The Demons Before Carce
Now came the Lord Juss with a great rout of men armed on his great horse with his sword dripping with blood, and the battle sprang up into yet more noise and fury, and great man-slaying befell, and many able men of Witchland fell in that stour and the Demons had almost put them from the bridge-gate.
—The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison
In a past review of The Worm Ouroboros, I noted that E.R. Eddison’s cornerstone work of fantasy is about the endless cycle of war (a worm eating its own tail and all that). As such, it offers a banquet of combat from which I had trouble selecting a single battle for my top 10 list. In the end I went with the last great engagement of the book, “The Demons Before Carce.”
In this battle the Demons (the forces of good), scattered and on the run, have marshaled their strength, fought back, and taken the war all the way to Carce, the Witches’ capitol city. All the great heroes of both sides are arrayed for final battle (and what wonderful names they are): For the Witches, Corinius, Counst Escobrine of Tzeusha, the Red Folio, Corsus, King Erp of Ellien, Axtacus lord of Permio, Olis of Tecapan, and the Lord Corund, among many others. They total 5,200 men or more. For the Demons, Lord Brandoch Daha leads a great company of horse, along with Lord Juss, Lord Spitfire, and the Lord Gro. On the Demon’s right, Lord Goldry Bluszco streams his standard, leading to battle the heavy spearmen of Mardardale and Throwater. With him is King Gaslark and his army of Goblinland.
The Worm Ouroboros is unrepentant in its love of battle. In Eddison’s universe war brings out the best in men. Even the “bad guys” (the Witches) shine like angels in gleaming plate-armor in the defense of Carce, fighting gloriously until the end. It’s impossible to not admire their feats-of-arms, even as we wish for their ultimate defeat.
The battle itself delivers on the promise of Eddison’s beautiful build-up and careful marshalling of the armies. The initial clash of troops is “like the bursting of a thundercloud.” Much like the forces of Troy when backed up the great walls of their city, the Witches fight fiercer than the Demons and gain the upper hand:
But like a great sea-cliff patient for ages under the storm-winds' furies, that not one night's loud wind and charging breakers can wear away, nor yet a thousand thousand nights, the embattled strength of Witchland met their onset, mixed with them, flung them back, and stood unremoved.
The Demons Before Carce appears to have influenced George R.R. Martin’s Battle of the Bywater. The two battles are parallel in many ways: Both include a battle before the gates of a large city and a combined engagement on land and sea. Just as at Bywater, fire plays a role in the outcome of The Demons Before Carce as the Demons’ ships, led by the young Hesper Golthring, are burned by the Witches, and the majority of Golthring’s soldiers are burned or drowned. Hesper himself, attempting to crawl away from the carnage, is stabbed with a dagger and dies. “The smoke of the burning ships was like incense in the nostrils of the King [Gorice] watching these things from his tower above the water-gate,” writes Eddison. In A Clash of Kings, Stannis Baratheon’s ships are burned in the harbor as Lord Joffrey and Cersei watch the carnage from above in the Red Keep.
Having disposed of the Demons’ ships, the Witches throw the main of their forces at the Demons’ ground troops, resulting in terrible carnage:
In which struggle befell the most bloody fighting that was yet seen that day, and the stour of battle so asper and so mortal that it was hard to see how any man should come out from it with life, since not a man of either side would budge an inch but die there in his steps if he might not rather slay the foe before him. So the armies swayed for an hour like wrastlers locked, but in the end the Lord Corund had his way and held his ground before the bridge-gate.
The Demons’ forces begin to bend and break. Lord Juss, seeing the threat of rout and defeat, makes a bold and perhaps fatal decision to ride his 800 cavalry into a gap in the Witches’ army to attempt to force a break. The language here is beautiful; J.R.R. Tolkien credited The Worm Ouroboros as an inspiration for his writing and you can see this heritage here, as Juss issues a Theoden-like battle cry before the latter’s great charge on the Pelennor Fields:
So it was from the beginning with all great captains: so with the Lord Juss in that hour when ruin swooped upon his armies. For two minutes' space he stood silent; then sent Bremery of Shaws galloping westward like one minded to break his neck with his orders to Lord Brandoch Daha, and Romenard eastward again to Spitfire. And Juss himself riding forward among his soldiers shouted among them in a voice that was like a trumpet thundering, that they should now make ready for the fiercest trial of all.
The plan works. Juss’ cavalry breaks through some initial resistance and sweeps through the gap, taking Corsus and Corinius’ forces in the rear, affecting a great slaughter:
There fell in this onset Axtacus lord of Permio, the kings of Ellien and Gilta, Gorius the son of Corsus, the Count of Tzeusha, and many other noblemen and men of mark. Of the Demons many were hurt and many slain, but none of great note save Kamerar of Stropardon, whose head Corinius swapt off clean with a blow of his battle-axe, and Trentmar whom Corsus smote full in the stomach with a javelin so that he fell down from his horse and was dead at once. Now was all the left and centre of the Witches' battle thrown into great confusion, and the allies most of all fallen into disorder and fain to yield themselves and pray for mercy.
Even as the Witches fall back with great loss, they do not break and run, but led by the valiant Corund fight bravely to the gates of Carce, step-by-costly-step. Juss, though a sworn, bitter enemy of the Witches, cannot help but admire their steadfast courage:
Juss said, "This is the greatest deed of arms that ever I in the days of my life did see, and I have so great an admiration and wonder in my heart for Corund that almost I would give him peace. But I have sworn now to have no peace with Witchland."
In the midst of the deadly melee, Corund and Juss square off like two prize-fighters. Corund smashes Juss’ shield and knocks him from his horse, but Juss recovers and drives his sword point through Corund’s mail shirt, a fatal blow. Corund, mortally wounded, retaliates with a great blow on Juss’ helm that knocks him unconscious.
Now pent up inside Carce and with the main of their army smashed, the Witches’ hopes for victory have fled. Corund is borne inside, unable to support his own weight. His next action is the stuff of fantasy legend: Weak and with his life-blood draining away from the terrible wound, he wills himself on to his throne, defiant and kingly to the end:
The Lady Prezmyra, when she perceived that his harness was all red with blood, and saw his wound, fell not down in a swoon as another might, but took his arm about her shoulder and so supported, with her step-sons to help her, that great frame which could no more support itself yet had till that hour borne up against the whole world’s strength in arms. Leeches came that she had called for, and a litter, and they brought him to the banquet hall. But after no long while those learned men confessed his hurt was deadly, and all their cunning nought. Whereupon, much disdaining to die in bed, not in the field fighting with his enemies, the Lord Corund caused himself, completely armed and weaponed, with the stains and dust of the battle yet upon him, to be set in his chair, there to await death.