The Worm Ouroborous

Monday, June 21, 2010


The Worm Ouroborous
E.R. Eddison, 1922

It took me a little bit to get into this book. It starts with a weird frame story that vanishes after the second chapter, never to be seen again. Good Riddance, I say! I don't need any outside observer commenting on my tale of high adventure!

The language is thick, but not as bad as Morris' from last week, and not too bad to read once I got used to the cadences.
When the Red Foliot had spoken thus far his dirge, he was interrupted by an unseemly brawling betwixt Corinius and one of the sons of Corund. For Corinius, who gave not a fig for music or dirges, but liked well of carding and dicing, had brought forth his dice box to play with the son of Corund. They played awhile to Corinius's great content, for at every throw he won and the other's purse waxed light. But at this eleventh stanza the son of Corund cried out that the dice of Corinius were loaded. And he smote Corinius on his shaven jowl with the dice box, calling him cheat and mangy rascal, whereupon Corinius drew forth a bodkin to smite him in the neck withal; but some went betwixt them, and with much ado and much struggling and cursing they were parted, and it being shown that the dice were not loaded, the son of Corund was fain to make amends to Corinius, and so were they set at one again.

It's still mock-archaic, but underlaid here and there with a certain sardonic humor, and peppered with the most delightful descriptions. Much of the language is rich and beautiful, and some of the turns of phrase are wonderfully weird. Here's the line where I fell in love: the King of Witchland (the names take some getting used to) is preparing to do some powerful magic, and is testing the will of his would-be assistant:
The King muttered an incantation, and the powder moved and heaved, and was like a crawling mass of cheesemites in an overripe cheese.
Cheesemites! Fantastic!

This seems to be a world of what I might call 'Star Trek' fantasy races, in that they're all basically European humans, with perhaps a few superficial differences. Demons, Witches, Imps, Goblins and Pixies intermarry; the titles seem to be more along the lines of human nationalities than the separate fantasy races we may be used to.

The Worm Ouroborous is the chronicle of an epic war between the Lords of Demonland, who are generally honest, brave and mighty, if bloodthirsty, and the Lords of Witchland who are (with a few notable exceptions) weaselly and pompous, and quarrel amongst themselves.

Don't misunderstand from the short synopsis, though, because the story is full of characters who are both larger-than-life, and surprisingly complex. I very much appreciated the inclusion of powerful, politically minded women on both sides of the quarrel. For example, the lovely Prezmyra, Princess of Pixyland. By her marriage to Lord Corund she holds Pixyland and Witchland in alliance, but her brother the King of Pixyland is also close with the Demons. She is a fascinating character, at times perhaps on the “wrong” side, who still acts in accordance with her personal honor.

If there's a moral in this story, it is firmly in favor of seeking glory in battle. The whole thing is somewhat stereotypically Norse. The main characters, even the 'heroic' ones, think little of the many commoners squashed to obtain their victories, and most actions taken are those more appropriate to demigods than mortals. Even so, it is more complex in its politics than much of epic fantasy.

There is one very weird dated racist scene late in the book which involves an illusion and seems somewhat apropos of nothing.

Overall, I was carried away by the lush language and god-like exploits of complicated characters. Finishing this book was a somewhat intense experience. Now, I like almost all of what I read and I try not to read too many books that I know I won't enjoy.  But even given that, and despite (or perhaps because of) its many crazy bits, The Worm Ouroborous gets my highest rating: the “why have I never read this before now?”

5 Stars - An Awesome Book

Next Week:  The King of Elfland's Daughter, by Lord Dunsany

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