Where to even start?
I found this to be an exceptional book. A work of the imagination alone, self-sustaining and self-excusing, an Ouroboros indeed, feeding mainly on itself it need ask no permission and make no explanations.
You would need a few degrees in English to do forensics on the language I think.
I read this aloud over a few weeks, encountering each new element as I gave it voice and I would recommend that as an excellent method of encountering the book. Before and above anything it is a word of sounded prose (either sounded aloud or sounded inwardly) and if you don't like that part of it then I can see little reason for you to deal with it at all.
The story is introduced through a dream-visitor from our world who possesses a chamber which allows him to experience a saga in a single night. The dream and a magical bird summon our man to the planet Mercury and introduce him to the Lords of Demonland and their intrigues.
All of this is forgotten within a few chapters, the dreamer disappears, it doesn't really matter that its Mercury, being entirely unlike any version of that planet from either fiction or any record of reality.
We are left with a pocket-world full of feudally top-heavy pseudo-cultures. As in chivalric tales, the economy and peasants are simply a background and substructure created in order to allow the existence of Magnificent Heroic Nobles who roam about the place doing incredible things.
"In his autobiography Eddison’s childhood friend, Arthur Ransome, reflected on their early games, which included characters from The Worm Ouroboros, ‘The language, the place-names and the names of the heroes were for me an echo of those ancient days when Ric and I produced plays in a toy theatre with cardboard actors carrying just such names and eloquent with just such rhetoric. Gorice, Lord Goldry Bluszco, Corinius, Brandoch Daha seemed old friends when I met them nearly forty years later’."
This seems to have been based on a paracosm created by Eddison in childhood, and simply built up upon for years and years afterwards.
It has some of the same strange structure of other Paracosm fiction, especially of those developed since childhood, like Year of Our War by Steph Swainston and Gondal by the Brontes.
There is a deep sense of the accretion of detail, with one conception being layered on another, without disavowing it, but only embellishing and complexifying. It feels like layers of flesh with a hot heart beating underneath. Much of the construction is adult but the core motivations and primal concepts are things that would make sense to a child. They are like an engine, still working at the centre of the story.
The strangeness and the layering of different qualities of idea, some from the child self, some added by the adult self, is part of this. The ideas of a child can be good or bad but when they are good they are usually original, strong and indifferent to integration in a wider more comprehensive world. They make less 'sense' but have more power.
The ridiculous, intense boyishness of the world exemplifies this. It is a place for heroic men to roam around having amazing fights. Many of the deepest emotions are around heroism, honour, bravery, respect and hatred for equally honourable, or dastardly enemies, love of movement and having amazing stuff. The home, in this, is a place to fill with amazing stuff, defend from or rescue from invaders, or to invade yourself, like boys from one side of the classroom charging across it to collapse a fort. The rest of the time it is barely lived in, though it has most of the signs of life, it is a place to leave and to return to.
As in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings (and I don't know how many other fictions) friends are people you rescue after they get captured, usually traveling across half of reality to do it, and who you *do things with*.
The feeling and concept of space is vast, and the areas described regularly referred to as 'the whole world' or 'the entire world', but if you look at it, its demographically small - about the size of Ancient Greece or the North Sea. I have found that most adventure worlds tend to even out at about this size, for no doubt complex and subtle reasons. They are a neat scope for things to happen in, for some things to be distant, others close and small enough for everything to affect everything else, while also having enough range for wilderness and places to hide.
It’s been described as pseudo-Jacobean, but I'm not sure if any Jacobean or Elizabethan ever spoke, thought or wrote like this. It seems to me the language of play itself in its purest form. Eddison has reached out to grasp the whole history of a language, run his fingers though it and grabbed gold and gems and jammed them together in ways pleasing to him.
Here is a piece of the internal monologue of one of the best characters, Lord Gro, towards the end of the book;
"Gro said in himself, "How shall not common opinion account me mad, so rash and presumptuous dangerously to put my life in hazard? Nay, against all sound judgement; and this folly I enact in that very season when by patience and courage and my politic wisdom I had won that in despite of fortune's teeth which obstinately hither to she had denied me: when after the brunts of divers tragical fortunes I had marvellously gained the favour and grace of the King, who very honourably placed me in his court and tendereth me, I will think, so dearly as he doth the balls of his two eyes.
He put off his helm, baring his white forehead and smooth black curling locks to the airs of morning, flinging back his head to drink deep through his nostrils the sweet strong air and its peaty smell. "Yet is common opinion the fool, not I," he said. "He that imagineth after his labours to attain unto lasting joy, as well may he beat water in a mortar. Is there not in the wild benefit of nature instances enow to laugh this folly out of fashion? A fable of great men that arise and conquer the nations: Day goeth up against the tyrant night. How delicate a spirit is she, how like a fawn she footeth it upon the mountains: pale pitiful light matched with the primeval dark. But every sweet hovers in her battalions, and every heavenly influence: coolth of the wayward little winds of morning, flowers awakening, birds a-carol, dews a-sparkle on the fine-drawn webs the tiny spinners hand from fern-frond to thorn, from thorn to wet dainty leaf of the silver birch; the young day laughing in her strength, wild with her own beauty; fire and life and every scent and colour born anew to triumph over chaos and slow darkness and the kinless night.
"But because day at her dawning hours hath so bewitched me, must I yet lover her when glutted with triumph she settles into garish noon? Rather turn as now I turn to Demonland, in the sad sunset of her pride. And who dares call me turncoat, who does 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 easy glory of hope and fear."
The recursive line - "and this folly I enact in that very season when by patience and courage and my politic wisdom I had won that in despite of fortune's teeth which obstinately hither to she had denied me"
The very high tone - "when after the brunts of divers tragical fortunes I had marvellously gained the favour and grace of the King"
Solidity, and specificity of sensual detail - "so dearly as he doth the balls of his two eyes."
It is high, it is labrynthine, it is solid and sensuous. Almost no-one in the book says anything stupid. They are wrong, often insanely utterly wrong, but they are wrong in the most interesting and exciting way available to them. Everyone says and thinks the best possible thing at the best possible time.
There are people who did speak like this; they are the heroes of memory and recollection, not of fact, they are memories of great events, polished by bards like water over stones, until they say only the most concrete but beautiful thing they could possibly say. They are the people of the minds eye and their speech is the poetry of performed recollection, here not recalling but bringing to life. (And we see again that the mind of memory and transmission and that of creation and invention are like proteins folded across different axis or ghost images in the same optical illusion).
The language and forms would fit Zelazny's Amber perfectly. Like that, this is a court drama expanded into an epic.
It also reminds me of nothing so much as the better speech of the better 'Historical' films of the 1950's, which, I assume, mimic the speech of the theatre of the early 20th and late 19th Century. Not necessarily the high poetry or the well-known plays, but the 'upper middle' of theatre, what Charlie Brooker would call the Gourmet Burger theatre. It’s an archaic (to us, about 70 years old) impression or creation of what that generation would have considered deeply historical speech.
It's even a little like 'Merry Marvel' olde-timey language, if it was very good.
Characters in The Worm are simple one or two point individuals. They have direct, overwhelming emotions and desires which tend to proceed one at a time. A lot like small boys, action heroes and Greek heroes.
They sometimes have one or two other emotions that conflict with or contextualise their main emotion or desire at moments of high drama.
The energy, innovation, intensity, cleverness and particularity of the characters in speech, action and form comes from this deep layering and enormous concentration of imagination and thought onto how they express themselves in the world. They are like little diamonds glimmering under the enormous pressure of Eddisons concentrated mind, spilling out spectra of wild colour, simple in arrangement but vomiting rainbows.
Greek heroes really, in the bodies and amazing costumes of Renaissance courtiers. Their opposites are villains of magnificent badness, awesome power, marvellous flaws and hissable nastiness. Nobody dies in a pale way. Glory and magnificence, especially at the end are what is called for; suicide after the murder of friends due to enchantment, torn to pieces by an uncontrolled hippogriff, suicide by poison at the death of husband and hope, pierced through the guts while smashing your greatest enemy to the ground, in the middle of an exploding tower of magic, gutted after one too many betrayals. Heroes and villains both hate and mourn each other.
These traits could only really sustain us so far, which is why the comparative shortness of the book, compared to other epics like LotR, is so vital and important. The 'heroic' Greek morality and relative simplicity of inner character would become deeply wearisome if continued too long. Tolkien was probably an inferior prosidist, and he could not glitter and shine like Eddison, but he could make people you could spend time with, Eddisons characters are magnificent in scenes but they would poison a continuing world I think.
In a Manichean world (which this is not quite, but it is a world heroes and villains which is close) there is always one 'grey' character who absorb all the misty paling of humanity squeezed out of the other characters and concentrates it. A Snape essentially.
In this world that part is taken by Lord Gro. The academic, introspective, cunning, occasionally brave, lucid, perceptive terminal and continual traitor. Before the book begins he betrays his original lord for Witchland, then finally betrays Witchland for the Demons, and that is not the end of his twisting and turning.
None of his betrayals are for personal advantage, he is moved by some complex inner drive. As he says, he worships the morning and evening, but hates power in its ascendancy, and so shifts like a shadow. He holds to this deeply odd inner nature with perfect sincerity.
He seems to hate being alive. At one point, when accused of dishonesty, he asks his friend to kill him rather than doubt him, and seems utterly sincere. Gambit or truth? Probably both
The other most-interesting character, Brandoch Daha, of a below-given splendiferous description, doesn't hate life, and seems to enjoy it, but he does seem to share somewhat in Gro's alienation from the world. His almost ridiculous lightness, courage, competence and extremely airy and sardonic attitude is fascinating, frustrating and captivating. He is reminded multiple times by his closest friends that his ridiculous attitude is a massive liability, yet they would never be without him. Both the best and worst friend you could have.
He exemplifies the charisma, violence, courage, invention, bravery and nobility of the Demons, and he seems more perceptive than some of them. His lightness may come from his recognition of the closed role of the Demons; they are pure heroes and while that is a magnificent thing to be it is, in its way, a limited thing to be.
Clothes, food, entertainment, architecture, magical accoutrements, aspects of the environment and especially feudal levies are listed in incantory rubrics, which are much better read aloud, but even then get a little bit much after a while.
As in Spencer and I think in Shakespeare, processions give geography as both a scene and a list. Every feudally loyal group comes from a particular place on the map, when summoned they gather and file past in a line, and are counted and named, so the strength of a kingdom on the land becomes a line of men, becomes a list of names and places and becomes a poem of the power of a kingdom all in one. Here is the 'bad guy' list from the King of Witchland sending his guys out to conquer Demonland;
"And on the fifteenth day of July was the fleet busked and boun in Tenemos Roads, and that great army of five thousand men-at-arms, with horses and all instruments of war, marched from their camp without Carce down to the sea.
First of them went Laxus with his guard of mariners, he wearing the crown of Pixyland and they loudly acclaiming him as king and Gorice of Witchland as his overlord. A gallant man he seemed, ready-looking and hard, well-armed, with open countenance and bright seaman's eyes, and brown, crisp, curly beard and hair. Next came the main foot army heavil armed with axe and spear and the short Witchland hanger, yeoman and farmers from the low lands about Carce or from the southern vineyards or the hill country against Pixyland: burly swashing fellows, rough as bears, hardy as wild oxen, agile as an ape; four thousand fighting men chose out by Corsus up and down the land as best for this great conquest. The sons of Corsus, Dekalajus and Gorius, rode abreast before them with twenty pipers piping a battle song. Surely the tramp of that great army on the paven way was like the tramp of Fate moving from the east. Gorice the King, sitting in state on the battlements above the water-gate, sniffed with his nostrils as a lion at the scent of blood. It was early morn, and the wind hung southerly, and the great banners, blue and green and purple and gold, each with an iron crab displayed above it, flaunted in the sun.
Now came four or five companies of horse, four hundred or more in all, with brazen armour and bucklers and glancing spears; and last of all, Corsus himself with his picked legion of five hundred veterans to bring up the rear, fierce soldiers of the coast-lands that followed him of old to the eastern main and Goblinland, and had stood beside him in the great days when he smote the Ghouls in Witchland. On Corsus's left and right, a little behind him, rode Gro and Gallandus. Ruddy of countenance was Gallandus, gay of carriage and likely-looking, long of limb, with long brown m moustachios and large kind eyes like a dog."
Eddisons glorious and sensual descriptions of clothes, rooms, castles and nature perhaps are not quite lists, but they are rhythmic, processional windings of near-verse back and forth the physicality of the described world.
This is the initial description of Brandoch Daha, the 'lancer' of Lord Juss and after Gro, perhaps the most interesting character in the book;
"His gait was delicate, as of some lithe beast of prey newly awakened out of slumber, and he greeted with lazy grace the many friends who hailed his entrance. Very tall was that lord, and slender of build, like a girl. His tunic was of silk coloured like the wild rose, and embroidered in gold with representations of flowers and thunderbolts. Jewels glittered on his left hand and on the golden bracelets of his arms, and on the fillet twined among the golden curls of his hair, set with plumes of the king-bird of Paradise. His horns were dyed with saffron, and inlaid with filigree work of gold, His buskins were laced with gold, and from his belt hung a sword, narrow of blade and keen, the hilt rough with beryls and black diamonds. Strangely light and delicate was his frame and seeming, yet with a sense of slumbering power beneath, as the delicate peak of a snow mountain seen afar in the low red rays of morning. His face was beautiful to look on and softly coloured like a girls face, and his expression one of gentle melancholy, mixed with some distain; but fiery glints awoke at intervals in his eyes, and the lines of swift determination hovered round the mouth below his curled moustachios."
It's one thing to simply say your characters are the greatest, it’s quite another to paint them in words like Rembrant or Holbein, and yet another to have them speak like, if not Shakespere, then at least Marlowe. Layering in language, embossing in action, gilding with sensible beauty and hanging lists of magnificence like necklaces of amber or diamonds around their necks.
THE PROSCENIUM ARCH
Eddison is not just a lister of things or a poet, or a thief of poets, his is a dramatist too, and a good one. His powerful emblematic, textured but largely monodirectional characters would be of little worth if they were not thrown together on the stage to clutch at, and rebound from, each other.
And these are *scenes* too, not mere situations, each is like a short story with a powerful single narrative through-line, a strong geographical or architectural situation and a handful of driving, distinct heraldic characters sparring with each other in Eddisons luxurious language.
An example follows, Corinius, the extremely unpleasant and rapey Lord of Witchland has invaded Demonland while its rulers are away, defeated every army brought against him and now besieges Lady Mevrian, the sister of a ruler of Demonland, in her castle.
He really wants Mevrian, and forces, or threaten/persuades his ally, the extremely civil and largely gentle Lord Gro to take a message to her, if she comes out and marries him, he will let her people go, if not, he will break his way in, kill them, and rape her.
- Gro to Mevrian
""Madam," said Lord Gro, "I would not have brought your highness this message nor delivered it, but that I know full well that did I refuse it another should bear it thee full speedily, and with less compliment, and less sorrow than I."
She nodded gravely, as who should say, Proceed. So, with what countenance he might, he rehearsed his message, saying when it was ended, "Thus, madam, saith Corinius the king: and thus he charged me deliver it unto your highness."
Mevrian heard him attentively with head erect. When he had done she was silent a little, still studying him. Then she spake: "Methinks I know thee now. Thou are Lord Gro of Goblinland that bearest me this message."
Gro answered, "Madam, he thou namest went years ago from this earth. I am Lord Gro of Witchland."
"So it seemeth, from thy talk," said she; and was silent again.
The steady contemplation from that lady's eyes was like a knife scraping his tender skin, so that he was ill at ease well nigh past bearing.
After a little she said, "I remember thee, my lord. Let me stir thy memory. Eleven years ago, my brother went to war in Goblinland against the Witches, and overcame them on Lormeron field. There slew he the great King of Witchland in single combat, Gorice X., that until that day was held the mightiest man-at-arms in all the world. My brother was as then but eighteen winters old, and that was the first blazing up of his great fame and glory. So King Gaslark made great feasting and great rejoicing in Zaje Zaculo because of the ridding of his land of the oppressors. I was at those revels. I saw thee there, my lord; and being but a little maid of eleven summers, sat on thy knee in Gaslark's halls. Thou dids't show me books, with pictures in strange colours of gold and green and scarlet, of birds and beasts and distant countries and wonders of the world. And I, being a little harmless maid, thought thee good and kind of heart, and loved thee."
She ceased, and Gro, like a man hath taken some drowsy drug, stood looking on her confounded.
"Tell me," said she, "of this Corinius. Is he such a fighter as men say?"
"He is," said Gro, "one of the most famousest captains that ever was. That might not his worst enemies gainsay."
Mevrian said, "A likely consort, think'st thou, for a lady of Demonland? Remember, I have said nay to crowned kings. I would know thy mind for doubtless he is thy very familiar friend, since he made thee his go-between."
Gro saw that she mocked, and he was troubled at heart. "Madam," said he, and his voice shook somewhat, "take not in too great scorn this vile part in me, Verily this I brought thee is the most shamefullest message, and flatly against my will did I deliver it unto thee. Yet with such constraint upon me, how could I choose but strike my forehead into dauntless marble and word by word deliver my charge?"
"Thy tongue," said Mevrian, "hath struck hot irons in my face. Go back to thy master, If he look for an answer, tell him he may read it in letters of gold above the gates."
Not something Tolkien would write, partly because his was a world almost without women and without sex, but it would be rare to see, in any of his interactions, such a complex fluxion and layering if different kinds of power and weakness, and such subtly flawed people.
And it does all feel like theatre. Or like 1950's cinema, when new colour cameras were too big and heavy to move easily so scenes became dense with arrangement and people entered and exited as if in theatre.
The Witchlanders capture their enemies and have them at their mercy, but during a surprise visit by an allied lord, all they need do is *not mention the capture* and keep it secret, to keep it safe. But the slow accretion of alcohol, ego, family dysfunction, supressed rage and arrogance slowly and inevitably unpicks their plans over a single night.
In the palace of the Red Foilot, near the beginning of the book, a great list/scene of magnificent entertainments takes place, during which, two Doormice do an incredible dance to wild applause.
Are mice people in this world? Are they mice dressed up as people? Is this magic or are things like this normal? No-one remarks either way and they are never mentioned again, like a dream.
There are 'scenes', in which people enter and leave a single 'stage'. There are magnificent nature walks in which people encounter nature, and battles, and that is mostly it. It's relatively rare for people to move about in the middle distance, inside a building for instance.
Nevertheless, Eddison builds natural worlds as well, in huge and splendiferous detail, especially related to place names. He has not created a pseudo-linguistics in a Tolkien fashion, but simply assembled and accreted, pulling from here and there, inventing and embroidering.
(This must have been *agonizing* for Tolkien to read. They are in each others cognitive penumbra - a painful space to encounter anyone. To see words and language heaped up like sea-wrack or nazi gold, pawed through and assembled in play, for momentary pleasure or joy of invention - with so little regard for *structure*.)
Demonland is, I think, mainly the Lake District, where you find Owlswick, Lookinghaven, Rammerick Strands, Westmark, Elmerstead and so on.
The mountains are largely the Himalayas I think, where you find Akra Garsh, Koshtra Pivrarcha, Koshtra Belorn and Zora Rach Nam Psarrion.
Witchland I am not sure, I think southern England, maybe the fens?
There are far too many to speak of.
In the centre of the book is a single chapter based entirely on the ascent of the highest mountain on 'Mercury', Koshtra Pivrarcha, the peak which must be climbed first before the semidivine shangri-la like mountain of Kosthra Belorn can be attempted (only those who have looked down on Koshtra Belorn from above may enter, all else will be destroyed).
This is one of the best single pieces of mountain-climbing fiction I have read (though I have not read many), you could pull it out of the book entire as a piece of remarkable nature writing, except that the nature it describes, though it seems entirely real, is the slightest breath of the imagination.
Eddison has a thing for battles, but we see relatively few of these first-hand, more common is the scene-of-the-battle-report, in which a character who was present meets others and describes the events from their own point of view and with their own words and prejudices. This lets him play mild Rashamon games when two messengers come and describe the same battle to the King of Witchland in different terms, and it translates the sometimes-numbing description of feudal hack-fests with events and interpretations at the human scale, making venetian blinds of strategy and conversation as we switch back and forth between the scene in which the events are described and in the described events themselves. (And becomes faintly ridiculous when, for instance, a soldier returning from a battle pivotal to the fate of his nation and family, arrives from said battle, and insists on telling the whole story in-order, over quite a while before getting to the end and revealing if the house in question is safe or not, which if it took place amongst real people, they would slap the shit out of him.)
Poets always love the wind, but Eddison loves NIGHT. And the sky generally, and air and space and changing light. Again and again and again characters stare into the dark, look at the darkening sky, wrap themselves in evening.
Its pretty rare that someone does *not* soliloquise against a darkening sky. He is a poet of the night as he is of nothing else.
Prezmyria waits – “
Gro walked with the Lady Prezmyra on the western terrace in Carce. It wanted yet two hours of midnight. The air was warm, the sky a bower of moonbeam and starbeam. Now and then a faint breeze stirred as if night turned in her sleep. The walls of the palace and the Iron Tower cut off the terrace from the direct moonlight, and flamboys spreading their wobbling light made alternating regions of brightness and gloom. Galloping strains of music and the noise of revelry came from within the palace.”
Juss and Brandoch Daha on their great climb –
“Since before noon avalanches has thundered ceaselessly down those cliffs. Now, in the cool of the evening, all was without a cloud. The fires of sunset crept down the vast white precipices before them till every ledge and fold and frozen pinnacle glowed pink colour, and every shadow became an emerald. The shadow of Koshtra Pivarcha lay cold across the lower stretched of the face on the Zimiamvian side. The edge of that shadow was as the division betwixt the living and the dead.”
The Demons witness the sad doom of an enchanted warrior –
“And he said, “Depart from me, since now approacheth that which must complete this day’s undoing.”
So they fared back to the spy-fortalice, and night came down on the hills. A great wind moaning out of the hueless west tore the clouds as a ragged garment, revealing the lonely moon that fled naked betwixt them. As the Demons looked backward in the moonlight to where Zeldornius stood gazing on the dead, a noise as of thunder made the firm land tremble and drowned the howling of the wind. And they beheld how the earth gapes for Zeldornius.
After that, the dark shut down athwart the moon, and night and silence hung on the field of Salapanta.”
Queen Sophonosbia prays to the Gods –
“In a while she raised her eyes to heaven; and behold, between the two main peaks of the Scarf, a meteor crept slowly out of the darkness and across the night-sky, leaving a trail of silver fire, and silently departed into darkness. They watched, and another came, and yet another, until the western sky above the mountain was ablaze with them. From two points of heaven they came, one betwixt the foreclaws of the Lion and one in the dark sign of Cancer. And they that came from the Lion were sparkling like the white fires of Rigel of Altair, and they that came from the Crab were haughty red, like the lustre of Antares. The lords of Demonland, leaning on their swords, watched these portents for a long while in silence. Then the travelling meteors ceased, and the steadfast stars shone lonely and serene. A soft breeze stirred among the alders and willows by the lake. The lapping waters lapping in the shingly shore made a quiet tune. A nightingale in a coppice on a little hill sang so passionate sweet it seemed some spirits singing. As in a trance they stood and listened, until that singing ended, and a hush fell on water, wood and lawn. Then all the east blazed up for an instant with sheet lightnings, and thunder growled from the east beyond the sea.”