Thursday, 4 April 2002
E.R. Eddison: Mistress of Mistresses (1935)
Review number: 1078
To read Tolkien and Eddison in close succession is to realise just how much the latter is the better writer. This is his second fantasy novel, loosely connected to the first and best known, The Worm Ouroboros, and beginning a trilogy ending with the unfinished The Mezentian Gate. Although the earlier novel is better known, this is the better one and Eddison's talent clearly developed in the nine years since the publication of The Worm Ouroboros.
When strong king Mezentius of the Three Kingdoms dies, his heir Styllis is a weak young man, unable to handle two particularly powerful subjects, his illegitimate brother Barganax and the sinister Honorius Parry. Styllis soon dies, poisoned, leaving a will guaranteed to sow further discord in the vagueness of the terms by which Parry is appointed guardian of his sister Antiope, now queen. The other major character is Parry's cousin, Lessingham, whose honour makes him someone that Barganax can trust as long as he can keep Parry from breaking the agreements he makes.
This plot is closely modelled on the themes from real medieval history, one of which is the continual rivalry between monarchs and their most eminent subjects. A regency presented lots of opportunities to the unscrupulous, as so much of the state consisted in the person of the ruler, and could be guaranteed to disturb the balance between these groups. This could even happen in England, one of the most stable states in Western Europe, as when John of Gaunt was guardian to Richard II. Most fantasy is based on Tolkien's ideas, which in turn come from the literature of the medieval period in which quests undertaken by individuals or small groups with a spiritual dimension are common; in using real life as his source, Eddison prefigures modern authors with an interest in politics, such as George R.R. Martin, though Martin's brutal setting from his Songs of Ice and Fire series is replaced with something more gentle, a dreamlike medieval world as seen through a pre-Raphaelite lens.
People often admire the descriptions in Tolkien's novels, but to me Eddison is superior in this as in many other aspects of his work. What he describes is not so definite, perhaps, but it is infinitely more poetic and suggestive. To me, this invitation to use my imagination is much more satisfying than merely acquiescing in that of the author. Eddison natually also scores in areas where Tolkien is weak: his characters are much less stereotyped, and he can portray interesting women; he introduces a sexuality which is truly erotic; and even includes a hint of homoeroticism.
There is a spiritual side to the stories too, which is more of the things not being the way they seem variety than the overt magic more common in fantasy. The way that this is done is rather reminiscent of George MacDonald, even though it lacks the Christian allegory of, say, Lilith.
Mistress of Mistresses should be more widely recognised as a classic of the genre, but for some reason it remains little known.