by Jeffery Scott Sims


As a fan of pure fantasy, at whiles a student of the art, I hold a special fondness for that type styled high fantasy or sword and sorcery. I've read most of the great works of the genre, quite a few of the "okays" or not so greats. As with the field of horror literature, I find few novels of the kind that truly impress me. Short stories predominate anyway, and many excellent ones abound; the effort involved in maintaining such a tale to book length, however, seems to tax the skills of most authors. They tend to become ponderous, or contrived, or formulaic. Those that avoid these evils are the rarest treasures.

The best examples invent involved and involving secondary worlds quite as fascinating as the characters who strut the stage of their story. Something about the fabrication, from sheer imagination, of an entire world as the back drop to a tale awakens in me supreme respect. Certain works of science fiction and horror have achieved this to a remarkable degree: I think of The First Men in the Moon by Wells, and The Night Land of Hodgson as classic instances. No doubt about it though, high fantasy remains the prime abode of the fabulous secondary world.

My favorite of the bunch, as I currently know the field, must be The Worm Ouroboros of the British writer E.R. Eddison, published in 1922. It connotes the epitome of sword and sorcery. Long, quirky, with curious structural rambles, replete with striking, even jarring weirdness, it possesses everything I want in a work of this kind, and manages to provide stimulating and tantalizing surprises as it unfolds an epic tale. In this essay I wish to describe Eddison's grand novel, to discuss its salient points, and to explain why it so impresses me.

Part One: The Story


Set in a form of medieval never land, the basic plot of Ouroboros concerns the great war between the Demons and the Witches, yet that tidy synopsis already requires enormous explication. The Demons and Witches of Eddison aren't those of conventional folklore, but rather labels for mighty races, fantasized by the author in childhood, which Eddison retained when he wrote the novel as an adult. The Demons, horned blends of Vikings and merry old Englishmen, are the heroes of the piece, noble warriors of an island state. The Witches, of equal, if gloomier, nobility, are Eddison's villains, the mainland masters of a brutal kingdom. Other entertaining races appear throughout the story, none following the common patterns that their names suggest: Goblins, Pixies, Imps. Elves are mentioned, but never show themselves.

These folk live, love, posture, fight and die within a world in which magic is real, a genuine force for good or evil. Villains employ the dark arts to destroy their enemies; upstanding characters tend to shun the arcane methods, but may employ magic for protection or to acquire information. In Ouroboros conjuration is difficult and dangerous, resorted to sparingly and only after considerable thought and preparation. It happens rarely, usually with spectacular, if problematic, consequences.

The Story of The Worm Ouroboros

Here I present a detailed synopsis of the book. I find this best reveals the richness of the plot, while also providing the most useful vehicle for introducing the many entertaining characters. (Warning: spoilers aplenty!)


This peculiar sort of prologue starts off the story in such a back hand, indirect manner as to, regrettably, be likely to repel the casual reader who knows not what comes after. Eddison introduces us to Lessingham, an Englishman who lives with his wife in a country house containing a kind of magical room. Strange things may happen in that room. Lessingham, mysteriously drawn by the sight of the planet Mercury, sleeps in the room, is visited by a martlet, a mythological bird that speaks, offers to be his guide on a voyage to Mercury. Mounting a hippogriff, another mythological beast, away they go.

I. The Castle of Lord Juss

Indeed, the rest of the novel, ostensibly, takes place on the planet Mercury, although after this first main chapter the point never again arises, and the setting surely has nothing to do with any real place in our universe. Eddison's new world is an alternative Earth, with seas and continents, fields and forests, even a moon in the sky; an exotic world akin to that of centuries ago. Lessingham and his avian guide spend this chapter as invisible observers and commentators, and then, strange to relate, quickly vanish from the narrative. They exist, within the pages of the book, simply to lead the reader to the story proper, which commences now.

The lords of Demonland have come together in Galing castle to celebrate the birthday of Lord Juss, and the recent final victory over the abhorrent Ghouls (being all dead, they never appear in the story, but, from what we are told, for once the name seems appropriate). Juss, master of Galing and the most important nobleman, is also a famous mage, though he prefers not to employ those arts, trusting "rather in his own might and main". With him are his brothers Spitfire (who breathes from his nostrils "a faint flame") and Goldry Bluszco, and their best friend Brandoch Daha, a strikingly girlish character nevertheless accounted the world's best swordsman.

In the midst of these festivities enters the Ambassador from hated Witchland, a grotesque dwarf deliberately selected to insult his audience as he demands fealty to his master, King Gorice XI. This effrontery particularly strikes a nerve as, in the climactic naval battle against the Ghouls, the Witches cunningly abandoned their temporary allies the Demons, hoping to see them destroyed. Victorious, but gravely weakened, the Demons aren't ready to face the full power of their traditional enemies.

Goldry, the strongest of the Demon lords, comes up with an honorable solution. Gorice is a "mighty wrastler", who has slain "ninety and nine great champions". Via the Ambassador, Goldry challenges Gorice to a bout.

II. The Wrastling for Demonland

Weeks later Goldry and Gorice meet for their personal death struggle in the Foliot Isles, a neutral principality peacefully governed by the Red Foliot, who actually is scarlet in coloration. Here are introduced important characters from the ranks of the Witches: King Gorice XI, a despicable brute; Lord Corund, the aging but very tough warrior, perhaps the most decent, relatively speaking, of his people; and Lord Gro, the Goblin exiled for treason who now serves with scholarly wisdom and malicious cunning his Witch master. Gro, a unique character, will require special discussion later. Suffice to say at present that, gentle and privately honorable though he may be, the fellow is a born traitor, incapable of remaining true to any man.

The contestants come together for three falls. Drawing the first round, Gorice wins the second by a sleazy trick; in a fury, Goldry overwhelms him in the third, dashing the life out of his opponent. As per prior agreement the Witches, having lost, are bound to henceforth keep peace with the Demons.

III. The Red Foliot

We meet vulgar Lord Corinius of Witchland, who looms large later, but this chapter focuses on the sneaky scheme, fostered by Gro, to hold the Demons in place while the Witches slip away to hatch fresh conspiracies. Corund supports the plan, which succeeds. A highlight is the charming entertainment provided by the Red Foliot, which includes unusual animals. He also sings a dirge in memory of Gorice XI.

IV. Conjuring in the Iron Tower

With this critical chapter we really begin to get into the meat of the story. The Witches withdraw across the sea to Carce, the morbid black castle amidst a swamp where reign the kings of Witchland, "the likeness of pitiless violence sitting in the place of power". Gorice XI lying in state, Lord Gro receives summons to attend King Gorice XII in the shunned chamber at the top of the Iron Tower, where long ago Gorice VII lost his life attempting to foment the foulest magic.

Already one may discern something odd in the handling of these Gorices. Not entirely clear yet, one may deduce that this new king is no son of the old, but in some sense the same man, newly bodied and-- other than the lust for power-- possessing new attributes. The last king earned renown as a strong man; this one has been "born" steeped in the forbidden knowledge of a practiced sorcerer.

Gorice XII naturally reneges on the deal, with Gro's fawning aid summons a hideous creature from nighted pits to assail and destroy the Demons, who by this time are sailing home. Some of my favorite descriptive scenes in the book occur here, as Gorice first tests Gro's stamina and resolve with lesser conjured horrors, then gets down to the grim, complex, incredibly difficult business of making mighty magic. The pair barely survive the grueling experience, yet the evil deed is done.

V. King Gorice's Sending

Gaslark, king of Goblinland, sails the seas with seven ships of war. An ally of the Demons, his cousin the princess Armelline is betrothed to Lord Goldry. Spying a battered ship drifting aimless, he finds Juss, Spitfire, and Brandoch in tears, their crew ravaged, Goldry missing, the dreadful effects of the nightmarish thing sent after them by Gorice XII. Aware that the fleet of Witchland sorties against the peaceful Beshtrians, Gaslark proposes an impromptu raid of revenge, to assault Carce while that citadel is scarcely defended. Lord Juss considers the scheme madness, but a cloud hangs over the minds of those targeted by Gorice. Juss and Brandoch with their few men accompany Gaslark, Spitfire returning home to organize greater forces.

VI. The Claws of Witchland

By night the allies, largely a Goblin force, march against Carce. Corinius and Corund spring an ambush which sends the Goblins fleeing, their king wounded. Abandoned, the tiny band of Demons fight on, surrounded, until only Juss and Brandoch stand against all the Witches. So deadly are they in combat that King Gorice sends in another liegeman, old Duke Corsus, with nets to capture the trouble makers.

VII. Guests of the King in Carce

With this superlative chapter, one of the very best, we meet new characters, learn much of the old. A shining star of the novel is Lady Prezmyra, a Pixy, beautiful young wife to Lord Corund. On the morning after the massacre she learns the particulars from her husband and her good friend Lord Gro. Juss and Brandoch have been imprisoned in the castle, awaiting a cruel fate. Also, Prezmyra's brother Prince La Fireez of Pixyland, somewhat grudgingly allied to Witchland, comes with his armed retainers bearing tribute to Gorice. The Prince's arrival concerns the Witches, since at the moment their forces are weak, and La Fireez is known to owe a debt of honor to the Demons.

With the Demon lords as "guests" in the dungeon, their presence intended as a secret from La Fireez, he is entertained as a genuine guest at a stupendous banquet, lovingly described. Each character present shows his true colors, especially the stupid, grotesque Corsus, the vile Corinius, the haughty Gorice, and the hot-tempered La Fireez. Appears for the first time Sriva, the sexy daughter of Corsus.

The drunken boasts of Corinius reveal the truth; La Fireez and his men win the fight in the banquet hall against the besotted Witches (most of whom seize any opportunity to guzzle), locate and release the Demons, who make their escape, as does La Fireez. His sister dreads the consequences of this night.

VIII. The First Expedition to Impland

Having made good their escape to Demonland, its lords plot their next move. Of paramount importance to them is tracking down and recovering Lord Goldry, who has utterly vanished. A mystical dream comes to Lord Juss, advises him to "Inquire in Koshtra Belorn", a mountain at the end of the world beyond Impland. He, Spitfire, and Brandoch Daha organize a fleet to sail their army to the shores of that barbaric realm. During their preparations we meet the lovely Lady Mevrian, sister of Brandoch, of whom more later.

IX. Salapanta Hills

With this chapter grand and weird adventures ensue. Approaching the coast of Impland, a terrible storm raised by the King's magic assails the Demon fleet. Juss and Spitfire land with a few hundred survivors, make their way across country until they discover shipwrecked Brandoch alone. He tells them a remarkable tale concerning the famous soldiers of fortune Zeldornius, Helteranius, and Jalcanaius Fostus, sent many years before by Gaslark to conquer Impland, only to disappear. They live still, entranced by the inherent magic of the land, futilely marching their hosts after one another, seeking senseless combat. The reunited Demons end up guests of Zeldornius, who camps his army on the Salapanta Hills.

Enter Mivarsh Faz, noble of Impland who has lost everything due to the machinations of Corund and Gro, who come with an army sent by Gorice to stop the Demons. Having conquered Impland and slaughtered its leaders (through a trick devised by Gro), Corund has made a deal with Helteranius and Jalcanaius, who unite to crush Zeldornius.

The three ensorcelled warriors clash in a furious battle to the death on the Salapanta Hills. Zeldornius wins, in that he is the sole survivor of the fray; at his insistence, the Demons sat it out. After taking leave of his friends, Zeldornius too is made away with in some mysterious fashion.

X. The Marchlands of the Moruna

The wonders mount. Continuing their trek across the haunted wastes of the Moruna (a desolate region of Impland), the Demons chance upon the eerie castle of Ishnain Nemartra, a beautifully appointed abode with a banquet laid, yet apparently vacant of occupants. Comes to them the lady of the castle, of more than mortal loveliness, who offers an enormous boon to he who passes her strange test. Against the advice of Lord Juss, Brandoch accepts the challenge, passes, demands of the most desirable lady that which he shouldn't. The upshot is that she lays a curse on him. The Demons depart, hoping for the best.

So much for hope: Mivarsh, still fleeing the Witches, catches up with his former acquaintances, who from his words realize they have magically lost nine days as a result of Brandoch's foolishness. Lord Corund and the army of Witchland, swollen with Imp recruits, press close behind. In haste the Demons flee to the shunned fortress on the Burg of Eshgrar Ogo, which they reach just in time.

XI. The Burg of Eshgrar Ogo

Another of my favorite chapters, this one recounts the siege of the small Demon force within the fortress by the vastly superior army of Corund, but character is key to the delights here. The uneasy interplay between harsh but relatively honest Corund, and mild but cunning to the point of insanity Gro, fascinates. Lord Gro's sneaky schemes to lure out or destroy the Demons lead to several amusing, even hilarious exchanges (including one which I could swear inspired a famous Monty Python skit), not to mention the gory result of an attempted assassination. When not engaged in trickery, the Witches repeatedly and bloodily assault the fort. Eventually, seeing the handwriting on the wall, Lord Juss heads a desperate break-out. Few of the Demons survive. Corund may claim victory, for Impland is now his to control, yet he still has not laid hands on the Demon leaders.

XII. Koshtra Pivrarcha

Juss, Brandoch Daha, and Mivarsh escape to reach Morna Moruna, a lonely wrecked castle atop a gigantic cliff, scene in elder days of a vile atrocity perpetrated by Gorice IV. Across the great valley they behold majestic Koshtra Pivrarcha, highest of all mountains, significant because, we are told, no one may come to Koshtra Belorn without looking down upon it, and that can only be done from the peak of Pivrarcha. Fearful of being left alone again (as he was after the conflagration on the Salapanta Hills), Mivarsh accompanies the Demon lords on their incredible journey down into the valley, where they camp for months in sylvan settings until the turn of the season allows for their meticulously narrated assault on the mighty mountain. Attain the peak they do, to gaze down at last upon lovely Koshtra Belorn, but only after a series of frightful perils, including battle with the hideous mantichore.

XIII. Koshtra Belorn

Arriving at the mountain of Koshtra Belorn, the trio enter a mysterious cave, discover a magical underground world. As they had been informed by martlet messenger, here reigns the beautiful and youthful Queen Sophonisba of Koshtra Belorn. An escapee from the horror visited by Gorice IV on Morna Moruna two hundred years earlier, the Gods took pity on her and whisked her away to safety within the mountain, to live ever young at this gateway to the fabled realm of the dead.

The dream of Lord Juss told him to inquire there after his missing brother Goldry. So he does, but no easy path is laid before him. The Queen, expected to know all, professes ignorance, while another dream coming to Juss, showing him his brother trapped in a citadel of bronze on a mountain peak, further mystifies.

XIV. The Lake of Ravary

This locale lies at the foot of Koshtra Belorn, on the edge of hallowed Zimiamvia, land of the dead. From there Juss recognizes the "accursed" mountain of Zora Rach nam Psarrion as the scene of his dream. Proposing to climb it, Queen Sophonisba cautions him against this, averring that only by riding a hippogriff can a hero attain the peak. She produces an egg, which they incubate. Unfortunately, when it hatches Mivarsh Faz mischievously steals a ride and, trying to fly home, falls to his prophesied death. Now desperate, Lords Juss and Brandoch Daha endeavor to scale the mountain anyway, almost meet death when they fail. Meanwhile, a martlet brings news that another egg lies hidden in, of all places, Demonland. Having crossed the world, back they must go, if Goldry is to ever be rescued.

XV. Queen Prezmyra

The story takes a sharp turn as several chapters recount the machinations of the court of Gorice. Prezmyra, now styled queen because her husband Corund has accepted from his lord the crown of Impland, has grown to hate the Demons due to the conquest of Pixyland and the exile of her brother La Fireez for aiding their escape. Gorice plans the invasion of Demonland; Prezmyra seeks the leading role for Corund. Sriva, daughter of Lord Corsus, overhears her speaking of this with Gro, hastens to her father, barely escaping the drunken advances of Corinius.

XVI. The Lady Sriva's Embassage

The crude Corsus drunkenly cajoles his daughter (betrothed to Lord Laxus) into seducing the King, that he may be appointed leader of the forthcoming expedition to Demonland. Gorice has already decided on Corsus, but for his own amusement accepts the proffered gift.

XVII. The King Flies His Haggard

Prezmyra's supplication to the King on behalf of Corund is contemptuously dismissed. Later Gorice, among all his lords and ladies, takes his "haggard eagle" out into the field after sporting prey. The various characters tease and torment one another unmercifully, there being no love lost among them. Lord Gro, brilliant as he is conniving, deplores the choice of Corsus, warily disputes the matter with his sovereign. Gorice won't budge, and in the fullness of time Corsus marches with his army to the fleet that will carry him to Demonland and, presumably, final victory.

XVIII. The Murther of Gallandus by Corsus

The Witches invade. War rages, with varying fortune, throughout Demonland, Corsus acting with unbridled cruelty. He takes Spitfire's citadel at Owlswick, but the Demon leader (who made his way home after Eshgrar Ogo) thereupon wins a smashing victory, bottling up the Witches inside his own castle. Lord Gallandus, a valued subordinate of Corsus, contemplates wresting the army from his foolish chief, is assassinated by him. When news of this passes overseas to Carce, King Gorice appoints Lord Corinius to join the army and take command.

XIX. Thremnir's Heugh

A spirit in the form of a dreadful old man warns Spitfire, "Beware of Thremnir's Heugh", a notable mountain. He ignores the warning, falls into a cunning ambush laid by Corinius. Heavily reinforced, the Witch army routs the Demons, crushing their main army in the field. Spitfire, badly wounded, barely escapes.

XX. King Corinius

Flushed with victory, the savage Corinius marches into Owlswick, callously seizes power from Corsus, declares himself King of Demonland. Corsus strains after shreds of dignity, but Corinius, mindful of the fate of Gallandus, mocks him with spiteful glee, sends the former army chief packing back to Witchland in disgrace.

XXI. The Parley Before Krothering

Corinius, styling himself King of Demonland, marches against Krothering, the lordly abode of the missing Brandoch Daha. Corinius hates Brandoch, wishes to despoil his property, lusts after his sister Mevrian, who commands in the fortress. Corinius sends Gro (tasked by Gorice to provide wise counsel) to arrange a surrender, and a match with Mevrian, who shall be his queen. She, awaiting Spitfire's coming with fresh forces, refuses both demands.

XXII. Aurwath and Switchwater

The Demon plans miscarry. Goblin reinforcements led by King Gaslark arrive too early, are smashed by Corinius, who turns on the Demon forces and, in yet another well orchestrated ambush, pulverizes them at Switchwater Way. Mevrian and the tiny garrison of Krothering now face the Witch host alone.

XXIII. The Weird Begun of Ishnain Nemartra

The curse laid upon Brandoch Daha by the Lady of Ishnain Nemartra realizes itself as Corinius storms Krothering. The Demons resist valiantly, but with the fifth assault the end is in sight. In order to save her surviving troops, Lady Mevrian agrees to surrender the castle, and herself.

XXIV. A King in Krothering

With Mevrian his pampered but menaced prisoner, Corinius and his men settle into a life of debauchery and dire scheming. At a banquet the drunken King of Demonland makes clear his fiendish plans for Brandoch's sister. This is too much for Lord Gro and the sons of Corund (serving under Corinius), who connive to rescue the girl by smuggling her out of the castle. This they accomplish, under the besotted nose of their commander.

XXV. Lord Gro and the Lady Mevrian

This very curious chapter takes a break from marches and battles to present the reader with the fullest description of Gro's peculiar mind. While Corinius runs wild, barbarically wrecking Krothering and scouring the countryside for Mevrian, Gro's innate sympathy for the underdog leads him to forsake the Witches, flee into the wilds of Demonland. In a remote fastness he happens upon magical spirits, "the genii of that land", engaged in jubilant celebration. After they disappear from before him, he confronts the combative Mevrian, dwelling alone in the forest. They live together as friends (Gro falling in love with his companion), in relative happiness, for a lengthy period, until a Witch patrol catches up to them. About to be overcome, Mevrian taken and Gro slain, they are rescued by none other than Lords Juss and Brandoch, newly returned from Koshtra Belorn. At their homecoming it was that the wilderness beings rejoiced.

XXVI. The Battle of Krothering Side

Juss and Brandoch Daha raise the country against the Witches, march with their entire force against Corinius. The Witch lords are at each others throats again, yet they grudgingly come together for this supreme test. The Demons contrive their own ambush, which annihilates the Witch army in the fields outside Krothering. Corinius escapes and flees by sea, but few of his men survive the day. Demonland has been liberated.

XXVII. The Second Expedition to Impland

The Demons find the egg of the hippogriff which lured home Juss and Brandoch, and with Gro, La Fireez, and King Gaslark, set forth once more to cross Impland and make for Koshtra Belorn.

XXVIII. Zora Rach Nam Psarrion

The story skips immediately to the Lake of Ravary, where Queen Sophonisba hosts the expedition leaders. At long last all is in readiness as Lord Juss undertakes to save his lost brother Goldry Bluszco. The hippogriff egg hatches; Juss mounts the hatchling, flies away toward the cold, ominous mountain of Zora.

His adventures there constitute a harrowing magical odyssey. Through terrible days weird and horrific images assail him, mystic powers exerted to prevent him coming to the brazen citadel which is the haunt of great ones no longer living. Passing through a ring of fire, he enters the gates, finds his brother in a ghastly undead state. Juss carries him, as if a corpse, down the mountain, eventually makes his way to the abode of Sophonisba. Only she knows how to cure Goldry, who is indeed restored to full life.

XXIX. The Fleet at Muelva

In this very short chapter the Demons discover that a Witch fleet commanded by Lord Laxus blocks their nautical path out of Impland. They brace themselves for the unavoidable clash.

XXX. Tidings of Melikaphkhaz

As Prezmyra muses on the joys and sorrows of life, news arrives from the Witch fleet. King Gorice calls all together to inform them that Laxus and his ships have been destroyed in the Straits of Melikaphkhaz, and that the Demon fleet with their entire army sails for Carce. Lord Corund, returned from Impland, is appointed military commander. Prezmyra learns, via a secret letter from Gro, of the tragic death of her brother La Fireez, fighting for the Demons. Her fury descends into despair.

XXXI. The Demons Before Carce

King Gorice marshals all his Witch and allied forces for the climactic battle. Having landed, the Demons quickly approach. Gorice calls for a parley, insists that the Demons turn back. Rebuffed, Gorice contemplates his dangerous, tricky magic, first accepts trial by the sword. The battle before Carce commences. Lord Juss leads his larger army to the attack. The Witches hold until reinforcements arrive, driving into the flank of their enemies. In desperation Brandoch Daha leads a chancy cavalry charge which smashes through the Witch army. Gro snaps, in a mad fit turns coat again, is slain by Spitfire. Juss and Corund duel; the former falls wounded, the latter retires with a mortal injury. Defeated, the remnants of Gorice's force retreat into the fortress.

XXXII. The Latter End of All the Lords of Witchland

This penultimate entry commences two chapters fraught with wholly amazing surprises. Gorice calls a council of his lords, in which they debate their dwindling possibilities. The King decides to chance one more throw of his evil magic, even though (per prophecy) that risks the absolute end of his line. During the heated discussion he vindictively humiliates Corsus, the only Witch lord willing to argue for peace.

This nasty sneer of Gorice sets in motion a monstrous conspiracy. While Gorice conjures, without the valuable aid of Gro this time, Lord Corsus lures the great lords of Witchland to a midnight vigil where out of fear and malicious hatred he poisons them all. At that moment the King's arcane arts misfire, destroying him for good and bringing down the Iron Tower. The Demons seize the opportunity to assault the castle. They find the chamber of death, with Corinius expiring, bitterly hostile to the last. Prezmyra, driven almost insane by her misfortunes, commits suicide. Out of the night, the weird familiars of King Gorice wail in lamentation.

XXXIII. Queen Sophonisba in Galing

And at the last we get the strangest chapter, one to take the breath away. With the house of Gorice gone, Queen Sophonisba re-enters the world of men, pays a feted visit to Demonland. Amidst the festivities in her honor and celebrations of victory she finds her hosts unaccountably depressed. Sadly they speak of glories forever behind them, of great days lost forever now that their noble Witch enemies have been obliterated. As she begins to perceive what ails them, the shocked Sophonisba takes Lord Juss aside, proposes to him an incredible remedy. Here, at the end, she makes the most monumental of all magic, and we realize that it is no end at all.

Part Two: Critique

In the second half I present my views on the several topics I consider pertinent to Eddison's novel.

The Meaning of "Ouroboros"

This Greek term, literally meaning "tail biter", alludes to a mythical worm-- dragon-- which holds its tail in its mouth, a symbol of "eternity, whereof the end is ever at the beginning and the beginning at the end for ever more". King Gorice wears on his thumb a ring ornamented with Ouroboros, signifying his strange sort of life everlasting. More importantly, Ouroboros stands for the entire sweep of the story contained within the novel, a matter which comes absolutely clear only at the final page. Despite all that precedes, the tale, we can be sure, goes on.

Heroes and Villains

The Demons are the good guys, the Witches the bad, but while Eddison populates his story with larger than life actors, he presents remarkably real world formulations of heroism and knavery. This novel contains no cardboard characters. Lord Juss and his allies represent the best of medieval idealism-- honorable, honest, faithful to a fault to their friends, brave to recklessness-- yet this means also they relish war for its own sake, engage in daring-do for the sheer joy of it. The Witches, crude, crass, ever eager to glorify themselves at the expense of others, are truly villains, but they also adhere to a code of sorts, lesser though it may be, and some, especially Lord Corund, occasionally demand from the reader genuine respect. Gorice XII stands as a most striking example of complex evil. Oh boy, is he the black hat of the piece-- the symbol of his house the crab-- to be booed and hissed at each appearance, yet he is too a grand and noble figure, respected by his "worst enemies". Gorice is a real man, motivated by desires and passions which all men can understand, even while deploring them.

The Puzzle of Lord Gro

I don't know that it has a solution. Gro is the oddest character I have ever come across in a work of fiction. Noble, mild and gentle, scholarly-- probably the most intelligent person in the tale-- he nevertheless "dearly loveth plotting and scheming", and just as importantly "perversely affecteth ever the losing side if he be brought into any quarrel"; taken together, these attributes have condemned him to a miserable roller-coaster of a life. During his checkered career he betrays his own people, the Goblins, in favor of the Witches when the latter suffered defeat; renounces them at the peak of their success to join the Demons; rebels violently against them at their moment of final victory. After defection, he serves well his new friends, earnestly aids in their rise. Gro tries to explain himself to himself-- he is drawn to "the sunrise and the sundown" where "abideth the soul of nobility, true love, and wonder, and the glory of hope and fear". Never for him the easy way, then, and in the end he admits himself "weary of life and life's fevers". I can't see my way to a comprehensive answer to the mystery of the man. I believe each reader must rationalize him, to love, pity, or despise the fellow.

The Language of The Worm Ouroboros

More than anything, Eddison's style of writing helps to weave the fabric of fantasy that upholds his great work. His words shine; phrases and sentences he devises for the savoring, to be repeated aloud as if, in the speaking, one partakes of the grand banquets he loves to describe. He accomplishes this by employing a modernized form of old-fashioned English, in structure, often in spelling. I like to say that Ouroboros is akin to the kind of novel Shakespeare might have written. Probably inaccurate from an objective standpoint, I yet feel some level of truth in this.

I could probably quote a thousand beautiful passages. I provide here a few choice specimens:

"Methinks it is for loyal subjects to seek greatness in the greatness of their King, nor desire to shine of their own brightness."

"These be mysteries whereon but to think may snatch thee into peril, and whoso speaketh of them, though in so secret a place as this, and with me only, yet at his most bitter peril speaketh he."

"O Gaslark," he said, "this that hath befallen breedeth in me a cruel perturbation which carries my spirits outwards, stirring up a tempest in my mind and preparing my body to melancholy, and madness itself."

"Till now methought there was a sword in Witchland, and methought Corinius and Corund not simple braggarts without power or heart, as here appeareth, since like boys well birched they do cringe from the shining swords of Juss and the vile upstart from Krothering."

"By advised, lest my wrath forge thunderbolts against thee."

"Was he little and dark," asked Juss, "like a keen dagger suddenly unsheathed at midnight? Or bright with the splendor of a pennoned spear at a jousting on high holiday? Or was he dangerous of aspect like an old sword, rusty in the midst but bright at point and edge, brought forth for deeds of destiny at the fated day?"

"I sticked not to take part in thy notable treason against these poor snakes of Impland that we trapped in Orpish. All's fair against such dirt. Besides, great need was upon us then, and hard it is for an empty sack to stand straight."

"It is a wonder, O Juss, that thou shouldst hold out to such mucky dogs a hand without a whip in it."

"O Sriva," he said thickly, bending his face to hers, "dost think to light so great a fire, and after walk through it and not be scorched thereat?"

"If thine errand prove not more honester than thy looks, this is an ill night's journey for thee."

"And to mine ears great deeds have their own trumpets."

"Filth, unhand me," said Spitfire, "else shall I presently thrust thee through with my sword, and send thee to the Tartarus of hell, where I doubt not the devils there too long await thee."

"Or think'st I delivered thee out of the toils thine own folly and thrawart ways had bound thee in, only to suffer thee lord it again here and cast all amiss again by the unquietness of thy malice?"

"The discord of my thoughts, my lute, doth ill agree with the harmonies of thy strings."

"O cry thee mercy, my lord," said Corinius, "I should have remembered, dreams of Sriva's moist lips keep thee from straying."

"These be heavy news," he said, "and I'll have you bear'em in the old Witchland fashion: the heavier hit the heavier strike again."

"Thunder and blood and night must usurp our parts, to complete and make up the catastrophe of this great piece."

"Were there of my council such another vermin, so sottish, so louse-hearted, as this one hath proclaimed himself, I had been persuaded Witchland was a sleepy pear, corrupted in her inward parts."

"I do joy that not by your sword were we put down, but by the unequal trumpery of Fortune, whose tool was this Corsus and the King's devilish pride, that desired to harness Heaven and Hell to his chariot."

"Witchland himself beheld us from Carce walls through the watery mist and glare, and marveled that two men that are born of woman could perform such deeds."

While Eddison gives to narrative and speech an old-fashioned feel in accord with his setting, he goes all the way when transcribing written material such as letters. Here is a typical example, an excerpt from the correspondence of Gorice XII:

"Thys is to signifye to the that thoue shalt with all convenient spede repaire with a suffycyaunt strengthe of menne and schyppes to Daemonlande, bycause that untowarde and traytorly cattell that doe there inhabyt are to fele by the the sharpness of my correctioun."

Unusual Insertions

From deduction and scattered statements about the man, I gather that Eddison composed this work solely to please himself, which may explain the large amount of real world literary items that grace the novel. These mainly take the form of genuine historical poems, snippets of Latin and Greek, multitudinous references to traditional deities. Thus the Red Foliot's dirge to Gorice XI:

I that in heill was and gladness
Am trublit now with great sickness
And feblit with infirmitie:--
Timor Mortis conturbat me.

etc., dates from the 14th Century, while Queen Sophonisba's song praising Demonland and its lords is none other than Shakespeare's famous sonnet, "Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?" Every such reference is meticulously referenced, presumably by Eddison, at the back of the book. [Of my copy, which is a reprint of the original 1922 edition.] It is a curious artistic conceit, which does heighten the antique feel of the story, surely a major intent.

Intricate Description

Possibly my lack, but I have never read a book that indulges in such dense, detailed description of scenery and place, even dress. Heed these two abridged examples:

"Seven equal walls it had, of dark green jasper, specked with bloody spots. In the midst of one wall was the lofty doorway, and in the walls right and left of this and in those that inclosed the angle opposite the door were great windows placed high, giving light to the banquet hall. In each of the seven angles of the wall a caryatide, cut in the likeness of a three-headed giant from ponderous blocks of black serpentine, bowed beneath the mass of a monstrous crab hewn out of the same stone. The mighty claws of those seven crabs spreading upwards bare up the dome of the roof, that was smooth and covered all over with paintings of battles and hunting scenes and wrastling bouts in dark and smoky colours answerable to the gloomy grandeur of the chamber. On the walls beneath the windows gleamed weapons of war and of the chase, and on the two blind walls were nailed up all orderly the skulls and dead bones, of those champions which had wrastled aforetime with King Gorice XI, or ever he appointed in an evil hour to wrastle with Goldry Bluszco."

"Like a black eagle surveying earth from some high mountain the King passed by in his majesty. His byrny was of black chain mail, its collar, sleeves, and skirt edged with plates of dull gold set with hyacinths and opals. His hose were black, cross-gartered with bands of sealskin trimmed with diamonds. On his left thumb was his great signet ring fashioned in gold in the semblance of the worm Ouroboros that eateth his own tail: the bezel of the ring the head of the worm, made of a peach-coloured ruby of the bigness of a sparrow's egg. His cloak was woven of the skins of black cobras stitched together with gold wire, its lining of black silk sprinkled with dust of gold. The iron crown of Witchland weighed on his brow, the claws of the crab erect like horns; and the sheen of its jewels were many-coloured like the rays of Sirius on a clear night of frost and wind at Yule-tide."

I confess that on an initial reading, enraptured by the narrative, these vast descriptive "asides" threatened to weary me, and I was wont to skim them. During subsequent perusals, however, I learned to savor them as I did from the first the fine language, relishing the sparkling images thrown before my mind. Now I grant their necessity to Eddison's purpose.

Flaws of the Novel

Not to "catterwaw", but nothing is perfect, right? Having established my love of this tale, I can't help but note weaknesses, chiefly of minor degree. Following several immensely enjoyable readings, these matters come to mind:

1) Two expeditions to Impland seem a clumsy device. The second journey is quickly passed over, merely stated as having occurred; yet given the incredible difficulties of the first, and the associated heroics intensely described, I occasionally feel like something is missing. I believe these elements could have been differently structured, best combined in some fashion.

2) The attempt to rescue Goldry Bluszco dominates the mid-section of the book, but its successful accomplishment, strangely enough, has little bearing on the subsequent story. His character, so important at the beginning, is overshadowed by his Demon colleagues in the climax. It need not have been so. Why don't we read of his personal exploits at the battle before Carce?

3) While the lovely women among the Witches, Prezmyra and Sriva, are magnificently developed as flesh and blood characters, the females of the Demon side suffer by comparison. Lady Mevrian is wonderful, of course; still, Eddison presents her as something of an ice queen. She functions in the tale solely as the devoted sister of Brandoch Daha. Lady Armelline, cousin of Gaslark, betrothed to Goldry, fares much worse. Eddison simply mentions her on scattered occasions, never offering her as an active character. She receives not a single spoken line in the entire book. Surely she deserves at least a bon mot.

4) Gorice's three most important warring lords possess similar names-- Corund, Corsus, Corinius-- which can lead to confusion.

5) Lord Gro. Yes, that amazing man constitutes one of the novel's greatest strengths-- it wouldn't be the same without him-- but he is a real oddball. Once in a while I must shake my head in bewilderment at his loony antics.

6) A handful of interesting characters get too little time on stage, make a big splash only to disappear. The Red Foliot is the major case, Lord Gallandus a lesser one. I also say that Lord Laxus, a major player, deserves a fitting death scene.

Eddison and Howard

Under this heading I'm really thinking about E.R. Eddison's influence on fantasy. I can only speculate, not knowing whether he has had any broad effect. Of course he was buddies, back in the day, with the up and coming Tolkien, but as I understand it the latter formed his masterpiece as a sort of counterpoise to that of his mentor. The fellow I really wonder about is Robert E. Howard.

Lovecraft read Eddison, praised him to the skies, so I guess Howard too heard of Ouroboros. Did Howard derive notions of his epic character Conan of Cimmeria from Eddison? I don't know. Both authors offer bold, lusty heroes engaged in mighty deeds against exotic villains, whose adventures and quests tend towards the personal and self-centered rather than purely altruistic. I can't make much out of that, though, it being an aspect of many traditional tales that could have inspired both writers. I'm slightly more intrigued by Howard's routine employment of ancient and classical nomenclature in his stories, which does smack of Eddison. Howard justifies that literary tactic his own way, but could he have gleaned the idea from his contemporary? Take that for what it's worth. Also it occurs to me that both authors have philosophical axes to grind, and it does cross my mind at times that they may be sharing the same axe.


To summarize the foregoing: read The Worm Ouroboros. One of the enduring classics of the fantasy field, it demands attention from the connoisseur. If I had to pick one work to exemplify the highest caliber of the sword and sorcery tale, it would be this one. Not only is it an astounding story as it stands but, since it never ends, the reader is free to imagine the further adventures of Lord Juss and his incredible friends.

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