Keely's Reviews > The Worm Ouroboros

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
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Jul 13, 09

bookshelves: fantasy, reviewed, uk-and-ireland, favorites
Read in July, 2009

Though now largely forgotten, Eddison's early works of Fantasy inspired both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who never surpassed him in imagination, verbal beauty, or philosophy. In terms of morality, both later authors painted their worlds in broad strokes of black and white, excepting a traitor here or a redemption there. Like in the nationalistic epic 'Song of Roland', evil and good are tangible effects, borne in the blood.

Though similar on the surface, Eddison's is much more subtle. Though he depicts grand heroism and grand treachery, both are acts motivated by social codes and by need. Neither goes unquestioned, so that even when honesty is lauded and treachery is condemned, there is a certain self-awareness and irony in play.

In Fantasy, as in the Epic before it, there is an inherent conflict between the hyperbole of the high action and the need for sympathetic characters. A character without flaws cannot be sympathetic, for such a character has no humanity. A flawless hero in a world of simple morality can only be a farce, expressed either as satire or propaganda.

Eddison's characters and philosophies are too complex for propaganda, which is unsurprising since he takes his cues from Shakespeare. Like The Bard, Eddison does give us some overblown cliches, and occasionally lets them ride, but the setting and the supporting cast balance them by opposition. In no way does Eddison give up on the action or melodrama of the Epic tradition, but he tempers it with undertones of existentialism and realism.

Breadth of character complexity is not all Eddison borrows from Shakespeare, however. 'The Worm Ouroboros' is a whimsical exploration of the imagination, and is unapologetically stylized. The language is purposefully archaic and evocative of the Metaphysical poets, the Nordic Sagas, and Chaucer.

As a linguist and translator, Eddison's language is seasoned and playful. Some have expressed discontent at trying to read it, but it is usually more simple than Shakespeare's, and rarely as difficult as Chaucer's.

There are some truly lovely, almost alien passages in the book, but they are not Tolkien's wooden reconstruction of epic language, they are truly a language of their own. This is especially true of the scenes of war and the emotionally fraught interplay between characters. Though much of the interaction plays out along the lines of chivalry, nobility, and duty, there is often a subtext of unspoken, conflicting desires and thoughts. As with any formal social system, chivalry may be the mode of interaction, but it is rarely the content.

Like the Metaphysical poetry of Donne, Sydney, and Shakespeare, though the surface may be grand or lovely or innocent, the underlying meanings subvert. Unlike Tolkien, this underlying meaning is not a stodgy allegorical moral but an exploration of human thought and desire.

Also unlike Tolkien, Eddison is not afraid of women. His women are mightily present, and may be manipulative, vengeful, honorable, powerful, and self-sacrificing as the men. The women are often defined by their sexuality, meaning their beauty and availability. The book neither praises not condemns this social control, as it is the form which chivalry takes, but these ideals entrap the men just as strictly. Though he doesn't create female knights like Ariosto, neither are his women Tolkien's objects of distant and uneasy worship.

However, one can see in Eddison's Queen Sophonisba a prototype for Galadriel. Likewise the destruction at Krothering is reminiscent of the industrialization of Isengard and The Shire. The 'seeing stones' prefigure both the palantir and Galadriel's mirror. Gorice XII working magic in his black tower could be Saruman, nor are these the end of the parallels between the books.

It is a shame that modern fantasy authors did not take more from Eddison than his striking imagery. We could do with more subtle character interaction, more sympathetic foes, characters remarkable not for their prowess, but for their philosophies, and a well-studied depiction of arms, armor, war, ships, architecture, art, food, hunting, and culture.

The depth and detail of each table or boot or sea battle truly shows the mastery of the author, and the supremacy of his knowledge. The world is full and rich and alien and yet remains sympathetic. The play of language is complex and studied, and second in force only to a master like Mervyn Peake.

Rare is the author who has picked up the resonance of the early fantasy works of Morris, MacDonald, Dunsany, and Eddison, but there are some, such as Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock, and though they are sadly few, they represent remarkably unique visions within the tradition.

Eddison's own vision remains without peer to this day, as no author has been able to combine studied archaism so effortlessly with childlike enthusiasm. Perhaps no one ever will.

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Comments (showing 1-19 of 19) (19 new)

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Jonathan This review has influenced me to further want to read this. However I must question whether you have to constantly compare such a book to Tolkien with all your: "unlike Tolkien" comments. And Tolkien's languages were hardly wooden after all languages were his passion. They are more rather mixes of the various languages he studied.


Keely Well, firstly this book influenced both Tolkien and Lewis to write fantasy, and it specifically relates to Tolkien since it tackles fantasy as a literary exercise. Tolkien, Lewis, and Eddison all wrote about one another's works, so I see no problem with comparing books when one book was the inspiration for another.

Secondly, I also compare how Eddison works linguistically with how Peake does, but this doesn't mean very much to the great majority of fantasy fans. Comparisons are only useful if the person reading the comparison knows the reference.

I don't think Tolkien is one of the fantasy greats, but he's probably the only writer I can safely reference and expect almost every fantasy fan in the world to be familiar with. I would love it if I were free to make more wide-ranging comparisons with the expectation of being understood, but for most fantasy fans, Tolkien is their only connection to any earlier tradition.

Secondly, you say Tolkien's language could hardly be wooden because language was his passion, but in my experience, Tolkien was a rather wooden man who pursued his passions in a wooden way. He was very conservative and less interested with inspiring wonder than in revealing the 'One Truth', which may be part of why Eddison referred to Tolkien's philosophies as 'soft'.

And I agree: in comparison to Eddison's nuanced, almost Buddhist view of evil as cyclical pattern of human conflict, Tolkien's wholly symbolic, inexplicable force of evil is philosophically untenable (or even pointless). Both Tolkien and Lewis have a way of reducing evil to something which infects magically, which is wholly inexplicable, and which is never seen to come about as a logical result of character flaws. They lacks the existential punch of Eddison, whose evil, like that of Milton's Satan, is always tempting, is scary because it can seem reasonable or desirable.

So to me, it seems only natural to compare Eddison to Tolkien, since both deal with similar issues in different ways, since they are both sequentially preeminent authors in the same tradition, since they commented on one another's works, and since Tolkien is still the most visible and universal point of conjunction for modern day fantasy readers.


mark monday i finally read this one and loved it. however, upon rereading your excellent review, i'm surprised that you didn't note the novel's glorification of war for war's sake. for some reason or another, i just assumed that that would bother you. you note above that Eddision sees evil as 'cyclical pattern of human conflict'. i can see that... but what i see even more is Eddison's heroes wishing to continue their naive, warlike jerkoff fantasies at the expense of who knows how many more of their subjects' lives. and so their dream becomes a reality: the villains are revived, all the better for heroes and villains alike to play at battle. i found the ending to be depressing, at least from that perspective.


message 4: by Keely (last edited Apr 27, 2012 09:00AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Keely I don't like to talk too much about the ending of a book in a review, particularly when the ending is so unusual and clever. In the first place, it felt like an extension of the existential theme of struggle. Struggle lent everything meaning, so without it, life was no longer a vivid thing.

Secondly, it reflected the values expressed by chivalry, and in chivalric tales and the Matter of Europe. Knights left home and fought. They spent their countries' coffers on personal glory, fighting worthy and able opponents. There was always another war to be fought, often against the same men who just rebuffed them.

There were points in history where armor outperformed weaponry, and where a knight on horseback could reasonably expect to survive almost any engagement. At this point, war does become like a game, where defeat meant being knocked down, taken, and returned for a sum of money. We can see the sport-like quality from instances where commanders bought their entire companies matching silk doublets instead of new armor and weapons, or where Sir Philip Sidney removed pieces of his armor before a battle to make things 'more sporting' (and died for it).

The deaths of peasants, on the other hand, were only as important as the lives of peasants, which is to say, they were hardly worth mentioning. It's easy to forget, reading The Song of Roland or even The Iliad that the great warriors were surrounded by dozens of fighting vassals, since conflicts between two armies are most often described in terms of personal combat between the commanders.

Lastly, I see the ending as a self-aware commentary on the nature of heroic stories. How long has Robin Hood been fighting the Sheriff? How many times has Arthur faced down Mordred? How many times has Batman foiled The Joker? It is the nature of these heroic figures from stories to endlessly fight the same battles over and over again. Their greatest foes are always spared, or resurrected, and things play out once more.

There is something decidedly metatextual about the ending, because we as readers must realize that Goldry, Spitfire, and the rest are destined to fight on and on, forever. Every time someone opens the book, they must start all over again. With this in mind, I find the ending a rather fascinating invitation by the author to read the book over again. It is a cyclical ending which leads us neatly back to the beginning again.

When a new story comes out, we do not ask 'how will these characters maintain the peace they won', but 'what new threat will arise so that they can win peace, once more'. In tales of endless chivalric combat, there is little room for peace, just as there were hardly two years of peace together throughout Europe's knightly era.

Finally, I would suggest that as a Nordic scholar, Eddison is evoking the warriors of Valhalla, drinking in their mead halls of night, fighting of day, and awaiting the final end to all things. The afterlife of war is the goal of the Master Morality, just as the afterlife of peace arises from the Slave Morality--which brings us back to existential philosophies of struggle.


mark monday excellent points, Keely. thanks!


Jonathan I see after reading this the connections between those various authors. Thank you Keely for making me want to read the book even more than I had before. It was superbly and beautifully written. Thanks for also taking the time to explain why you linked the authors with your comments. I did ask that question earlier because from what I could see this was a book very unlike Tolkien's. I will still debate whether 'wooden' is the adjective to describe Tolkien although I certainly admit he is highly conservative. Perhaps overly sympathetic or nostalgic at times but he doesn't seem wooden. I suppose wooden simply implies a jerkiness and a lack of mobility to me and I find that Tolkien's languages flow nicely. I will admit he lacks the same passion of Eddison but it is a passion nonetheless.

"Both Tolkien and Lewis have a way of reducing evil to something which infects magically, which is wholly inexplicable, and which is never seen to come about as a logical result of character flaws."

I see it slightly differently. I think that Tolkien with his representation of the ring was attempting to show the seductive nature of corrupting power. I do believe that character flaws are represented in his characters and in some ways I think his characters have a greater depth than Eddison's and at the same time a lesser depth. By which I mean at stages Eddison's characters have a greater moral sense than Tolkien's while at times Tolkien's characters have more substance. I do think Tolkien, though I like his work a lot, looks down upon those people around him who lack his same intelligence, whereas Eddison appears to not be so supercilious. On the whole I find both works to be great in different ways and rated them as such.


Keely "Perhaps overly sympathetic or nostalgic at times but he doesn't seem wooden. I suppose wooden simply implies a jerkiness and a lack of mobility to me and I find that Tolkien's languages flow nicely."

Parts of Tolkien's story do flow, but there were also parts, particularly the songs, troop movements, and bits of mythology which didn't flow well--especially when I compare it to the epic battles in Worm Ouroboros. This, combined with the condescension and conservative stodginess is what caused me to use the term 'wooden'.

"I think that Tolkien with his representation of the ring was attempting to show the seductive nature of corrupting power."

I agree, and I think you can get a lot just by looking at the ring and the characters of Gollum, Frodo, and Bilbo--but that is the deepest, most complex and compelling thread in all of Tolkien's work (in part because Gollum is based on Lord Gro). But outside of that, looking at Sauron and Saruman, Mordor, the orcs, the humans of the south, there just isn't that same depth or level of motivation going on--they're bad guys to be bad guys.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, I'm glad you enjoyed the book, it's one I wish more fantasy fans had a chance to read.


Jonathan "This, combined with the condescension and conservative stodginess is what caused me to use the term 'wooden'."

Ah I believe I begin to understand. I'll have to have a look at that when I re-read Tolkien's work later on. But yes I did very much enjoy Eddison's work which is a cut far above any other fantasy being mass produced and many other 'literary' greats. Thank you for the excellent review which prompted me to read it much earlier than I would have.


message 9: by Kyle (new) - added it

Kyle This book sounds quite interesting, so thanks for the review! I read an interview with Tolkien, where he disagreed that we was "inspired" by Eddison, because he claimed that Eddison's work was too morally relativistic. Since I haven't read the book yet I can't agree or disagree with that assessment, but in a way it sort of piqued my interest in Eddison's work beyond what it had been.

I know the language in The Worm Ouroboros is a notable characteristic of the book, but I'm still not entirely sure in what way. By your review, it seems it's written in an almost Shakespearean style? I'm trying to compare its reading difficulty to that of the Gormenghast.


Keely "[Tolkien] disagreed that we was "inspired" by Eddison, because he claimed that Eddison's work was too morally relativistic."

Well, that's actually what I like about Eddison as compared to Tolkien--that he isn't constantly moralizing and trying to tell the reader right from wrong. But a lot of people have seen parallels between Tolkien and Eddison, the strongest being the similarities between Sophonisba and Galadriel, and between Gollum and Lord Gro, and Saruman and King Gorice.

"it seems it's written in an almost Shakespearean style? I'm trying to compare its reading difficulty to that of the Gormenghast."

It's in a deliberately archaic style of the same period as Shakespeare, yes, though it's not as difficult for a modern reader as Shakespeare. Much of it is rather straightforward, though there are very poetic passages which were a bit beyond me--though they were lovely.

I'd say that Worm Ouroboros is not as thickly-written as Gormenghast--it has a lot more action in it, for one thing. So yeah, I'd say less difficult than Gormenghast, but still very unusual.


message 11: by Kyle (new) - added it

Kyle Keely wrote: ""[Tolkien] disagreed that we was "inspired" by Eddison, because he claimed that Eddison's work was too morally relativistic."

Well, that's actually what I like about Eddison as compared to Tolkien..."


Thanks for the information; my copy just arrived in the mail, so I'm pushing it up to my short-list of soon to reads. :)


Keely Oh, very cool. Hope you enjoy it.


message 13: by Rhea (new) - added it

Rhea Great review! It convinced me to pick up a copy, and I'm glad I did.

You probably know that Eddison wrote other fantasy books (Mistress of Mistresses). I'm curious: are you going to read that one as well?


Keely I plan to, yes, once I've finished my current spate of Victorian research, I plan to go back and start reading fantasy again, including more of Eddison's work.


message 15: by Alan (new)

Alan Sheinwald I have to admit that when I first read it years ago I had to try it three times before I could settle into it.


Keely Yeah, the language can certainly be a hurdle. I spent years studying Milton, Shakespeare, and other complex stylists, and there are still some passages of Eddison's that I had to work at.


message 17: by Rhea (last edited Sep 05, 2013 09:26PM) (new) - added it

Rhea Keely wrote: "Yeah, the language can certainly be a hurdle. I spent years studying Milton, Shakespeare, and other complex stylists, and there are still some passages of Eddison's that I had to work at."

I think the challenge is part of the fun, especially when the prose is as lovely as Eddison's.


message 18: by John (new) - added it

John Mayer Eddison and this book in particular were major influences on Karl Wagner, who read them while in high school. He eschewed the ornate language—went quite the other direction, actually—but the many faceted, often self-contradictory natures of his characters, as well as something of the overall atmosphere, owe a lot to Eddison.


message 19: by Penina (new)

Penina Mezei Agree with this review that the book does have some flaws - Eddison takes great amounts of space describing the interior decoration of the characters' halls. And indeed, some of the character's names, thought up by the author when he was a boy, do seem to be slightly out of sync with the more adult nature of the novel. - Penina Mezei


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