This week I’m recommending a flamboyant Fantasy Classic – `The Worm Ouroboros’ by E.R.Eddison. This was first published in 1922, with darkly atmospheric illustrations by Keith Henderson. Copies of the first edition and its one reprint are now very expensive indeed but more recent paperback editions can be had for as little as a dollar. Some free downloads are available but I’m not sure how legal these are because Eddison’s work is still in copyright in most countries. As the `The Worm Ouroboros’ is set on the Planet Mercury, this novel could be regarded as Science Fiction but since the plot involves a war between Demons, Witches, Imps and Goblins , I think we can all agree that we are dealing with Fantasy here. Contrary to what you might expect, the Demons are the good guys and Eddison’s  Goblins are decent chaps, if a bit unreliable.

The book begins with a man named Lessingham sleeping in the mysterious Lotus Room so that he can go on a spirit-journey to Mercury and observe the inhabitants of its two principal kingdoms, Demonland and Witchland. We can now forget about Lessingham, since the author does. Demonland is ruled by the noble Lord Juss with his brothers, Spitfire and Goldry Bluszco. During Juss’s birthday feast an ambassador arrives from King Gorice XI of Witchland. Juss and his brothers are insultingly summoned to kiss King Gorice’s toe and acknowledge him as overlord of Demonland. The Demons respond by challenging Gorice to a wrestling match with Goldry. If Gorice wins they will acknowledge him as overlord but if Goldry wins the king is to leave Demonland in peace. King Gorice ignores the advice of two of his most faithful counsellors, Lord Corund of Witchland and the Goblin Lord Gro, and accepts the challenge. After a brutal match, Gorice XI is killed but a new King Gorice immediately arises in Carcé, the chief fortress of Witchland.  He wears a ring in the shape of a serpent swallowing its own tail  – the Worm Ouroboros, symbol of eternal regeneration.

With the help of Gro, Gorice XII works a terrible spell against the Demons while they are at sea. Goldry Bluszco is carried off and Juss and Spitfire and their cousin Lord Brandoch Daha are nearly drowned. After a failed attack on Carcé, Juss dreams that he will only find news of his lost brother in Koshtra Belorn, a remote mantichore-infested mountain in Impland. Juss and Brandoch Daha set out for Koshtra Belorn and encounter two very different sorceresses but King Gorice has sent Corund with an army to pursue them. Meanwhile, Spitfire and Brandoch Daha’s brave sister struggle against the quarrelsome nobles of Witchland who have invaded Demonland.  Before the story ends, monsters must be slain and evil spells overcome, dreadful battles will be fought and kingdoms will rise and fall.

At first sight, this novel contains a lot of the things that many people hate about Heroic Fantasy, including archaic language and silly names, over-detailed descriptions of costumes and weaponry, a simplistic conflict between the forces of good and evil, female characters who mainly stand around looking beautiful and aristocratic male characters who show total disregard for the lives and rights of ordinary people. The key to enjoying this book is not to take it too seriously. Apparently, the world in which `The Worm Ouroboros’ is set was first invented by Eddison when he was around ten years old – hence the silly names. He went on making up stories for his own amusement during his distinguished career in Public Service.  While Eddison was presiding over meetings at the Board of Trade, some part of his mind must have been off catching hippogriffs and slaying Witch-Lords. He also became an expert on the Icelandic sagas and on Jacobean literature and that clearly influenced the way he wrote.

For better or worse, Eddison’s swashbuckling literary style is pretty much unique in Fantasy fiction. His characters speak pseudo-Shakespearean English, as in “Kinsman, what ails thee? Is all high heart and swiftness to action crushed out of Demonland and doth but the unservicable juiceless skin remain to us?” Lovers of Jacobean drama will spot quotations from famous plays and Eddison adapted a number of well-known British poems (such as `Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?’)  for use by his characters.  In contrast to the earnest pseudo-medieval language of  William Morris’s Fantasy epics  (see my October 2012 post on `The Well at the World’s End’), Eddison seems to be writing this way purely for fun. If he wasn’t, would he really have one of the wicked characters cry, “Rhubarb! Bring me rhubarb to purge away this choler!”?

You may find the lengthy and ornate prose descriptions harder to cope with than the zesty dialogue, but you could just relax and enjoy how wildly excessive everything is. So, King Gorice flaunts his wickedness in a chain-mail tunic set with black opals, black cross-gartered hose `with bands of sealskin trimmed with diamonds’, a cloak `woven of the skins of black cobras stitched together with gold wire’ and the `Iron Crown of Witchland’ shaped like a crab with erect claws.  If there were awards for `Best Dressed Fantasy Characters’, Eddison’s heroes, heroines and villains would probably win most of the categories. For palace furnishings it would be hard to beat Lord Juss’s solid gold four-poster bed `hung with curtains of dark-blue tapestry whereon were figured sleep-flowers’ and its canopy with a mosaic of gem-stones each representing a particular star and `shining of their own light…like dead wood glimmering in the dark.’  If I could choose to attend any feast in Fantasy fiction it would probably be the one held by the Red Foliot (whose `skin is as scarlet as the head of a green woodpecker’) in Chapter III. Who could resist an entertainment which includes a Pavane of White Peacocks to the music of a nightingale, two capering dormice `fat as butter’, and the joyous dance of the Cat-Bears with their `black bellies, round furry faces and innocent amber eyes’ ?

In a brief introduction, Eddison wrote that `The Worm Ouroboros’ was `neither allegory nor fable but a Story to be read for its own sake’. That story contains three elements which have been common in Fantasy fiction every since – a magical quest, court intrigues, and a war between good and evil. In this novel, the quest to find Goldry Bluszco and rescue him from his supernatural prison involves climbing unconquered mountains, overcoming a murderous mantichore, and taming a flying horse.  It’s exciting stuff but Eddison seems more interested in the treachery and intrigue among the nobles of Witchland, which ends in a typically Jacobean bloodbath. It is in this section of the book that the female characters are most prominent, especially the beautiful Prezmyra who is touchingly faithful to her elderly ugly husband, Corund. Prezmyra’s courage and determination allow her to outshine the Demon Lords who are the official heroes. Indeed, as the story develops it becomes less and less clear whether there is a right and a wrong side in this conflict. There are men and women of honour on both sides and, like the flawed heroes in the Icelandic sagas which Eddison loved, the `good’ Demon Lords mainly fight for the love of fighting.

The most interesting character in the novel is the clever serial traitor, Lord Gro. He is a melancholy philosopher who always feels compelled to switch sides to support the losing party. He frequently speaks out against the honour code and suggests cunning plans which might be ignoble but which could save many innocent lives. No-one ever takes his sensible advice because this is Heroic Fantasy but Gro’s central place in the story makes `The Worm Ouroboros’ a more subtle book than you might expect. Until next week……