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The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison (1922)

The Worm Ouroboros

We call it world-building; no unified field-theory covers all observed data.

Most models require one Grand Map pairing with one Encyclopedia; these collide to spin off races and faces, languages, currencies, histories and customs down to table placement for royal dinners. Success by this model of world building is measured by (quantity of books times quantity of characters) to the nth story-arc squared. A clear and fair formula.

But sometimes world-building is something different. It is the evocation of another reality. Soon or late, this feeling comes to most lovers of fantasy. Not often enough; but it drives them to wander story-wastelands, seeking the italicized thrill again.

The sensation is evoked by descriptions of scenes, conversations, ways of thinking and acting by characters who seem strange, absurd, impossible; and yet immediately recognizable. Like music you never heard before, yet you know the coming notes.

Eric Rücker Eddison (1882-1945) was a British civil servant when the sun dared not set upon an ordered Empire, and servants knew how to set a proper tea. A scholar of Old Norse, he wrote one fantasy book of note. It is a world in a book. Not an easy read. Not a believable world. Yet it has evoked that ‘other-place’ feel in so many notable authors, it ranks as a major inspiration to fantasy's desire to give readers that shiver again.

“‘The greatest and most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds’ that I have read,” J.R.R. Tolkien casually notes. Eddison was occasional guest to the Inklings with Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and that old-school crowd of gentlemen-writers. James Branch Cabell (does anyone remember Jurgen?) grew frustrated that half those he introduced to Ouroboros yawned. He wrote an editor complaining “The Worm Ouroboros purchases, through its own unadulterate magic, and for no utilitarian ends whatsoever, the momentary “suspension of disbelief” in many very beautiful impossibilities.”

The inspiration did not fade as fantasy styles changed. Robert Silverberg described Ouroboros as "the greatest high fantasy of them all". Michael Moorcock declared Eddison’s villains such as Gorice, Corsus and Corinius to be superior to any mere orc or nazgul. When Zelazny walks Corwen down the cursed road of Chaos, he has in mind King Juss’s journey to free his brother from nightmares. When Leiber set two rogues climbing a mountain labeled ‘for heroes only’, he is riffing on Juss and Bradoch Daha scaling their destined rock. Mocking them a bit; but that’s a Leiber homage.

And yet for all its inspiring, The Worm Ouroboros stands alone in its corner of the top shelf of fantasy classics. C. S. Lewis declared it lacking any successful imitators. While rival worlds such as Dune, Narnia, Middle Earth, EarthSea, Melneborne and Westeros share pics of their literary grand-children, Ouroboros has no direct offspring. How can it? Ouroboros is a medieval high-heroic fantasy writ in florid description using English of the 17th century, celebrating war and beauty over peace and morality. Reproduction by imitation shall fail. Even Eddison was not able to perform the feat again.

Ursula Le Guin pretends to be a master fantasist. Actually she’s a master anthropologist. She studies us anthros by creating worlds, observing how we act. In her seminal essay: "From Elfland to Pooghkeepsie", she examines what dialogue evokes the faery-shiver of recognition. She chooses Tolkien, Eddison and E. Walton for examples of Doing it Right.

Now spake Spitfire saying, “Read forth to us, I pray thee, the book of Gro; for my soul is afire to set forth on this faring.” “’Tis writ somewhat crabbedly,” said Brandoch Daha, “and most damnably long. I spent half last night a­searching on’t, and ’tis most apparent no other way lieth to these mountains save by the Moruna, and across the Moruna is (if Gro say true) but one way...” “If he say true?”said Spitfire. “He is a turncoat and a renegado. Wherefore not therefore a liar?”

Not a “thou shalt not pass!” dramatic conversation. Just characters discussing a book and a map. But Le Guin notes on her lab clip-board: achieves faery-world shiver.

Maybe. Here’s a better one. When the heroes have finally recovered their footing, and come knocking upon the doors of Mordor Carcë, to require redress with the Witch King. Proud creature, he informs them the stars predict disaster for all, if they do not scram forthwith.

"Be not deceived. These things I say unto thee not as labouring to scare you from your set purpose with frights and fairy-babes: I know your quality too well. But I have read signs in heaven: nought clear, but threatful unto both you and me. For thy good I say it, O Juss, and again (for that our last speech leaveth the firmest print) be advised: turn back from Carcë or it be too late." Lord Juss harkened attentively to the words of Gorice the King, and when he had ended, answered and said, "O King, thou hast given us terrible good counsel. But it was riddlewise. And hearing thee, mine eye was still on the crown thou wearest, made in the figure of a crab-fish, which, because it looks one way and goes another, methought did fitly pattern out thy looking to our perils but seeking the while thine own advantage."

Fun Fact: Ouroboros is the only work I’ve ever wanted to fan-fic. I have daydreamed duels with Brandach-Daha. I’d wipe that self-satisfied smirk from his obnoxiously handsome face. Yeah, and in front of his sister! And I want to debate politics with Lord Gro. He’s trustworthy as a tissue-paper parachute but he has a mind that sees all sides to war and love and the gods. I’d rock-climb with Lord Juss. Sure he’s a stilted oligarch but he has style.

Granted, all the heroes and villains of Ouroboros have style. It’s what Eddison set himself to create. A world of heroic deeds, where importance is not in shire-like daily life nor even the defeating of a Dark Lord. Nope; the point of the world is for Juss and Brandoch-Daha and other cool aristos to wander the world laughing, fighting, feasting, seeking feats of daring and girls of sufficient beauty to merit their company.

Understand it as a world based on an ethos of heroism and beauty, not morality nor practicality. In that place beauty justifies itself, whether it serves blood or freedom. Human significance is shown in chivalry across battle-fields where ten thousand peasant-soldiers lie suitably slaughtered for a king’s funeral pyre. A strange, daring thing to write, a mere six years after the first world war.

Sounds a foreshadowing of Grim-Dark; but there is no dark, no grim in Eddison’s vision. It’s all beauty and glory, amoral yet honorable, happy for a battle or a ball, whatever allows beauty and nobility to best strike a pose.

Eddison is a scholar of Old Norse, a translator of Viking sagas wherein a hero is immortalized by brave deeds, not moral choice. Even admirers like C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and others found this ethos of beauty and heroic acts ultimately to be disturbing, even broken. But Lewis and Tolkien were ex-soldiers. Ouroboros is the noble war-dream of a civilian clerk, humming bits and pieces of Viking song at his desk.

The end of Worm Ouroboros becomes the beginning, as is fit for a tale symbolized by a snake eating its tail. Eddison’s world swallows itself in a glory of eternal war, heroic deed and beauty. Strange, impossible, unsettling. Exactly for which reason we call it world-building. No unified field-theory covers all observed data.


Raymond St. Elmo wandered into a degree in Spanish Literature, which gave no job, just a love of Magic Realism. Moving on to a degree in programming gave him a job and an interest in virtual reality and artificial intelligence, which led him back into the world of magic realism. Author of several books (all first-person literary fictions, possibly comic). He lives in Texas.


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