This is a strange book. It has always been a strange book, even when first published in 1922. But it’s a very satisfying strange book, and it contains what may be the most fantastic sentence I’ve ever read in a work of fiction.
The author, Eric Rücker Eddison, was an English civil servant. He was also a translator of Norse sagas and an expert in medieval and Renaissance poetry; therefore, he had a lot in common with C.S. Lewis. In fact, he knew both Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, and interacted with their “Inklings” circle. But he was decidedly not Christian, being best described as “neo-pagan”—as is this book.
The Worm Ouroboros is one of the first high fantasy novels (preceded, perhaps, by William Morris’s The Well at the End of the World). An “ouroboros,” for those wondering, is the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail. It is a sign of eternity and recurrence, and it also represents Jormungand, the World Serpent of Norse mythology, arch-enemy of Thor, who lies coiled around the Earth, and whose uncoiling will precipitate the final battle, Ragnarok. You can tell from this that the book is closely tied to Norse sagas; it also echoes Arthurian legend. In both cases, it is not the content that is echoed, but the themes.
So while the themes are not wholly original, the content is. Eddison created an entire new world (as is the nature of high fantasy), populated by complex heroes with flaws and villains with virtues, striving for power, love, and, most of all, transcendence through personal glory in heroic accomplishments against insurmountable odds. As with any good high fantasy novel, the characters are not flat, but are still archetypes we recognize, and in some of whom we see things we are or want to be. Strange names and strange people, yet they are us withal.
Sorry about that “withal.” I just fell into it naturally after reading this book, because what makes it most challenging is that it is all written, very deliberately, in English of the 16th Century. But it’s not faux archaic; it never slips from its own created world, and the language is probably necessary to convey the mood. Nonetheless, it does make it a slow start and a slow read, because between sentence structure and obscure words (I do not own the OED, but I assume they are all real, but archaic, words), it takes time. It’s not tough going—but it does take time, though it’s worth the effort. Surrounding all this are detailed descriptions that seem overdone on first reading, but seem just right and limitlessly evocative on the second read.
In the early 21st Century, we are used to two basic kinds of high fantasy. One is exemplified by The Lord of the Rings—it has a distinctly Christian sensibility, where the correct, moral choice is clear, and heroes and villains are also clear, though the characters are not always purely good or bad (think Boromir). Heroes fight evil because that’s what is the right thing to do; they seek their own glory as well, sometimes, but as a side benefit. Heroes are aware of the costs of their action on the civilian and the common soldier; they take into account how what they do affects others. At the end, evil is defeated. Such fantasy is, like fairy tales, meant both to amuse and to morally instruct us.
The second type is more modern and is exemplified (right now) by Game of Thrones (or, technically, I suppose, A Song of Ice and Fire). It has an amoral, anarchistic sensibility. Bad things happen to both good and bad people equally. Good people are only good until their inevitable corruption. Moral choices are always unclear and nobody is really good or really bad. Blind fate crushes all. Glory is a myth; the grave awaits us all, and nothing more. In some ways this is more like real life, and certainly more like modern real life. However, it lacks the magic of the first type—it entertains us, though often with an unpleasant aftertaste, but it does not improve us, and is not meant to.
The Worm Ouroboros is a third type, which has few modern analogues, if any. It is not Christian at all, but it does have a very specific moral sensibility—that of the pagan Norse. The characters, of whom there are many, fight because fighting brings glory and it’s fun (or, in the case of the villains, because it brings power, and glory, and it’s fun). That’s all they do, in between falling in love with beautiful women (who themselves are all scheming either to bring their families glory or to be part of the aristocratic excellence), and eating big feasts in fancy halls. The elite, those who are most excellent, are all that matter. The role of the common people is to die to maintain the standard of aristocratic excellence (and, spoiler alert, in fact, when the heroes finally win the day after enormous slaughter of their own people, they are bored and at loose ends, so they pray to the gods, and their enemies are thereby restored to life and power, in order to begin the cycle of violence again). This makes it jarring to those who like the straightforward moral conception of Tolkein, and odd to those who like the calculatingly self-interested characters of Game of Thrones, since the heroes here constantly act on a purely heroic conception of self-interest, frequently to their immediate and permanent detriment. The heroes here are not amoral or anarchic in the least (although it is like Game of Thrones in that relatively significant characters die with regularity), though their morality and adherence to law is nonetheless alien to us. Yes, there is a fair bit of scheming and alliance-making, but the frame shows clearly that all that matters is the quest for glory. I am not an expert on this, but this seems very like Beowulf, and perhaps like other Norse sagas, like the Poetic Edda. What it is not is like any other fantasy with which I’m familiar.
In any case, totally aside from this are the endless riveting passages of the book, and the plot, which is strangely compelling, though wholly odd and frequently interrupted for what seem side happenings. For example, the principal heroes are the rulers of Demonland (though there are no demons in the sense of evil creatures in Demonland). The primary heroes are the King, Lord Juss, and his cousin, Brandoch Daha (yes, all the names are weird—apparently Eddison came up with them as a small child and kept them). They sail to Impland, a blasted land in the far South, searching for the brother of the king of Demonland, kidnapped and held in an inaccessible fortress by an evil spirit summoned by Gorice XII, ever-reincarnated king of Witchland, the main villain. Among other adventures in Impland (having lost thousands of their own men drowned or killed in battle, over which they agonize not at all), they encounter three bewitched generals from a war years past, each with his army. The first pursues the second, thinking he was betrayed by him, yet has no knowledge of the third. And second pursues the third, thinking likewise and knowing nothing of the first—while the third pursues the first, in an endless circle. Spoiler—all of these people die too.
Plus, there are very many compelling characters. The main heroes are medieval paladin archetypes. The villains, led by Gorice, are more complex. And then there are frankly unique characters like Lord Gro, a man of great talents (technically, he’s a Goblin, but all the “races” are interchangeable and clearly human, except for a single mention of horns on the Demons), both physically brave and an inveterate schemer. So far not too original—but he has the strange characteristic of habitually feeling compelled to betray whomever he serves—not at their lowest ebb, for personal advantage, but at their moment of greatest success, to his own disadvantage. He explains this by saying, “But because day at her dawning hours hath so bewitched me, must I yet love her when glutted with triumph she settles to garish noon? Rather turn as now I turn to Demonland [then on its last legs], in the sad sunset of her pride. And who dares to call me turncoat, who do but follow now as I have followed this rare wisdom all my days: to love the sunrise and the sundown and the morning and the evening star? Since there only abideth the soul of nobility, true love, and wonder, and the glory of hope and fear.” There’s a lot to unpack it that, and it’s far from the only such passage. Gro is also fond of such repeatable aphorisms as “He that imagineth after his labours to attain unto lasting joy, as well may he beat water in a mortar.”
Ah, but you’re wondering—what is the “most fantastic sentence I’ve ever read in a work of fiction”? It is this: when the main heroes are in Impland, they choose to take the way to the Moruna, where their local guide, Mivarsh Faz, tells them “None may go thither and not die.” “They laughed and answered him, ‘Do not too narrowly define our power, sweet Mivarsh, restraining it to thy capacities. Know that our journey is a matter determined of, and it is fixed with nails of diamond to the wall of inevitable necessity.’” That’s fantastic. I’m going to use it in daily life, no matter if people stare at me. When my Uber driver says he can’t take me somewhere, I’m going to tell him that “my purpose is fixed with nails of diamond to the wall of inevitable necessity,” even if he then tells me to get out. Meanwhile, you should read this book, if you have any interest in fantasy at all.