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“It Is Neither Allegory Nor Fable But A Story To Be Read For Its Own Sake”: E.R. Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros, and Zimiamvia

Monday, November 24th, 2014 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Worm OuroborosLast August, John O’Neill noted that HarperCollins would be reprinting four classic fantasies by E.R. Eddison: The Worm Ouroboros (first published in 1922), Mistress of Mistresses (from 1935), A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), and The Mezentian Gate. Gate was unfinished when Eddison died, but he prepared it as best he could for publication before his death, writing a detailed synopsis for the chapters he hadn’t completed. The book was published in 1958 as the synopsis with some finished chapters. A 1992 one-volume reprinting of Mistress, Fish Dinner, and Gate, which together make up a sequence called the Zimiamvia trilogy, added several fragments of chapters found since Gate’s first publication. I have not seen the new printing, so can’t tell if anything more has been added to Gate for the Harper edition. But, as the new printings of the books came out in October, I thought I’d take a look back at Eddison’s best-known fantasy stories.

The Worm Ouroboros is widely and justly acclaimed as a classic. It deals, broadly, with the conflict on the planet Mercury (any resemblance between this Mercury and the real planet Mercury is purely coincidental) between Demonland and Witchland. The Demons and Witches — and Imps and Goblins — are all basically human, but their kings and champions are legendary heroes on a Homeric or Arthurian scale, while the setting echoes the Elizabethan and Jacobean era in its culture and especially its elaborate language. The plot follows four great heroes of Demonland as they quest across deep seas and high mountains for a means to defeat the armies of the Witch-king Gorice, while the in-fighting of his scheming court provides a kind of counter-plot centering around the ambiguous figure of the exiled Goblin Lord Gro.

The Worm OuroborosOuroboros begins on Earth, with a man named Lessingham whose spirit is transported to Mercury to observe the adventures about to begin there. This framing device is quickly abandoned, but the Zimiamvia books give us Lessingham’s story across two worlds. Zimiamvia itself is briefly sighted in the distance by characters in Ouroboros; it’s a similar pseudo-Jacobean land, inflected somewhat with the spirit of Homer and Sappho. Mistress of Mistresses begins with the heroic mountain-climbing warrior and scholar Lessingham dying on Earth to be apparently resurrected in Zimiamvia, where he’s deeply involved in political machinations that follow the death of a king. A Fish Dinner takes place earlier in the timeline of both worlds, giving us the story of Lessingham’s life, and also showing us something of the connection between our Earth and Zimiamvia. The Mezentian Gate is, or would have been, a generational saga giving us the life of the king who died before the beginning of Mistress. (The books are designed to be readable in any order; I’ve always read them in publication sequence.)

Probably the most often discussed aspect of the books is their style. Eddison uses a highly-wrought language based on Jacobean plays and poetry. The editions of his books that I have, published by Dell in the early 1990s, have useful notes by Paul Edmund Thomas (though his translations are often suspect) that define rare words and point out verbal parallels: how John Webster’s line “I’ll make Italian cut-works in their guts / If I ever return” becomes transposed to Mercury in chapter VII of Ouroboros as “I will make Beshtrian cut-works in his guts.” (‘Cut-works’ here refers to a kind of embroidery — the threatener is saying he’ll repeatedly drive a steel needle or needle-like blade through his enemy’s bowels.)

Webster, a bleak and cynical writer, was one of Eddison’s favourites. His works were a primary influence on Ouroboros in particular. At the same time, Eddison fused Webster’s tragic view with the hardness of the Icelandic sagas; there’s a kind of grim humour perhaps similar to both, and a similar sense of larger-than-life characters. And a kind of individualistic pre-modern attitude, the attitude native to a heroic society, that also allowed Eddison to bring in ancient Greek influences — notably Homer and Sappho, who profoundly shadow the Zimiamvia books in imagery and theme.

Mistress of MistressesNone of these works are particularly close to the tradition of the 19th-century realistic novel, so it’s understandable if Eddison’s work feels, at first, strange. It’s not just a question of unusual vocabulary, of words like ‘alectorian’ or ‘haskardly’ or ‘botargoes.’ Nor even entirely a function of the complex construction of Eddison’s sentences, often very Jacobean in their rhythms. It’s a question also of what the writing focuses on, what it gives in detail and what it moves over quickly — what it shows versus what it tells. The balance between monologue, dialogue, and description is different from the traditional novel; and the way all these things bring out character is therefore different as well.

Eddison’s conception of character seems often to be flat, larger-than-life, but some of that is I think an instinctive tendency in his writing to the mythopoeic. In particular, while Eddison’s dialogue and sense of conflict is highly dramatic, he also uses extended descriptive paragraphs not only to establish setting but also character — or at least the symbolic character of myth. When a two-page-long paragraph in an early chapter of Mistress of Mistresses describes a throne room from top to bottom, describing the artistic detail and richness of the vast chamber, it tells us something about the society but more about the ruler, Duke Barganax: about his power, but also about his genius. About what he and his people value, but also what they imagine, and how the Duke realises those imaginings in art and architecture. In a book largely concerned with power and art, the detailed descriptive passage has tremendous resonance. But the point is less the Duke’s individuality, I feel, and more what the Duke represents. It’s about the Duke as potentate, the Duke as artist, the Duke as wealthy master of men.

Or consider the following paragraph from Ouroboros:

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.

A Fish Dinner in MemisonThat’s the evil Witch King, and the description (relatively simple, by Eddison’s standards) captures both his power and his sinister nature. He’s a warrior, which he know because he’s got a coat of mail, and the blackness of it of course reflects his wickedness — but it’s edged with ‘dull gold,’ at once rich and muted, beauty with the edge off. He’s not just a bad guy in black, but everywhere black and gold, both threatening and glorious. He is associated with night and frost; and his crown is iron, power without the beauty of gold or silver. The jewels glow like Sirius, so perhaps he is a hound or a hunter. Sirius is a star sometimes connected with Loki — which the reference to the Germanic Yule may gently reinforce — but also Homer says of it “though it is the brightest of all stars it bodes no good bringing much fever … to us poor mortals.” The detailed rareness of the Witch King’s clothes, the sealskin and cobraskin, heighten the reality of the whole thing, working with the lushness and precision of the language to create a sense not just of more-than-human grandeur, but of more-than-human beauty. It happens to be a cruel beauty, but a beauty nevertheless.

And then there’s the ring in the shape of the worm Ouroboros. There’s a specific plot reason why the kings of Witchland wear that ring, but it also points out a structural principle of the book. The story’s arranged in a circular, symmetrical manner, a great arc that ends where it begins. It starts some time after a grand alliance between nations against an invading evil; it shows the conflict that follows among the well-established powers of the land, an implied circular conflict. It has quests and battles, but also court feuds (particularly among the Witches, in contrast with the solidarity of Demonland). It’s a varied, colourful book, built around a paracosm — an invented world Eddison first imagined in youth and built up as he grew older.

The Zimiamvia books have a different flavour. Again Eddison uses characters from his childhood. But he’s more interested here in trying to write a sort of philosophical fantasy, to consider the relationship of love and power. It would be wrong to view the trilogy as strictly allegorical, but Eddison does have a specific symbolism that shapes the books and the world — which are both envisioned here as products of the relationship of Zeus and Aphrodite. Characters blend into characters, all of them aspects of each other and of the gods. Here even more than in Ouroboros a strong gender essentialism underlies the books; the symbolism’s based on it. Partly as a result, the books feel old-fashioned in a different way than Ouroboros.

The Mezentian GatePartly, as well, that’s because Eddison’s more conscious of constructing a tradition for his setting. If the world of Ouroboros was an inspired fusion of influences, Zimiamvia feels more deliberately crafted in its setting. That’s not entirely bad — there’s a complex political situation that Eddison adroitly manipulates to produce some wonderful tense and dramatic scenes — but Eddison’s references to art and philosophy feel less organic. It’s not necessarily always a flaw, but it is a distinct difference between the books.

That said, the actual story of the Zimiamvia trilogy is exciting and highly involving, particularly in the first and third books. Here Eddison’s approach to character actually succeeds more, I think, than in Ouroboros. Even a super-competent figure like Lessingham, the lead figure of the first two novels, feels vivid and individual. I think that’s because the elements of court intrigue that Eddison uses are more prominent and, in keeping with the more detailed setting, more successful. At the same time, Eddison’s battle scenes are still effective, still gripping. There is a genuine epic sense to the books which comes with an expanded emotional palette. In the end, the books are more ambitious narratively as well as philosophically, and on the whole succeed.

I would also say it is not an unmixed success. I have difficulty seeing the second book as an equal to the first or third. Much of it takes place in this world, and Eddison’s depiction of what is allegedly the real world doesn’t feel real. He’s writing from the perspective of an aristocratic Tory, which is fine, but no character makes a believable challenge to that perspective. Eddison’s sense of drama fails him here: instead of having multiple ideas competing, he expounds through his characters a single idea (or set of ideas, about aristocracy and hierarchy and heroism) that seems to him to be true. The narrative also flags during the terrestrial parts of the book, as well; there’s less movement, less compelling story, in A Fish Dinner in Memison than in Mistress of Mistresses or The Mezentian Gate.

The Worm OuroborosMoreover, the sense of the Zimiamvia books as old-fashioned is especially strong here. Published in 1941, the book as I read it tries to critique modernism; There’s a complex exchange between young painters in chapter XIX which seems to conclude with an assertion: “Beauty in nature; beauty in art. It’s magic. Pure magic, like the witch-doctor’s. And that’s all there is to it.” This may undersell the ambiguities of the book, as here more than elsewhere different philosophies of art are acknowledged, but as I read it, even as the book creates a story based on specific cultural ideals and uses language shaped by a particular era, it rejects the idea of art as having to do with history rather than an abstract beauty. The argument is of a piece with much of Eddison’s other writing in Ouroboros and Zimiamvia. But there’s no sense that Eddison’s understood the changes in the world of art and literature that he’s lived through and is in theory responding to.

So: old-fashioned. It seems to me that the Zimiamvia books feel less like creations of the late 30s and 40s than the 20s. More specifically, like an Edwardian recasting of Victorian themes. Eddison refers to Swinburne a number of times, and his use of pagan myth feels a little like a more vigorous rewriting of 1890s decadence. The highly-worked surfaces Eddison describes, his assertion of art as independent from politics and history, recalls the Aesthetics. There is a sense, I think, in which Eddison may be understood as a belated Victorian.

Or, to put it another way, Eddison is responding to Victorian themes in art and philosophy (or returning to them; as if the Ghoul invasion mentioned as background in Ouroboros is a parallel of World War I, an exceptional event to be put behind the civilised nations who now can return to their genteel unceasing wars). His fantasy worlds built around power, love, and beauty are notably uninterested in things like mercy or Christian compassion (though some elements of that come in near the end of the third book). Eddison’s themes are fundamentally pagan, as paganism was understood in his era. You can see much of this in Tolkien’s reflections on Eddison:

… I disliked his characters (always excepting the Lord Gro) and despised what he appeared to admire … 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.

Zimiamvia: A TrilogyC.S. Lewis, who praised Eddison greatly, also said that he found Eddison’s world “alien and even sinister.” At the same time Tolkien also acknowledged enjoying Eddison’s books, while Lewis liked the world of Ouroboros, disliked the world of Mistress of Mistresses, and said that Eddison gave him “the sense of having opened a new door.” And he observed something I think crucial:

… there is here no quarrel between the theme and the articulation of the story. Every episode, every speech, helps to incarnate what the author is imagining. You could spare none of them. It takes the whole story to build up that strange blend of renaissance luxury and northern hardness.

This may be the ultimate word on Eddison’s books. There’s no dividing good and bad. They’re idiosyncratic and utterly personal: the product of Eddison’s life and thought, incarnated as fantasy. Story, setting, and language are made one thing as though by alchemy. You can see the heterogeneous elements as aspects of that one thing, but it’s impossible to articulate how they all fit together in such a way as to make a coherent unity. Perhaps it has to follow that the least effective of the books is the one that has most to do with this world. Eddison’s work is, to me, most powerful when most fantastic; when most inventive; when most itself.


Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on Facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.

8 Comments »

  1. Amazon will be dropping the new versions onto my Kindle on 12/04, at which point they’ll leap to the head of my queue.

    (Although as I read the eBook versions part of me will regret that they’re not the 1960s Ballantine not-quite-officially-Ballantine-Adult-Fantasy editions.)

    Comment by Joe H. - November 24, 2014 2:26 am

  2. I read The Worm, Mistress, and Fish Dinner this past year for the first time (all three in their Ballantine adult fantasy pristiness!).

    I enjoyed them but I felt, especially in Mistress, and Fish Dinner, that there was something much more going on than what the surface fantasy story was about. This seemed to be especially highlighted whenever Eddison would flash back to the “real” world characters.

    However, I felt that it was incredibly subtle and since the writing is so complex I had a very hard time trying to see what Eddison was on about.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - November 24, 2014 9:02 am

  3. An excellent encapsulation of an excellent and seminal series, Matthew. Thank you. Regarding Tolkien and Eddison: simplistically put, if Eddison had written LOTR, Boromir and Denethor would have been the heroes.

    Comment by Ken Lizzi - November 24, 2014 6:33 pm

  4. I’ve been listening to the free livrivox recordings in the car. They’re well done.

    Comment by Welleran - November 24, 2014 7:20 pm

  5. Just received my copy of “Mistress of Mistresses” in today’s mail, purchased through AbeBooks, and it’s in pretty decent shape, considering it’s the 1967 Ballantine printing. Your review here makes me all the more anxious to read the whole series, and now that I have all 4 books, I plan to include them in my Christmas holiday reading. I hope, Matthew, that you or someone else follows up on the possibility that the new Harper editions might include extra material in “The Mezentian Gate.” I might end up having to make one additional purchase, if so.

    Comment by smitty59 - November 24, 2014 11:46 pm

  6. It’s a good time to be an Eddison aficionado — Styrbiorn the Strong is back in print for the first time in, what, 80 years?, and his translation of Egil’s Saga is due to be reprinted next year as well.

    (And I may have mentioned this in other comments, but there’s a great Eddison chapter in de Camp’s Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers.)

    Comment by Joe H. - November 25, 2014 11:51 pm

  7. […] “It Is Neither Allegory Nor Fable But A Story To Be Read For Its Own Sake”: E.R. Eddison, The Wo… […]

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