A Review of The Worm Ouroboros

Posted: February 15, 2013 in Uncategorized
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I like to point out to my ten or so regular readers things that you might find interesting, or cool, or something of that nature. And also, I like to point them to things that you guys might not have heard of. That’s probably why I haven’t posted a big long review of the last Wheel of Time book (well, there’s that, and there’s the fact that I don’t like Wheel of Time). 

So I wanted to do a review of this book I read. And, because I was all busy with the schooling and the noveling, I only got around to it right now.

So.

The Worm Ouroboros, by E.R. Eddison.

This is not the book The Worm Ouroboros. This is, in fact, Worm Ouroboros, which is a kickass doom metal band.

This is not the book The Worm Ouroboros. This is, in fact, Worm Ouroboros, which is a kickass doom metal band.

What is there to say about this book…? It came out in 1922, when it was completely ignored by the literary world, because 1922 was the height of modernism, and this book is decidedly not modernist. It went out of print after Eddison’s death, when it was republished in the sixties, in the brief period between the publication of Lord of the Rings, when the whole world WANTED MORE STUFF EXACTLY LIKE LORD OF THE RINGS RIGHT NOW, but before the publication of The Sword of Shannara, when a book that was exactly like LotR came out, and authors began a decade of wholesale Tolkien ripoff. There was some cool stuff published in that period, like the Earthsea and Elric books, but since there was more demand for fantasy than there were, you know, writers who actually wrote fantasy, editors basically brought every work of fantasy written between 1900 and 1960 and brought it back into print.

So, The Worm Ouroboros came out again, and was promptly ignored by the budding world of fantasy readers, because for one thing, it’s not like Lord of the Rings.

It’s been republished a couple of times afterwards. This is the cover of the current edition, which has been straight ripped from Amazon.

61J7RWEH2QL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

That’s not the edition that I read, though. I read this edition, which came out in 1990.

You can tell it’s from 1990, because it has a blurb from Piers Anthony. That is because in 1990, people actually considered Piers Anthony to be a respectable writer, rather than an unreadable novel-recycling hack.

You can tell it’s from 1990, because it has a blurb from Piers Anthony. That is because in 1990, people actually considered Piers Anthony to be a respectable writer, rather than an unreadable novel-recycling hack.

 

In any case, I mentioned that it’s not like Lord of the Rings. Which is fine, of course. While both novels were written by saga-loving Englishmen who were born in the late Victorian era, The Worm Ouroboros is really about as different from Lord of the Rings as two works of fantasy can really be.

Well, actually, there are some similarities. For one thing, they both have a fondness for archaisms. However, Tolkien actually knew archaic languages (I mean, come on: the man was fluent in twenty languages, most of them dead), which means that his prose has a certain glamour about it, which gives the story a particular sense of tragic dignity that most modern fantasy lacks:

 

Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner flew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his house, but he was ever before them. Eomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden would not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and thief, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.

(The Return of the King, V.5, “The Ride of the Rohirrim”)

 

Tolkien has been criticized for his anachronistic language, but nobody can deny that he knew how to write in that style. (In fact, I would argue that this specific scene might be the greatest scene ever written in all of fantasy, if it weren’t for the fact that two other scenes in Lord of the Rings, the “death” of Gandalf and the ring-destroying scene, might arguably outpace it.)

In contrast, Eddison didn’t write archaically like Tolkien did. His style is like a chaotic mashup of The Faërie Queene, Christopher Marlowe, Norse sagas, and Victorian poetry. Compare the scene from Lord of the Rings with this passage, which appears early on in The Worm Ouroboros:

 

Now while they rested, a flittermouse flew forth from the Witchland booths and went widdershins around the wrastling ground and so returned silently whence she came. Lord Gro saw her, and his heart waxed heavy within him. He spake to Corund, and said, “Needs must that I make trial even at this late hour if there be not any means to turn the King from further adventuring of himself, ere all be lost.” 

Corund said, “Be it as thou wilt, but it will be in vain.” 

So Gro stood by the King and said, “Lord, give over this wrastling. Great of growth and mightier of limb than any that you did overcome aforetime is this Demon, yet have you vanquished him. For you did throw him, as we plainly saw, and wrongfully hath the Red Foliot adjudged you evenly matched because in the throwing of him by your majesty’s self did fall to earth. Tempt not the fates by another bout. Yours is the victory in this wrastling: and now we, your servants, wait but your nod to make a sudden onslaught on these Demons and slay them, as we may lightly overcome them taken at unawares. And for the Foliots, they be peaceful and sheeplike folk, and will be held in awe when we have smitten the Demons with the edge of the sword. So may you depart, O King, with pleasure and great honour, and afterward fare to Demonland and bring it into subjection.” 

The King looked sourly upon Lord Gro, and said, “Thy counsel is unacceptable and unseasonable. What lieth behind it?” 

Gro answered, “There have been omens, O King.” 

And the King said, “What omens?”

(The Worm Ouroboros, Chapter II, “The Wrastling for Demonland”)

 

If you’re not accustomed to reading Ye Olde Laynguaygge, don’t worry. There were a lot of times when I had to read a page four or five times just so I could understand what the hell was going on. Lord of the Rings is famous for being a difficult book, even for people who love fantasy, but The Worm Ouroborous is far worse. This is mostly because Tolkien chose to write in a deliberately archaic style, but he was actually fluent in Oldespeak. He knew that kind of writing inside-out. Compared to Tolkien, the Eddison passage is cumbersome and clunky. Tolkien’s writing was the pounding of hoofbeats over hard turf. Eddison’s was often the squelching of a Honda Civic getting bogged down in quicksand.

That doesn’t mean that The Worm Ouroborous is bad, though. On the contrary– there are parts that are actually quite good, if you can tolerate or understand the cod-Elizabethan prose. There are some quite memorable passages, including the dark sorcery worked in Carcë and the quest to Koshtra Belorn in search of Lord Goldry Bluzco. And, while I probably would have cut out about two hundred pages of the middle (which is a lot, considering that it’s a five hundred page book), it’s still an interesting read.

It’s just… different.

In this post-Tolkien world, we’re used to our fantasy worlds being “secondary worlds”. We expect maps and histories, languages and economies, court customs and peasants’ fables, so that if the story were to disappear entirely, we’d have a sense that the world would still exist. We even have an entire word for writing the setting-related backstory for a fantasy novel: worldbuilding (WHICH IS TOTALLY A WORD EVEN IF WORDPRESS’S SPELLCHECK DOESN’T ACKNOWLEDGE IT). You get this impression from Lord of the Rings. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, every step that the Fellowship takes on their journey kicks up dust that has seemingly seen thousands of years of history. Middle-earth is a world, rich and diverse, which means that if we stop following the Fellowship and instead just stay at the Prancing Pony or Rivendell or Meduseld for the rest of the War of the Ring, things would still happen. It feels like a place.

This isn’t the case with The Worm Ouroboros’ world, which is rather tellingly called Mercury. Yes, it’s the planet Mercury, but it’s not the cratered sun-baked world that we expect from seeing space probe photos of the actual planet, but instead a bizarre dreamworld. Also, notice that “mercury” is also an element, which is slippery and shiny and liquid, just like Eddison’s world of Mercury. (I ask you: have you ever tried to put your finger on a bead of mercury underneath a glass slide? I haven’t, of course, because mercury is HIGHLY TOXIC, but I’ve talked with people who have, and they say that it’s quite tricky.)

The whole feeling of The Worm Ouroboros being a fever dream or one massive acid trip is amplified by the fact that the story is actually being shown from the perspective of a person from Earth, an Englishman named Lessingham, who falls asleep and dreams about a hippogriff that takes him to Mercury, where he acts as a silent spectator for the events of the novel. The dreamlike state is amplified by the fact that the novel repeats itself, like the titular snake eating its tail (or a Dream Theater album). When we get to the end of the book, we start again at the beginning. And even more telling, the events of the first half of the book are mirrored as we get to the second half. It doesn’t feel like an organic story. It feels like a series of Jungian archetypes bouncing off each other.

While Middle-earth feels real and solid, like post-Tolkien fantasy worlds from Discworld to Westeros, Mercury is light and insubstantial. Even the myriad castles and palaces feel like Disneyland sets made of candyfloss and plaster. You could give them a good solid kick, and they’d crumble to reveal a fifty-year-old Korean woman furtively smoking a cigarette while half-in half-out of a Minnie Mouse costume. The characters feel like people who could never exist outside of Mercury itself, while you feel like you could meet Frodo or Aragorn (or, for that matter, Sam Vimes or Tyrion Lannister) while walking down the street. The Worm Ouroboros doesn’t have the solidity and realism that most fantasy worlds have.

And yet, I sort of like it anyway.

It’s strange. The Worm Ouroboros is a collection of things that should never work in a fantasy novel thrown together in a chaotic stew, and yet somehow it works. You don’t need suspension of disbelief to get through the book. You have so much disbelief that it circles around and goes right back to belief. Sort of an insane thing to say, but it’s true. There’s no other way to explain it. The Worm Ouroboros is so surreal and sheerly weird that it all somehow falls together.

Should you read it? I don’t know. I don’t know you, and “doing the Worm”, to coin a phrase, is hardly for everyone. In fact, I read a post on Tor.com recently that had Jo Walton, a Hugo-, Nebula-, World Fantasy Award-, and everything else under the sun-winning author, claiming that she’d never finished The Worm Ouroboros, even though she’d tried many times. (Or something of that nature.) It’s not for everyone, in the way that calamari or head cheese isn’t for everyone. But hey, I like calamari (not so sure about the head cheese), so if you’re a person with strange tastes who happens to want something unusual to try, you might as well try The Worm Ouroboros.

That’s a terrible final paragraph, isn’t it? “I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s certainly a thing.”

Meh. There are lots of things in the universe, and The Worm Ouroboros is certainly one of them.

For lack of a better term.

~ Ian

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