Reading any fantasy before JRR came in and starting flooding the world with tiny men and their hairy feet is sometimes a dicey proposition. Not because most of it is bad (probably no better or worse than any fiction written in the 1920s) but because the sensibility is so vastly different. The idea of what fantasy "should" be hadn't exactly been codified so you mostly get people's attempts at trying to figure their way around a genre that hadn't really coalesced into the various styles that we know today. If you're lucky, then you can get someone like Lord Dunsany, who could write compelling about fairies and the like with some of the most elegant prose to be put to paper and still manage to tell his story in less than epic length. Other times, you wonder if they're getting paid by the word (in the case of stuff that made it into pulp magazines, they probably were).
I went through a phase where I decided to find the semi-major works of early fantasy, most of which aren't real well known today. I've tackled Lord Dunsany already and I have "The Well at the World's End" and "Lud-in-the-Mist" floating around somewhere, and while I'm sure those will have their challenges, none of that quite prepares you for what you're going to experience in "The Worm Ouroboros", probably ER Eddison's best known work.
You know you're in for a good time when the introduction goes out of its way to point out the flaws of the book as a way of telling you to look past and forgive all that (my edition is from Replica books, which I didn't buy because it was printed in my home state of New Jersey, but it's certainly a nice touch) before the book even starts, and honestly the two things they highlight (the first chapter and Eddison's apparently overly rich descriptions of banquet halls) aren't even anywhere near deal-breakers. Amusingly, the one line description of the plot doesn't even come close to depicting what happens in the rest of the book. It's not a package really designed to sell people who wouldn't normally be interested in proto-fantasy literature from the early part of the 20th century on the concept. So let me try and do a better job.
So what the heck is all this about? In a nutshell, the dominion of Witchland coverts nearby Demonland and after getting rebuffed decide to go all out, kidnapping one of the main lords and scattering the rest, forcing the good men of Demonland to raise an army, get their dominion back and vanquish their foes in Witchland, all of whom are pretty decent warriors led by a king who seems to both a sorcerer and a Time Lord at the same time.
A couple things are worth noting before you even start. For one, Eddison came up with a lot of these concepts when he was a child and as an adult didn't bother to change any names when he wrote his book out, thus if you're thinking that a book populated by people from the nations of Demonland, Witchland, Goblinland and Impland might have been conceived by a twelve year old, you aren't that far off (oddly enough, everyone in those places are just regular people, though there's a stray reference the folks in Demonland having tiny horns that is never mentioned again). However, the book is much more sophisticated than that, having a pretty decently worked out history (given in the backpages of the book) and a fairly realistic set of relationships between the nations as well as a good amount of shared history from the main characters (years before "Games of Thrones", Eddison's book has the characters reminiscing about the time they engaged in a genocidal war with the population of Ghoulland, eventually wiping them all out) that helps flesh out the proceedings and give some weight. All this helps because instead of trying to write a book that children could read, he decided to write it in a 16th century style of writing, meaning that the only people who would be able to fathom what was going on are readers with a lot of patience, or contemporaries of Chaucer (indeed, letters the characters write to each other that are quoted in the text are as Olde English as ye can get). It's not the worst style in the world to handle, but it is a bit of an adjustment, although I think ultimately the archaic style fits the story he's telling here. For me, it was like watching a Shakespeare play, where the language can come across as gibberish until you start to get into the rhythms of it, then it sounds perfectly natural (it wears off, though, so unless you're able to read the book in one fell swoop be prepared to flail about for a bit everytime you dive back into it while the brain makes the necessary changes). He commits to this pretty much a hundred percent, which is impressive in itself, although a few stray references to tennis balls nearly took me out of the text (this happens at least twice).
It's also a novel completely comprised of action. In a world where we're used to learning about everyone's deepest thoughts, Eddison's characters keep those thoughts to themselves. Unless it's said in the dialogue, the motivations of each character can only be judged by their actions alone (typically involving a sword) and except for a few weak stabs at introspection you've got nothing but raw action and people talking about what they're going to do when it's time for raw action.
With all those caveats, though, is any of this worth it? Surprisingly, for those who have the wherewithal to withstand the battery of really ancient sounding prose, yes. Once you get into the story the prose is extremely well written, able to set atmosphere and mood extraordinarily well. While most writers would take scenes and ramble on for pages of description, Eddison for the most part keeps it fairly normal (for the style, you'll never mistake this for Hemingway) and there are scenes that are completely immersive, not even the battle scenes but some of the quieter moments give him a good opportunity of showing off his skills at painting with color and tone. The plot itself is one overarching event (getting Demonland back and stopping Witchland) with a lot of little events and sideplots going on in the meantime, with alliances bouncing off each other as people weigh loyalty and vengeance and power, the costs of it and what all that means to them. He gives ample time to the folks at Witchland and while some of them have names that make it hard to tell them apart you can also see where he strives to give everyone distinct personalities, even the ladies (not an easy feat for this part of the century) who in some instances are even more bloodthirsty than the men.
He makes some interesting storytelling choices, sometimes taking major events and having them occur offscreen, which at times can give a fairly slow moving book a surprisingly breathless pacing, as if it's always trying to catch up with itself. Magic is mostly kept to a minimum but always present as well, with the characters calling on gods and sometimes seeing those prayers answered in unusual ways. But it doesn't trumpet the weirdest parts of the book, taking them in stride as if this is everyday (the king of Witchland is apparently the same person reincarnated in different guises repeatedly, changing from a wrestler to a sorcerer . . . nobody involved seems to think this is strange) and mythical creatures are treated with equal parts awe and "well, here's another tool for the toolbox".
It's epic event after epic event piling on top of each other so by the time you reach the climax, all the elements have been building to a fever pitch that goes nearly gonzo in how far the book is willing to go to resolve or completely obliterate obstacles in the way of getting to the ending. Those who soldiered bravely through the reams of prose in the earlier pages are rewarded with scenes that are just as off the scale epic as anything ever written in fantasy before and even once everything is resolved (while Demonland are technically the good guys, the book is refreshingly evenhanded in how it treats everyone) you're not prepared for the kind of ending he gives you, which is unlike anything I've read before in its magical strangeness, a kind of "Finnegans Wake" for fantasy that seems to be conscious of not only its own nature but our relationship to myths and legends and how we perceive them. It doesn't seek to elevate the common man as much as depict how we needs lords and kings to fight for us and have all the fun. Its an odd story that has no idea how odd it is, and still retains complete confidence in itself and for the most part justifies that. It's definitely not for everyone, even people who really like fantasy, but for someone able to immerse themselves in it, chances are it'll be nothing like anything they've ever read.
- Hardcover: 400 pages
- Publisher: Wildside Press (1 February 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0809595192
- ISBN-13: 978-0809595198
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.5 x 22.9 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 739 g
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