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.

The Gods of Pegana by Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany by MJEIn 1903, at the age of 25, four years into his title, Lord Dunsany went to see a play called The Darling of the Gods, written by David Belasco and John Luther Long. Long’s 1898 story, “Madame Butterfly”, had made use of his sister’s stay in Japan as the wife of a missionary (though apparently it bears too many similarities to an 1887 French novel, Madame Chrysanthème, for this to be the entire inspiration), and had been adapted by Belasco for the stage in 1900. The Darling of the Gods, a success in New York and newly transplanted to the London stage (where it was produced by the wonderfully-named Beerbohm Tree, and starred Lena Ashwell as Princess Yo-San), was also set in Japan, or, rather, a fantasticated version of Japan that was the sort of place an early-20th century Western audience wanted it to be — a storyland of escape, exoticism and picturesque tragedy, an embodiment of all the lingering dreams of the Decadent and Arts & Crafts movements of the late 19th century, that had so fallen in love with the aesthetics of imported Japanese prints and lacquered wood. In a further act of what Harold Bloom might have called a ‘creative misreading’, Dunsany, watching the play, was overtaken by the poetic possibilities of creating a pantheon of gods, and the result was his first published (and only self-funded) book, The Gods of Pegāna, brought out in 1905. (Online text here.)

OrientalStories1932

cover to Oriental Stories, Winter 1932

This is a situation that recurs throughout the history of fantasy: one culture, encountering another, becomes overwhelmed by fantasies of that distant place and creates its own version of it, a version that becomes increasingly stylised and storyfied, till it enters the realm of pure invention. At the start of the 18th century in France, for instance, the first translations of The Thousand and One Nights were followed by increasingly creative ‘translations’ of other, obscure, ‘newly-discovered’ collections of Eastern tales, footnoted to varying degrees of veracity, till finally the whole thing becomes a convention and people openly pen invented ‘Oriental Tales’ using all the pre-existing backdrops, props and costumes of this imagined version of a distant culture, with no relation to the facts at all. (And when William Beckfod wrote Vathek, he was doing the same thing at a double remove: he wrote his mock-Oriental Gothic tale in French, as though it were a ‘genuine’ French imitation Oriental tale, rather than a poor English one.) A similar thing happened in the 19th century, with a different meeting of cultures, this time when the Brothers Grimm began to investigate the folk tales of the peasant classes. Which is why, when Victorian England fell in love with fairy tales, they pictured their heroes and heroines in Germanic peasant dress and dark, endless forests.

Lord Dunsany’s Pegāna, then, is mock-mock Oriental. But it’s also, thanks to its prose style, mock Biblical, and perhaps it’s by being pulled in two separate directions that it breaks free from any definite cultural associations and starts to seem like a wholly new thing. Which is why it’s regarded as one of the first books of truly modern fantasy. Pegāna, though, is not a separate, invented world. The name refers to a sort of Olympus, a dwelling place for Dunsany’s invented gods, though one that exists ‘Before there stood gods on Olympus, or ever Allah was Allah’.

Before our world was created, two forces, Fate and Chance (like Moorcock’s Law and Chaos) cast lots ‘to decide whose the Game should be’. Nobody knows which of these two won, only that the winner went to the primal creator, MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ (whose name is always shouted like that), and told him to create the gods.

In the Land of Time by Lord Dunsany (Penguin Classics)Dunsany’s world is founded on the fact that Man can never know the answer to the important questions. Whichever one it was who won that initial casting of the lots — Fate or Chance — as far as we’re concerned, our fate is decided: Man was created by Kib, and each man will be killed, in time, when Mung (Death) makes ‘the sign of Mung’ to him, and between those points he must follow the path set out for him by Dorozhand (Destiny), who alone knows the ‘reason and purpose of the Worlds’. In the face of this, all a man can do (and it is ‘man’, because there are no women in Dunsany’s first book) is distract himself in the works of Limpang-Tung, ‘the God of Mirth and Melodious Minstrels’. The gods, meanwhile, enjoy nothing more than to laugh at their creation, all the while knowing that, when their own maker MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ wakes from this sleep (which will end the world), he will laugh at them for their pettiness in creating it.

We poor humans, meanwhile, have nothing but fatalism for our solace:

‘All that is is so because it was to be. Rail not, therefore, against what is, for it was all to be.’

Dunsany has a lot to say about ‘Prophets’. There are prophets who speak the truth, and there are those who lie. Those who speak the truth speak the one and only truth any honest man can: that he knows nothing of the gods, and has no influence over them. This sort of prophet is not very popular. The people would rather have a prophet who gives them a comforting lie, and The Gods of Pegāna has its fair share of such false prophets: Yug, who claims to know all things, but dies all the same; Alhireth-hotep, who claims to speak with Mung (Death), so Mung comes calling; Kabok, who goes so far as to say he advises Mung, but does a runner when Mung starts lurking in his garden at night; and Yun-Ilara, who genuinely does not fear Mung, to the point that he spends his days in a high tower shouting insults at the god of Death… Only, in his weary latter years, to regret this, and instead spend his time begging for Mung to visit.

"Mung and the Beast of Mung", by Sidney Sime

“Mung and the Beast of Mung”, by Sidney Sime

Most of these tiny tales are poetic parables mocking false hope and the empty promises of religion. Dunsany’s invented names — one of the hallmarks of his writings — are at first of two types. There are the brutal-sounding single syllables, which he gives to most of his gods: Skarl, Kib, Sish and Mung. And there are the overblown, overlong names, like MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ, or Yoharneth-Lahai. I get the feeling these names started off as basically comic: the short names are meant to emphasise the primitive, nonsensical nature of some of the gods of Pegāna; the long names emphasise the over-grand nature of others. In a similar way, the mock-Biblical language is used to satirise religious writing with its entirely tautological way of enforcing belief:

‘Kib is Kib. Kib is he and no other… Because this is written, believe! For is it not written, or are you greater than Kib?’

But a sort of poetry creeps in, both into the invented names, and into the prose:

‘Then Mung went down into a waste of Afrik, and came upon the drought Umbool as he sat in the desert upon iron rocks, clawing with miserly grasp at the bones of men and breathing hot.’

The first section to really read like modern fantasy — evoking wonder for wonder’s sake — is ‘The Eye in the Waste’:

There lie seven deserts beyond Bodraháhn, which is the city of the caravans’ end. None goeth beyond. In the first desert lie the tracks of mighty travellers outward from Bodraháhn, and some returning. And in the second lie only outward tracks, and none return.

The third is a desert untrodden by the feet of men.

The fourth is the desert of sand, and the fifth is the desert of dust, and the sixth is the desert of stones, and the seventh is the Desert of Deserts.

In the midst of the last of the deserts that lie beyond Bodraháhn, in the centre of the Desert of Deserts, standeth the image that hath been hewn of old out of the living hill whose name is Rānorāda — the eye in the waste.

About the base of Rānorāda is carved in mystic letters that are vaster than the beds of streams these words:

To the god who knows.

Now, beyond the second desert are no tracks, and there is no water in all the seven deserts that lie beyond Bodraháhn. Therefore came no man thither to hew that statue from the living hills, and Rānorāda was wrought by the hands of gods…

The penultimate chapter, ‘The River’, is perhaps Dunsany’s best prose-poem in the book, about silence, sleep, dreams, and the end of all things:

‘It hath been said that when Skarl ceases to drum, and MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ awakes, and the gods of Pegāna know that it is the End, that then the gods will enter galleons of gold, and with dream-born rowers glide down Imrana (who knows whither or why?) till they come where the River enters the Silent Sea, and shall there be gods of nothing, where nothing is, and never a sound shall come. And far away upon the River’s banks shall bay their old hound Time, that shall seek to rend his masters; while MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀĪ shall think some other plan concerning gods and worlds.’

Le Guin, The Language Of The NightIt’s strange to think that, in her 1973 essay ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, Ursula Le Guin would call Dunsany ‘the most imitated’ writer of fantasy, whose archaic prose style, and mode of poetic invention through fantastic names evoking distant, story-misty cities and hinted-at magics, made him ‘the First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy’. This style of fantasy, heavy on magic and imaginative invention, can be found in, for instance, Michael Moorcock’s method of writing Elric books with a list of fantastic-poetic concepts like ‘The City of Screaming Statues’ by his side. But nowadays (and things may have come to an end starting with Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara), the dominant mode of fantasy, as typified by George R R Martin, is at the opposite extreme: minimal magic, minimal poetry, maximal grit. But perhaps the outlook on life is basically the same: both share a cynicism about the promises of religion, and an insistence on the inevitability of death (not to say Death working overtime, in Game of Thrones).

The final word, as ever, belongs to Mung, who will always have the final word:

And Mung said: ‘Were the forty million years before thy coming intolerable to thee?’

And Mung said: ‘Not less tolerable to thee shall be the forty million years to come.’

Dean Spanley

Who would have thought Lord Dunsany would get a film adaptation in 2010? Even in these post-Potter, post-Jackson-LOTR days when fantasy is enjoying a filmic boom, he’s hardly the author you’d expect to be the beneficiary of a decent film budget. And even then, would his short 1936 novel, My Talks with Dean Spanley, be the one to choose over something more flashy and Hollywood-friendly, like, say, The Sword of Welleran or The King of Elfland’s Daughter? As fantasy goes, Spanley is really quite mild, being about a dean who, under the influence of his favourite wine, Tokay (which has something of a fantasy pedigree, as it appears in the first chapter of Pullman’s Northern Lights, too), falls into reminiscences of his previous life as a dog. No car chases, no fights, no massive effects sequences — no effects sequences at all, as far as I could tell. No romance, either. The cast is all male, apart from one ageing housekeeper.

But what a charming film!

Partly this is down to the excellent cast. Peter O’Toole is the frankly frightening Horatio Fisk, an unforgiving, staunchly unemotional old man, teetering on the awkward edge between wilful rudeness and outright dementia. Jeremy Northam is his son, painfully trying to get his father to open up just a little bit about the deaths of Northam’s brother (during the war) and his mother (afterwards, from grief). Sam Neill is the rather unsociable Dean Spanley whose Tokay-induced reminiscences have to be coaxed out of him, but who, once going, provides a wonderful insight into the life and worldview of a dog, and his relationship to “the master”.

But also, the film’s particular charm comes down to that rare thing in films these days, particularly fantasy ones (he says, having recently reviewed the Clash of the Titans remake) — a story that’s not only good, but which is allowed time to breathe, to develop, to gather momentum, to bring out its subtle emotional undercurrents and let them build into full-size waves. At first, I must admit, the story was so slight I wasn’t sure there was even going to be one. Just how much, after all, can you get from the reminiscences of a closemouthed dean about a previous canine incarnation? But before I knew it, the gentle pace, mild manners and the sheer, quiet, confidence of the film won me over, and suddenly I found it was packing a real emotional punch. In one scene near the end, Peter O’Toole’s face, so impassive, not to say death-like at the beginning, suddenly — and so subtly — thaws, with just the tiniest of shifts in expression, and suddenly the whole tone of the film is changed.

Really a lovely film.

Bob Johnson & Pete Knight’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter

I can’t believe there’s never been a prog rock band called Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, but if there had been, this is the album they’d have released. Based on the 1924 novel by the real-life Edward John (etc.) Plunkett — better known, of course, as Lord Dunsany — The King of Elfland’s Daughter, released in 1977, was actually helmed by two ex-members of folk-rock band Steeleye Span, accompanied by a small cadre of vocal talent including the likes of P P Arnold, Mary Hopkin, Alexis Korner and Christopher Lee — yes, Christopher Lee, ex-Dracula, ex-Lord Summerisle, and Saruman-in-waiting. Lee has quite a prominent role on the album, in fact, providing the narration linking the tracks (taken from Dunsany’s own prose), as well as singing/performing (it is the most actorly piece on the album, verging between being sung and spoken) “The Rune of the Elf King”.

I’ve been trying to get hold of this album for some time, even going so far as to make my one and only (entirely unsuccessful) venture into the world of BitTorrents (which I try to avoid, as I much prefer the artists involved to get their dues). Fortunately, a recent Amazon search turned up a CD reissue from Second Harvest, apparently dating from 2007, though it must have appeared on Amazon only recently. It’s a no-frills digipack (it would have been nice to have had a lyrics booklet and something about the history of the album), but at least the music is there. And the music is, I’m glad to say, very good.

Dunsany’s novel is written in that fairy-tale-for-grownups mode that was one of the cultural casualties of the Second World War (along with the more fantastic aspects of Art Nouveau, which it could be said to embody in prose), and, like Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (another example of the genre, from 1926), is as much about fantasy as it is a tale of fantasy. It opens with the men of Erl approaching their lord with a request that, I can’t help feeling, many would like to make of our current administration: “We would be ruled by a magic lord.” (Or at least one who can make us suspend our disbelief in politicians.) And so the Lord of Erl sends his son, Alveric, into nearby Elfland, to woo Lirazel, the King of Elfland’s daughter. This Alveric succeeds in doing, much to the dismay of Lirazel’s father, who does not want to see her made mortal. And so he sends a troll with a rune to fetch her back.

Johnson & Knight retell Dunsany’s novel in nine songs and nine brief pieces of narration (which are, annoyingly, joined to their respective tracks on the CD reissue. I spent a bit of time dividing them up before importing it into iTunes.) The style veers between the delicate folkiness of Mary Hopkin (who provides the voice of Lirazel, and sings the album’s anthemic closing piece, “Beyond the Fields We Know”), the bluesiness of Alexis Korner (as the Troll), and the weird wildness of P P Arnold (as the Witch), whose vocal acrobatics on “Witch” would recall Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”, if only they didn’t precede them by a year. Christopher Lee’s “Rune of the Elf King” is the most dramatic, though least song-like piece, with Lee’s delivery of the line “Why should my daughter be taken by pitiless years?” achingly desperate and expressive. Catchiest tune of the lot, though, must be “Too Much Magic”, sung by the wonderfully-named Derek Brimstone, along with a chorus of school children. It’s a cheery mix of hand-clamped-to-his-ear folkish lilt and old-time singalong. You could imagine the mock-Edwardian audience of The Good Old Days joining in with its chorus:

Magic, magic everywhere,
Magic in the very air
Elfin horns are blowing, there is
Too much magic.
We dare not go a-wandering
For fear of what the night may bring
A curse upon all elvish things,
Too much magic.

(For full lyrics, and details of the album’s release, see this page.)