Certainly their encouragement, and sometimes their forthright criticism, were an essential part of his development as a writer.

J R R Tolkien, 1916One criticism that’s often raised against fantasy of the sort Tolkien wrote is that, by telling tales of battles between good and evil, they reduce the moral complexity of the real world to something childish. Susan Cooper, also interviewed in The Wand in the Word, says: “I think the whole Light and Dark thing in The Dark is Rising goes back to my being a child during the war”, but adds that this, at the time, was probably a prejudice that boiled down to “goodies” and “baddies”, and that “after the dropping of the atomic bombs by the Americans, I realised that the good guys could do bad things too”. But the most surprising thing, for me, that John Garth has to say, is the fact that although Tolkien had been playing with his “legendarium” (which Garth describes as “a vast complex of interwoven histories, sagas, and genealogies, of phonologies, grammars, and vocabularies, and of philological and philosophical disquisitions”) before he saw action, not only did his direct involvement in the war focus his creative efforts, but also, because of it, “Tolkien’s mythology becomes, for the first time, what it would remain: a mythology of the conflict between good and evil.” Although:

“The idea that the conflict must be perpetual arose directly from a long-held scepticism about the blandly optimistic prognoses prevailing during the Great War, as Tolkien recalled in an interview nearly half a century later: ‘That, I suppose, was an actual conscious reaction from the War – from the stuff I was brought up on in the “War to end wars” – that kind of stuff, which I didn’t believe in at the time and I believe in less now.'”

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

The Lord of the Rings cover by Pauline Baynes

War, in The Lord of the Rings, is always more complex than the simple good versus evil it is sometimes accused of — particularly as we readers get to see it, that is, through the eyes of the minor players who don’t always grasp the whole power play behind the conflict, but are merely caught between its cogs. Mostly, this complexity is in the potential for once-good people (Saruman, Denethor) to be corrupted either by the enemy, or by hopelessness and despair. Nevertheless, the presence of that background struggle between archetypal good and evil is there, and, according to Garth, it is there because of Tolkien’s experience with the horrors of real war.

Another thing Tolkien has been criticised for, Garth says, is for not adopting the tone of those poets and writers whose reaction to war became the culturally accepted one, which Garth refers to as one of “disenchantment” with heroism and its ideals:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Tolkien wrote in an epic, heroic, and archaic mode that most of his contemporaries thought had been fatally undermined by the realities of the First World War. But in doing so, he not only managed to capture the horrors of war — the terror of being an individual caught in the clash of awful forces, to be snuffed out at any moment, and the relentless onslaught of despair and hopelessness alongside the physical attacks of the enemy — but also the fact that people could fight for worthwhile ideals, and that there was still a place for heroism, even in a world apparently given over to nothing but the “animal horror” (as Tolkien put it) of the trenches.