Saturday, April 11, 2015

E.R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros (1922)

This had been on the to-read list for a long time, so when I accidentally opened it while I was going through my ereader trying to decide what was next, I just shrugged and started reading.

It's an early fantasy novel, as you may know. It takes place on the planet Mercury, allegedly, though the narrative frequently refers to “earth” or things being “earthly.” There are two main lands: Demonland and Witchland (there are also some other “lands” that don't play much of a role: Goblinland, Impland, Pixyland). In spite of their names, it appears—it's sort of difficult to tell with absolute certainty—that regardless of landedness, all the characters are just humans.

As our story kicks off, the demons...well, actually, as our story REALLY kicks off, we get this inexplicable framing device where a guy on Earth named Lessingham with a whole implied backstory is spirited away in his dreams to witness things on Mercury. I found this kind of intriguing and was curious about what would come of this...and the answer is NOTHING, because after the first chapter he just vanishes from the novel and we learn nothing more about him nor what the point of that was. It's bizarre. I suppose if I HAD to hazard an explanation, I would guess that, fantasy not really being a well-established thing at the time, Eddison felt the need to situate his story in SOME sort of relationship with the real world. But even in that case, why imply story elements that you're then just going to totally disregard? VERY STRANGE.

So ANYWAY, after that, things begin with an emissary from Witchland coming to Demonland and saying, hey, you demons need to recognize us as your masters. The demons disagree, and all parties agree to a wrestling match between the lands' respective rulers to determine whether this will happen. The witch king is killed, which should mean that the witches will lay off, but instead they break the oath and summon the Ouroboros of the title to kidnap one of the demon lords and fuck up their fleet, and from there it is ON. All of this is written in a self-consciously archaic style, though not as irritatingly so as in The Wood Beyond the World. Actually, interestingly enough, two self-consciously archaic styles, as the novel gets even more old-school when characters write letters, as they do not infrequently. When that happens, we switch to what appears to be an Elizabethan-ish spelling system (although, while not being an Elizabethan expert and therefore not able to say for sure, I kinda think it isn't particularly authentic).

The Worm Ouroboros has some rather evocative landscape descriptions, and a few places where it even gets kinda metal, like so:

The air that was wintry cold waxed on a sudden hot as the breath of a burning mountain, and Gro was near choking with the smell of soot and the smell of brimstone. And the chamber rocked as a ship riding in a swell with the wind against the tide. But the King, steadying himself against the table and clutching the edge of it till the veins on his lean hand seemed nigh to bursting, cried on short breaths and with an altered voice, “By these figures drawn and by these spells enchanted, by the unction of wolf and salamander, by the unblest sign of Cancer now leaning to the sun, and by the fiery heart of Scorpio that flameth in this hour on night's meridian, thou art my thrall and instrument. Abase thee and serve me, worm of the pit. Else will I by and by summon out of ancient night intelligences and dominations mightier far than thou, and they shall serve mine ends, and these shall they chain with chains of quenchless fire and drag these from torment to torment through the deep.”

So that's okay. But boy, it's sure not a fleet-footed novel. You could fairly say that it lumbers, I think (this is especially noticeable when you read it back-to-back with Discworld novels). And it can get pretty tedious, especially when it switches its focus to Witchland politics and in-fighting (which, honestly, Eddison's prose style sometimes renders borderline incomprehensible). Nor is the world-building impressive. Eddison sure does mention a shitload of warriors and countries that we neither know nor learn anything whatsoever about; there's clearly an extent to which this was influenced by the Iliad, but that has the excuse of having been partially a quasi-historical record—no such rationale here. Nor is any of it particularly coherent. You know how in Tolkien, all the names feel authentically part of their cultures because the man had painstakingly developed those cultures? None of that here. The four main demon lords are named Juss, Brandoch Daha, Spitfire, and Goldry Bluzco. Just try to tell me that those look like they go together (nor, let me note, do any of their barely-extant personalities do any work for them). And check this out:

All the creatures of the forest came to that feast, for they were without fear, having never looked upon the face of man. Little tree-apes, and popinjays, and titmouses, and coalmouses, and wrens, and gentle roundeyed lemurs, and rabbits, and badgers, and dormice, and pied squirrels, and beavers from the streams, and storks, and ravens, and bustards, and wombats, and the spider-monkey and her baby at her breast . . . and not these along, but fierce beasts of the woods and wildernesses: the wild buffalo, the wolf, the tiger with monstrous paws, the bear, the fiery-eyed unicorn, the elephant, the lion and she-lion in their majesty, came to behold them in the firelight of the quiet glade.

WOMBATS! The thing is, this is supposed to be at least a somewhat concrete world, and when you toss this heterogeneous jumble of stuff into it, it just feels...jumbled (I'd also like to note for the record that Eddison refers to a crocodile as both a “fish” and a “serpent”).

Still, I was kind of on the fence about this novel throughout most of the run-time. Because while it's frequently dull, it also undeniably has its moments. But then I got to the end and...well. So right, this is obviously heavily influenced by Norse saga, so you have to expect a certain amount of glory-of-war stuff, and I don't exactly hold it against the book, although the violence and death does become a bit dispiriting. But that is nothing to the ending, which is truly beyond the pale: the Witchlanders have been exterminated, and it's all sweetness and light for the demons. And there's this princess who had helped them earlier who's visiting them and she's like, good for you, enjoy your peaceful existences. And then the demon lords start complaining, in a fashion that can only be described as “whiny,” about how lame and boring everything is now and how no one will know them for mighty deeds of war 'cause there are no more worthy opponents. So this princess helps them out by praying to the gods, and whaddaya know, the gods come through and resurrect all the Witchlanders so the demons can have fun slaughtering them all again. The novel ends as it began, with a Witchland messenger arriving at the castle.

Whee. I'm sure all the regular Demonland soldiers are simply thrilled that they get to go through all this bullshit again for the benefit of their rulers. One might sourly note that it's no goddamn surprise to learn that unlike Tolkien, Eddison never actually saw combat. This would be okay if it were presented as a tragedy, but it really isn't. You might think that it is thematically related to the “Ouroboros” thing—endless repetition, you know—but the book sure doesn't build that theme, and in fact Ouroboros itself is never described nor plays any significant part in the proceedings.

So no, while this book isn't as annoying as The Wood Beyond the World, I still don't recommend it at all. My favorite early-fantasy novel remains The King of Elfland's Daughter, and I didn't exactly love that one either. It's strange to me how primitive such books all seem to be; sure, fantasy might have been a new thing, but narrative sophistication and coherence sure weren't. It's really no wonder that Tolkien's the first fantasy writer with contemporary currency; his predecessors were not, as far as I've read, writing lost classics. Not much chance of me reading Eddison's later novels, set in the same world.


Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Maybe there was some kind of commentary here about how great heroism (as classically envisioned) tends to require bad guys to fight with-- and so while peace is theroretically good, it's kind of a double-edged sword for these people when you really think about the implications. It's been pointed out that the Harry Potter world is going to be incredibly boring and ennui-inducing after the novels, since what with the characters' effortless magical lives, they really needed Voldemort in order to have anything to struggle towards. Watchmen also hinted at the sad absurdity of "super heroes" living in a world where they hardly had any super villains to go up against.

11:46 AM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

I'm sure you're substantially right, but it would've worked better for me if Eddison hadn't seemed to take the attitude that this really WAS an awesome turn of events, to be celebrated.

4:43 PM  

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