Friday, 16 February 2001

E.R. Eddison: The Worm Ouroboros (1922)

Edition: Ballantine, 1971
Review number: 755

Often touted as a rival to The Lord of the Rings, Eddison's epic fantasy has more in common with the large scale of The Silmarillion. Eddison wrote four loosely linked novels while working as a civil servant, of which The Worm Ouroboros is the first and best known. Its subject is a war between the Demons and Witches, the latter aided by a willingness to act dishonourably and by the dread sorcery of their king, Gorice XII.

The flaws in The Worm Ouroboros are fairly obvious, particularly at the beginning of the novel. The strangest is a narrator, who is very dull and who is even forgotten by Eddison after a couple of chapters. It is symptomatic of a more general fault, which is a lack of revision. Unlike Tolkien's writing, The Worm Ouroboros is clearly not the product of years of obsessive rewriting, background notes and singleminded vision. It reads far more as though it were written down in one sitting. There are problems with details of the background. Like Tolkien, Eddison uses familiar names from folklore for his peoples; there are Demons, Witches, Imps and so on. However, with the exception of the Ghouls, these all appear to be nations of human beings, and the result is that the reader is torn between the traditional ideas conjured up by these names and the way in which Eddison portrays them. Tolkien's dwarves and elves are far more like their traditional namesakes, and this is a lead which has been followed by just about every fantasy writer since.

The whole story of the novel, we are told, is set on the planet Mercury, and this also gives a bizarre feeling; a magical realm works much metter in a mythical setting like Middle Earth.

There is one aspect of the way in which Eddison uses pieces of the real world which works extremely well. In most fantasy novels, when poetry occurs, it is usually a poor imitation of some sort of heroic sage, derived via models like William Morris and Tolkien from medieval sources. What Eddison does is to find poetry which fits with the style of his writing and the situation; this means that it is written by poets like Shakespeare and Spenser and is a pleasure to read rather than something to skip.

The Worm Ouroboros has many excellent qualities; once you get into to it, it is quite compelling. It is imaginative and literary, if a bit lacking in planning and structure. However, it did not grip the world's imagination as the less poetic Tolkien did, and so did not provide the inspiration to hundreds of imitators that The Lord of the Rings has, with the result that it remains something of a curiousity in a forgotten corner of the fantasy genre.

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