Monday, April 13, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Worm Ouroboros

If there's a winner of the "Most Influential Fantasy Novel You've Never Heard Of, Let Alone Read" award, odds are goods that it'd be The Worm Ouroboros. Published in 1922, this ground-breaking novel is the work of an English civil servant named E.R. Eddison. There certainly had been fantasy novels before, both in English and in other languages, but The Worm Ouroboros is the first one to turn world building into the high art it's become. J.R.R. Tolkien recognized this fact at the time, simultaneously praising Eddison's creation for its depth and criticizing it for its underlying philosophy. It's interesting to note that, like many fantasy authors, the world and story Eddison imagined grew out of childhood fancies that he kept with him his entire life.

The novel tells the story of the conflict between two realms, Demonland and Witchland. The king of Witchland demands that the lords of Demonland submit to his authority. The lords agree to do this only in the event that the Witchlander king can defeat the greatest of the Demonlander lords, Goldry Bluszco, in a wrestling match. When the two leaders undertake this feat of strength, the king of Witchland is slain. His successor contrives by magic to imprison Goldry Bluszco so that Demonland will have lost its champion and be vulnerable to attack by the invading Witchlander armies. The novel then proceeds with the story of the clash between these two kingdoms and the attempts by the Demonlanders to find and free Goldry Bluszco in time to be able to save their land from conquest.

The Worm Ouroboros is, quite simply, an amazing piece of work that defies easy categorization. With its unique prose style, it's quite unlike any fantasy novel that has come in its wake. Its characters are vividly drawn and compelling, even the villainous ones, who come across as very real, if flawed, human beings. The story itself reads like a Greek tragedy in the form of a Norse saga: a dark, larger-than-life struggle in which hubris plays as large a role as heroism and honor. It's this, I think, that so offended Tolkien. Eddison's characters, even the putatively noble ones, are arrogant brutes who adhere so thoroughly to a warrior ideal that they pray for the resurrection of their enemies so that they may avoid the boredom of peacetime. This is part of what makes the novel so compelling. The world it presents is at once attractive and repulsive, making it hard not to be drawn headlong into it, despite one's feelings.

Interestingly, The Worm Ouroboros is not listed in Appendix N. I'd be amazed if Gygax had never read the book, but, if he did, he never made mention of it, making it hard to gauge its direct influence over the development of D&D. There's no question that it had a huge influence on the game indirectly, through the world building template it laid down for the genre. It's a pity so many latter day fantasy novelists seem incapable of telling an epic story as succinctly as Eddison does (it's under 500 pages in its original edition), but I fear the fantasy novel is too deep into its decadent phase to allow for such a possibility. For that reason, if you're tired of 1000-page long, interminable series, you might want to give Eddison a try. His style certainly isn't for everyone and I admit that there are stretches of the novel where my eyes started to glaze over, but there's no denying his was at least a unique and imaginative voice and one of the founders of a modern literary genre.

33 comments:

  1. Nice overview of this odd novel. I found the language and style gorgeous and compelling, but like Tolkien thought the characters were totally despicable. I was (relatively) proud that I made it to page 195 or so before calling it quits. Just didn't feel like it was going anywhere.

    Having just re-read the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories by Leiber, I recall he makes reference to Ouroboros in the introduction to one of the Swords against books (can't remember which one). Something to the effect that F & GM bear some similarity to the Demonlanders, but aren't nearly as evil at heart. I'm sure EGG knew Eddison's work, at least indirectly.

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  2. Leiber mentions the book in the author's note of Swords of Lankhmar.

    As far as Worm Ouroborous, I just received it quite recently and it's in my pile to read.

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  3. I'm a HUGE fan of The Worm Ouroboros. I started reading it in my early teens, didn't really get it, then read it again in my twenties and it blew me away. I've re-read it once every year or two since then, and it gets better every time.

    It's in the public domain, so I've often thought about lifting from it for my homebrew, but Eddison nails the mythic tone so well that it's not really a good fit for the "weird fantasy" main campaign region.

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  4. That's been on my shelves for years. I should probably revisit it sometime soon.

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  5. " but I fear the fantasy novel is too deep into its decadent phase to allow for such a possibility."

    James, I would very much like to hear some more about what you think the fate of the genre might be. I follow the changes in sci-fi,and fantasy culture with interest, and the genericization of fantasy literature is quite obvious. Mainstreaming of just about anything dilutes and weakens it, and the Disney style take on fantasy seems to have become the defining one for the non-devotees.

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  6. "Fantasy," as a genre, seems to have split into two broad categories. The first is the mainstream one, of which the Disneyfied version is just one sub-type. The second is the very inbred one that is ever more esoteric and self-involved, as exemplified by, in my opinion, authors like Jordan and Martin. My unsubstantiated gut feeling is that the current situation is untenable and will collapse in on itself before too long, especially on the esoteric side of things. Whether that leaves an opening for something else to replace it remains to be seen.

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  7. Love for Ouroboros indeed! Like Scott, I got it young and didn't get it. (I picked it up because the cover art was done in the same style as the some of the (60's?) LotR books - probably just expected (and at the time would have wanted nothing more than) it to be another Rings book.

    Re-read it in my 20's also and have loved it since.

    I can barely follow current fantasy writing. It's almost all science-fiction for me now.

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  8. IIRC, some characters from the book made it into Dragon's "Giants in the Earth" feature (characters from fiction statted up for D&D) in an issue somewhere in the 40s or 50s. So someone at TSR was a fan.

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  9. This is an amazing book. I couldn't figure out how to read it until I was in highschool but once you get used to the prose it is extremely entertaining sentence to sentence. It has monsters, magic, adventurers, all the pillars of fantasy adventure games. It also has the peculiar introduction/journey from the normal world into the fantasy world. The one in Ouroboros is extremely strange but this concept keeps popping up in fantasy stories to this day.

    The characters have very non-christian (pre-christian?) and unenlightened ideals from a modern point of view which seems to perfectly fit the story and the world. At times it does make the "heros" far less likeable.

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  10. Looks like I have another book to add to my read list. I'll be sure to check it out once I finish Tros of Samothrace (yet another of your great suggestions James). I can't thank you enough for this series of posts: I've been a fantasy fan since I was a kid, but modern offerings are just not doing it for me. Going back to the roots of the genre has been a revelation, and I'm devouring as much as I can. And I have you to thank for this. Cheers.

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  11. It was Dragon #54 and the writer was Roger E. Moore.

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  12. I appear be vying with Scott in a few blogs in the last week as to who loves this book more! I must check out his blog.

    As my avatar suggests I think this is a singular work.

    Smart review.

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  13. Eddison is phenomenal stuff, though I agree with Tolkien that his underlying philosophy was a bit on the loathesome side! Still, when I recommend books to people it is always high on the list.

    Also, I think it is really ironic, almost eery, that you mention this book today. I have had a copy of Styrbiorn the Strong on my shelf for years and just finally started reading it yesterday. This Eddison book is his version of a Viking saga and it certainly contains the same sorts of philosophical underpinnings that The Worm Ouroborous does, though it is grounded very much in the sagas and lacks the pure fantasy element.

    On another note, Eddison also wrote the fantasy Zimiamvian Trilogy. There are some VERY loose connections between it and The Worm, though I would call them lesser works (but still good). Still, if you liked Ouroborous then they might be worth checking out, though I am pretty sure they are out of print (but not too hard to find).

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  14. As an aside; I know that the term "Pulp Fantasy Library" wasn't meant to be taken too seriously, and certainly this is no pulp story. Fascinating read nonetheless, but not pulp.

    I'm actually more interested in your opinion posted here in the comments section about the "state of the genre" itself. One thing that I've heard second-hand from folks in the book retail business is that fantasy (and sci-fi in the broader sense that includes fantasy) sales are on the up. In fact, it's gradually been growing as a sales force for decades to the point where it's a real powerhouse of sales.

    For that reason, the idea that fantasy is an increasily esoteric, "nichefied" body of work doesn't ring true to me. I believe that fantasy's strengths are it's appeal to common and universal themes, which gives your Martins and Jordans an enduring situation in which to write. I do agree that the prominence of the meganovel; 1000 pages long and only one part of a greater ten book series, is a passing phase that will not remain, but thematically, Jordan and Martin are not, in my opinion, going away anytime soon at all.

    Stylistically, maybe. I'd like to see more tightly written prose in the genre for a change. It's like editors have been sent on holiday.

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  15. James, have you read China Mieville or Joanna Clarke? Much, much more going on in modern fantasy than worthless Robert Jordan. And how is GRR Martin 'self-involved'? Seems to me he writes fantasy-historical romances that are complicated without ever straying too far from real-world analogues.

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  16. I do agree that the prominence of the meganovel; 1000 pages long and only one part of a greater ten book series, is a passing phase that will not remain, but thematically, Jordan and Martin are not, in my opinion, going away anytime soon at all.

    That's more or less what I meant when I called a lot of modern fantasy "esoteric." I think any story that "needs" to be told in multiple 1000-page volumes qualifies as esoteric.

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  17. I'm not sure Tolkien has much credibility as a judge of underlying philosophy. Much as I love his works the depth of his expression of human nature is shallow in comparison to Eddison's. Ouroboros is simply an adult work. Doesn't anyone read Homer or Shakespeare any more?

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  18. James, have you read China Mieville or Joanna Clarke?

    I know nothing of Clarke and am not fond of Mieville.

    Much, much more going on in modern fantasy than worthless Robert Jordan. And how is GRR Martin 'self-involved'?

    By that I meant only that his novels are overly complex and concerned primarily with his own equally complex world rather than being "mythic" in the usual sense. That is, I find Martin's stuff both a poor substitute for either history or myth, but I realize that's a minority opinion among genre fans.

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  19. I have to respectfully disagree with Kent about Tolkien. I am quite convinced that Tolkien understood human nature all too well (any read through of The Silmarillion will show you that, with some tales that read more like the darkest Greek Tragedy than anything else). The difference is that Tolkien made a choice to take a different path, so to speak, one that fused pagan ideals with Christianity, whereas Eddison was clearly not enamored of Christianity and preferrred a more raw form of northern, pagan idealism. I am not denigrating Eddison by any means - the two authors have many similarities and interests - they merely chose different paths. (I am NOT trying to be cliched when I say that!!!) Both were amazing writers and fantasists, though they took different lessons from their delving into northern mythology.

    Ironically, the two men met several times, though they recognized their inherent differences in outlook and were never close.

    For the record, I still list The Worm Ouroboros as one of my top 5 all time favorite novels...

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  20. Welleran, you make your point very well however I don't believe either author brings a philosophical element of any significance to their work. They work with story and character. They tell tales about people who interest them.

    I just don't think his underlying philosophy was a bit on the loathesome side can be a relevant point in any worthwhile piece of fiction. There are plenty of works built on philosophical ideals but they are unreadable.

    I'm impressed you have one of the sagas. I have been hoping to find a cheap copy of Egil's Saga for a long time now.

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  21. Posts are not the best way to discuss these sorts of things, alas. I don't read fantasy for its philosophical underpinnings...I read it simply because I enjoy it, hence the reason I love Eddison even if I disagree with the way the author viewed the world...who cares?!? The novel is amazing, any way you slice it.

    As for the sagas, some are better than others and I am not an expert. I picked up Styrbiorn the Strong simply because I knew Eddison had written it and I think he is a superb writer. If you want to pick some up, I recommend hitting used book stores -- Penguin released a whole bunch of them in paperback and they are both cheap and fairly easy to find and the colelction includes Egil's Saga.

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  22. This book is listed under "Inspirational Source MAterial" in the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Adventure Game Basic Rulebook (TSR 2014).

    It's worth checking that list!

    Saludos,
    Gabriel

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  23. Posts are not the best way to discuss these sorts of things, alas.Agreed. I've used up a lifetime's allowance of commenting on Grognardia.

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  24. This Sunday, in the Week in Review section of the New York Times, there was a piece about how cell phones and such are making fiction writing difficult. The impression I got was that technology connects people to such an extent that misunderstandings and near-misses are rare. It is hard for a person to get lost in America.

    When discussing this with my wife, we talked about the rise of fantasy and the supernatural in fiction. Maybe the increase in interest is related to the discussion.

    In any case ... as for philosophical underpinnings in fantasy, what about Elric, the Princes of Amber, and all of Jack Vance's characters? Not exactly gentlemen. Let's not mention the inhabitants of Gore.

    I have not read Eddison, but I intend to, if only because he named the dueling factions Witchland and Demonland and didn't fabricate some sort of pseudo-arcane names. Love that.

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  25. I have not read Eddison, but I intend to, if only because he named the dueling factions Witchland and Demonland and didn't fabricate some sort of pseudo-arcane names. Love that.Not to discourage you, but The Worm Ouroboros abounds in pseudo-arcane place names: Lida Nanguna, Kartadza, Eshgrar Ogo, Zage Zaculo, Thremnir's Heugh, and the ever-popular Zora Rach nam Psarrion.

    And while Eddison named his opposing nations Demonland and Witchland (in addition to which the reader finds Impland, Pixieland, Goblinland, and perhaps others), the inhabitants of those countries in no way match up to the images the names conjure. There are fewer differences between Eddison's Demons and Witches than there are between the English and the French: all of his nations have similar customs and speak the same language (Early Modern English).

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  26. And, if I remember correctly, all of those names actually belong on Mercury. Although Eddison himself seems to have forgotten it, after making a mention in the first chapter, the world of The Worm is Mercury.

    I wonder if that means we could slide it in as an early and atypical example of Planetary Romance or Sword & Planet fiction?

    For that matter, I think Planetary Romance's influence on D&D is often forgotten or downplayed, because it's a pseudo-science fiction subgenre, not really a fantasy in the traditional sense. However, Edgar Rice Burroughs seems to me to be a perfectly fine example of a recognizable influence on D&D, and not just because of the gorillon either. The 2e setting Dark Sun was rather overtly looking to Barsoom for inspiration, too.

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  27. And, if I remember correctly, all of those names actually belong on Mercury. Although Eddison himself seems to have forgotten it, after making a mention in the first chapter, the world of The Worm is Mercury. Likewise he forgot his intermediary. The story is presented as the experience of a man named Lessingham, who flies one night via hippogriff to a destination his guide tells him is Mercury. Lessingham can see and hear what's happening, but he can't interact with his surroundings. So it's just as well he's never mentioned again after about page 30.

    I wonder if that means we could slide it in as an early and atypical example of Planetary Romance or Sword & Planet fiction?On the whole, I'd say no. Eddison calls it Mercury, but the story never displays any consciousness of taking place in a cosmic setting: the story is firmly grounded in and limited to the world in which it occurs, whose features, peoples, and customs differ little from Earth's. In contrast, A Princess of Mars, an undoubted Planetary Romance published a few years before The Worm, keeps a few alien races and traits unique to Mars firmly in the reader's eyesight.

    The framing device that takes the reader from our world to Eddison's gives no sense of interplanetary travel; Demonland just as easily might be on an undiscovered continent of Earth or in a dream world. I don't think I'd called in Dunsanian either, though...

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  28. I love the Worm Ouroboros; Eddison pulls off the pseudo-Jacobean style brilliantly. I think the comment about the feel of a tragedy probably derives from that -- there's almost a sense, particularly in the scenes with the Witches, of a 17th-century revenge-tragedy.

    The question about underlying philosophy is a knotty one. On the one hand, a book ought to be distinct from a writer's views -- on the other hand, those views may shape the writer's work. For what it's worth, I thought that the Zimiamvia books suffered much more than Ouroboros from troubling philosophy, particularly in its views on gender.

    The flip side is that a writer who thinks, who has something to say, can enrich their work with their thinking. And then the other hand of the other hand is the risk of being didactic, of sending too blunt a message. The point I want to get to here is that I think Tolkien succeeds on this count, if only because he didn't have a specific message he was sending -- from everything I've read of the man, he was telling a story, one that was important to him, and themes emerged naturally from that. Eddison, and again I think this was more true of Zimiamvia, had more of a system of thought or world-view that he wanted to expound.

    Anyway, I just also want to agree with the sentiment that there is a lot of different kinds of fantasy out there. Miéville aside, much of the "New Weird" writing I find interesting -- notably Jeff VanderMeer, but also Felix Gilman (if he counts as New Weird). Really, one of the strengths of fantasy is its breadth; one of my favourite books of 2008 was Le Guin's retelling of the Aeneid, Lavinia. Then again, at the moment we're also getting all the reprinting of people like Howard, Glen Cook, Jack Vance, and so on. Seems to me to be a good time to like fantasy fiction.

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  29. Yeah; I was kidding about calling Ouroboros planetary romance. That was a joke. The idea of exploring the influence of planetary romance on D&D, however, is not.

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  30. The idea of exploring the influence of planetary romance on D&D, however, is not.It's on The List ... :)

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  31. My unsubstantiated gut feeling is that the current situation is untenable and will collapse in on itself before too long, especially on the esoteric side of things. Whether that leaves an opening for something else to replace it remains to be seen.I agree with your assessment of Eddison, and by implication, Leiber. But I know of at least one shoot peeking through the dying overgrowth.

    "Gentleman of the Road" starts as a wonderful tribute to Leiber (as far as I can tell), but finishes, typical of Chabon, as something more. Chabon's language is well-chosen and wonderful and clearly illustrates what can happen when a writer of considerable talent, who really loves the genre, turns his attention to it.

    It seems unlikely to me that Chabon will choose to continue in this vein: he seems to be pleased to flit from exploring one nostalgic genre form to another. But his mainstream appeal and the obvious talent displayed in "Gentleman of the Road" might lead others to explore the same path.

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  32. First comment left here as I just discovered this blog (it's great!).
    As a previous person mentioned, The Worm Ouroboros is in the public domain and available online. I found it here:
    http://manybooks.net/titles/eddisoneother060602051.html

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