Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison

I made it through and I found the last two-thirds progressed much more quickly, and were more involving, than the first 150 or so pages. I'm sure this has a lot to do with the fact that after ambling lazily until that point, I finished the rest in only a couple of sittings.

It also helped that the book moved from its lengthy scene setting, through a protracted and vaguely pointless quest sequence, and onto the real warfare and battles. I found myself very caught up in these later scenes, genuinely wanting the Demons to kick the Witches the hell out Demonland. I was quite upset when Brandoch Daha's palace at Krothering was comprehensibly trashed by the drunken, objectionable Witches, and I almost cheered when Lady Mevrian escaped the foul attentions of Lord Corinius. In order to describe one of the huge battles, Eddison employs a literary device of delayed narrative, and introduces a couple of humble, country folk to be the recipient of the story. These are, I think, the only non-noble characters who get an identity and a purpose other than being slain in combat.

Eddison is straightforward in his characterisation. Although the Witches are described in just such gorgeous detail as the Demons, they are just a little less perfect all around, and a little too ready to intrigue. The Demon court stands for all that is civilised, august, just, honourable, virtuous, beautiful, chivalrous, lofty, intelligent, benevolent etc, and its lords are correspondingly inhumanly good. They are not much individualised, although Brandoch Daha has a good line in cynical, drawling wit, like a knightly Scarlet Pimpernel. The Witches, in contrast, backstab, fight, scheme, drink and womanise, and are almost indistinguishable from each other. Corvus drinks but Corvinius doesn't, or perhaps it's the other way round? They may temporarily get the upper hand, but this is just to allow them the opportunity to prove their unworthiness by acts of rapine and looting, thereby rendering their eventual defeat and destruction all the more satisfactory.

I think no one should come to The Worm Ouroboros expecting there to be a point to it. There is none and some of the plot devices are so obvious you can hear them creaking. The quest, for example, exists solely to get the Demon lords out of the way so the Witches can invade, and to set up the ending, yet it occupies about two years of the overall timeline of the book. And at the end of it, the heroes find they have to return home! In some ways, the story is stitched together from a series of one-off incidents that exist solely to move that part of the story along and then are never returned to or mentioned again.

Yet, somehow, when by all rights it should collapse, the whole thing works. The story exists for the sake of the story alone, for what seems to me the author's fascination with the language, culture, dress, habits of some fabulous golden age. The setting is incredibly well maintained; Eddison's invention never falters, there was never (at least to my ear) a wrong note sounded. The book is true to itself, if that makes any sense, and within that self-contained universe Eddison somehow holds it all together: the layer upon layer of adjectives, the lengthy similes, the involved sentence structure and unusual verb placement, the bravery and chivalry that are almost frivolous in their extremes. I get the impression that the author took his work very seriously, and at the same time took care slyly to undercut his own bombast.

It is not to everyone's taste, I'll warrant, but to those that are minded for a folly, 'tis a sweet one.


Emily Barton said...

You're right: sounds like a "must read," despite the rathe dubious recommendation from you-know-who.

BooksPlease said...

Yes - another "must read", indeed.