Reading a Popular Classic: The Worm Ouroboros

Laxus and those sons of Corund walked on an afternoon in Krothering home mead. The sky above them was hot and coloured of lead, presaging thunder. No wind stirred in the trees that were livid-green against that leaden pall. The noise of mattock and crow-bar came without intermission from the castle. Where gardens had been and arbours of shade and sweetness, was now but wreck: broken columns and smashed porphyry vases of rare workmanship, mounds of earth and rotting vegetation. And those great cedars, emblems of their lord’s estate and pride, lay prostrate now with their roots exposed, a tangle of sere foliage and branches broken, withered and lifeless.

The above passage is actually less florid than many that appear in a real curio of a novel, The Worm Ouroboros. I am posting about it to share my reactions, but moreso to hear what RBC readers think of this remarkable book.

I searched the Internet some time ago and found two lists of the “Greatest 100 English-language novels” (which I can now no longer find and link to, sorry). One list was based on the votes of literary critics and the other was based on the votes of Internet users. Both lists contained some great books (e.g., “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”) some overrated ones (e.g., “A Separate Peace”) and in what I assume was an error, some novels not written in English (e.g., “Absalom, Absalom”). But what caught my eye was that the Internet readers gave a very high rating to a book called “The Worm Ouroborus”. It wasn’t on the critics’ list and I hadn’t heard of the book or the author (An English civil servant named E.R. Eddison), which was precisely what made me curious enough to give it a read.

The novel is a high-concept fantasy written in frequently over-the-top Jacobean/Norse Mythology/Faerie Queene prose (I know that’s a mouthful, but if you’ve read it you know what I mean). The quirks of the book are many. It starts with a narrator and it appears the entire work will be framed through his eyes, but he disappears without explanation about two percent of the way into the book. The awesome superhero Lord Goldry Bluszco likewise disappears not long after, spending hundreds of pages in a dream-like state before he returns toward the end. Long stretches of narrative go by that are not uninteresting, but don’t advance the sprawling plot one inch. And the ending of the book, which I will not ruin for you in case you haven’t read it, is a bit bizarre.

And yet, it was hard to put down. Every time my patience wore thin from the lackadaisical pace, there would be a fabulous, thrilling scene, such as the fight with the fearsome manticore on the cliffside. The scheming and backstabbing among Corsus, Corinius and the other leaders of Witchland was as involving as the best of political thrillers. The writing went overboard in places but at other times was genuinely beautiful.

I can’t say I agree with those who voted it among the 100 best English-language novels, but I see what grabbed them about this book, and would be curious to hear from those RBCers who resonated to this unusual novel.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “Reading a Popular Classic: The Worm Ouroboros”

  1. If Faulkner was writing in not-English, what was James Joyce writing in Finnegan’s Wake?

  2. I love it, and have been inspired and infuriated by it afresh with each of several re-reads. Eddison jumps right onto his hippogriff and just Does Not Bloody Well Care thereafter. The untrammelled delight of its making is a joy to share in.

    Writing fantasy is what I do for pleasure and artistic fulfilment, and in a weird way Eddison has been an abiding influence upon me – though not, obviously, as a model for crude imitation. But to infuse something of his magnanimity, energy, and lushness into the less martial, socially bolshier, and very differently heroic tales of my own desire is an urge evergreen in me.

    And when I catch a flash of the true Eddisonian temper in somebody else’s story, it takes me like the jolt of good whisky.

  3. I also love the book, and in a slightly different way his Zimiamvian trilogy, of which I think Mistress of Mistresses is the best.

    I have re-read them all several times. Like Mark Kleiman I at first hated the ending of Ouroboros, but now I’m reconciled to it. After all these are not ordinary men and women, they are heroes or even demigods, and don’t have exactly the same attitudes as us mortals.

    Anyway Stephen King pulled the same trick, so it must be good.

  4. I read Ouroboros while laid up in bed, sick as a dog for several days, which gave me the patience to plod through the dense, flowery prose. I was aware of it for many years, as there was a copy on the shelf as I was growing up, and I had heard mention of Eddison as one of the founders of the Fantasy genre, and a likely influence on Tolkien, so I figured it would be a good read. The story itself is an interesting adventure, and if you can read Lovecraft, you can slog through the pages & pages of imaginative description, even when it does nothing to advance the story. As for the ending, I nearly threw the book across the room in disgust. It’s almost like what my creative writing teacher beat into me as the First Cardinal Sin of writing: Never, EVER end a story with, “And then he woke up and realized it was all a dream.”
    I appreciate Eddison for embarking on the journey into fantasy fiction that has inspired so many great writers after him, but he was not one of them.

  5. Loved the book, and loved the Zimiamvian trilogy. But you really have to read his translation of Egil’s Saga. As an Amazon reviewer says,

    Eddison’s attempt to approximate the sounds and syntax of Old Norse with an English style using as many related words as possible, instead of more familiar equivalents derived from French or Latin, takes getting used to; and some people never do. Eddison is, of course, rather scornful of Green, both for his Victorian English and his prudishness. On the whole, this translation is the sort of delicacy — the caviar, if you will — that some people love, and others never get a taste for, and wouldn’t even if it should be readily available.

  6. I read it when teenaged, and that may be the best time to read a book like this. It was, more than once, heavy going, but the author’s exuberant delight in language (and his mythical inventiveness) kept me at it. I’ve reread it at least twice; its romanticizing of warfare hasn’t worn well (Achilles in Iliad Book 9 says all that needs to be said about the emptiness of the heroic ideal), but there remains that extravagantly beautiful prose. It is florid, but it’s muscular, too (see the battle with the mantichore for proof).

    I’m unusual in liking the Lessingham episode with which the book begins. The first sentence is as fine as anything else in the novel: “THERE was a man named Lessingham dwelt in an old low house in Wastdale, set in a gray old garden where yew-trees flourished that had seen Vikings in Copeland in their seedling time.” Lessingham provides a convenient gateway to the world of Demons and Witches; once he gets there in his dream, we don’t really need him any more, and so he obligingly bothers us no further. (Traveling to another world in a dream also has plenty of Medieval and Renaissance precedent.)

    Eddison is also much criticized for his names. “Demon,” “Witch,” “Pixie,” and the like are minor distractions and annoyances. For me, he more than makes up for those with his toponyms: Islargyn, the Straits of Melikaphkaz, the mountains Koshtra Pivrarcha, Koshtra Belorn, and Tetrachnampf nan Tshark. He wasn’t the least bit interested in the linguistic rigor of Tolkien (a much more pedestrian writer, it must be said); rather, he wanted a suggestion of places strange and dangerous, and he got what he wanted.

    How substantial a writer is he? It’s hard to say, as we don’t have lots of heroic fantasies written in richly Jacobean English for comparison. At his best, he writes very well indeed, and I’ll leave it at that.

  7. What a wonderful post. Read it when I was in college back when Hector was a pup and haven’t read it since. As fantasy fiction, it is a very hard read, but I did enjoy reading it. I remember reading it and listening to Saint-Saens Third Symphony, which is music worthy of the novel. The two villains Corund and Gro were supposedly the models for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser characters. Thanks for letting me share. 30

  8. Thank you everyone for taking the time to relay your reactions to the book enjoyable to read, stimulating to think over. Of the many thought-provoking comments, I was particularly struck (and am still pondering) by the observation that some people who are not themselves great are somehow able to bring out greatness in others whom they inspire. Food for thought.

Comments are closed.