The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison; introductory material by Paul Edmund Thomas
Coleridge, and others after him, have written of the “willing suspension of disbelief” involved in reading imaginative literature, but I’ve seen nothing on the “willing suspension of disapproval.” Just as we must accept the physical world of the story – whether it includes dragons, shadow governments, or people who talk in aphorisms – we also must accept the moral world of the story.
For The Worm Ouroboros, this means accepting the glorification of war, which is implicit throughout. The virtues the characters admire are warrior virtues. It has this in common with the Icelandic sagas and Homeric epics that, according to Paul Edmund Thomas’s introduction, were major influences on Eddison.
I don’t read Icelandic or Greek, so I can’t say how much of Eddison’s prose style was based on his sources. Ouroboros is written in a pseudo-archaic dialect of Eddison’s own invention. This is part of the world the reader must accept. However, after a few chapters, I found the style mostly unobtrusive, sometimes delightful, and only rarely painful. As Tolkien and others have noted, the names of the characters don’t seem to belong to any unified cultural context, but I don’t think that’s a flaw. There are obviously a number of nations in Eddison’s world, with much contact and commerce among them. In the mundane world, my own circle of acquaintances provides names from at least five continents, and from too many languages to estimate.
Thomas, despite my snarky comments in an earlier post, is understandably defensive about Eddison’s powers of characterization. The heroes are mostly indistinguishable from one another. The one who stands out in my memory is Brandoch Daha, who is both a dandy and a berserker – and having told you that, I’ve told you all I remember of him. Eddison sometimes does a better job with the villains. King Gorice XII combines courage, cunning, charisma, and a number of other alliterative traits. The aptly-named Corsus, who panders his own daughter for a command position, is also memorable. But the most intriguing and nuanced character in the novel is the counselor Lord Gro, a bit player whose fidelity to his own principles (and they are not selfish ones) leads him to be a traitor to multiple sides.
As you might expect from a tale weak on character, events are plot-driven. Despite (or maybe because of) the careful construction of the symmetrical narrative, which circles around to bite its own tail, the novel feels episodic. Most acts and decisions seem to arise from force of plot rather than force of character. The “and so” is provided by a scheme outside the world of the story; within, all is “and then.”
According to Thomas, many readers have a problem with the beginning of the novel, which introduces a quickly-dropped framing narrative. I have more trouble with the conclusion, where the exaltation of war becomes explicit. If you can buy into that ethos, the ending gives the body of the tale more meaning. If your morals, like mine, are a little old and stiff and just won’t bend that far, the ending makes the main part of the book meaningless.
But I shouldn’t let that be the last word. I enjoyed the novel enough to go on to Eddison’s Zimiamvia trilogy, as soon as I find the volume I’m missing.