The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison is one the most important early fantasy works of the twentieth century. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote:
I read the works of Eddison, long after they appeared; and I once met him. I heard him in Mr. Lewis’s room in Magdalen College read aloud some parts of his own works – from the Mistress of Mistresses, as far as I remember. He did it extremely well. I read his works with great enjoyment for their sheer literary merit (letter to Caroline Everett 24 June 1957).
Tolkien’s praise wasn’t without criticism. He did not prefer Eddison’s Mistress of Mistresses (1935), they clashed on ideas of honour and integrity in characters, and Tolkien denied there was an influence on his own work. Still, though, Tolkien saw his importance:
I still think of him as the greatest and most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds’ that I have read (letter to Caroline Everett 24 June 1957).
C.S. Lewis, who had engaged Eddison with an extended dialogue in Elizabethan English (yes, they really wrote like that), introduced Eddison and Tolkien in a meeting of the Inklings. Lewis agreed with Tolkien about Eddison’s ability to shape a speculative universe–an “invented world.” Lewis discusses The Worm Ouroboros in his famous essay, “On Stories”:
Every episode, every speech, helps to incarnate what the author is imagining. You could spare none of them. It takes the whole story to build up that strange blend of renaissance luxury and northern hardness. The secret here is largely the style, and especially the style of the dialogue. These proud, reckless, amorous people create themselves and the whole atmosphere of their world chiefly by talking.
It is an intriguing idea, being incarnated as a reader. Not just the word in flesh but the enfleshment of the word, drawing us wholly into the “whole atmosphere of the world.”
With comments like this–and because I’m going through a list of the All Time Best Fantasy Novels–I knew I had to read The Worm Ouroboros. I will fully admit that I found this a challenging read. Like when reading English from other eras, it takes a few minutes to get into the rhythm of the language. Actually, without some work in Shakespeare and Milton and a good knowledge of the King James Bible I would have failed in the task.
It isn’t just the language, though. I found the characters confusing at first and had to sketch out a character map. I found a lot of that “atmosphere” dull and disorienting at first. There are long narratives of courtesy and rituals of war. Yet, as the story moved on, I became more and more enthralled. When I finally finished (it is a longish book), I began reading it again so I could understand what I might have missed in the beginning! There are not many books where I am unsure if I’ve missed anything.
Yet, I was hooked. When it was over, it was over too soon. The last half was exciting and evocative. It isn’t very often that a book gets better and better, and the writing solidifies to create that entire imaginative experience. After an elaborate setup to the story and a description of the characters (more anon), here is the first we hear of the Lords of Demonland, the protagonists of the story who had just finished defending another country from the Lords of Witchland and are at rest in the palace:
“What kill-joy have we here?” said [Lord] Spitfire. “The trumpet soundeth only for travellers from the outlands. I feel it in my bones some rascal is come to Galing, one that bringeth ill hap in his pocket and a shadow athwart the sun on this our day of festival.”
“Speak no word of ill omen,” answered [Lord] Juss. “Whosoe’er it be, we will straight dispatch his business and so fall to pleasure indeed. Some, run to the gate and bring him in.”
The serving man hastened and returned, saying, “Lord, it is an Ambassador from Witchland and his train. Their ship made land at Lookinghaven-ness at nightfall. They slept on board, and your soldiers gave them escort to Galing at break of day. He craveth present audience.”
“From Witchland, ha?” said Juss. “Such smokes use ever to go before the fire.”
“Shall’s bid the fellow,” said Spitfire, “wait on our pleasure? It is pity such should poison our gladness.”
[Lord] Goldry laughed and said, “Whom hath he sent us? Laxus, think you? to make his peace with us again for that vile part of his practised against us off Kartadza, detestably falsifying his word he had given us?”
Juss said to the serving man, “Thou sawest the Ambassador. Who is he?”
“Lord,” answered he, “His face was strange to me. He is little of stature and, by your highness’ leave, the most unlike to a great lord of Witchland that ever I saw. And, by your leave, for all the marvellous rich and sumptuous coat a weareth, he is very like a false jewel in a rich casing.”
“Well,” said Juss, “a sour draught sweetens not in the waiting. Call we in the Ambassador.
There it is. Rearding it now again I see that the themes of the main tension in the book are here in this little passage. But more than that, we feel that “atmosphere” and literary merit that Lewis and Tolkien speak about.
It really is a remarkable book, and the best way to introduce it to my readers is to include a part of a later chapter. Here the Lord Juss’ brother, Lord Goldry Bluszco, is being held in an echantment by King Gorice XII in a prison on the top of Zora Rach Nam. The mountain is unclimbable, and the Lords of Demonland must find a hippogriff’s egg so Lord Juss can hatch the egg and fly upon the magical beast’s back to his brother’s aid.
Don’t worry too much about the names of places and people. Don’t even get caught up in the meaning of every individual word. Just read the beginning of this great adventure below for the sheer sense of the fictional world.
Chapter XXVIII – Zora Rach Nam Psarrion
Of the Lord Juss’s riding of the hippogriff to Zora Rach, and of the ills encountered by him in that accursed place, and the manner of his performing his great enterprise to deliver his brother out of bondage.
Lulled with light-stirring airs too gentle-soft to ruffle her glassy surface, warm incense-laden airs sweet with the perfume of immortal flowers, the charmed Lake of Ravary dreamed under the moon. It was the last hour before the dawn. Enchanted boats, that seemed builded of the glow-worm’s light, drifted on the starry bosom of the lake. Over the sloping woods the limbs of the mountains lowered, unmeasured, vast, mysterious in the moon’s glamour. In remote high spaces of night beyond glimmered the spires of Koshtra Pivrarcha and the virgin snows of Romshir and Koshtra Belorn. No bird or beast moved in the stillness: only a nightingale singing to the stars from a coppice of olive-trees near the Queen’s pavilion on the eastern shore. And that was a note not like a bird’s of middle earth, but a note to charm down spirits out of the air, or to witch the imperishable senses of the Gods when they would hold communion with holy Night and make her perfect, and all her lamps and voices perfect in their eyes.
The silken hangings of the pavilion door, parting as in the portal of a vision, made way for that Queen, fosterling of the most high Gods. She paused a step or two beyond the threshold, looking down where those lords of Demonland, Spitfire and Brandoch Daha, with Gro and Zigg and Astar, wrapped in their cloaks, lay on the gowany dewy banks that sloped down to the water’s edge.
“Asleep,” she whispered. “Even as he within sleepeth against the dawn. I do think it is only in a great man’s breast sleep hath so gentle a bed when great events are toward.”
Like a lily, or like a moonbeam strayed through the leafy roof into a silent wood, she stood there, her face uplifted to the starry night where all the air was drenched with the silver radiance of the moon. And now in a soft voice she began supplication to the Gods which are from everlasting, calling upon them in turn by their holy names, upon gray-eyed Pallas, and Apollo, and Artemis the fleet Huntress, upon Aphrodite, and Hera, Queen of Heaven, and Ares, and Hermes, and the dark-tressed Earthshaker. Nor was she afraid to address her holy prayers to him who from his veiled porch beside Acheron and Lethe Lake binds to his will the devils of the under-gloom, nor to the great Father of All in Whose sight time from the beginning until to-day is but the dipping of a wand into the boundless ocean of eternity. So prayed she to the blessed Gods, most earnestly requiring them that under their countenance might be that ride, the like whereof earth had not known: the riding of the hippogriff, not rashly and by an ass as heretofore to his own destruction, but by the man of men who with clean purpose and resolution undismayed should enforce it carry him to his heart’s desire.
Now in the east beyond the feathery hilltops and the great snow wall of Romshir the gates were opening to the day. The sleepers wakened and stood up. There was a great noise from within the pavilion. They turned wide-eyed, and forth of the hangings of the doorway came that young thing new-hatched, pale and doubtful as the new light which trembled in the sky. Juss walked beside it, his hand on the sapphire mane. High and resolute was his look, as he gave good-morrow to the Queen, to his brother and his friends. No word they said, only in turn gripped him by the hand. The hour was upon them. For even as day striding on the eastern snow-fields stormed night out of high heaven, so and with such swift increase of splendour was might bodily and the desire of the upper air born in that wild steed. It shone as if lighted by a moving lamp from withinward, sniffed the sweet morning air and whinnied, pawing the grass of the waterside and tearing it up with its claws of gold. Juss patted the creature’s arching neck, looked to the bridle he had fitted to its mouth, made sure of the fastenings of his armour, and loosened in the scabbard his great sword. And now up sprang the sun.
The Queen said, “Remember: when thou shalt see the lord thy brother in his own shape, that is no illusion. Mistrust all else. And the almighty Gods preserve and comfort thee.”
Therewith the hippogriff, as if maddened with the day-beams, plunged like a wild horse, spread wide its rainbow pinions, reared, and took wing. But the Lord Juss was sprung astride of it, and the grip of his knees on the ribs of it was like brazen clamps. The firm land seemed to rush away beneath him to the rear; the lake and the shore and islands thereof showed in a moment small and remote, and the figures of the Queen and his companions like toys, then dots, then shrunken to nothingness, and the vast silence of the upper air opened and received him into utter loneliness. In that silence earth and sky swirled like the wine in a shaken goblet as the wild steed rocketed higher and higher in great spirals. A cloud billowy-white shut in the sky before them; brighter and brighter it grew in its dazzling whiteness as they sped towards it, until they touched it and the glory was dissolved in a gray mist that grew still darker and colder as they flew till suddenly they emerged from the further side of the cloud into a radiance of blue and gold blinding in its glory.
So for a while they flew with no set direction, only ever higher, till at length obedient to Juss’s mastery the hippogriff ceased from his sports and turned obediently westward, and so in a swift straight course, mounting ever, sped over Ravary towards the departing night. And now indeed it was as if they had verily overtaken night in her western caves. For the air waxed darker about them and always darker, until the great peaks that stood round Ravary were hidden, and all the green land of Zimiamvia, with its plains and winding waters and hills and uplands and enchanted woods, hidden and lost in an evil twilight. And the upper heaven was ateem with portents: whole armies of men skirmishing in the air, dragons, wild beasts, bloody streamers, blazing comets, fiery strakes, with other apparitions innumerable. But all silent, and all cold, so that Juss’s hands and feet were numbed with the cold and his moustachios stiff with hoar-frost.
Before them now, invisible till now, loomed the gaunt peak of Zora Rach, black, wintry, and vast, still towering above them for all they soared even higher, grand and lonely above the frozen wastes of the Psarrion Glaciers. Juss stared at that peak till the wind of their flight blinded his eyes with tears; but it was yet too far for any glimpse of that which he hungered to behold: no brazen citadel, no coronal of flame, no watcher on the heights. Zora, like some dark queen of Hell that disdains that presumptuous mortal eyes should dare to look lovely on her dread beauties, drew across her brow a veil of thundercloud. They flew on, and that steel-blue pall of thunderous vapour rolled forth till it canopied all the sky above them. Juss tucked his two hands for warmth into the feathery armpits of the hippogriff’s wings where the wings joined the creature’s body. So bitter cold it was, his very eyeballs were frozen and fixed; but that pain was a light thing beside somewhat he now felt within him the like whereof he never before had known: a deathlike horror as of the houseless loneliness of naked space, which gripped him at the heart.
They landed at last on a crag of black obsidian stone a little below the cloud that hid the highest rocks. The hippogriff, crouched on the steep slope, turned its head to look on Juss. He felt the creature’s body beneath him quiver. Its ears were laid back, its eye wide with terror. “Poor child,” he said. “I have brought thee an ill journey, and thou but one hour hatched from the egg.”
He dismounted; and in that same instant was bereaved. For the hippogriff with a horse-scream of terror took wing and vanished down the mirk air, diving headlong away to eastward, back to the world of life and sunlight.
And the Lord Juss stood alone in that region of fear and frost and the soul-quailing gloom, under the black summit-rocks of Zora Rach.
Setting, as the Queen had counselled him to do, his whole heart and mind on the dread goal he intended, he turned to the icy cliff. As he climbed the cold cloud covered him, yet not so thick but he might see ten paces’ distance before and about him as he went. Ill sights enow, and enow to quail a strong man’s resolution, showed in his path: shapes of damned fiends and gorgons of the pit running in the way, threatening him with death and doom. But Juss, gritting his teeth, climbed on and through them, they being unsubstantial. Then up rose an eldritch cry, “What man of middle-earth is this that troubleth our quiet? Make an end! Call up the basilisks. Call up the Golden Basilisk, which bloweth upon and setteth on fire whatsoever he seeth. Call up the Starry Basilisk, and whatso he seeth it immediately shrinks up and perisheth. Call up the Bloody Basilisk, who if he see or touch any living thing it floweth away so that nought there remaineth but the bones!”
That was a voice to freeze the marrow, yet he pressed on, saying in himself, “All is illusion, save that alone she told me of.” And nought appeared: only the silence and the cold, and the rocks grew ever steeper and their ice-glaze more dangerous, and the difficulty like the difficulty of those Barriers of Emshir, up which more than two years ago he had followed Brandoch Daha and on which he had encountered and slain the beast mantichora. The leaden hours drifted by, and now night shut down, bitter and black and silent. Sore weariness bodily was come upon Juss, and his whole soul weary withal and near to death as he entered a snowbedded gully that cut deep into the face of the mountain, there to await the day. He durst not sleep in that freezing night; scarcely dared he rest lest the cold should master him, but must keep for ever moving and stamping and chafing hands and feet. And yet, as the slow night crept by, death seemed a desirable thing that should end such utter weariness.
Morning came with but a cold alteration of the mist from black to gray, disclosing the snow-bound rocks silent, dreary, and dead. Juss, enforcing his half frozen limbs to resume the ascent, beheld a sight of woe too terrible for the eye: a young man, helmed and graithed in dark iron, a black-a-moor with goggle-eyes and white teeth agrin, who held by the neck a fair young lady kneeling on her knees and clasping his as in supplication, and he most bloodily brandishing aloft his spear of six foot of length as minded to reave her of her life. This lady, seeing the Lord Juss, cried out on him for succour very piteously, calling him by his name and saying, “Lord Juss of Demonland, have mercy, and in your triumph over the powers of night pause for an instant to deliver me, poor afflicted damosel, from this cruel tyrant. Can your towering spirit, which hath quarried upon kingdoms, make a stoop at him? O that should approve you noble indeed, and bless you for ever!”
Surely the very heart of him groaned, and he clapped hand to sword wishing to right so cruel a wrong. But on the motion he bethought him of the wiles of evil that dwelt in that place, and of his brother, and with a great groan passed on. In which instant he beheld sidelong how the cruel murtherer smote with his spear that delicate lady, and detrenched and cut the two master-veins of her neck, so as she fell dying in her blood. Juss mounted with a great pace to the head of the gully, and looking back beheld how black-amoor and lady both were changed to two coiling serpents. And he laboured on, shaken at heart, yet glad to have so escaped the powers that would have limed him so.
Darker grew the mist, and heavier the brooding dread which seemed elemental of the airs about that mountain. Pausing well nigh exhausted on a small stance of snow, Juss beheld the appearance of a man armed who rolled prostrate in the way, tearing with his nails at the hard rock and frozen snow, and the snow was all one gore of blood beneath the man; and the man besought him in a stifled voice to go no further but raise him up and bring him down the mountain. And when Juss, after an instant’s doubt betwixt pity and his resolve, would have passed by, the man cried and said, “Hold, for I am thy very brother thou seekest, albeit the King hath by his art framed me to another likeness, hoping so to delude thee. For thy love sake be not deluded!” Now the voice was like to the voice of his brother Goldry, howbeit weak. But the Lord Juss bethought him again of the words of Sophonisba the Queen, that he should see his brother in his own shape and nought else must he trust; and he thought, “It is an illusion, this also.” So he said, “If that thou be truly my dear brother, take thy shape.” But the man cried as with the voice of the Lord Goldry Bluszco, “I may not, till that I be brought down from the mountain. Bring me down, or my curse be upon thee for ever.”
The Lord Juss was torn with pity and doubt and wonder, to hear that voice again of his dear brother so beseeching him. Yet he answered and said, “Brother, if that it be thou indeed, then bide till I have won to this mountain top and the citadel of brass which in a dream I saw, that I may know truly thou art not there, but here. Then will I turn again and succour thee. But until I see thee in thine own shape I will mistrust all. For hither I came from the ends of the earth to deliver thee, and I will set my good on no doubtful cast, having spent so much and put so much in danger for thy dear sake.”
So with a heavy heart he set hand again to those black rocks, iced and slippery to the touch. Therewith up rose an eldritch cry, “Rejoice, for this earth-born is mad! Rejoice, for that was not perfect friend, that relinquished his brother at his need!” But Juss climbed on, and by and by looking back beheld how in that seeming man’s place writhed a grisful serpent. And he was glad, so much as gladness might be in that mountain of affliction and despair.
Now was his strength near gone, as day drew again toward night and he climbed the last crags under the peak of Zora. And he, who had all his days drunk deep of the fountain of the joy of life and the glory and the wonder of being, felt ever deadlier and darker in his soul that lonely horror which he first had tasted the day before at his first near sight of Zora, while he flew through the cold air portent-laden; and his whole heart grew sick because of it.
And now he was come to the ring of fire that was about the summit of the mountain. He was beyond terror or the desire of life, and trod the fire as it had been his own home’s threshold. The blue tongues of flame died under his foot-tread, making a way before him. The brazen gates stood wide. He entered in, he passed up the brazen stair, he stood on that high roof-floor which he had beheld in dreams, he looked as in a dream on him he had crossed the confines of the dead to find: Lord Goldry Bluszco keeping his lone watch on the unhallowed heights of Zora. Not otherwise was the Lord Goldry, not by an hairsbreadth, than as Juss had aforetime seen him on that first night in Koshtra Belorn, so long ago. He reclined propped on one elbow on that bench of brass, his head erect, his eyes fixed as on distant space, viewing the depths beyond the star-shine, as one waiting till time should have an end.
He turned not at his brother’s greeting. Juss went to him and stood beside him. The Lord Goldry Bluszco moved not an eyelid. Juss spoke again, and touched his hand. It was stiff and like dank earth. The cold of it struck through Juss’s body and smote him at the heart. He said in himself, “He is dead.”
With that, the horror shut down upon Juss’s soul like madness. Fearfully he stared about him. The cloud had lifted from the mountain’s peak and hung like a pall above its nakedness. Chill air that was like the breath of the whole world’s grave: vast blank cloud- barriers: dim far forms of snow and ice, silent, solitary, pale, like mountains of the dead: it was as if the bottom of the world were opened and truth laid bare: the ultimate Nothing.
To hold off the horror from his soul, Juss turned in memory to the dear life of earth, those things he had most set his heart on, men and women he loved dearest in his life’s days; battles and triumphs of his opening manhood, high festivals in Galing, golden summer noons under the Westmark pines, hunting morns on the high heaths of Mealand; the day he first backed a horse, of a spring morning in a primrose glade that opened on Moonmere, when his small brown legs were scarce the length of his fore-arm now, and his dear father held him by the foot as he trotted, and showed him where the squirrel had her nest in the old oak tree.
He bowed his head as if to avoid a blow, so plain he seemed to hear somewhat within him crying with a high voice and loud, “Thou art nothing. And all thy desires and memories and loves and dreams, nothing. The little dead earth-louse were of greater avail than thou, were it not nothing as thou art nothing. For all is nothing: earth and sky and sea and they that dwell therein. Nor shall this illusion comfort thee, if it might, that when thou art abolished these things shall endure for a season, stars and months return, and men grow old and die, and new men and women live and love and die and be forgotten. For what is it to thee, that shalt be as a blown-out flame? and all things in earth and heaven, and things past and things for to come, and life and death, and the mere elements of space and time, of being and not being, all shall be nothing unto thee; because thou shalt be nothing, for ever.”
And the Lord Juss cried aloud in his agony, “Fling me to Tartarus, deliver me to the black infernal Furies, let them blind me, seethe me in the burning lake. For so should there yet be hope. But in this horror of Nothing is neither hope nor life nor death nor sleep nor waking, for ever. For ever.”
In this black mood of horror he abode for awhile, until a sound of weeping and wailing made him raise his head, and he beheld a company of mourners walking one behind another about the brazen floor, all cloaked in funeral black, mourning the death of Lord Goldry Bluszco. And they rehearsed his glorious deeds and praised his beauty and prowess and goodliness and strength: soft women’s voices lamenting, so that the Lord Juss’s soul seemed as he listened to arise again out of annihilation’s waste, and his heart grew soft again, even unto tears. He felt a touch on his arm and looking up met the gaze of two eyes gentle as a dove’s, suffused with tears, looking into his from under the darkness of that hood of mourning; and a woman’s voice spake and said, “This is the observable day of the death of the Lord Goldry Bluszco, which hath been dead now a year; and we his fellows in bondage do bewail him, as thou mayst see, and shall so bewail him again year by year whiles we are on life. And for thee, great lord, must we yet more sorrowfully lament, since of all thy great works done this is the empty guerdon, and this the period of thine ambition. But come, take comfort for a season, since unto all dominions Fate hath set their end, and there is no king on the road of death.”
So the Lord Juss, his heart dead within him for grief and despair, suffered her take him by the hand and conduct him down a winding stairway that led from that brazen floor to an inner chamber fragrant and delicious, lighted with flickering lamps. Surely life and its turmoils seemed faded to a distant and futile murmur, and the horror of the void seemed there but a vain imagination, under the heavy sweetness of that chamber. His senses swooned; he turned towards his veiled conductress. She with a sudden motion cast off her mourning cloak, and stood there, her whole fair body bared to his gaze, open- armed, a sight to ravish the soul with love and all delight.
Well nigh had he clasped to his bosom that vision of dazzling loveliness. But fortune, or the high Gods, or his own soul’s might, woke yet again in his drugged brain remembrance of his purpose, so that he turned violently from that bait prepared for his destruction, and strode from the chamber up to that roof where his dear brother sat as in death. Juss caught him by the hand: “Speak to me, kinsman. It is I, Juss. It is Juss, thy brother.”
But Goldry moved not, neither answered any word