E.R. Eddison‘s challenging and infectious epic, The Worm Ouroboros, has a curious set up. The story itself is about a series of adventures between various warring countries. To begin with, the names of these countries are odd. The primary battle is between Witchland and Demonland, though the former is not dominantly witch-like (save the King), and the latter is not particularly demonic. The demons are humans, though they do have small horns on their heads. The other lands also have curious names that evoke Fairyland, including Goblinland, Impland, and Pixyland–none of which are peopled with what we would imagine are goblins, imps, or pixies. Really, we should imagine Viking tales or the battles of Beowulf’s world set in a more contemporary high fantasy.
And, the novel is set in Mercury–the planet, that is. This is the other particularly odd feature of The Worm Ouroboros. A little martlet summons a reader from his English study late at night, and transports him to another planet by means of:
A chariot coloured like the halo about the moon waited by the window, poised in air, harnessed to a strange steed. A horse it seemed, but winged like an eagle, and its fore-legs feathered and armed with eagle’s claws instead of hooves.
One might be tempted to think that the reader is dreaming, for it the whole scene is wispy and ethereal. But it is not a dream:
The little martlet, alighting on his shoulder, laughed in his ear. “Child of earth,” she said, “dost think we are here in dreamland?”
He answered nothing, and she said, “This is no dream. Thou, first of the children of men, art come to Mercury, where thou and I will journey up and down for a season to show thee the lands and oceans, the forests, plains, and ancient mountains, cities and palaces of this world, Mercury, and the doings of them that dwell therein. But here thou canst not handle aught, neither make the folk ware of thee, not though thou shout thy throat hoarse. For thou and I walk here impalpable and invisible, as it were two dreams walking.
It is quite the adventure. Some sort of mechanism is needed to get into Fairyland. This might be the crossing of a threshold (called a temenos), or the use of a magic item (like J.K. Rowling’s portkey or C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe). It can also happen through the influence of a guide–a technique that goes back to Jewish apocalypse, where an angelic figure shows the prophet heaven and earth in all its majesty and mystery.
What is surprising about The Worm Ouroboros, however, is that this mechanism is quickly dropped. The martlet trains the reader to see Mercury with his earthly eyes, and then the story precedes naturally on its own. Earth and the reader slip into the background, and the entire adventure is told from a God’s-eye view of Mercury and its great lords and adventurers. There are even times when they call their world “earth” or “middle earth”–we should probably think of Midgard, the German mythological universe. At the story’s end, we do not return to the English reader and his little guide. All memory of the set up is forgotten, and we end with a knock on the door of the lords of Demonland.
E.R. Eddison has so carefully constructed this novel. It is high fantasy that sets the stage for an entire century of world-builders, including Tolkien and Lewis. Why, then, is this seemingly artificial construct taken up and then left loose in the end? Why is the scene set in Mercury at all, and not in some parallel Fairyland as in George MacDonald or Edmund Spenser?
It could be that, in going to Mercury, we are meant to think of the story in mercurial terms. Michael Ward chases this idea down about the Narniad in Planet Narnia. Mercury is quicksilver: loose, changeable, impatient around the sun it its speedy orbit. Mercury is Hermes, an eloquent messenger and a trickster, a guide and a classic knave. Lyra of The Golden Compass is mercurial, as are some of the key characters in The Worm Ouroboros, including Lord Brandoch Daha of Demonland, the poet-philosopher Lord Gro, and King Gorice of Witchland.
I’m not convinced, though, that Eddison is primarily drawing on this classic device. What sufficiently complex novel doesn’t have a trickster or golden-tongued character that is tough to nail down? I think the movement to Mercury is really about looking to the night sky, and sharing the same map of the universe as the ancients did. The story begins in a garden whose trees were saplings when the Vikings last visited. We hear from a Nordic saga, and then the scene shifts through dreamland to Mercury-Fairyland. I think Mercury is really about otherness, about awe and sublimity. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were caught up in that feeling of “northerness” in their formative years. It is that kind of sweeping feeling that Eddison is trying to create.
Still, one might be tempted to think that the ending is inelegant. Is our earth-rooted reader now bound to Mercury? What of his return? What does he expect to take with him back to earth in the way of moral lesson or adventurer’s tale? There is much left open.
But I have a theory about this openness. Most surprising of all, this book about adventures of fairy creatures on another world ends in a song of praise to the lords of Demonland by Queen Sophonisba (whom the Lord Juss has rescued). The poetry is “too high for mortal men,” Juss argues. What is this song? It is Sonnet XVIII by Shakespeare:
Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough windes do shake the darling buds of Maie,
And Sommers lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every faire from faire some-time declines,
By chance, or natures changing course, untrim’d;
But thy eternall Sommer shall not fade
Nor loose possession of that faire thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternall lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breath, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
This most famous of Shakespeare’s sonnets fits the context in that the entire novel is written in 16th-17th century English. But think about the implications. Can you think of Narnians or Hobbits or the great fantasy-world poets who speak words that were actually penned and published in human history? I don’t think this is very common, and so we should ask why great queens are quoting Shakespeare on Mercury.
The answer, I think, has to do with the archetypal. The ethics of honour and courage are different in Eddison’s Mercury, Lewis’ Narnia, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Roger Zelazny’s Amber, or Phil Pullman’s multiverse. With Pullman, we discover that truth does not always come straight on. In Amber, characters must navigate a treacherous world using cunning and instinct. In Narnia, characters must (I think) die to self. Middle Earth is the closest of these to Demonland–large-scale epics of war and intrigue. But while Tolkien values an upside down world where the least are often the greatest, Eddison’s world values the Norse characteristics of glory in battle and nothing but reputation in the afterlife. Gondor and all Middle Earth celebrate peace for an age; the lords of Demonland mourn the loss a great enemy when Witchland finally falls.
While each of these worlds has different systems of honour, they each value honour. There is essentially something human about courage, truth, adventure, and loyalty that emerges out of these various tales. Symbols of light and darkness, friendship and betrayal, and height and depth resonate in each of these worlds–these are symbols that emerge naturally in the story. The same is true of poetry, I think. At least, this is what I think that Eddison is hinting at. Although we don’t return to earth with the martlet and the British reader, we do return to earth by Shakespeare’s lyric. In the end, I think that Eddison is suggesting that “Shall I compare thee to a Summers day?” is an essentially human poem. Even if Shakespeare had not written it–if of all places in the imagination of sentient beings only the worlds of faerie existed–still that poem would have emerged in human experience. The artwork is archetypal.
That, then, is why I think they read Shakespeare on Mercury.