The Worm Ouroboros (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

The Worm Ouroboros (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)


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The Worm Ouroboros weaves strands from Norse saga, Greek myth, and Elizabethan drama together with magical adventure to produce one of the most eccentric masterpieces of English literature. Anticipating J. R. R. Tolkien by a few decades, E. R. Eddison imagined an Other World full of wonders and a huge cast of warriors, witches, and monsters. He also invented one of the truly distinctive styles in English prose. Its language is densely ornamented and deliberately archaic, but also precise, vigorous, and flexible enough to convey wistful tenderness one minute and violent action the next. In the decades since its first publication in 1922, The Worm Ouroboros has become a touchstone for lovers of fantasy literature, influencing several generations of writers and treasured by readers who fall under its spell.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780760773642
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 01/09/2006
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)


The Worm Ouroboros weaves strands from Norse saga, Greek myth, and Elizabethan drama together with magical adventure to produce one of the most eccentric masterpieces of English literature. Anticipating J. R. R. Tolkien by a few decades, E. R. Eddison imagined an Other World full of wonders and a huge cast of warriors, witches, and monsters. He also invented one of the truly distinctive styles in English prose. The novel's language is densely ornamented and deliberately archaic, but also precise, vigorous, and flexible enough to convey wistful tenderness one minute and violent action the next. In the decades since its first publication in 1922, The Worm has become a touchstone for lovers of fantasy literature, influencing several generations of writers and treasured by readers who fall under its spell.

Eric Rucker Eddison was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1882 and attended Eton and Trinity College, Oxford. Like his near-contemporaries Kenneth Grahame (a banker) and Walter de la Mare (a clerk in an oil company), he combined a prosaic career with fantastic writing. During most of Eddison's adult life he worked for the British Board of Trade, eventually serving as Deputy Comptroller General of Overseas Trade. He was also an avid mountain climber and an amateur scholar of Old Norse literature, two avocations that fed directly into his fiction. His novel Styrbiorn the Strong (1926) was based on characters from the Eyrbyggja Saga, and he published his own translation of Egil's Saga in 1930. A common interest in the sagas fostered an acquaintanceship with J. R. R. Tolkien and other members of the literary fellowship known as the Inklings. Eddison read excerpts from stories-in-progress at meetings of the Inklings, and both Tolkien and C. S. Lewis wrote appreciatively of his work. After publishing The Worm Ouroboros, he went on to write three more novels linked with The Worm through the reappearance of the character Lessingham and the fantastic realm of Zimiamvia. Mistress of Mistresses appeared in 1935 and A Fish Dinner in Memison in 1941. The last volume, The Mezentian Gate, was published in incomplete form in 1958, following Eddison's death in 1945. All three, along with The Worm Ouroboros, were republished in the 1960s, following the enormously successful paperback publication of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Their reception encouraged the publisher, Ballantine Books, to start a line of new and rediscovered fantasy works, which in turn played a major part in the revival of fantasy as a genre.

The Worm Ouroboros links the pioneering work of William Morris and George MacDonald in the nineteenth century with the high fantasies of Lewis and Tolkien in the mid-twentieth. Its complex plot involves intrigue, betrayal, war, and a magical quest, all of which are set in motion by King Gorice of Witchland when he invades the neighboring land of the Demons. Despite their name, the Demons are both honorable and human (though they do have small horns, which they like to decorate with inlays of gold). Under their leader Lord Juss, the Demons must find allies and win back their independence. One of those allies is Juss' brother Goldry Bluzco, who has been carried off to parts unknown by Gorice's necromancy. In a vision, Juss discovers that he must rescue his brother before he can hope to defeat the Witch King. The quest for Goldry takes Juss and his friend Brandoch Daha across seas and wild lands, up the slopes of the highest mountains in the known world, and beyond into the realms of the dead and the gods. In the end, the Demons earn the right to decide the fate of their world, and their choice makes for one of the strangest endings in all of fantasy literature. There are not many fantasy setting you can actually visit. Nether Wastdale, or Wasdale, where The Worm Ouroboros opens, lies at the lower end of a lake called Wastwater amid some of the wildest scenery in Britain. Scree-laden slopes, deep shadowy water, and high fells disappearing into mist add up to a grandeur all the more striking for being only a stone's throw from Beatrix Potter's gentle Peter Rabbit country. Both are parts of the Lake District in the northwest corner of England. At the beginning of The Worm, Edward and Mary Lessingham sit in the garden at their home in Nether Wastdale, a garden where, as the narrator tells us, Vikings once roamed. The book they are reading, an Icelandic saga, inspires Lessingham to sleep in the mysterious Lotus Room. From there he is transported to Mercury to observe the battles of beings called Goblins, Demons, and Witches.

Like Shakespeare in The Taming of the Shrew, Eddison frames the story on one side only. Lessingham disappears from the story early on, and we never do go back to the Lakes, at least in this volume. To find out more about Lessingham (and the Lotus Room), one must read Eddison's other fantasy novels, in which the worlds of Zimiamvia and Earth are interwoven. In a way, though, both Zimiamvia and Mercury are simply exaggerated versions of Nether Wastdale. In Eddison's imagination, this tiny remnant of wild nature and wilder history, hidden amid the noise and confusion of twentieth-century England, stretches into a whole world of grace and savagery and magic. Wastwater becomes a sea; its shores harbor kingdoms called Witchland and Demonland; its surrounding mountains rise to greater-than-Alpine heights; the men who climb them take on the proportions of legendary heroes such as Gawain and Beowulf. Like Tolkien, Eddison looked to a past that still haunts isolated spots in the English countryside. Both writers found in the soaring language of old tales an antidote to the evils of the present.

In the introduction to his translation of Egil's Saga, Eddison reveals some of his aims in writing The Worm Ouroboros. He looks across the sea to Iceland and Norway to find what is missing in modern-day England. Iceland, he says, stands for three virtues:

first, on the political field--aristocratic individualism of an uncompromising kind; secondly, in its broad outlook on human life and destiny-paganism; and thirdly, in art-a peculiar and in itself highly perfected form of prose narrative.1

These qualities are central to Eddison's vision, and they also represent what he saw as the rightful heritage of Englishmen. "No Englishman," he claims in the preface to the same volume, "can read the book attentively without becoming aware that this is not a foreign book but curiously his own, curiously English."2 As a native of Yorkshire, in the part of England that was called the Danelaw when it was ruled by Vikings in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, Eddison was particularly alert to the Scandinavian strain within English culture as well as "the Norse strain in our ancestry."3 This emphasis on Nordic ancestry, combined with his disdain for commoners, cowards, foreigners, and other lesser breeds, occasionally sounds an ominous note in Eddison's fantasies: some of his pronouncements verge on a British version of fascism. But the love for heroic myth is greater than any one use--or misuse-of the past.

Wastdale, the earthly anchor for his fantasy, is, like Yorkshire, a locale where the Viking past still lurks in place names, archaeological sites, and local dialect. Not only do the Lake District's beck (brook), fell (mountain), and force (waterfall) correspond to Norway's bekk, fjell, and foss, but both are places where one can still leap over a beck, scale a fell, and plunge through a force. The sort of aristocratic, pagan heroes Eddison envisioned require the noble scenery and craggy language of the sagas.

Nether Wastdale is, for Eddison, a gateway to other times and other possibilities. For both setting and language, Lessingham looked north to the Lakes, and still farther north. In Mistress of Mistresses, we find out that Lessingham eventually sets up an independent kingdom on the Lofoten Islands, between Norway and the Arctic Ocean. There he and his creator issue a challenge to the twentieth century. The same year The Worm Ouroboros was published, Ezra Pound introduced Ernest Hemingway to Gertrude Stein, who helped Hemingway invent a new, stripped-down prose style for fiction. Also that year, with assistance from Pound, two landmarks of literary Modernism appeared: James Joyce's Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. In both, techniques of broken narrative, pastiche, linguistic experimentation, and ironic invocation of myth are employed to confront an increasingly fragmented and frenetic existence. These are the accepted literary methods for dealing with new technologies such as motorcars, airplanes, and movies and with the new social realities of Bolsheviks, trench warfare, and working women. In a world of so much disruption, the Modernist response was summed up by Pound in his slogan, "make it new."

Eddison's response to the aftermath of World War I and the new Jazz Age looks much more conservative than those of his Modernist contemporaries, and yet in some ways The Worm Ouroboros is as radical an experiment as anything by Gertrude Stein. Eddison's works suggest a different way to deal with the social upheavals of the present: not by mirroring them or bemoaning them but by delving into the past and bringing back a few of its treasures wrapped in a protective layer of fantasy. Eddison's mythic method took longer to catch on than Eliot's, but his extravagance and deliberate anachronism have influenced a surprising number of later writers, not only Tolkien and C. S. Lewis but also James Branch Cabell, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Leiber, Ursula K. Le Guin, Terry Windling, and Poul Anderson.

Eddison used a number of techniques for recapturing the heroic past. The most obvious is language. Scorning Modernism's bare-bones style, Eddison aimed for grandeur, and he tells us exactly where he found his grand rhetoric. The first pages of The Worm point us toward Norse sagas, while the back pages acknowledge his debt to the English Renaissance. Salted throughout the prose narrative are poetic fragments and songs; the end material acknowledges their sources in the works of Thomas Carew, Robert Greene, John Webster, and William Shakespeare. These poets and playwrights, along with seventeenth-century prose masters such as Robert Burton and Thomas Browne, offered an alternative to Hemingway's minimalism. Eddison plunders their rich and archaic vocabulary and emulates their soaring periodic sentences. His characters declaim as if they were on stage, and his narrator piles detail upon detail until the reader is surfeited with riches. An example is the description of the Demon Lord Juss' presence chamber in chapter 1:

But a great wonder of this chamber, and a marvel to behold, was how the capital of every one of the four-and-twenty pillars was hewn from a single precious stone, carved by the hand of some sculptor of long ago into the living form of a monster: here was a harpy with screaming mouth, so wondrously cut in ochre-tinted jade it was a marvel to hear no scream from her: here in wine-yellow topaz a flying fire-drake: there a cockatrice made of a single ruby: there a star sapphire the colour of moonlight, cut for a cyclops, so that the rays of the star trembled from his single eye: salamanders, mermaids, chimaeras, wild men o' the woods, leviathans, all hewn from faultless gems, thrice the bulk of a big man's body, velvet-dark sapphires, crystolite, beryl, amethyst, and the yellow zircon that is like transparent gold.

We might not want to hire Lord Juss' interior decorator, but Eddison's mastery of the style convinces us that we are in some older, grander, more eloquent time. He is never guilty of the lapses that in lesser fantasists throw us suddenly, as Ursula K. Le Guin observes, "from Elfland to Poughkeepsie."4 Unlikely products of the early twentieth century, Eddison's characters, whose native tongue is high Elizabethan rhetoric, seem as colorful and fantastic as the carven beasts in Juss' hall. The evil ones are outrageously evil; the good improbably noble. Good or evil, they share an intensity of purpose and a passion for experience that was hard to find in the halls of the British Board of Trade.

There is not much passion in Tolkien's Middle Earth. For him, love is chaste and women are exotic, distant creatures. Most fantasy follows Tolkien's decorous example regarding sexuality and other appetites, but Eddison's characters are lusty in every sense of the word. The villainous Witch King is so greedy for life that he wears out body after body, magically reincarnating himself as Kings Gorice the First through Twelfth. As Gorice XII, he is more than willing to be seduced by the lascivious Lady Sriva. The good guys are also lusty. Given a choice of boons by the magical Lady of Ishnain Nemartra, Brandoch Daha opts for Lady's own divine body, even though her favor may cost him his castle and endanger his quest.

Eddison admires passion even above virtue. His favorite characters are on the "wrong" side in the battle between Witches and Demons. What makes these two-the Lady Prezmyra and the Goblin Lord Gro-more interesting than the interchangeable heroes is that their loyalties pull them in different directions. Eddison is unusual among fiction writers, let alone fantasy writers, in portraying passionate love within long-term relationships-even marriages. Prezmyra's brother is an ally of the Demons, but she is married to the best of the Witch generals, and her love for her bluff soldier husband outweighs even family ties. For his part, Lord Gro is torn between admiration for the generous spirit of the Demon lords and devotion to the unattainable Prezmyra. Furthermore, he loves intrigue for its own sake, and he cannot help switching his allegiance to whichever side seems to be losing, even when it is his assistance that has helped the other side gain ascendance. His is a strange doom: always to work for the overthrow of the things he most loves.

Though Eddison has many strengths as a writer, the things that linger in the reader's mind from The Worm Ouroboros are glimpses of pure strangeness: unearthly scenes given weight and depth by Eddison's style. Among these vivid depictions are two great lords wrestling before the scarlet-skinned judge; a desperate fight against a foul manticore on the slopes of Koshtra Pivrarcha; the looming black peak of Zora Rach, where souls are suspended between life and death; the lightning-cloaked Iron Tower, where the Witch King works his spells.

As strange as any of these scenes is the final bargain made by the Demon lords when they are given a boon by the gods. Their decision gives the story the same shape as that of the ring worn by King Gorice in the novel: a serpent or dragon that, by taking its tail in its mouth, becomes a symbol of eternity. This is the Worm Ouroboros, and it is the perfect emblem not only for the undying Witch King but also for the novel. Considering that it is Gorice's ring, this ending can be read as evil's unexpected triumph over good, but then Eddison never divides up good and evil as neatly as most fantasists do. Instead of making us choose sides, he asks us to value beauty, nobility, strength, and passion wherever they may be found, even in the service of seeming evil. His heroes are Demons; his devils heroic. Readers who find this vision compelling will find the story's ending exactly right, because it invites us to turn again to the beginning, to go right back to Nether Wastdale for another journey into Eddison's rich, strange, antique world.

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