The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison

Introduction

THE Worm Ouroboros, no worm, but the Serpent itself, is a wonderful book. As a story or as prose it is wonderful, and, there being a cause for every effect, the reason for writing it should be as marvellous again.

Shelley had to write the Prometheus Unbound, he was under compulsion; for a superhuman energy had come upon him, and he was forced to create a matter that would permit him to imagine, and think, and speak like a god. It was so with Blake, who willed to appear as a man but existed like a mountain; and, at their best, the work of these poets is inhuman and sacred. It does not greatly matter that they had or had not a message. It does not matter at all that either can be charged with nonsense or that both have been called madmen — the same charge might be laid against a volcano or a thunderbolt — or this book. It does not matter that they could transcend human endurance, and could move tranquilly in realms where lightning is the norm of speed. The work of such poets is sacred because it outpaces man, and, in a realm of their own, wins even above Shakespeare.

An energy such as came on the poets has visited the author of this book, and his dedicatory statement, that “it is neither allegory nor fable but a story to be read for its own sake,” puts us off with the assured arrogance for of the poet who is too busy creating to have time for school-mastering. But, waking or in dream, this author has been in strange regions and has supped at a torrent which only the greatest know of.

The story is a long one — this reader would have — liked it twice as long. The place of action is indicated, casually, as the planet Mercury, and the story tells of the, wars between two great kingdoms of that planet, and the final overthrow of one.

Mr. Eddison is a vast man. He needed a whole cosmos to play in, and created one; and he forged a prose to tell of it that is as gigantic as his tale. In reading this book the reader must a little break his way in, and must surrender prejudices that are not allowed for. He may think that the language is more rotund than is needed for a tale, but, as he proceeds, he will see that only such a tongue could be spoken by these colossi; and, soon, he will delight in a prose that is as life-giving as it is magnificent.

Mr. Eddison’s prose never plays him false; it rises and falls with his subject, and is tender, humorous, sour, precipitate and terrific as the occasion warrants. How nicely the Kaga danced for the Red Foliot.

“Foxy-red above, but with black bellies, round furry faces, innocent amber eyes and great soft paws. . . . On a sudden the music ceased, and the dancers were still, and standing side by side, paw in furry paw, they bowed shyly to the company, and the Red Foliot called them to, him, and kissed them on the mouth, and sent them to their seats.”

“Corund leaned on the parapet and shaded his eyes with his hand, that was broad as a smoked haddock, and covered on the back with yellow hairs growing somewhat sparsely as the hairs on the skin of a young elephant.”

“A dismal tempest suddenly surprised them. For forty days it swept them in hail and sleet over wide wallowing ocean, without a star, without a course.”

“Night came down on the hills. A great wind moaning out of the hueless west tore the clouds as a ragged garment, revealing the lonely moon that fled naked betwixt them.”

“Dawn came like a lily, saffron-hued, smirked with smoke-gray streaks, that slanted from the north.”

“He was naked to the waist, his hair, breast and arms to the armpits clotted and adrop with blood and in his hands two bloody daggers.”

Quotations can give some idea of the rhythm of his sentences, but it can give none of the massive sweep and intensity of his narrative. Milton fell in love with the devil because the dramatic action lay with him, and, in this book, Mr. Eddison trounces his devils for being naughty (the word “bad” has not significance here), but he trounces the Wizard King and his kingdom with affection and delight. What gorgeous monsters are Gorice the Twelfth and Corund and Corinius. The reader will not easily forget them; nor Gorice’s great antagonist Lord Juss; nor the marvellous traitor, Lord Gro, with whom the author was certainly in love; nor the great fights and the terrible fighters Lords Brandoch Daha and Goldry Bluszco, and a world of others and their wives; nor will he forget the mountain Koshtra Pivrarcha, that had to be climbed, and was climbed — as dizzying a feat as literature can tell of.

“So huge he was that even here at six miles distance the eye might not at a glance behold him, but must sweep back and forth as over a broad landscape, from the ponderous roots of the mountain, where they sprang black and sheer from the glacier up the vast face, where buttress was piled upon buttress, and tower upon tower, in a blinding radiance of ice-hung precipice and snow-filled gully, to the lone heights where, like spears menacing high heaven, the white teeth of the summit-ridge cleft the sky.”

Mr. Eddison’s prose does not derive from the English Bible. His mind has more affinities with Celtic imaginings and method, and his work is Celtic in that it is inspired by beauty and daring rather than by thoughts and moralities. He might be Scotch or Irish: scarcely the former, for, while Scotland loves full-mouthed verse, she, like England, is prose-shy. But, from whatever heaven Mr. Eddison come, he has added a masterpiece to English literature.

James Stephens

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/eddison/er/worm/introduction.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 16:03