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.
Unlike 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.
But 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.
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.
Eddison’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.