Modern fantasy is a sprawling publishing category consuming large sections of bookstores and online retailers. It has become so omnipresent that it’s difficult to imagine a time when fantasy was a field narrow enough that a dedicated fan could read everything available and have to dig for more.
Fantasy literature experienced its huge surge in the mid-1960s when the paperback publication of The Lord of the Rings created a new audience. Once readers were finished with Tolkien, they had one burning question: “Where can I get more of this stuff?”
One common answer in the ‘60s was The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison. “What?” and “Who?” were the usual follow-up questions—and they still are. Eddison’s 1922 epic fantasy remains a curiosity spoken about by small circles of readers and fantasy historians.
Eric Rücker Eddison (1882–1945) was a distinguished British Civil Servant who worked at the Board of Trade and received multiple honors for his thirty-two years of work. But Eddison’s heart was in Icelandic sagas and Jacobean drama. As a scholar of Old Norse, he published a translation of Egil’s Saga in 1930.
His major impact as a writer was The Worm Ouroboros, his first novel. It failed to sell-through its initial small print run, but attracted attention from scholars impressed with Eddison’s unique literary voice. One of the earliest fans was Tolkien himself, who had met Eddison and called him the most convincing writer of “invented worlds” he had read. Eddison continued working in fantasy with the “Zimiamvia trilogy”: Mistress of Mistresses (1935), A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), and The Mezentian Gate (1958).
The new popularity of fantasy in the 1960s led to The Worm Ouroboros returning to print in a 1967 paperback from Ballantine. What must the readers of The Lord of the Rings have thought of The Worm Ouroboros when they picked it up on a recommendation in the late ‘60s? Although the novel has clashing medieval kingdoms in a secondary world and features magic and monsters, it offers no concession to modern readers, no quiet welcome with reader surrogates like Hobbits, no recognizable contemporary ethical concerns. The Worm Ouroboros is adamantly anti-modern in its style and moral universe. It invites readers to wander through antique language and Romanticized ideals of war. “It is neither allegory nor fable but a Story to be read for its own sake,” Eddison wrote in the dedication.
That capital “S” Story takes place on the planet Mercury, which Eddison introduces in a framing device to explain the fantastic Medieval setting. A modern Englishman named Lessingham dreams a martlet guides him to the planet Mercury to show him the contention brewing between Demonland and Witchland. Lessingham and Mercury then fall out of the book and are never mentioned again in the tale of this war of extinction.
The King of Witchland, Gorice XI, demands the Lords of Demonland pay him homage. The proud Demons, under the leadership of Lord Juss of Galing, refuse. They offer instead a wrestling match between Gorice and Lord Goldry Bluszco at a neutral location. Although Lord Goldry wins and kills Gorice, the Witches betray the trust of the Demons and plot to slaughter their foes in the night. The Demons escape, although Lord Goldry vanishes in a magical maelstrom summoned by the new King of Witchland, Gorice XII.
This opening betrayal sets in motion the rest of the novel. Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha of Demonland travel into the distant land of Zimiamvia to locate the missing Lord Goldry. The Demons and the Witches engage in a full-scale war to wipe each other out. Lord Gro, an exile from the separate kingdom of Goblinland, emerges as a key player in the war as he switches between sides, always seeking to be on the losing side because he believes in the nobility of defeat.
The battles between the armies of the Witches and the Demons are titanic. They fight on land and sea, and blood flows in gushing rivers while conspiracies between the nobles tear apart the castles. The questing of Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch brings them to bizarre places and meetings with creatures like hippogriffs and manticores.
This plot isn’t far removed from many current voluminous fantasy novels. But it feels like nothing published today. Eddison’s language is dense with archaisms: “You are pleased to jest, O King. For my part I would as lief have this musk-million on my shoulders as a head so blockish as to want ambition.” (That’s a line plucked out at random.) And the moral paradigm of the world is that battle is a good in itself, regardless of the goals of the sides, because it is an aesthetic good. The two sides become so enraptured in the joys of war that they cannot consider more obviously intelligent tactical choices.
The Demons represent “good” because of their fair dealings. Readers are urged to root for their victory over the “evil” Witches, users of dark magic and deceptions. But the Witches still live by a warrior’s honor, and the Demons admire them as worthy adversaries. The most bloodthirsty of the witches, Lords Corund and Corinius, still believe in honorable combat and keeping their word. These are not opposing ideas in conflict, but identical ideas clashing over attitude.
Only in the final pages does the meaning of the title emerge, and Eddison executes a jarring close that will either send readers into fits of frustration or bring a wicked smile to their faces … “Ah, that’s where he was always taking this, wasn’t he?”
Even with its easy availability in digital editions, The Worm Ouroboros will never find a wide audience: too idiosyncratic, too much itself and its author’s personal interests. But for the right readers who enjoy Eddison’s removal from all strands of recognizable contemporary literature—now or then—it’s one of the most remarkable works of the twentieth century.