Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Worm Ourobouros

Ourobouros 1This is an epic fantasy novel by E R Eddison, published in 1922, and my new edition has glowing remarks on the front and back cover by JRR Tolkien and Ursula K Le Guin. Tolkien says (said) that Eddison is ‘the greatest and most convincing writer of invented worlds that I have read’. Well, I‘d like to know when he said that, because I found Eddison to be wildly imaginative but not convincing. Tolkien himself did much better. I agree so much more with Le Guin’s remarks about this novel: ‘An eccentric masterpiece. Eddison is unequalled in the vigour; the vividness, the passionate intensity of his imagining, the brooding sadness that underlies it, and the cockeyed magnificence of his language’.

The Worm Ourobouros begins in an English Edwardian mansion, where, after dinner, Lessingham invites his wife to sleep with him in the Lotus Room. She would rather not, since she doesn’t feel in the mood for travelling between worlds that night, and so he goes there alone. He’s awoken by a small bird, and they travel to Mercury. Lessingham the framing device is then forgotten in about two pages, as we plunge into the epic drama of warring tribes called Demons, Witches, Goblins, Imps and (here comes the unintentional bathos) Pixys. The King of the Witches uses magic to summon the Worm, among other things, and there are some extraordinary magical creatures, but this is really a novel of politics. However, I do wish Eddison had kept Lessingham in the story, since it might have given the colossal series of linked episodes of heroism and political negotiation a structure. As it is, the novel is only a series of magnificent set-piece adventures, copying the Morte d’Arthur, The Faerie Queene and any other fantasy romance Eddison can pillage.

Ouroboros 2He too has been pillaged: it’s pretty obvious which bits C S Lewis and Tolkien had a long look at before they started writing their vastly superior works. They had the advantage of understanding how stories work, whereas Eddison does not seem to have bothered with a plot. The characters are stupendous, and some of them are psychologically interesting. The descriptions of the scale of the world and its topography are constantly at ‘wow’. But there is no society to speak of, the numberless servants are also nameless, and the economic structure of the world doesn’t seem to have been considered. After several chapters the relative value of thrones carved out of ruby becomes more pressing. Where did the money come from, and who cooked the food for the innumerable feasts? Who pitched the tents, found the firewood, killed the rabbits, served the meals and polished the buskins for the Lords Juss and Brandoch Daha on their epic journey to rescue their brother Lord Goldry Bluszco from Koshtra Belorn in Zimiamvia?

I’m not expecting full-on Marxist dialectic in fantasy fiction, but there has to be some kind of social structure in place if we are to truly believe that a character can be judged and admired for his greatness, benevolence, mighty deeds, and so on. I was only 220 pages into the novel when I decided that no such development was going to happen, and so I gave up. I left Lord Juss recovering from yet another epic battle injury, with another great queen about to descend and treat with Brandoch Daha and Mirvash Faz for Goldry Bluzco’s safety, and with the forces of the Witches close in pursuit, and I really could not care any more. The last straw fell when I flicked to the end (yes, I do this in desperate moments) to see if the ending was worth persevering for, for over 240 more pages, and found, on the last page, one of the characters reciting a Shakespeare sonnet. Recollect: they’re on the planet Mercury, and it’s a totally separate civilisation. At the end of the novel, Eddison carefully lists the poetry he used, including works by Robert Dunbar, Carew, Herrick, Donne and Webster. If he can’t be bothered writing his own faux-Renaissance, fake-medieval poems and riddle songs, I’m not going to bother finishing this bloated, bejewelled monster of a novel.

E R Eddison, The Worm Ourobouros (1922), currently in a Harper Collins edition, ISBN 978-0-00-757811-5, £12.99. There are three other novels forming a trilogy sequel to this novel: The Mezentian Gate, A Fish Dinner in Memison, and Mistress of Mistresses. Good luck with those.

Kate enjoys reading science fiction and fantasy novels, but knows her limits.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

5 comments on “The Worm Ourobouros

  1. CFisher
    October 30, 2014

    I’m a bit of a failure as a reader of fantasy. I always end up thinking “How does the postal service work?” “Where would I do my laundry?” “Do teachers have to follow a curriculum or can they just make it up?” I think that’s why I like Discworld novels because Pratchett weaves these details into his work. But are they fantasy novels?

  2. Kate
    October 30, 2014

    G K Chesterton defined fantasy as: “to take that which is familiar and everyday and therefore no more seen, and pick it up and turn it around and show it to the reader from a new point of view, so that once again they see it for the first time”.

    ‘Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities’. (can’t remember where I got this quote from)

    So I think Pratchett, and Eddison, wrote fantasy under both definitions.

  3. kirstyjane
    October 30, 2014

    This sounds tiring! And I always want to know about the political economics of fantasy worlds — so it sounds frustrating, too. Thanks for an amusing glimpse of your own frustration.

  4. Kenneth DeVries
    October 31, 2014

    I was unable to make much headway with Eddison in my youth, but now that I am beginning to become an elder, I find that more challenging (i.e. tedious and aimless) works like this and Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus have become somehow more readable. I can’t disagree with any of your findings – Ouroboros is not good writing, it has a rather monotonously consistent tone and lacks the dynamic emotional form of ups and downs that makes for a good story. Having read many of the (often self-published) novels of kooks, cranks and eccentrics it is clear to me that Eddison’s work is the result of eccentricity rather than genius. You did well to quit when you did, as there is generally no conclusion to his novels. Peake’s Titus Groan is in many ways as challenging but is far more captivating and emotionally rewarding. I keep my copy of Ouroboros in a special corner with other books I think I may one day read again. Eddison doesn’t carry us off into glorious realms of fantasy, he drags us over shattered landscapes and through endless ornate chambers to find, as hinted in the title, we are just where we started.

  5. Kate
    November 1, 2014

    Kenneth, I do agree with you about Gormenghast, which is almost as exhausting a read, but we do get somewhere in the end. I have not tried A Voyage to Arcturus, but I’m not sure I want to now! However, for early 20thC fantasy writing, Eddison comes off pretty well, I think. He’s more readable than 19thC fantsy, for instance by George Macdonald and Charles Kingsley, but cannot even begin to compete with 19thC Gothic or vampire fiction, which really knew how to tell a story and crank up the effects.

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This entry was posted on October 30, 2014 by in Entries by Kate, Fiction: 20th Century, Fiction: fantasy, Fiction: supernatural and tagged , .



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