Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Worm Ouroboros: War goes ever, ever on

Warning--spoilers ahead

E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros is not an easy read. You cannot drink it whole and entire in a single draught; it must be sipped and savored like a complex wine, and (to continue the metaphor) its taste is an acquired one. But it is a marvel of fantasy, one of the all-time classics, and if you're a fan at all of the genre you owe it to yourself to at least give it a try. It has fallen in and out of print over the years, although you can buy it on Amazon (I myself have the 1967 Ballantine Books edition, pictured here).

I recently re-read The Worm Ouroboros for this review after a space of a few years, and, as was the case before, I had to slowly break my way into it. It's written with beautiful and ornate language from a bygone era, which has its charms and its drawbacks. More than once I had to go back and re-read archaic words and opaque sentences and paragraphs. But it's never ponderous, and once you have a feel for the language it becomes part of the journey, a wonderful tool of immersion into Eddison's act of creation.

And Eddison uses that language to fashion wonders. The Worm Ouroboros delivers you into a world of bright color and thunder, of larger than life landscapes, and of heroes and deeds beyond the abilities of ordinary men. Here are soaring mountains that blot out the sky; noble hippogriffs and savage mantichores; achingly lovely princesses; and heroes of epic proportions and heroic hearts. And, above all, here is war, full-scale bloody battles of annihilation on land and sea.

And yet The Worm Ouroboros has far more to offer than (a great) story. Eddison had a message to say and while it's not readily apparent, it is there, beneath the surface, revealed in its suggestive title, by its deliberate structure, and through the actions of one of its central characters--Lord Gro.

The story
The Worm Ouroboros tells the story of a great war between the Demons--the good guys, not actually "demons," but noble and and heroic men--and the Witches (not actual broomstick-riding women, but men, evil and warlike). Through the use of a powerful and dangerous spell, the King of Witchland (Gorice XII) ensnares Goldry Blusczo, the Demons' mighty champion, and imprisons him in a magical fortress. Two of the Demon lords embark on an epic quest to find him and bring him back, while the Witches use this opportunity to launch a full-scale war against Demonland. War and epic quest are intermingled.

Along the way we're treated to a number of memorable events and scenes. A handful of my favorites include:

Conjuring in the Iron Tower. Evil witch-king Gorice XII uses the black arts to summon a mighty spell and capture Goldry Blusczo. This is magic as I like it: Not safe and predictable, but wild and dangerous and chaotic. I don't think I've ever encountered a description of a summoning more dark and evocative than that in The Worm Ouroboros:

But the King pronounced not yet those words, pointing only to them in the book, for whoso speaketh those words in vain and out of season is lost. And now when the retorts and beakers with their several necks and tubes and the appurtenances thereof were set in order, and the unhallowed processes of fixation, conjunction, deflagration, putrefaction, and rubefication were nearing maturity, and the baleful star Antares standing by the astrolabe within a little of the meridian signified the instant approach of midnight, the King described on the floor with his conjuring rod three pentacles inclosed within a seven-pointed star, with the signs of Cancer and of Scorpio joined by certain runes. And in the midst of the star he limned the image of a green crab eating of the sun. And turning to the seventy-third page of his great black grammarie the King recited in a mighty voice words of hidden meaning, calling on the name that it is a sin to utter.

The battle with the mantichore. Two of the Demons greatest champions, Brandoch Daha and Lord Juss, do battle with a mantichore on the cliffs of the great mountain Koshtra Pivrarcha. And what a beast it is:

The shape of it was as a lion, but bigger and taller, the colour a dull red, and it had prickles lancing out behind, as of a porcupine; its face a man's face, if aught so hideous might be conceived of human kind, with staring eyeballs, low wrinkled brow, elephant ears, some wispy mangy likeness of a lion's mane, huge bony chaps, brown blood-stained gubber-tushes grinning betwixt bristly lips.

The Battle of Krothering Side. I'm a sucker for big battle scenes and this is a great one. Here's but a small sample of this epic clash between Demon and Witch, as told through the eyes of a survivor:

I scarce know what way the battle went, father. 'Twas like a meeting of streams in spate. I think they opened to us right and left to ease the shock. They that were before us went down like standing corn under a hailstorm. We wheeled both ways, some 'gainst their right that was thrown back toward the camp, the more part with my Lord Brandoch Daha to our own right. I was with these in the main battle. His highness rode a hot stirring horse very fierce and dogged; knee to knee with him went Styrkmir of Blackwood o' the one side and Tharmrod o' the other. Neither man nor horse might stand up before 'em, and they faring as in a maze now this way now that, amid the thrumbling and thrasting o' the footmen, heads and arms smitten off, men hewn in sunder from crown to belly, ay, to the saddle, riderless horses maddened, blood splashed up from the ground like the slush from a marsh.

The wrestling match of Goldry Bluszco and Gorice XI. Forget the WWF--within the pages of The Worm Ouroboros is a wrestling match to the death between the two strongest men alive. Eddison paints the match in words that bring to life the crash of the muscular bodies, the teetering balance as each strives to overthrow the other, the terrible strain and the brushes with death.

Lord Gro
Like the Norse sagas from which it derives inspiration, Eddison portrays his characters using their actions and words, not their thoughts or motivations. They are mythical heroes, larger than life, and not conflicted with doubts and uncertainties, but driven by great passions, honor, and warrior spirit. In other words, if you're looking for character studies, look elsewhere.

And yet The Worm Ouroboros also features the conflicted, philosophical, and thoroughly modern Lord Gro, an exile from another country who casts his lot in with the Witches, later defects to the Demons, then rejoins the Witches at story's end. I can't help but think that Gro=Eddison, or at least is the individual with whom Eddision most readily identifies, since he is the most fully realized character in the novel. In the midst of all the savage warfare, Gro in a memorable passage steps back and questions the entire conflict--and the very nature of competition itself:

"Surely," he said, "the great mountains of the world are a present remedy if men did but know it against our modern discontent and ambitions. In the hills is wisdom's font. They are deep in time. They know the ways of the sun and the wind, the lightning's fiery feet, the frost that shattereth, the rain that shroudeth, the snow that putteth about their nakedness a softer coverlet than fine lawn: which if their large philosophy question not if it be a bridal sheet or a shroud, hath not this unpolicied calm his justification ever in the returning year, and is it not an instance to laugh our carefulness out of fashion? of us, 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."

Notably it is Gro, the anti-soldier, who sees the clearest.

War as glory and horror
Eddison wrote The Worm Ouroboros in 1922, just four years after the bloody conclusion of World War I. Unlike the stories of his contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien, Eddison glorifies war as a grand stage upon which heroes achieve great deeds and carve out their legacies.

But underneath this simple portayal lurks a more conflicted reality of war. After the great Battle of Krothering Side in which the Demons drive the Witches out of Demonland and the tide of war turns, Arnod, a warrior who fought with the Demons, tells the story of the battle to his family in the gorgeous rays of the setting sun. Eddison, who uses the landscape of his world to convey moods, drops the image of an ugly cloud that looks like a battered sword into the midst of the glorious sunset (emphasis mine). It's a subtle but important reminder of the ugliness and monstrosity that is war:

A faint breeze rippled the foliage of the oakwoods of Tivarandardale. The sun was down behind the stately Thornbacks, and the whole sky from bourne to bourne was alight with the sunset glory. Dappled clouds, with sky showing here and there between, covered the heavens, save in the west where a great archway of clear air opened between clouds and earth: air of an azure that seemed to burn, so pure it was, so deep, so charged with warmth: not the harsh blue of noon-day nor the sumptuous deep eastern blue of approaching night, but a bright heavenly blue bordering on green, deep, tender, and delicate as the spirit of evening. Athwart the midst of that window of the west a blade of cloud, hard-edged and jagged with teeth coloured as of live coals and dead, fiery and iron-dark in turn, stretched like a battered sword. The clouds above the arch were pale rose: the zenith like black opal, dark blue and thunderous gray dappled with fire.

The Worm Ouroboros
Eddison's book derives its curious title from a mythical, culture-spanning serpent/dragon named Ouroboros that swallows its own tail. Ouroboros appears in Norse mythology in the form of the serpent Jormungandr, a monstrous creature that circles the world and grasps its own tail in its teeth. In the Norse myths Thor kills Jormungandr during the last great battle (Ragnarok), but is himself slain by the venom spewing from the great wound. Ragnarok is the ultimate expression of this cyclical pattern, as it results in the destruction of the norse gods, their enemies, and the world itself, followed by a rebirth. Thus, the worm is both a symbol of the pattern of life and death and rebirth, or, in this case, eternal warfare.

The much-discussed ending of The Worm Ouroboros conforms to and continues that pattern. The Demons have achieved complete victory with their foes, the Witches, all slain. But instead of thanking the Gods for the great triumph and its promise of peace, the Demons instead long for the return of their vanquished and slain opponents. Lord Juss of the Demons is granted a wish from the magical Queen Sophonisba, and asks of the Gods:

Would they might give us our good gift, that should be youth for ever, and war; and unwaning strength and skill in arms. Would they might but give us our great enemies alive and whole again. For better it were we should run hazard again of utter destruction, than thus live out our lives like cattle fattening for the slaughter, or like silly garden plants.

Eddison does not pronounce any judgements upon the Demons, so we do not know whether this endless cycle of war continues because men desire it due to pride, or foolishness, or vainglory, or because warfare is inherent in our nature. All that is known is that the gods grant the Demons' wish and the cycle begins again: the worm has swallowed its tail, the other tale continues, and the war--the great war--will go on and on.

I have included a few passages of Eddison's unique prose, but should you wish to sample more you can actually read The Worm Ouroboros in its entirety here:


Jesse said...

Are you going to review the audiobook version for SFFaudio?


Terry L said...

As I mentioned in a previous post I love this book. It can be difficult though...I have to admit that when I first read it years ago I had to try it three times before I could settle into it. That being said it's really one of the most evocative pieces of fantasy fiction I've read.

I'm not sure if I agree about Eddison's ambivalence to war though. There seemed to be previous little critique of it in the book, and he certainly seems (to me anyway) to side with the view of war as 'heroic actions leading to glory' as opposed to 'frivolous and destructive acts of man'. From what little I've read of him, Eddison seems to have had a great affection for the ancient martial view of virtue (as seen in Rome or the ancient Norse lands) and to have seen the 'modern' Christian view of virtue as weak-willed. I think this was one area where Tolkien actually really clashed with him. He thought that Eddison was a great wordsmith and captured the 'northerness' of his tale perfectly, but felt more than a little put-off by it's truly 'pagan' ethos.

Great review. Have you tackled the Zimiamvian trilogy as well?

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Terry, as you've said here I think you can argue convincingly that Eddison embraced larger-than-life heroes and war as a stage for glory. As I reader you can't help but admire the Demons' valorous deeds on the battlefield.

I may be making too much of some of the subtleties in the book, but what added to my argument of Eddison's ambivalent feelings toward war was the reaction of Queen Sophonisba at the end of the book: She was geniunely shocked that the Demons couldn't find happiness in peace, and that their wish was to resurrect their fallen foes and start the whole war over again. Though "young," Sophonisba is also deep in wisdom, a goddess of 200 years. If I may indulge a lengthy quote:

Mightily moved was the Queen to behold such a violent sorrow, albeit she could not comprehend the roots and reason of it. Her voice shook a little as she said, "My Lord Juss, my Lord Brandoch Daha, and you other lords of Demonland, it was little in mine expectation to find in you such a passion of sour discontent. For I came to rejoice with you. And strangely it soundeth in mine ear to hear you mourn and lament your worst enemies, at so great hazard of your lives and all you held dear, struck down by you at last. I am but a maid and young in years, albeit my memory goeth back two hundred springs, and ill it befitteth me to counsel great lords and men of war. Yet strange it seemeth if there be not peaceful enjoyment and noble deeds of peace for you all your days, who are young and noble and lords of all the world and rich in every treasure and high gifts of learning, and the fairest country in the world for your dear native land.

(Emphasis mine).

I actually have not read, nor own, the Zimiamvian trilogy. Have you? Is it worth tracking down?

Greyhawk Grognard said...

IIRC, there was a write-up of some of the more prominent Demons in an old issue of Dragon, in the "Giants in the Earth" feature.

Now I want to dig up my old copy of TWO and give it a re-read. As if I'm not in the middle of enough books right now.

Terry L said...

You make a good point Brian. On my next re-read I'll have to see if I think Eddison was a bit more critical of warlike glory than I thought, though I'm not 100% sure.

As to the Zimiamvian trilogy...well, I liked it. In many ways it's a bit more deep than The Worm (at least IMHO). Of course it's also three times as long and in many ways reads as a sort of fictionalization of Eddison's thoughts on Spinozan take that for what it's worth. :)

Also, it's unfinished since Eddison died before he completed the final volume, though we are provided with his outlines for where the story would go.

Like The Worm it has many larger than life characters striving against great odds and always trying to squeeze the last drop of joy and glory out of their herculean efforts. In many ways it's a sort of odd love-story (based, I believe, in Spinozan metaphysics) wherein the two main protagonists: Lessingham, (who we saw in the intro to The Worm and then promptly never saw again) and Barganax who are both kind of two halves of the same person and their respective love interests (the very alluring and complex Fiorinda and a little bit more one-dimensional Antiope) are set in the midst of a war of succession where one of the heroes sides with the very interesting villain Horius Parry, the Vicar of Rerek. We are treated to battle scenes, politicking, and fights against great odds (as well as a lot of speculation by the chharacter sabout the nature of reality and their parts therein).

It's a bit less pure fantasy than The Worm (though there is reference to magic mostly in the form of Dr. Vandermast, a kind of philosopher-mage) and is somewhat in the vein of a philosophical Jacobean revenge tragedy.

Man, long-winded precis and I don't know whether it makes the book sound appealing or not. Long story short: I enjoyed it though it is perhaps even more work than The Worm to get into, and I think it shares in all of the virtues that the former work possessed (as well as its flaws, perhaps multiplied a bit). Try out the first volume and see what you think.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Greyhawk Grognard, if you happen to have that old issue of The Dragon (and, since you're a grognard, you might :) ), I'd be very interested to see what kind of stats these guys were assigned. Goldry had to have had at least a 21 strength, and Brandoch Daha must have been a 15th level fighter, minimum. These guys were pretty bad-ass in the book.

I would guess that King Gorice XII would be a high-level wizard/fighter, except that he only cast two spells the whole book, and had heck of a time doing fact, you could say he failed his system shock roll.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the info Terry. I'm going to add these to a "must purchase" books list that I keep. In fact, one of your suggestions is already on the list: Clemence Housman's _The Life of Sir Aglovale de Galis_.

Anonymous said...

The Worm Ouroboros is my favourite, all time book. The fact that it took E.R.Eddison THIRTY years to write it is something beyond the beyond. He began it, the story goes, as a ten year old boy and though he reworked it multiple time before its publication when Eddison was 40 he seems to have retained a lot of delectable names of characters and places that stem from his early experiments. Because of this Tolkien, among many others, criticised his wildly ranging name inventions because, unlike Tolkien, who actually worked out a system for his naming based upon an actual mythological language he, a great philologist, kept his neologisms upon a sort of track, but I myself found Tolkien's inventing of names confusing because of the similar sounding nature of his "system" I agree with those who absolutely love the seeming joy of name invention indulged in by Eddison...Zaje Zaculo, Melikaphkaz, Kostra Belorn, Fax Fey Faz, Mevrian, Prezmyra...maybe ERE was "inconsistent" with his neologisms but he is right up there on the summit of phantasy writers along with Lord Dunsany, for example, who probably was and is and always will be the all time champ of coining exotic, other worldly names. Dunsany and Eddison -- the two greatest phantasy writers ever in the English language, IMHO.