The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
I have just finished “The Worm Ouroboros” by E.R. Eddison. Here we have a representative passage, reproduced faithfully exactly as written:
“Unto the right high mighti and doubtid Prynsace the Quen of Implande, one that was your Servaunt but now beinge both a Traitor and a manifald parjured Traitor, which above doth abhorre, the erth below detest, the sun moone and stars be eschamed of, and all creatures doo curse and ajudge unworthy of breth and life , do wish onelie to die your Penytent.”
And, it goes on like that for just a hair over 500 dense pages. I won’t lie and say that the five hundred pages aren’t a bit of a slog. Eddison (writing in 1922) deliberately wrote the novel in pre-seventeenth century prose style. So says the introduction anyway. I believe it.
None the less, if you’re really observant, you will have already noticed that I gave this a “great books” tag. The prose will be a slog, and that’s always a stiff barrier to entry, but this is a book that rewards a reader who lets himself get into it. In fact, I don’t think it can be told any other way. Allow me to be pretentious for a moment.
Liswamire will be getting her masters degree in Linguistics (with a focus on TESOL) this coming Friday. Go congratulate her. One of her favorite topics she learned about during her study is called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It basically states that the syntax and vocabulary of a language influences or determines how speakers of that language will think about any given topic or problem.
Eddison may well be the best writer in a not-so-noble tradition of writers who desperately want to bring us into a time and place and society when, as they say, men were men, women were women, and life was bloody, cruel, and simple. Other luminaries of this sub-genre include Edgar Rice Burroughs (who would have been writing cotemporaneously with Eddison), Robert E. Howard, and the justly derided John Norman (pseudonym of philosophy professor John Lange. I would have used a pseudonym too, if I had written the Gor series).
And perhaps the thing that makes Eddison great by comparison is that the world-view espoused seems to, well, fit the language. Granted, it doesn’t hurt that there is a recognizable morality to The Worm Ouroboros. It is more pagan than Christian, for all the chivalric trappings, and perhaps more Germanic or Norse paganism at that, at least as popular imagination would remember them. I would not go so far as to say that mercy is outside the moral scheme of this work, as it would be in later, lesser works of the genre. But it is thoroughly aristocratic, and the chief virtue of it’s aristocracy is heroism in battle, paired with a deliberate shunning of any sort of cunning. Straight from point A to point B, as they say, with dead bodies scattered in between.
Not that Juss or Brandoch (the heroes of the novel) are unintelligent. Okay, maybe Brandoch is a little unintelligent. But he is smart enough to listen to Juss. Juss, rightful king, has to be intelligent, but the sole proper use of that intelligence is to unravel and evade the cunning schemes of the pretender, Gorice XII. Juss is smart enough to scheme and strategize, but schemes or strategies are not Juss’s style. Straight and narrow, point A to point B, deviating just enough to evade the traps of lesser, but not less intellignet, men.
On the same note, while other writers in the subgenre will make women little more than T&A, Eddison commits the lesser and more forgivable offense of putting them on an immaculate pedastal. One they cannot climb down from, but still.
I’ve complained about the prose, but it does drag you in as it goes. Like I said, as much as the archaic style is slow bordering occasionally on the unintelligible, I can’t imagine this story being told any other way. I cannot imagine these characters speaking “plain English.” It would change who Lord Gro (from whom the above quote was taken) was if he said, in plain English:
“To the Princess and Queen of Impland,
Your traitorous servant remains loyal to you.”
That doesn’t quite have the same zing. Even correcting for the archaic and non-standard spellings changes the feel of his speech.
An interested side note: I was inspired to read Worm Ouroboros by the Tolkien Professor, who, in explaining why he disliked George RR Martin, expressed the thought that Eddison is George RR Martin without the sadism and smut. There’s truth there. Song of Fire and Ice is a world where morality is a pretense that no one pays more than lip service to. I suspect Martin would suggest that it reflects this world in that way. But I disagree, and so do a lot of people. There is a morality to Eddison. It’s different, but recognizable. It values honesty, bravery, oathkeeping, friendship, and family ties above faith, hope, and charity. Life is shockingly cheap, but being loyal to your friends is paramount. Magic is real and effective, and a wise person will learn it. But just enough to protect himself from the lesser men who would actually use it.
This leaves plenty of room for political intrigue, and the court of the pretender King Gorice XII is every bit as fascinating as the cynical politics of Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, even if we are offered the superior King Juss as an alternative.
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