Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Worm Ouroboros

I was about twenty when I discovered E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. I was a shelver in the university library, working in the old, rarely visited Dewey decimal section on the top floor. The title caught my eye, and I took the book down and opened its well-worn cover. As I began to read, I knew that here was a vein of a different metal. Something richer, stranger, more real, more alien, and more true to itself even than Lewis or Tolkien, the authors I had grown up with. The strangest thing was that I had never heard of it. Nor, for that matter, had anyone. And yet it is (in my humble opinion) one of the great works of the English language.

Ouroboros was first published in 1922 and sold very poorly. However, it came to be known to both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and Lewis in particular praised it as a strange and unique synthesis of northern hardness and renaissance luxury. Even Lin Carter, that insufferable chatterbox, had the sense to put it forward as a candidate for the greatest fantasy novel ever written. Praise for it has not been limited to fantasists. In his introduction to the 1952 edition, Orville Prescott speaks of it as a “majestic romance” and an “enduring masterpiece, though a strange and imperfect one.”

What do I love about it? To begin with, the Jacobean style in which it is written is unbelievably gorgeous and ornate, but never unnatural, silly, or pretentious. Eddison’s sentences have a heady, round, and ringing rhythm, so that the book is a delight to read aloud (as I have done, twice). The heroes are a combination of the courtly renaissance prince, magnanimous and well-spoken, and the lordly homeric chieftan, while the villains, bad rather than evil, are glorious monsters and chimeras that it is impossible not to admire. The settings range from the rich palaces of many-mountained Demonland to the marshes of waterish Witchland and the Iron Tower of Carcë to the devil-haunted, blasted waste of the Moruna to the jewel-like Lake of Ravary guarded by immortal spirits and ringed with impassible peaks.

But all this is material. No amount of praise or description could convey the sense that one has upon opening the book, that here is something vital, real, and substantial, something with a life of its own. It is a work of art, pursuing its own ends with no thought of utility. That is what I love about it. That is what fantasy should be.

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