Friday, December 19, 2008
The Worm Ouroboros
by E.R. Eddison
Illustrated by Keith Henderson
with Introductions by Orville Prescott & James Stephens
By the 1920s, Great Britain, or more accurately, the Imperial England of Empire, had long since disappeared, with even the memory thereof entering a long twilight. The devastation and violence of WWI, though, was still painfully real, and with one brutalizing war concluded, a second global conflict already loomed on the horizon. WWII would bring with it an extensive firebombing of London, an assault that was to raze many of the historical monuments to the memory of old Albion – destroying the lingering physical trace of Empire. Amidst all this political turmoil, an aesthetic revolution was also underway; modernity was reshaping the literary landscape and challenging a stultified literary establishment. While poets aboard like Gertrude Stein were trailblazing a new interrogative language, at home in Britain great events were also percolating which would contribute to this radical restructuring of literary tradition: take, for instance, Ezra Pound’s radical edit of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” or the composition of Basil Bunting’s first major works, such as “Villon.” These works, and others, confronted a post-Imperial England of the 1920s still struggling to understand its changed identity.
Let’s marvel for a second that 1922 saw the publication of both T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and E.R. Eddison’s confounding, problematic, and in many ways brilliant high fantasy benchmark, “The Worm Ouroboros.” If in “The Waste Land” Eliot reaches towards a progressive aesthetic of the new, in Eddison’s masterpiece he yearns for an Imperial past, one of aristocracy and Jacobean manner.
“The Worm Ouroboros” is a seminal text in the development of fantastic literature, and represents an intriguing transitional point between the high romance of Mallory and Spenser and what we today recognize as fantastic literature. Of the progenitors of the fantasy genre, only Poe, William Morris, James Cabell and perhaps a few others, can honestly be considered progressive. For the most part, the forefathers of fantasy consisted of university-educated aficionados of epic poetry – professors such as JRR Tolkien or government employees such as Eddison himself, who was a lifelong civil servant, eventually climbing to a high-ranking position. A socialist and political activist like William Morris stands apart amongst the first wave of fantasy authors, for the most part aristocratic traditionalists such as the Lord Dunsany.
It is worth noting that this vanguard of fantastic, or weird, fiction represents the last generation to receive the full Cambridge/Oxford “classical” education. E.R. Eddison was educated at Elon and Trinity College, Cambridge, and his work actively pursues the storied tradition of English epic romance. In the face of all this, “The Worm Ouroboros” offers a contemporary reader a strange view into an obscure, submerged literature. If Americans like Cabell and Poe used the fantastic to satirize culture and to investigate its subterranean depths, Eddison and his contemporaries write in order to shrug off the realities of society. They almost give the impression of writing such fare as an aristocratic diversion. Class, as we will see later, is one of the most interesting and problematic elements of “The Worm Ouroboros,” and must be acknowledged for an adequate reading of the text.
Eddison writes in a highly affected, arch Jacobean prose that can either come off as eloquent and luxurious or bloated and staid. His prose is constantly in danger of crossing over into the grotesque and moribund, as it does on numerous occasions. For instance, when the cruel womanizer and drunkard Lord Corinius seeks to spur his soldiers into battle against the troops of Demonland, he somehow manages to shout out a wordy spiel: “He that would sup of the crab of Witchland must deal with the nippers ere he assay the shell!” while rushing out of the gate. The many complaints I’ve heard against “The Worm Ourobouros,” while often valid, tend to neglect Eddison’s express intention – to return to the English language a tradition of pomp and high elegance manifest in his beloved Jacobeans. This is a book, I would argue, that is interesting precisely because of its flaws.
The heroes are stilted and thin in their vainglorious brilliance, names like Lord Spitfire and La Fireez are bizarre and clumsy without following any apparent etymological sense, and the characters liberally quote from Shakespeare, Donne and various English ballads, despite the fact that the novel apparently takes place on the planet Mercury. These idiosyncrasies, as awkward as they are, actually corroborate Eddison’s intentions to perpetuate English high romance into the 20th century. At one point in the novel, the Lord Spitfire and his brethren respond to a text written by the turncoat Lord Gro, who is by far the most intriguing character in the novel. Spitfire implores his relative, Brandoch Daha to "Read forth to us, I pray thee, the book of Gro; for my soul is afire to set forth on this faring." "'Tis writ somewhat crabbedly," said Brandoch Daha, "and most damnably long…;” which with a knowing wink responds to potential critics of the text extant. Lord Gro’s book mirrors “The Worm Ouroboros” itself: the novel devours itself.
Let’s look at one of the most obvious grievances of the book – its beginning. The book opens with a jarring “Induction,” where Lessingham and his wife reside “…in an old low house in Wastdale, set in a gray old garden where yew-trees flourished that had seen Vikings in Copeland in their seeding time.” This opening passage, which in its entirety runs over a page in its extensive description of Lessingham’s very British cottage, nicely reflects Eddison’s interest in England’s storied past, in its tradition. Within their home, Lessingham reads to his wife from the Nordic epic, “Njal’s Saga,” a piece resonating with the greater story, as well as with Eddison himself, who in addition of “The Worm Ouroboros” and the tangentially related Zimiamvia trilogy also wrote “Styrbiom the Strong” and “Egil’s Saga.” Both of those latter novels take direct inspiration from the Norse epics.
Slumbering in the Lotus Room, Lessingham is transported to Mercury, astride “…a chariot coloured like the halo about the moon…” and pulled by a golden hippogriff. Lessingham is a mute observer to the novel’s events, but aside from one fleeting reference later on, he disappears from the story following the second chapter. Many critics complain that Eddison simply forgot about this framing device, but it seems to me as if it actually serves a purpose, harkening back to a similar conceit in Jacobean theater – Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” uses a nigh-identical device.
Following this introduction, the novel then follows the chivalric feud between the Demons and the Witches, two powerful nations of princely warriors. The Demons, represented by Lord Juss, Goldry Bluszco, Spitfire and Brandoch Daha, are in many ways indistinguishable from the Witches – King Gorice, Corund, Corinius and Corsus, save that the Demons refuse to use trickery or deception in combat. The Demons are “good” and the Witches are “bad,” yet neither side appears to treat their subjects better or worse than the other side. In fact, the war itself, whose casualties run into the thousands, is fought more for bravado and aristocratic pomp than anything else. Brandoch Daha, in discussing his aristocratic superiority, tells the Lord Gro “Myself, I do think that when the high Gods made a person of my quality they raced tween his two eyes something, I know not what, which the common sort durst not look on without trembling…” The aristocratic warlords, both of the Demons and the Witches, are made of a stock “stronger” than the common man, who is seen but briefly in the novel in any fashion other than their numerical sum. One of the most interesting of the novel’s deviation is the chapter “The Battle of Krothering Side,” in which one of the decisive battles of the war is related through a delayed narrative recited by Arnod, a simple farmer who fought in the melee. Otherwise, the common stock is frequently degraded by the brilliance and arrogance of the aristocratic class.
The Demon’s arrogance and heedless disregard for the common people serve as a catalyst for the novel’s idiosyncratic ending. After finally defeating the Witches at their stronghold of Carce, Lord Juss and his companions return to Demonland and begin to rebuild their kingdom. Queen Sophonisba, fosterling of the Gods, visits Lord Juss and his companions at their great palace. When she inquires why they carry such dour countenances as they go about their princely duties, the Lord Brandoch Daha responds, lamenting, “Weep ye rather, and weep again, and clothe you all in black, thinking that our mightiest feats of arms and the southing of the bright star of our magnificence should bring us into timeless ruin. Thinking that we, that fought but for fighting’s sake, have in the end fought so well we may never fight again…” Queen Sophonisba, given great magical powers by the Gods who have adopted her, folds time back on itself, and the novel ends at the same point in which it began – the novel itself is the worm Ouroboros, cycling back so that the end and the beginning are the same. The Demons are able to now relive all of their past glories and again battle their enemies, the Witches. This bizarre doubling is hinted at elsewhere in the text – through the reincarnation of the Witchking, Gorice, in a new body each time he is slain, in the two conjurings of King Gorice XII, the two expeditions into Impland, the two invasions of Carce by the Demons, the two hatchings of the hippogriff, etc. Time is not a singularity, but forked, or better yet, folded.
Brandoch Daha states, the Demons are engaged in battle “…for fighting’s sake…,” regardless of casualties or potential loss. The most interesting character, therefore, in “The Worm Ouroboros,” is Lord Gro, who alone questions the endless fighting and pomposity of manners. A constant turncoat, Lord Gro repeatedly betrays his friends, defecting to whatever side is losing at the moment, as he sees a certain tarnished honor in failure. Lord Gro is by far the most complex character in the novel, though the Witches Corund, Corsus and Corinius are also convincingly depicted. At one point, Gro, standing before the inhuman majesty of the mountains, meditates on the inconsequence of man, calling man “…little children of the dust, children of a day, who with so many burdens do burden us with taking thought and with fears and desires and devious schemings of the mind, so that we wax old before our time and fall weary ere the brief day be spent and one reaping-hook gather us home at last for all our pains." This type of introspection would never occur to a righteous braggart such as Lord Juss or Brandoch Daha.
The worm devouring its own tail is a symbol of eternal conflict, which is fitting, as Eddison composed “The Worm Ouroboros” between the conclusion of one World War and the onset of another. Eddison himself would die in 1945, the final year of WWII. Eddison’s novel argues for the inevitability of human conflict, as battle and war is fought for various reasons while actually simply being fought for its own sake. Eddison’s novel, full of clumsy archaicisms, problematic class issues and even some unfortunate racial profiling, never quite approaches any lucidity upon the matters of warfare and strife, but it remains an intriguing, if for the most part forgotten, footnote in the history of fantastic literature and early 20th century British literature.