Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Eternal Return

Thereupon distilled from the neck of the alembic a white oil incombustible, and the King dipped his rod in that oil and described round the seven-pointed star on the floor the figure of the worm Ouroboros, that eateth his own tail. 
Like a black eagle surveying earth from some high mountain the King passed by in his majesty. His byrny was of black chain mail, its collar, sleeves, and skirt edged with plates of dull gold set with hyacinths and black opals. His hose were black, cross-gartered with bands of sealskin trimmed with diamonds. On his left thumb was his great signet ring fashioned in gold in the semblance of the worm Ouroboros that eateth his own tail: the bezel of the ring the head of the worm, made of a peach-coloured ruby of the bigness of a sparrow's egg. His cloak was woven of the skins of black cobras stitched together with gold wire, its lining of black silk sprinkled with dust of gold. The iron crown of Witchland weighed on his brow, the claws of the crab erect like horns; and the sheen of its jewels was many-coloured like the rays of Sirius on a clear night of frost and wind at Yule-tide.  
The Worm Ouroboros 
A friend recently facebooked about Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence. I read Nietzsche from time to time, mostly because I find him entertaining, and good fodder for story-writing. But he had quite a few keen insights, too. At any rate, the discussion brought to my mind the following passage from Beyond Good and Evil:
…the ideal of the most high-spirited, alive, and world-affirming human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably da capo [from the beginning] – not only to himself but to the whole play and spectacle… [Beyond Good and Evil, Section 56, trans. Walter Kaufmann]
There are a number of other references to the idea in Nietzsche's works. My friend was thinking about a possible influence on Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury ("literature"? yawn!) but of course what it made me think of was…The Worm Ouroboros.

The worm Ouroboros is, as we all know, the worm that eateth its own tail, and this is the structure of the eponymous romance. (Spoiler alert.) Our heroes, the Homeric supermen Juss, Goldry Bluszco, Spitfire, and Brandoch Daha, having defeated their dastardly enemies at long last, have in fact defeated themselves in ridding the world of strife and conflict, which to them is the very game that makes life worth living. They realize this, and lament it, bringing about the appalling miracle that takes them from the story's tail to its teeth.
Queen Sophonisba covered her eyes, saying, "My lords, I see no more. The crystal curdles within like foam in a whirlpool under a high force in rainy weather. Mine eyes grow sore with watching. Let us row back, for the night is far spent and I am weary." 
But Juss stayed her and said, "Let me dream yet awhile. The double pillar of the world, that member thereof which we, blind instruments of inscrutable Heaven, did shatter, restored again? From this time forth to maintain, I and he, his and mine, ageless and deathless for ever, for ever our high contention whether he or we should be great masters of all the earth? If this he but phantoms, O Queen, thou'st 'ticed us to the very heart of bitterness. This we could have missed, unseen and unimagined: but not now. Yet how were it possible the Gods should relent and the years return?" 
But the Queen spake, and her voice was like the falling shades of evening, pulsing with hidden splendour, as of a sense of wakening starlight alive behind the fading blue. "This King," she said, "in the wickedness of his impious pride did wear on his thumb the likeness of that worm Ouroboros, as much as to say his kingdom should never end. Yet was he, when the appointed hour did come, thundered down into the depths of Hell. And if now he be raised again and his days continued, 'tis not for his virtue but for your sake, my lords, whom the Almighty Gods do love. Therefore I pray you possess your hearts awhile with humility before the most high Gods, and speak no unprofitable words. Let us row back."
And the next morning, wonder of wonders, the episode that began the chronicle recurs, and the reader contemplates the heroes' "happy" fate, doomed, deathless in glory, endlessly to repeat the events of the story with infinite variations. It's the perfect "ending," terrifyingly joyous, both satisfying and appalling in its adherence to the story's inner logic and philosophical outlook. It could very well be the best ending to any fantasy novel ever written – a vision of a strange and alien moral topography that may be fine to visit, but not someplace you'd ever want to live.

The superhuman lords and ladies that populate the book's pages are Nietzschean heroes, joyous, strong, carefree, and utterly unconcerned with the peasantry. We encounter peasants on only one occasion, when Eddison adopts the curious narrative device of relating the upshot of a battle through the words of a soldier returning home to his farm. Actually, for someone bent on celebrating the martial deeds well-armed aristocrats, Eddison is strangely reticent to describe an actual battle. We have this second-hand account of the battle at Krothering Side, for instance; the sea-battle off Melikaphkhaz in the Impland seas and the final battle before the gates of Carcë in waterish Witchland take place off-stage as well, while the extermination of the Ghouls that forms the novel's thin backstory is related only through brief allusions. In a way the device reminds one of Elizabethan drama, which is not unfitting, but no Shakespearean actor ever scaled an icy mountain, rode a hippogriff, or fought a brain-eating mantichore, either. So it seems more likely that Eddison simply didn't feel that his talents were equal to the task. Which, to my mind, is just as well; book battles usually read like accounts of volleyball matches to me.

But back to Nietzsche. I'm not certain how much of a direct influence on The Worm Ouroboros Nietzsche actually was. People always talk of Eddison's characters as following a Nietzschean moral code, which I suppose they do, but both authors were really looking to Homer's heroes as exemplars, and you could just as well call the Worm's moral code Homeric. However, this idea of the great da capo and eternal return makes it seem more likely that Eddison did know something of Nietzsche's philosophy.

Tolkien, as is well known, was an admirer of Eddison's fantasies, despite adhering to the exact antithesis of Eddison's personal philosophy, so we'll let him have the final word.
I read the works of [E. R.] Eddison, long after they appeared; and I once met him… Eddison thought what I admire 'soft' (his word: one of complete condemnation, I gathered); I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly 'philosophy', he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty. Incidentally, I thought his nomenclature slipshod and often inept. In spite of all of which, I still think of him as the greatest and most convincing writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read.*
* From a letter to Caroline Everett dated 24 June 1957, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981.

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