For many readers, epic fantasy is fantasy. Despite the ever increasing variety within the genre, Tolkien, Martin, Brooks, Eddings, Howard, etc., etc. are what the world of fantasy literature is. It’s therefore interesting that most have probably not heard of E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros--a book which identifies the sub-genre like no other. Simply put, it defines the term ‘epic’. A seminal influence on every work of fantasy bearing the adjective since, up to and including The Lord of the Rings, it is only due to language and the fickle thing that is time that the book is not more well-known today. Written in a style that is sure to put off many, Eddison’s debut novel is as grandiose in presentation as it is in content.
A (semi) frame story, The Worm Ouroboros opens with the man Lessingham relaxing at his manor with the wife. Whisked away to the Middle Kingdom that night by bird, he finds himself in the castle of Demonland the next morning. Jewels and precious stones encrusting every available surface, Lessingham meets the castle’s lords—their noble, imposing statures as glorious as their halls. But when an ugly dwarf from the rival kingdom of Witchland arrives to demand that Demonland bow in obeisance, Lessingham fades and the focus switches to the lords: the noble Juss, the mighty Goldry Bluszco, and the world’s greatest warrior, Brandoch Daha. The dwarf’s message an unacceptable affront to Demonland’s dignity, the group holds conference to decide in what manner to respond to King Gorice’s demands. Settling on a duel in three weeks’ time, the fate of the Middle Kingdom hangs in the balance. Events in the aftermath not as either side would have it, the bruised egos, cycles of vengeance, treachery, quests, and victories and defeats which follow are as epic as fantasy gets.
Not a step more can be taken without describing the style of The Worm Ouroboros. The single most prominent feature of the novel (from a contemporary perspective), the language used is wholly archaic—every word, sentence, and thought expressed in Tudor/Jacobean English. A veneer alien to modern usage of English, what would be expressed by grimdark writers today as “I’ll kick your ass, fuck face!” is rendered in the novel as “Rebellious hound, it is fit that I make demonstration unto thee… that I am thy king and lord, not by virtue only of this my crown of Witchland, which I thus put by for an hour, but even by the power of my body over thine, and by my might and man. Be satisfied that I will not have done with thee until I have taken away thy life, and sent thy soul squealing bodiless into the unknown, and thy skull, and thy marrow-bones, will I have await at Carce, to my palace, to be a token unto all the world, that I have been the bane of an hundredth great champion by my wrestling…” The entire story overlain in a filigree of opulent verbosity, no banister, mountain range, posture, or sword pommel goes unnoticed. Thus, do not think of picking up The Worm Ouroboros unless you are prepared to immerse yourself in 500 pages of a minutely detailed place and character written in dated English. Not a hack job, Eddison’s effort is wholly authentic and worthwhile for anyone interested in middle English. (I mention this because, much of the epic fantasy on the market today attempts to use “traditional” English as a means of adding epic weight to its story, and most often fails. See Michael Sullivan’s books for an unpracticed example.)
Regardless of the reader’s opinion of such language, it does have a significant effect: the story is rendered fully mythic in tone. Everything larger than life, the simplest of conversations, the treks across craggy mountain ranges, and the duels of sword and spear take on proportions that are as purely epic as epic can be. (The poetry and song Eddison includes only heighten the effect.) Eddison’s work one fully realized, it can be appreciated as much for the mythic storyline, if not for language.
The plot a cross of Arthurian legend and Greek myth, sword and sorcery hold as much place as fantastical beasts and magnanimous quests in The Worm Ouroboros. Hippogriffs, King Gorice’s conjurations, the mighty clashes of armies, the mystical strength of nature, the inscrutability of aristocracy, egos and power, the hero, loyalty defied by love, and the irredoubtable stanchions of honor, virtue, and bravery. Eddison also fully personalizing the villains, readers will find them something more like a darker shade of gray rather than the black on black most epic fantasy evil exhibits.
Before closing the review, it would be good to expand upon the mythic proportions of the novel. J.R.R. Tolkien turning away from The Worm Ouroboros’s thematic outlay, Michael Moorcock in turn embracing it, the tragedy of the novel’s conclusion, as indirect as it is, clings tighter to Mircea Eliade’s ideas regarding the eternal return than any modern perspective—Christian or otherwise—regarding time. Eschewing the linear for the cyclical, the story truly hearkens back to the ages of old, making it myth for modern times.
In the end, The Worm Ouroboros will not be a novel for every fan of epic fantasy despite that the most genre works today will hold the overwhelming majority in common. The archaic language placing it in a meticulously crafted niche, those who enjoy older iterations of English may find the time well spent, while others will quickly nauseate at the purple blustering and fluff. With characters “binding themselves to mighty oaths” and imaginary beasts plying the seas and skies, the book is imbued with myth, something which the epic scope of story only emphasizes. The closest modern equivalent I have read is Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword and Moorcock’s Elric books. Certainly Tolkien borrowed many things from Eddison, including the name Middle Earth, but the authors have entirely different aims.