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.
This 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.
He 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. http://www.reallylikethisbook.com