The Worm Ouroboros

The Worm Ouroboros. E.R. Eddison. Introduction by James Stephens. New York: Ballantine, 1967.

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Reviewed by Joel Zartman

[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:1 (#330) in January 2010.]

The seldom mentioned worm Ouroboros, who never actually makes an appearance and when he works only works offstage, is that fell worm that eats his tail. It is well to notice that the worm is summoned by the enchantments of Gorice XII, king of Witchland, and that the worm is also the insignia of his ring. When one comes to the end of this enigmatic book, one ought to think about the worm Ouroboros, and how he eats this tale.

It is neither allegory nor fable but a Story to be read for its own sake,” read the first words of the book that meet the reader in the dedication. And what a story! No less a writer than the glorious if neglected James Stephens gives away the story (in an insightful and enigmatic way) with the first words of his introduction, but you would have to read the book to understand. Then he writes, “An energy such as came on the poets has visited the author of this book, and his dedicatory statement.” He then complains of Eddison’s arrogance in putting us off with his dedicatory statement (strange times, those of the early 20th Century, indeed) but still assures us Eddison has been to strange, fantastic regions and has “supped at the torrent which only the greatest know of.”

Eddison has. What flights of imagination, what whole wonders described with unrelenting detail (it is well to read the descriptions and they reward, as for example the latter end of the descriptions of the food at banquets in Witchland do), what creatures, kings, advisors, generals, witches, queens, conniving wenches, traitors, admirals, shepherds, ardent-hearted lords both wise and foolish, battles, stratagems, dilemmas, enchantments, poetry (curious in itself how he finds contexts for old poetry—Wotton, Carew, Herrick, Donne and even Shakespeare), plains, rivers, castles, chambers, banquets, weapons, oysters, deeds and thoughts and world!

It should fall to someone whose work seems to have been neglected to attempt to rescue another’s work from neglect, as Stephens has for Eddison. And it is a strange pleasure which attends neglected works. The famous works we may have read when we were too young, or were pretenders intruding in things too mighty for us, or worst of all were forced to read in the discipline of duty. Such reading can be salvaged later, and such works can be appreciated, but it is often at the expense of the happy memory of early love. The pleasure of neglected works is their discovery, our stumbling upon them and without anticipation discovering for ourselves a wonder, a secret enchanted glade, a work of beauty in an attic, a ruin, or in the dust and labyrinth of a true bookstore.

The first strange thing of Eddison’s strange world, is the most wonderful strange and familiar thing of all: his language. He has made a book in which these sentences can live again and can rejoice the human heart:

The rain fell gentlier. [Worth writing a whole book to say!]

“Very prettily conceived, upon my soul,” said Brandoch Daha. “Might I advise thee, thou’dst best not talk to Juss i’ this manner. Not now, I mean, while his mind’s so bent on matters of weight and moment. Nor I should not say it to my sister Mevrian. Women will oft-times take in sad earnest such a conceit, though it be but talk and discourse. With me ’tis otherwise. I am something of a philosopher myself, and thy jest ambleth with my humour very pleasantly.”

And let me not neglect the epistolary glories:

Heare was bifaln an horable great murtheringe battell where Thy Servaunte dyd oppresse and over-throwe with mitch dexteritee those Daemons, makynge of them so bluddie and creuell a slawghter as hathe not been sene afore not once nor twice in mans memorye, and blythely I tel you of Vizze theyr cheefe capitaine kild and ded of strips taken at Crosby felde.

If you have not developed an ease with reading such English, you are missing much and ought to make the effort, for when it goeth apace and old Eddison spins swiftly, why then it shimmereth as ‘t were a thread spun out of glory.

The language makes the world possible, and it makes the high, puissant Lords of Demonland and their awful enemies of Witchland possible. It is the medium of the consciousness of such persons and such deeds. But more, with his language Eddison has taken us to look upon that most mysterious of all created regions: the human heart. There is Lord Juss of Demonland, wise and prudent and determined. There is Lord Brandoch Daha, bold and ardent-hearted, a veritable Richard Coeur d’Lion returned and in his proper place. Truly Brandoch Daha is one of the glories of this book, but to fail to understand the place he fills at the side of Lord Juss, is to fail to understand what Eddison does with Lord Brandoch Daha. Another of the glories of this book is the formidable and fiendish Gorice XII, king of Witchland. He is politic, sorcerous, fierce, calculating and might with all justice be called fornicator immensis et crudelis. And yet the fierce, semi-literate, apoplectic, lecherous, strong and drunken dukes of Witchland who serve Gorice XII have their own grandeur and tragedy. Trewly doth Eddison prepare for the death of the wikked in the minde of those his readers, but the anticipation thereof is never of such a quality as any may predict. Doom arising ever hovers with the troubling but uncertain shape of tempest clouds.

And it is instructive, reflecting on the world of Eddison and the peoples that move on it, to reflect that tales would not be made without the pride and folly of Witchlanders. Here in this book is Romanticism: the longing for glory and for realms distant because they are departed, or strange, or just remote, for winning through adversity by exploiting the adversity without becoming that against which one stands, without surrendering any ideals while practically mastering a situation, without succumbing at any point to the enemy, but at even the subtlest point defying that which makes them wrong, makes them enemy. Romanticism in all its glory and contradiction. The Romanticism of romance.

The worm Ouroboros eats its tail. The Lords of Demonland stand opposed to the overweening Witchlanders, the imaginations of their hearts, their dastardly ways, their riot and oppression all. And yet, as Eddison shows us, there is nothing that the Lords of Demonland desire more than Witchland. Such, it seems to me, are we readers of romances in so many ways.

The Worm Ouroboros. E.R. Eddison. Introduction by James Stephens. New York: Ballantine, 1967.

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Content copyright 1967- The Mythopoeic Society All rights reserved