The E. R. Eddison "Worm Ouroboros" Thread


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Aug 21, 2010
E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros and his Zimiamvia Trilogy (Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, The Mezentian Gate) have remained in print pretty much consistently, I believe, since their 1960s revival by New York's Ballantine Books, where they were among a dozen or so precursors of the Adult Fantasy Series edited by Lin Carter.

They have been admired by notable fantasists including Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, and Fritz Leiber. Incidentally, picture this: Tolkien, Lewis, and Eddison together in the same room, with Eddison reading aloud from his own writing. "He did it extremely well," Tolkien reported in a 24 June 1957 letter. Tolkien added: "I read his works with great enjoyment for their sheer literary merit." Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings just published, said furthermore: "I still think of him [Eddison] as the greatest and most convincing writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read."

Let us, then, beginning in March, read and discuss The Worm Ouroboros ... and perhaps the Zimiamvian books later on.

Between now and then, perhaps Chronsfolk who have read Eddison would like simply to testify of their enjoyment of this author. I will say: Eddison's style may be more demanding than that of (say) Robert E, Howard, but I was able to read The Worm while still of high school age. You get used to it and maybe even come to revel in it!

I didn't care for it on my first reading, but loved it the second time around. The style and the setting are gorgeous, certain turns of the plot provide a heightened drama that is truly thrilling while just stopping short of melodrama, but certain characters that we are obviously expected to admire I find so abominable that the experience of reading the book would be insupportable, if there wasn't so much else to love.
Interesting that you say that about characters in the Worm, Teresa, since in a part of that Tolkien letter that I didn't quote, Tolkien said "I disliked [Eddison's] characters (always excepting the Lord Gro) and despised what he appeared to admire ... Eddison thought what I admire 'soft' (his word: one of complete condemnation, I gathered); I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly 'philosophy,' he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty."

It is so many, many years since my second and, so far, last reading of the Worm -- and I've never read the others -- that I can't particularly speak to this topic, but I would expect Tolkien to be on to something, all right.

L. Sprague de Camp's essay (Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers -- a book I don't own but looked into a few years ago) on Eddison was called something like "Superman in a Bowler," referring not to the comic book character but to Nietzsche as someone whose thought had affinity with Eddison's -- ?? Perhaps this would be a topic to raise if and when people want to discuss Worm next month!
Incidentally, Dale, you left out another prominent fantaisiste who was an admirer of The Worm Ouroboros (which of Eddison's other books he read I am not certain; see below): H. P. Lovecraft.

From a letter to Frank Belknap Long dated 24 Sept., 1927:
I shall presently send you The Worm Ouroboros, which like you I passed up at the Chelsea -- on the strength of a review which I now perceive to have been illiterately unintelligent, and which hailed the book (of all things!!) as a 'clever piecde of social satire!' O ------ - -----'------ O Ottawa! As a matter of fact the story is conceived and executed in the spirit of mediaeval romance, and the language is sheer music and poetry. Not a trace of satire, humour, or allegory -- and Pegāna, what descriptions! I must read the author's other book as mentioned on the jacket -- Styrbion the Strong. Never shall I cease to thank [W. Paul] Cook for forcing me to read this book despite my hasty preconceived prejudice!
-- SLII.171​

From a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, 1 Oct. 1927:
[...] above all else I'd recommend The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, which combines some gloriously imaginative phantasy with an exquisitely lyrical prose style.
-- ibid., p. 174​

again, to Long (Nov. 1927):
The Worm Ouroboros is assuredly a phantastical classick of the first order, and I know not where else in current letters you can find an equal exaltation of the heroick spirit.
-- ibid., p. 177​

from a letter to E. Hoffmann Price, dated Mar. 2, 1933:

Glad you're succumbing to the unique and haunting charm of Ouroboros. There is nothing else quite like it -- even by the same author. It weaves its own atmosphere, and lays down its own laws of reality. At first one tends to rebel at the laying of the scene in Mercury without any attempt to depict conditions peculiar to that planet and alien to the earth (if we except the rather whimsical horns of the population), but gradually we come to accept or forget the gesture -- taking the whole thing in the spirit of an enthralling fireside tale about it -- its naiveté, absence of Cabellian snickers, and subordination of the obtrusive social satire which spoils the charm of so many kindred phantasies...
-- SLIV.176-77
I've read and thoroughly enjoyed this novel twice now. When I first came to it, it was the first time I had read anything of such...difficult...prose but it didn't take me too long to get into it. By the time the Witches ultimatum was delivered and the Demons had retorted by challenging them to a bout of wrastling, I was hooked.

I also found that, once I had got into the flow with the antiquated dialogue, that there was a lot of subtle humour and banter between the characters that could easily be lost on the reader if they were not at ease with the style.
Thank you, JD, for quoting Lovecraft on Eddison (1882-1945)! I didn't know that he was such an admirer of the Worm.

If anyone is thinking HPL maybe didn't like Eddison's Zimiamvian books, since he doesn't mention them, I should point out that only one of them was published in Lovecraft's lifetime (1890-1937) -- Mistress of Mistresses in 1935 (London -- I don't know date for the first American edition), and I wonder if HPL ever heard of it, let alone read it. A Fish Dinner in Memison appeared in 1941, and the posthumous Mezentian Gate as late as 1958; interesting to think it appeared after first publication of the volumes of The Lord of the Rings. Incidentally, I believe Gate was issued with an appreciation by C. S. Lewis that may have helped it get a little more attention than would otherwise have been the case.

I may have been thinking vaguely that the first two Zimiamvian books were published not long after the Worm (1922). A real mistake!
I've begun rereading The Worm (jumping the mantichore, err, gun, a bit). It moves right along.
A slightly off-topic query: How would you compare the "readability" (in terms of the idiom used) between Eddison's novel and Pratt's The Well of the Unicorn?
A slightly off-topic query: How would you compare the "readability" (in terms of the idiom used) between Eddison's novel and Pratt's The Well of the Unicorn?

It is many years since I read the latter, JD, but my memory is that I found it a more resistant read than The Worm Ouroboros. I shouldn't think Eddison's prose is a whole lot harder than that of, say, Poe in "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains":

---[FONT=Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif]On every hand was a wilderness of balconies, of verandas, of minarets, of shrines, and fantastically carved oriels. Bazaars abounded; and there were displayed rich wares in infinite variety and profusion--silks, muslins, the most dazzling cutlery, the most magnificent jewels and gems. Besides these things, were seen, on all sides, banners and palanquins, litters with stately dames close-veiled, elephants gorgeously caparisoned, idols grotesquely hewn, drums, banners, and gongs, spears, silver and gilded maces. And amid the crowd, and the clamour, and the general intricacy and confusion--amid the million of black and yellow men, turbaned and robed, and of flowing beard, there roamed a countless multitude of holy filleted bulls, while vast legions of the filthy but sacred ape clambered, chattering and shrieking, about the cornices of the mosques, or clung to the minarets and oriels. From the swarming streets to the banks of the river, there descended innumerable flights of steps leading to bathing places, while the river itself seemed to force a passage with difficulty through the vast fleets of deeply burdened ships that far and wide encountered its surface. Beyond the limits of the city arose, in frequent majestic groups, the palm and the cocoa, with other gigantic and weird trees of vast age; and here and there might be seen a field of rice, the thatched hut of a peasant, a tank, a stray temple, a gipsy camp, or a solitary graceful maiden taking her way, with a pitcher upon her head, to the banks of the magnificent river.----

Here's Eddison:

[/FONT]So they hung awhile off Tenemos waiting for the tide, and at high water sailed over the bar and up the Druima past the dunes and mud-flats and the Ergaspian mere, till they reached the bend of the river below Carcë. Solitary marsh-land stretched on either side as far as the eye might reach, with clumps of p. 59
willow and rare homesteads showing above the flats. Northward above the bend a bluff of land fell sharply to the elbow of the river, and on the other, side sloped gently away for a few miles till it lost itself in the dead level of the marshes. On the southern face of the bluff, monstrous as a mountain in those low sedge-lands, hung square and black the fortress of Carcë. It was built of black marble, rough-hewn and unpolished, the outworks enclosing many acres. An inner wall with a tower at each corner formed the main stronghold, in the south-west corner of which was the palace, overhanging the river. And on the south-west corner of the palace, towering sheer from the water's edge seventy cubits and more to the battlements, stood the keep, a round tower lined with iron, bearing on the corbel table beneath its parapet in varying form and untold repetition the sculptured figure of the crab of Witchland. The outer ward of the fortress was dark with cypress trees: black flames burning changelessly to heaven from a billowy sea of gloom. East of the keep was the water-gate, and beside it a bridge and bridge-house across the river, strongly fortified with turrets and machicolations and commanded from on high by the battlements of the keep. Dismal and fearsome to view was this strong place of Carcë, most like to the embodied soul of dreadful night brooding on the waters of that sluggish river: by day a shadow in broad sunshine, the likeness of pitiless violence sitting in the place of power, darkening the desolation of the mournful fen; by night, a blackness more black than night herself.----
A slightly off-topic query: How would you compare the "readability" (in terms of the idiom used) between Eddison's novel and Pratt's The Well of the Unicorn?

If that question is an open one and not just aimed at Extollager:

I never made it very far through The Well of the Unicorn (should I give it another try?) but I've read The Worm Ouroboros three times.

Since I read the latter all the way through at about the same time that I attempted the former and gave up, I think that The Worm must have been more readable. (Or maybe it was just more colorful and exciting.)
Your mention of The Well of the Unicorn, JD, reminds me that I've been thinking I'd like to give that one another try one of these days. I did read it once. It interests me, for one thing, as one of the 13 American paperbacks published before 1970 that were marketed as being Tolkienian or in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings. It's interesting, too, that the American woman who married Tolkien's friend and fellow fantasist C. S. Lewis, namely Joy Davidman, was a member of a group who hung out with Pratt. It's probably because of Joy that, as I recall, a copy of Well/Unicorn ended up in Lewis's library (as inventoried by Deborah Rogers several years after his death and the sale of some of the books), along with (among other surprises) a copy of Robert Bloch's The Opener of the Way!

...I've carried around a copy of Pratt's Blue Star for about 40 years and I don't think I've even tried seriously to read it! I know a guy (Pierre Comtois, editor of the weird-tale fanzine Fungi) who has, I believe, read every volume in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. He recently listed the following books from that series as ones that were not worth reading even once:

"Merlin's Ring, Beyond the Golden Stair, The Blue Star, Land of
Unreason...Don't think I ever could finish three of the four and
staggered through Golden Stair."

Pierre's a huge fan of Lovecraft, Howard, Tolkien, and lots of the other classic fantasy writers, so he has a wide acquaintance with the paperbacked fantasy of a generation ago. But the quoted ones were not to his liking. I think he has said that he found The Well of the Unicorn dull, too.

By the way, here, from a piece that I wrote for the New York C. S. Lewis Society:

[FONT=&quot]Land of Unreason[/FONT][FONT=&quot] is one of a bunch of books Lewis owned that were to be reprinted in 1969-1974, when Tolkien's American paperback publisher, Ballantine, cast about for additional material for the fantasy market. Lewis's library and the approximately 60 titles of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, edited by Lin Carter, both include William Beckford's Vathek, five James Branch Cabell books,* Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, F. Marion Crawford's Khaled, Roger Lancelyn Green's From the World's End (the Ballantine edition was called Double Phoenix and included a work by another author), Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang's The World's Desire, Haggard's The People of the Mist, William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land (two volumes as printed in the Ballantine series), George MacDonald's Phantastes and Lilith (also some shorter MacDonald fantasies, gathered by Lin Carter for a book called Evenor), George Meredith's The Shaving of Shagpat, Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist, and William Morris's The Water of the Wondrous Isles and The Wood Beyond the World. (Interestingly, Morris's The Well at the World's End, praised by Lewis, was not in the 1969 catalogue of his library. Perhaps he owned a copy that was later acquired by someone as a keepsake. The Well was reprinted by Ballantine in two volumes.) Also, the Lewis library included eleven titles by Lord Dunsany, an author mined for six Adult Fantasy releases. Richard Hodgens, a member of the New York C. S. Lewis Society, translated a portion of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (“Vol. 1: The Ring of Angelica”), the whole of which Lewis read in the original Italian. The Lewis book collection also included fantasy by Mervyn Peake, E. R. Eddison, and David Lindsay that Ballantine reprinted just before the launching of the Adult Fantasy series proper. Lin Carter would have been impressed by Lewis’s collection. Most of the material reprinted in Carter's series that Lewis did not own belonged to the American Weird Tales magazine tradition (e.g. four volumes of stories by Clark Ashton Smith) or had never been published before (e.g. Sanders Anne Laubenthal's somewhat Charles Williams-y Excalibur or Joy Chant's somewhat Lewisian-Tolkienian Red Moon and Black Mountain).[/FONT]
I thought that the prose style if "Well of the Unicorn" was more of a barrier to be overcome than a part and parcel of a pleasurable experience (as I would argue it is in the "Worm") but that it is, in the end, worth overcoming because there is a good story underneath.
Thank you all for the replies. Teresa: Though I had written it directed to Dale, I am interested in the response of anyone who has read (or attempted to read) both. Dale: that's an interesting little snippet there. I've got to admit that I've never thought of Joy Chant's novel in that context before....

The reason I posed the question is because I was remembering an article by one David Hulan in... Amra, I believe, which was reprinted in the volume The Spell of Conan, comparing the two, largely to the disadvantage of Eddison, in part (as I recall) because the idiom used seemed to this person to be more "flowery" and inaccessible than that of Pratt's novel... something with which I most certainly do not agree. (By the way, Dale: The Blue Star is written in a very style, as befits the time period in which it is set. It is not as rich as Well of the Unicorn, but it displays the same interest in sociohistorical concerns as that novel... not surprisingly, given Pratt being a professional historian. It is a flawed work, and somewhat minor, but by no means lacking in interest.)

Teresa: I think you might find it worth giving another try; though I would agree with F.E. that you do have to "overcome" Pratt's chosen voice here. Where I would disagree is that, having read the novel a second (and indeed, a third) time, I do think the idiom is very much a part of the world itself, and helps in no small way to make that world the rich experience it is. But it is one which people tend to either like or intensely dislike, and that may prove a problem. (I had some severe problems with it the first time around, at least for the first 75-100 pp., but then it began to really grow on me; and I can't imagine that complex little book without that approach now....) I will say, though, that I think Eddison's is by far the more approachable, and certainly much more mellifluous....

(Errr... pardon the unintentional alliteration there....)

By the way... I would disagree with Comtois, at least to some extent. I found The Sorcerer's Ship to be much less rewarding than Beyond the Golden Stair, myself; though the blending of contemporary gangland figures and patois with a more typical fantasy approach may have had something to do with his reaction. At any rate, I quite enjoyed each of these he did not; and, in fact, found The Land of Unreason a thoroughly delightful (albeit completely irreverent) tale... at least, until the latter part, where much of the lighthearted tone shifts into something a good deal more substantial, and even "high".... The one collaboration of this sort by Pratt and de Camp I have strong reservations about, even on its own terms, is The Carnelian Cube, which just doesn't seem to ever have been thought through properly....
On the subject of Eddison, has anyone else read his Norse saga, Styrbiorn the Strong? I thought it was a wonderfully envigorating work, and quite a stylistic departure from Zimiamvia and co.
Here's a comment on The Well of the Unicorn from Baen fantasy author Lars Walker:

.....Having read it, I can see why it's a (kind of a) classic, but also, I think, why it will probably never have a passionate following.

Fletcher Pratt, a prolific author who worked in many genres, as well as nonfiction, in the early part of the 20th Century, was a very fine author. The single thing that impressed me most about The Well of the Unicorn was the fact that he uses antique diction, but unlike most authors he actually uses it well. He very clearly understands the old words and idioms he employs, giving the whole story a flavor of authenticity.

On the other hand, that same diction can be an obstacle to the reader. I have a pretty extensive vocabulary, and I still found the prose a bit of a slog.

And it was a slog through a long book. The Well of the Unicorn is nearly 400 pages, in fairly small print. It does not fly by.

Although there's plenty of action, and a pretty good love story, the whole thing seems kind of leisurely in pace. That's an illusion. Actually a good amount of time and quite a lot of space are covered, but that slow prose bogs the reader down at every step.

The theme seems to be primarily political. In the world of the story, one which seems based on medieval Scandinavia (with Denmark omitted), a traditionally democratic people, the Dalecarles, are ruled by despotic conquerors, the Vulkings, but all under the overlordship of an Emperor. Airar Alvarson, the hero, a dispossessed smallholder with some training in magic (he comes from a farm called Trangsted, which is Norwegian for “narrow place.” Pratt's wife was a Norwegian girl from North Dakota) gets involved in a popular uprising against the Vulkings, rising to the leadership of the armies of the Dalecarles and their allies. He frets a great deal over whether a democracy can overcome the efficiency of despotism, and over the value of magic, which is forbidden by the cult of the Well of the Unicorn, to which the girl he comes to love is devoted.

Religion is treated in an interesting way. Although we're dealing with a fantasy world, there is a Church which seems, so far as the reader can tell, identical in every way to the Catholic Church of our world. Except that it's more tolerant of magic. How the Well of the Unicorn relates to the Church is hard to say.

The characters are well drawn, the story inventive and epic. Nevertheless, because of the density of the prose, I can only recommend this book to readers with a high reading level and a certain dedication.
Is there interest in beginning a discussion of The Worm shortly (March)?
I re-read it only fairly recently so I shall join in a discussion if there's one.

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