E. R. Eddison
The Worm Ouroboros
Charleston, S.C.: BiblioBazaar, 2008
We have reserved this mystery for the final part of our review: the question of the meaning of ouroboros, sign and signal of the book we have set ourselves to contemplate.
We begin with the end. After the fall of Witchland and the return of the Demons to their kingdom, a time of peace comes to the land. Queen Sophonisba, who had aided Juss in his rescue of his brother, comes to be the guest of the Demons in the peaceful enjoyment of all the good things over which they lord. A magnificent catalog is furnished of the gardens and the treasures of the Demons and the marvels of their lands. And yet despite all this earthly splendor, we are made aware that something is awry: when the Queen expresses her happiness that peace has come to Demonland, Juss responds, “Yet think, madam that we be young of years. And to strenuous minds there is an unquietude in over-quietness.” (XXXIII, p. 419) Then, in sequel, he delivers a remarkable speech to Sophonisba, in a sentiment rare in modern literature, and so far as I know utterly unique in the mouth of a conqueror on the eve of his triumph:
Thou, Queen, canst scarcely know our grief; for to thee the blessed Gods gave thy heart’s desire: youth forever, and peace. Would they might give us our good gift, that should be youth forever, and war; and unwaning strength and skill in arms. Would they might but give us our great enemies alive and whole again. For better it were we should run hazard again of utter destruction, than thus live out our lives like cattle fattening for the slaughter, or like silly garden plants. (XXXIII, p. 423)
Lord Gro, we have seen, perished of the necessary interconnection of war with life; the Demons are but the mirror image of Gro, who would perish of the necessary interconnection of life with peace.
Though she is utterly bemused by his desire, Queen Sophonisba, out of her love for Juss, prays to the gods that it should be as Juss has wished it; and this prayer most enigmatically comes to fruition. The narrative ends precisely as it has begun, with a messenger who has come from a resurrected Witchland, inviting the Demons to a wrestling match with King Gorice to determine preeminence over all the world. The end of the narrative swallows its beginning; it itself is the poetic representation of the worm ouroboros, the snake that eternally consumes its own tail. And so the Lords of Demonland are given a new task, and their dearest wish: to live forever in youth, and forever in war.
It is difficult enough for us moderns to even approach so shamelessly bellicose a finale. It will strike some of us as terribly unrealistic and terribly cruel. Unrealistic, because such a resurrection of a fallen nation could of course never come to pass in the real world; cruel, because it seems to doom the characters of the narrative to constant suffering, violence, and death, and calls into question moreover the status of an enormous segment of our own lives, which we do not pass in the fire of war. There is a mysterious barrier standing between us and the correct appreciation of this end: we moderns have forgotten the meaning of glory.
Yet even supposing we revel in this ending, there are many more difficulties abounding just below the surface. The eternal return of the Demons is not identical to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, the perfect repetition of the cycle of becoming. For one thing, it cannot be; for even should Witchland be resurrected in precisely the same conditions as it stood before the beginning of the narrative (and there is reason to believe this is not so), still the Demons now, through their memory of events, would have foreknowledge of what is to come, and thus would break the perfection of the cycle. This is essential to the wish of the Demons: the joy and exultation of warfare depends decisively on the uncertainty of what will come of them. Combined with foreknowledge of one’s own acts, the merest repetition of what has been before, the repetition of all things unto eternity, would be boring, every bit as ruinous to the spirit as the end of history and perpetual peace. The Demons’ eternal return is therefore not the amor fati of him who wants the same eternally, but rather of him who wants the new eternally, novel chance to show his mettle and to win novel victories. Rather than presenting itself as a ring, the worm ouroboros takes instead the form of the cycle or the spiral. It is the unabashed love of war which leads the Demons to this end; the worm ouroboros is the representation of life itself: life as unending struggle, life as a perpetual feeding upon itself and growing from its self-feeding, an eternal out-growth and in-growth of the world.
Our aesthetic appreciation of the choice of the Demons to live forever in war, and of their warrior ethos more generally, can only come in a time of peace. Were we engaged in true war, we would have no leisure even to contemplate the choice of the Demons. We can therefore admire the Demons only insofar as we live in a way they would find intolerable and perhaps even contemptible. It would therefore seem that there is nothing prescriptive in Eddison’s work, nothing which suggests how our lives ought to be – no lessons to be taken from Demonland after all. Yet what then is the pleasure or benefit we may derive from this story? Does it not contradict itself in the telling? Does it not reveal itself, at the very end, contrary to Eddison’s first word, as nothing but a fable, perchance fit to while away a stray hour, but certainly not to aid us in the refashioning of our ideals, or our lives?
More trouble yet. This book itself was not written by a Demon; it was written by E. R. Eddison, who seems to have passed, by all biographical evidence, an exceptionally dull life. He was a lifetime civil servant – about as far from being a warrior as one can come – and though the arc of his days contained both the World Wars, he never saw a battlefield nor so much as dressed a soldier’s wound. This would seem to cast grave doubt on his fitness to speak of war and of the virtues of the warrior. It certainly permits us to ask how seriously he took his characters’ fates, and to what extent all of this is merely the fantasy of a dilettante writer. Yet Eddison, by all accounts, took his writing and the meaning of his writing very seriously, indeed. Then one must ask, was he merely a hypocrite? Or is there something deeper in this business?
To enter this question, to begin to unseal all these many riddles, we must address a feature of the book we have not so much as mentioned. We must return to the true beginning. The narrative of The Worm Ouroboros is not given to us, just so, from the lips of the poet: there is rather a segment at the beginning within which the whole of the narrative is framed. The story comes to us as the dream of a man named Lessingham. This Lessingham does not live in Demonland, Witchland, or any of the surrounding lands; he is a child of the Earth, our Earth, and his home and his life seem, in the main, to pertain to the “real world.” He appears a gentleman of good standing in Wastdale, England, and is presented to us in a domestic scene with his wife as he reads aloud to her from Njal’s Saga in the evening light. His life certainly has none of the hard high elements of the Demons’; he is most emphatically “one of us.” He lives in a time of peace; we are told in the very first sentence that his home is “set in a gray old garden where yew-trees had flourished that had seen Vikings in Copeland in their seedling time.” (“The Induction,” p. 19) The Vikings, prototypical warriors, are long gone from the land in which he lives. The book he reads, a saga of Icelandic blood feuds, confirms again by contrast the pacific nature of his existence. There is good reason to suspect that this Lessingham is in some way the embodiment of Eddison in this book; he is the fictional stand-in for the poet, and his dream is in fact Eddison’s dream.
Now, Lessingham’s is no ordinary dream; we are to understand that he is rather witness to true events on the planet Mercury. Yet these events last four years, and his witness, only a single night. The events are historical events, but given the time involved, they cannot be historical events; they are simultaneously real, but unreal. They partake of the realm of poetry, which itself is eternally ethereal and of ambiguous reality. Lessingham accesses this other realm by sleeping in a certain room of his house, called the Lotus Room, which in a certain lunar phase has the power of transporting its denizens to faraway places. The reality of this journey is indicated also by the fact that Lessingham’s wife is afraid and bids him wait for her, so that, if some ill should befall, it should happen to both of them together. Eddison might not return from his flights of fancy; he could become lost in his own poetic imaginings, lost to the “real world.”
Lessingham, despite his wife’s plea, departs alone. His departure is linked to the music of Couperin, Les Barricades Mystérieuses, the enigmatic title of which, as he claims, only he and his wife understand. We are thus led to ask: what are these “mysterious barriers” to a man who is on the verge of such a voyage? “It is another world,” his wife protests. “It is too far.” His response: “Nothing is too far.” (“The Induction,” p. 21) He proves this point in his going. He is awakened deep in the night in the Lotus Room, also called the House of Postmeridian, the House of Peace, and the House of Heart’s Desire (thus indicating, once again, its connection to poetic imagination). From this room he is borne by a hippogriff to the distant planet of Mercury.
The means of his going are most significant. The hippogriff is the same animal which bears Juss to save his brother. It is furthermore called by Lady Mevrian of Demonland “that high bird which presideth from old over the predestined glory of our line, to point us on to a fame advanced above the region of the glittering stars.” It is thus twice connected with the Demons, pointing us imperiously toward kinship between the Demons and Lessingham – and through him, Eddison. The beast is described by Queen Sophonisba thus:
And thus cometh this steed to the birth: when one of might and heart beyond the wont of man sleepeth in this land with the egg [of the hippogriff] in his bosom, greatly desiring some high achievement, the fire of his great longing hatcheth the egg, and the hippogriff cometh out therefrom, weak-winged at first as thou hast seen a butterfly new-hatched out his chrysalis. Then only mayst thou mount him, and if thou be man enow to turn him to thy will he shall bear thee to the uttermost parts of the earth unto thine heart’s desire. But if thou be aught less than greatest, beware that steed, and mount only earthly coursers. For if there be aught of dross within thee, and thine heart falter, or thy purpose cool, or thou forget the level aim of thy glory, then will he toss thee to thy ruin. (XIV, pp. 208-209)
In what sense could such high rhetoric possibly apply to the peaceable gentleman Lessingham, not to speak of Eddison, this lifetime civil servant? What could this character, and this man, possibly have in common with the greatness, the will, the glory of the Demons?
The highest warfare is the warfare of the mind, the warfare of ideas, the continual, cyclical, aye eternal return, which lasts so long as a thinking man’s life should last, and permits him to see past the illusion of our “real world,” built on its utterly deceptive prejudices and its utterly limited morals, to perceive higher, nobler, more complete, albeit essentially mysterious, ideals. Rare is that man who may approach this: the philosopher and poet alone. The philosopher is a wooer of wisdom. The poet seeks not wisdom primarily, but rather the adventure of the soul, because it is beautiful. The philosopher craves the cool, still waters of knowledge and truth; he wants peace, not only externally, but within himself as well. The poet within his own soul wants war. Gro is described as having the eyes of an ox, that slow-moving ruminating beast of the field; Lessingham meanwhile is lead to Demonland by a martlet, a mythic bird with no feet, whose life must therefore be swift, restless movement and flight.
Lessingham is not mentioned in the final pages of the book. We are to understand that he is still witness to the travails of Demonland, but we are also to understand that then, as at the beginning, he is a bodiless witness who cannot touch anything he sees. He may learn of these events, but he may not participate in them. His real life is elsewhere, on the Earth that he has left behind. There is a great ambiguity in this ending, an unstated ambiguity, a question which will escape the notice of all but the most attentive readers and those most sensitively attuned to the problem of the poet: shall Lessingham remain there in Demonland, deathless witness to the eternal return of the Demons, only a student and observer, but never actor in his own right? Or shall he return with what he has seen and what he has learned, now that this first cycle has concluded? Is Lessingham compelled by the mystery of the worm ouroboros to remain on Mercury, merely drifting like a river? Or shall this child of the Earth return to the Earth, enriched by a deeper and nobler understanding of life and of virtue? Will he become a “warrior” in his own right? And in what will his war consist?
The narrative does not answer this question; the book emphatically does, for the book exists; it was written. Eddison did not remain in the vision of Mercury; he descended to Earth to write his poetry, and thus to bring its influence to the Earthlings. And we who enter his book, enter the vision with him, and, when the book is finished, return to our lives, however bringing with us the lessons that Eddison himself gleaned from Mercury. Moreover, we are invited to return to Mercury, to live the vision again from the very beginning, but now knowing all that will happen, and thus perceiving aspects beneath the surface of events which we could not have perceived the first time around. Our lives here on Earth are real insofar as we live them; they are unreal insofar as they are based upon countless unspoken and unrecognized presuppositions and dogmas which build walls about our vision and barriers about our souls. In visiting Mercury, we perceive a radically different set of possibilities. These possibilities, to be sure, are poetic; no gods will come to this Earth to see to it that a kingdom destroyed by war is rebuilt miraculously on the following morning. But these possibilities point us nonetheless to truths and nobler ways of being. The vision of the poet, the vision of eternal warfare, and thus of eternal strife, eternal drama, eternal triumph, and eternal defeat, is to his eyes an invigorating sight, and informs his entire existence and all his works. His transference of this vision to the world surrounding him informs and enlivens the existence of his fellow human beings in turn. The poet is not disconnected from his land, his race, his people; therefore he may propose, he is obliged to propose, novel ideals. Lessingham, to say it again, is a married and propertied gentleman, who has given his oath to his wife that he will return for breakfast. This simplest domestic fact, this most basic human obligation of the poet, after his impossible soaring spiritual adventure, after his witness of such halcyon glory, is sufficient to bring him earthward once more.
But this, far from being the end, is but the beginning again: it is the completion and inauguration of the true and deeper cycle of ouroboros, which cycle is linked to the daily life of the poet and the imperfect turnings of the moon. The philosopher Gro would have married, but was rejected; Lord Juss, meanwhile, seems to have absolutely no interest in marriage, but even as Queen Sophonisba is drawn nearer to him, he is casting his own mind back to the battlefield and away from that domestic tranquility which would form the necessary precondition for his wooing, his wedding, and his procreation – to say nothing of his building a kingdom. Juss furthermore becomes immortal, eliminating an essential motive for producing an heir. Lessingham, meanwhile, is happily wed, and fathers at least one daughter. The first mention of his wife is prefaced by description of the Gloire de Dijon roses about their bedroom window, recalling the poem by D. H. Lawrence of the same name, in which a woman’s beauty in the morning light is praised. Once more, at the very beginning, we are reminded of the morning, of the morning after the poet’s nocturnal flight, of the promise of Lessingham to be back for breakfast. The poet’s anchor in this life – an anchor which is fittingly nothing other than woman and love and silence, or the same female, lunar principle which the philosopher Gro fails to attain and Juss fails to crave – is the link between the heavens and the Earth, between Mercury and the hearthfire. The female, as is shown throughout the entire book, is both the object of warlike desire and of peace-loving desire; she is as ambiguous as life itself. The poet alone is of strength sufficient to live all cycles of life, all periods of ouroboros, because of his unique relation to the feminine.
With this word, we approach the end. Yet a final thought is permitted, is perhaps even obligatory, after all that has been said. I can predict the reaction of many of my readers to these reflections on The Worm Ouroboros. These Demons, they will give me to understand, whom we have dedicated so much time to comprehending, are in the end not real. They are but figments of the poetic imagination, fictional inventions to while away a stray hour. No human being today is like that, and so it stands to reason that no human being has ever been so, or ever will be. Thus, treating these matters with too much seriousness is not a little frivolous and even irresponsible of us.
I have long been suspicious of this pragmatist’s logic, which takes not even man as such but modern man as the measure of all things. Much do I prefer the rich ambiguity of The Worm Ouroboros itself, in which we do not know if we are witness to dream or history, to divine sending or to the invention of a poet – do not know, but are touched by the vision nonetheless. And I say, in our lives, even here and now, in this most concrete world surrounding us, matters stand not so very differently. Each life is eminently its own, and cannot be judged according to the limitations of any other. Its own barriers can be discovered only insofar as they are pressed; in the absence of such an experiment, one cannot speak as to what is possible and what is not. This is the eternal return for us merest Earthlings, this, our “youth forever, and war.”
Thus I close with repetition of what seems to me the most urgent lesson from Demonland for us, which is a simple lesson, but which bears the full brunt of our will and trial: we do not know the limits of our own souls, nor the properties imbued in our natures, and we can learn these things only through the dream itself, amidst the fires of necessity, in the struggle even now upon us. Then let us be grateful that the time in which we live is as a testing stone to these hearts and spirits of ours.
As is only fitting, I leave the last word to Eddison, through the speech of Lord Brandoch Daha. I extend this word now to the Occident in coming times, and to my friends in the New Right in particular, who are up against hard odds these days, and who at times must despair of the future when gazing on the multitudes of those who stand against us: “If that they be in number more than we, what then? They are in hope, quarrel, and strength far inferior.” (XXIX, p. 366)
I could wish no better virtues upon us all than these: quarrel, hope, and strength.