The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. EddisonOrville Prescott once described 'The Worm Ouroboros' as 'An epic fantasy to compare with Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings'', but that is to do it an injustice. It is 'an epic fantasy', that is true, but that is where all similarity ends. Where 'The Lord of the Rings' has its roots in Norse myth, 'The Worm Ouroboros', written in 1926, is born out of Tudor England - its magic, its swashbuckling heroes, its bestiaries.
Eddison, who references the Lake District and Norway in this and his 'Zimiamvian Trilogy' (see a future blog!), adds a touch of Tudor intrigue and politics to an imaginary version of both locations - the island kingdom of Demonland (don't be put off by the name) is full of Cumbria-like names: Owlswick, Krothering, Stitchwater and Erngate End to name but a few. He was also fascinated by mountains in all their forms, from the Lakeland fells to the Himalayas. The book, with its countless battles, creatures, conjurings and political machinations, has a central quest to climb not one but two mighty peaks. The dangerous ascent of Koshtra Pivrarcha is described in incredible detail, and the whole range lovingly pictured:
"Soon the new daylight flooded the snowfields of the High Glacier of Temarm, dyeing them green and saffron and palest rose. The snows of Islargyn glowed far away in the north to the right of the white dome of Emshir. Ela Mantissera blocked the view north-eastward."Which brings me to my main point. Yes, there are wonderful set-pieces to the book - the perilous conjuring of King Gorice XII at the start; the flight on the hippogriff towards the end; Lord Juss's fight with the manticore on his mountain quest. But that is not why 'The Worm Ouroboros' is such a great book, and why it captivated me nearly 40 years ago on a long car journey to the Austrian Alps.
'The Worm Ouroboros' is unique in its author's use of language. Today, a virtue is too often made of simple, straightforward, almost minimalist writing - I remember my Dad remarking that my own attempts at prose had 'too many adjectives'. E.R. Eddison is completely unafraid of language, of adjectives, of description. It is not that he overdoes things - he is just in love with words, and with their power to create wonder. Another thing I should say here is that the book is written in an archaic, almost Tudor style (think of Shakespeare or the King James Bible and you'll get my meaning), which suits this kind of description. Here is an example from the climax of the Manticore battle:
"And Juss, for all his bitter pain and torment, and for all he was well nigh stifled by the sore stink of the creature's breath and the stink of its blood and puddings blubbering about his face and breast, yet by his great strength wrestled with that fell and filthy man-eater."'The Worm Ouroboros' starts with the conceit of a Lakeland dweller, Lessingham, being led in a kind of dream to this fantastic world, where the protagonists are introduced to him. It is a strange disjointed way of starting the book, and poor Lessingham is forgotten about within the first 20 pages (if you read the 'Zimiamvian Trilogy' this makes at least some sense). I strongly advise you to persevere through the start of the book, though, and beyond. Embrace Eddison's language yourself, and you'll be in for an unforgettable trip.