Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison

E R Eddison was an English civil servant who wrote Ouroboros in 1922. My 1952 copy of the book was published by Dutton in a series called The Xanadu Library, 'A new series of paperback classics of imaginative writing...' and includes an introduction by Orville Prescott. His introduction, which is excerpted for the blurb, puts the novel in the ranks of Homer, Icelandic sagas and the Morte d'Arthur. A quick Google search revealed that Mr Prescott was, at the time, a reviewer for the New York Times and for Time magazine, and thus presumably lends an air of literary validity to the reprint of Ouroboros. There must surely be a reprint in the works with a foreword by Neil Gaiman.

I'm just under half way into the book, and I feel I've settled into its rhythms now. It is not a book that I can pick up and put down, because I don't find the romantic epic style immediately accessible. The language repays careful, wakeful reading of the sort that has been a little at a premium lately, so I'm making slow progress.

The action of Ouroboros takes place on the planet Mercury, which is inhabited by warring peoples called Witches and Demons, along with Ghouls, Goblins and Imps, but Eddison uses only the names and none of their usual accompanying characteristics. That in itself muddies the waters; the Demons are the good guys, for example, and the Witches are the bad guys, with the Goblins in an uncertain position as unhappy underlings to the Witches, which makes then unreliable allies to the Demons. The theme of the story is the epic struggle between the Demons and the Witches. The Demon lord Goldry Bluszco won a one-on-one 'wrastling' match with the Witch king Gorice XI, which was supposed to settle the whole affair but Witchy treachery ensued. As the Demons sailed home victorious, the mighty worm Ouroboros, sent at the bidding of Gorice's successor (helpfully named Gorice XII), blasted the fleet and stole away Goldry Bluszco who is now held in durance vile somewhere in Impland. The Demon lords have already suffered one failed campaign against Witchland, and are now questing in Impland to recover Goldry Bluszco, their forces severely diminished by the truly Homeric shipwreck that beset them on the way. It's not that either side is fielding thousands of men, but in fact, if after the shipwreck only 3,000 are left from 30,000, the figures seem much more imaginable and therefore affecting. So far, all the heroes have made it but I wouldn't be surprised if there is some Achillean-style tragedy ahead.

Eddison delights in description, and takes the opportunity to lard his prose even more than usual. This is his description of the Demon Lord Juss, one of the heroes:

Turn thy gaze first on him who walks in majesty in the midst, his tunic of olive-green velvet ornamented with devices of hidden meaning in thread of gold and beads of chrysolite. Mark how the buskins, clasping his stalwart calves, glitter with gold and amber. Mark the dusky cloak streamed with gold and lined with blood-red silk:a charmed cloak, made by the sylphs in forgotten days, and bringing good hap to the wearer, so he be true of heart and no dastard. Mark him that weareth it, his sweet dark countenance, the violet fire in his eyes, the sombre warmth of his smile, like autumn woods in late sunshine. This is Lord Juss, lord of this age-remembering castle, than whom none hath more worship in wide Demonland

I love that simile '...his smile, like autumn woods in late sunshine', and that compound adjective 'age-remembering', and there have been plenty of other examples that have made me smile. Like this one: 'I can see pat up his nostrils a summer's day journey into his head'. Eddison took obvious delight in the world and the characters he created, and the novel is saved from collapsing under the weight of its over-stately prose by that sense of joy and the leavening of humour that run through it.

That said, I can completely see why it fell out of favour. It's almost a literary folly, I think, and I get the impression that Eddison wrote it to please himself above all, perhaps to cheer himself up after a long day of pushing dry papers around his desk.


Eloise said...

I ordered a copy of this book purely because the name fascinated me when I saw it on your list, and now I'm really looking forward to it. It sounds wonderful, I love over the top descriptive writing like this.

Jill said...

I think that The Worm Ourobouros is a hidden masterpiece and I'm so glad that you read it for this challenge!

Becky said...

Eloise, I hope you enjoy it!

Jill, I'm glad to know of another person who appreciates it!