If you were to ask most people to name the truly classic works of fantasy fiction, you would almost certainly hear J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” (1954-55) and “The Hobbit” (1937), as well as C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” (1950-56). Many others, very much including myself, would include Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” series of stories (1930s).
All of these books and stories involve elaborately created fantasy worlds, each with its own geography, history and mythology. Indeed, this has become the standard for good fantasy: immersion of the reader in a world that seems as detailed and vibrant as the real one.
Most people would not be familiar, however, with an even earlier fantasy novel, “The Worm Ouroboros,” written by E.R. Eddison (1882-1945) and published in 1922. This is one of the earliest works of fantasy* to feature a completely invented and consistent fantasy world and was admired by later authors such as Lewis, Tolkien, and even H.P. Lovecraft!
The title of the novel refers to the mythical serpent Ouroboros, which is forever eating its own tail. It is a symbol of the villainous Witchland, which threatens to seize control of the free nations of the world Mercury by force in a time of vulnerability. Opposing Witchland are the Lords of Demonland: Lord Juss, Goldry Bluszco, Lord Spitfire, and Brandoch Daha. Their quest to defeat the Witches will involve clashes of armies, battles with fierce monsters, journeys to dangerous and mystical lands, encounters with ghosts and gods, narrow escapes from death, and horrifying conjurations.
“The Worm Ouroboros” is undeniably a classic, but a challenging one: it is written in sixteenth century English, and requires effort to understand. I read the book at an exceedingly leisurely pace, usually only a single chapter every night. Let’s take a quick look at “Ouroboros” and its influence on fantasy literature.
The story begins in our own world, as a man named Lessingham decides to sleep for the evening in The Lotus Room of his house, a room of dreams and visions. As he sleeps, Lessingham is visited by a talking swallow that whisks him away to the world called Mercury, where he can watch, invisible and intangible, as titanic events unfold there.
This introduction is rather awkward, but Eddison uses it to quickly introduce the world and its major players, as the swallow explains things to Lessingham. Once the exposition is complete, Lessingham vanishes entirely from the story, his purpose served.
The novel begins proper when a emissary arrives at the kingdom of Demonland from Witchland. The world has recently recovered from a titanic war, in which the civilized nations united to defeat the monstrous ghouls. Most nations suffered heavy losses, with the exception of the Witches, who fled from the final naval battle and consequently maintained their strength. In the aftermath, King Gorice XI of Witchland declares himself the ruler of the entire world, and sends his emissary to speak to the Lords of Demonland to demand their subservience. The valiant Lord Juss, Lord Spitfire, Goldry Bluszco and Brandoch Daha refuse, and instead arrange a high-stakes unarmed combat between Gorice and Goldry for the fate of the kingdom. The outcome of this combat leads the Witches to treachery and the darkest magic, and as a result Goldry Bluszco gets trapped in a dark and supernatural prison. Without hesitation, and with the fate of their kingdom at stake, the other Lords of Demonland vow to do whatever they can to free him.
If the names of the characters and places sound rather childish to you, it’s not surprising: Eddison apparently began imagining the stories and characters of “Ouroboros” at the age of ten, if not earlier, and maintained the names when he finally set them to paper as an adult.
The characters of “Ouroboros” themselves seem to have remained somewhat childish, as well. The Demons are courageous and heroic, while the Witches are arrogant and conniving. The notable exception is Lord Gro, an advisor to Witchland who is originally from Goblinland. Gro is intelligent, scheming, and conflicted: though he plays a pivotal role in aiding the Witches in their early forays, he later has several changes of heart.
In spite of the rather bland characters, there are quite a few powerful and imaginative moments in “Ouroboros.” Among these, though not a complete list:
- The terrifying night of conjuration of King Gorice, aided by Lord Gro, which is so dangerous that it threatens their souls as well as the Demons.
- Weeks spent by Juss and Daha in an enchanted forest, where curious animals of countless species visit their campsite out of curiosity.
- Brandoch Daha’s brash dalliance with a beautiful ghost in a haunted castle, and the devastating consequences of his choice.
- Lord Gro’s perilous travel to the cursed mountain prison Zora Rach in search of Goldry Bluszco, and the dangers he found there.
- The Demon’s encounter with three armies, each cursed to pursue one of the others, and never meeting.
- And, near the end of the novel, the Demons’ rash and insane magical wish, which makes perfect sense to anyone who has read to the end of a beloved fantasy saga.
“The Worm Ouroboros” sold poorly in its initial 1922 publication, but it was reissued in the 1960s, following the success of “The Lord of the Rings,” and successfully rode the wave of new interest in fantasy.
But what did the “newcomers” to fantasy, such as Tolkien and Lewis, think about Eddison’s work? C.S. Lewis was quite enthralled with Eddison’s work; in 1951, he was asked by one “George Hamilton” to write an introduction to a new edition of “Ouroboros.” Lewis gave an enthusiastic reply:
Of course I’ll write an introduction to Ouroboros. I’d deserve to be hanged if I wouldn’t. Mind you, one doesn’t always write best on what one most keenly and spontaneously enjoys. One writes best on the authors who are one’s acquired tastes (as happy love produces fewer great poems than mess and fuss like Donne’s or obsession like Catallus!) But I’ll do my damdest [sic].
H.P. Lovecraft was also filled with praise for “Ouroboros”; in a 1927 letter to Donald Wandrei, Lovecraft wrote:
And incidentally — as you value your aesthetic soul, don’t fail to read “The Worm Ouroboros”, by E.R. Eddison, within 24 hours!!! Art? Phantasy? Prose-poetry? Look & see! Man, what a style!
In a letter dated only a week later, Lovecraft follows up on a reply from Wandrei:
So you’ve read “Ouroboros”! Didn’t you find it magnificently poetic? The “Mercurian” setting was of course a mere surface gesture, the tale itself being preeminently terrestrial, with mediaeval wonder as the keynote. Some of the pictures are unforgettable — I can still see Koshtra Pivrarcha towering up snow-clad & mysterious… and God! Those Mantichores! … take ’em away!
In fact, “The Worm Ouroboros” was still in Lovecraft’s possession when he died in 1937, so it must hve made quite an impression.
In a letter to Caroline Everett in 1957, as a bit of contrast, Tolkien wrote the following:
I read the works of Eddison, long after they appeared; and I once met him. I heard him in Mr. Lewis’ room in Magdalen College read aloud some parts of his own works — from the Mistress of Mistresses, as far as I remember. He did it extremely well. I read his works with great enjoyment for their sheer literary merit. My opinion of them is almost the same as that expressed by Mr. Lewis on p. 104 of the Essays Presented to Charles Williams. Except that I disliked his characters (always excepting the Lord Gro) and despised what he appeared to admire more intensely than Mr. Lewis saw fit to say of himself. Eddison thought what I admire ‘soft’ (his word: one of complete condemnation, I gathered); I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly ‘philosophy’, he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty. Incidentally, I thought his nomenclature slipshod and often inept. In spite of all of which, I still think of his as the greatest and most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds’ that I have read. But he was certainly not an ‘influence’.
It is unclear how much Eddison influenced future fantasy writing, especially in light of its initial unpopularity and the explicit statement by Tolkien above that it was not an “influence.” However, it is a fascinating, challenging and at times beautiful fantasy book, and it helps mark out the trajectory that led fantasy fiction from its nebulous beginnings to the major form of literature that it is today.
“The Worm Ouroboros” can be read freely online, for example at Sacred Texts.
* But still not the earliest! There is, for instance, “The Wood Beyond the World,” by William Morris, published in 1894, of which I will blog in the future.