Teresa Edgerton's Reviews > The Worm Ouroboros

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
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Oct 15, 2011

it was amazing


Rambling, obscure, written after the style of the seventeenth century, filled with characters it is difficult to even like, much less love, and the story is supposed to take place on Mercury, though it is not science fiction and there is no particular reason why the author should have hit on that planet more than any place else — this hardly sounds like a recommendation, I know, yet the book is, deservedly, considered a classic.

The story begins when King Gorice XI of Witchland lays claim to Demonland and demands the fealty of her rulers, Lords Juss, Goldry Bluszco, and Spitfire. (Do not concern yourself with the names. The more you think about them, the less sense they will make. Demons, Witches, Pixies, Imps ... none of these means what you think it does, and names of many of the people and places seem to come from a mishmash of sources.) The Demons, as Gorice surely expects, refuse. A wrestling match between the hulking Gorice and Goldry, not mean wrestler himself, is arranged to decide the matter. Since Gorice has decorated his palace with the skulls and and bones of the ninety-nine champions he has already defeated, he is confident of his triumph. However, when the contest begins to go against him, he cheats, and is still defeated. He loses the match and his life in the process. The Witches, having cheated, accuse the Demons of treachery and murder, refuse to keep their part of the bargain, and depart.

And this sets off a series of kidnappings, battles, defeats, victories, treacheries, heroic deeds, more battles, treason, poisoning, battles, and suicide.

The most fascinating characters are the antagonists, that is, the inhabitants of Witchland, and one Goblin who switches sides so often it is hard to keep track of whose side he is on at any given moment. Yet Gro is no opportunist, for there is something in him that forces him ever to take the losing side when he already knows full well that it is about to suffer a staggering defeat. It is not quite compassion; it is undoubtedly a compulsion; it may be on philosophic or aesthetic grounds. Gro does not appear to be entirely certain himself. Corund, if ruthless and ever willing to advise his overlord to triumph by trickery and outright cheating, is nevertheless steadfast, and perversely honorable in his way. King Gorice XII, a sorcerer of great renown, and in some way a reincarnation of all the previous Gorices (another thing not to think about too much, Eddison often had several incarnations of a character living at once) is simply compelling in his own unmitigated wickedness.

Gorice is monstrous in his will to dominate. He cares for no one and nothing but his own ambitions, but Corund — great-hearted though not good-hearted (a subtle distinction) — forgives his one-time friend Gro his treason, although almost certainly in part to please his wife, the supernaturally beauiful Pryzmyra. Pryzmyra is all magnificent contradiction, by turns fierce and sensuously languid. We are to understand that she was given to Corund in marriage when she was barely more than a child, and he at least in middle age. Now he is old, while she has reached a gorgeous maturity. But she is fierce in her affections, and though naturally attracted to the high and noble, is deeply attached to her husband, even when it causes her great difficulty reconciling her loyalty to himand to the Witchesm with her equally fierce affections for her brother La Fireez, Prince of Pixyland and a staunch ally of the Demons. Why she should feel anything but contempt for Gro is a mystery, but something about him touches her.

The protagonists, however, are hardly less monstrous than the Witches, though in a different way, being egotistical in the extreme. Lord Juss’s bedchamber, for instance, is decorated with murals depicting, not the magnificent deeds of his ancestors, which would be too commonplace, no, his chamber is adorned with murals of his own glorious deeds. In their defense, each of these characters seems to admire the others as much as he admires himself. They are presented as beneficent overlords, yet two of them leave their people when war is threatening, in order to pursue a personal point quest. When given a choice between the easy way and the seemingly impossible they always choose the difficult and dangerous course in order to satisfy their heroic nature -- even though their swift and safe return home is desperately needed in order to turn the tide of battle. One gets the feeling that the people they rule do not matter in the least, and only exist to give these lordly characters someone to rule over — for men such as they must rule. It is in their nature. We wish for them to succeed, partly in grudging admiration, and partly because the results of their failure would be so much worse.

Eddison obviously admired the men of an earlier age — or at least an idealized version of them— and longed for a time when men were heroes and women were goddesses, or else not worth thinking about at all. Much of the book is taken up with the rather tedious adventures of Juss and his friend Brandoch Daha. Thankfully, there are also sections devoted to the Witches’ invasion of Demonland, a tender subplot about unrequited love, and another about the jostling for power among those of Gorice’s henchmen sent to lead the invasion.

One reason why the book succeeds is that the author has perfect command of the style he adopts. Writing in the 1920’s, late Elizabethan/Jacobean English is spot on, and he frequently uses it to create stunning and breathtakingly beautiful t effects. As you may have guessed ,from the description above, in spite of its weaknesses, the story is melodrama at its most heart-stirring and magnificent best, it’s characters, if infuriating, so very much larger than life. If you are up for a truly challenging read, you could hardly do better than The Worm Ouroboros.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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mark monday superb review!

message 2: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller Teresa is an accomplished author in her own right, you know!
Hi Teresa, nice to see you here on GR. :)

(I'm one of the Chrons defectors... was Moontravlr over there)

Manny Beautiful review. I really must reread this, I see I didn't get it at all when I read it at age 14!

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