Monday, April 2, 2012

PBR: The Worm Ouroboros (Eric Rücker Eddison, 1922)

I came across this book quite by accident when looking through someone's Tumblr (I forget which, unfortunately). It was described as "the most important work of fantasy that no one reads," or words to that effect, and was compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy (J. R. R. Tolkien, 1954-1955). The story thus far feels quite a bit like a more fairy-tale, high chivalry version of A Wrinkle in Time, but certainly has similarities to Tolkien's The Hobbit.

The story begins with a couple living in a new house, called the House (I assume the capitalization is important), and they have a mysterious room called "the lotus room." While out watching Mercury, the husband says he wants them to sleep in the lotus room, but the wife protests, saying the room could be dangerous. The husband is adamant, and decides to sleep there alone. Once he begins to drift off a bird appears and the window and tells him it is time to go. the bird has a chariot waiting outside drawn by a hippogriff. The bird tells them they are bound for Mercury and the court of Lord Juss, ruler of Demonland for the celebration of his birthday.Fortunately, we do not have to contend with the man and the bird for long. Once it is established that they are observers and cannot be seen or heard they come to be of no consequence. Soon we discover that the Demons are at odds with the King of Witchland.

The story turns much classic fantasy on its head. The Demons are noble, and much like King Arthur's knights, though stilled horned and classically demon-like in appearance. Their main allies, the Goblins, are also good, if a bit troublesome. Most of the kingdoms are plainly named as you may have already guessed. The only real oddity is the land of the Foliots. I am not sure what these are specifically, but Foliot is a surname. Most everyone seems to be primarily human, for example the goblins are never described as anything we typically think of a goblins. Only the horned demons stand out, but presumably this is but a national trait.

The book is very enjoyable, in a somewhat archaic way. The language can be a touch difficult at times, as it has some styles similar to Beowulf, though rarely is in actual Old English. Apparently both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis enjoyed the book greatly. A passage typical of the style here described the Witchland capital city of Carcë:
Dismal and fearsome to view was this strong place of Carcë, most like to the embodied soul of dreadful night brooding on the waters of that sluggish river: by day a shadow in broad sunshine, the likeness of pitiless violence sitting in the place of power, darkening the desolation of the mournful fen, by night, a blackness more black than night herself.
So, it is not too terrible for those of us with little skill in Old English, though even for 1922 the style is archaic when compared to the pulp of the day. It is far easier than Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight, but still leaves you having to piece together some passages as at times the spellings are quite old styled. I have it on my Kindle (99 cents) and the dictionary function is helpful but still stymied at many words. As a recommendation, I enjoyed The Hobbit a great deal, but not The Lord of the Rings so much. It is a bit like Edgar Rice Burroughs in many ways. The bad guys are bad, and the good guys good, but still some people fall in the middle. The Demons are ruled by their sense of honor and D&D players can easily see the main Demon characters as paladins. I was able to find it on Project Gutenberg Australia here. I assume it is in the public domain worldwide, but have not researched this. It is well worth checking out, and is quite an engaging, if rather long, read.


Bubbashelby said...

Interesting. I am reading 'Batman Inc.' and Ouroboros and 'worm' etc are pivotal to the plot. While it could just be the snake eating itself in general, I wonder if Grant Morrison was in any way influenced by (or is in any way referencing) this work? I'll have to check it out!

Darius Whiteplume said...

Sorry your post was delayed. I am getting lots of SPAMmers, and now Blogger seems to be filtering out everyone. :-\

There is a free audiobook of this from I have not listened to it. Librivox is hit and miss, depending on who is reading.

I am not familiar with that Batman, but imagine there might be some connection?

T. Roger Thomas said...

That does sound like a cool book- I might check it out.

Darius Whiteplume said...

Definitely worth a look, if only for an early stab at epic fantasy.

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