E. R. Eddison
The Worm Ouroboros
Charleston, S.C.: BiblioBazaar, 2008
Long would I hesitate before calling any literary work of the past century great. That word, so abused in our day, seems to me best reserved for the highest prose and poetry of the literary sphere, and I am of the opinion that precious little of such is to be found in these latter days. Yet, I would leap on this word as the only just description of the work in question. I speak of The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, a book as untimely as a Peace rose in the snowfields. In reading this work we are transported to a higher view of things, a perspective utterly foreign to this democratic milieu surrounding us. We enter into a beauty which is at once old, old unto antiquity – and perchance new, utterly novel and innovative in our time.
My readers should be forgiven if they have not heard of this work. It so little becomes our day, it is quite unsurprising that it should be ignored. It is commonly relegated to a niche in the shelves of the “Fantasy Section,” so that anyone who has not had time to burrow through the childishness that section usually contains to discover its few hard jewels cannot be blamed for having never discovered Eddison. This is a sad commentary on our times: stocking this book with “fantasy literature” seems to me as irreverent as placing Beowulf there, merely because it contains a dragon. I encourage any new reader of this work to approach it as if he held in his hands, not some contemporary fairytale, but rather the noble opus of a distant past. Only then, I believe, can one enter rightly into the spirit of this work, and begin to appreciate its archaic and eternal beauties.
Or again, and perhaps better yet: it is helpful, for those well familiar with his writings, to take this book as a manifestation or a transference of Nietzsche’s thought, and thus as much a book of tomorrow as yesterday, as much the transfiguration of this present moment as its evasion and its dismissal.
A note before I begin: I do not hesitate to reveal the plot of the book, convinced as I am that in a case like this that it can little compromise our delectation to know how the tale ends. Rather the contrary: even as one is unlikely to fully understand, for example, Elgar’s incidental music for Grania and Diarmid at first hearing, so that one must listen many times before its charms and secrets begin to show forth, so it is with the glories of this book.
This review limits itself to a discussion of the warrior ethos in the narrative of The Worm Ouroboros. It seems to me that this theme contains the timeliest “lessons from Demonland” for those of us who are engaged in a long, and perchance desperate, struggle. And Eddison’s narrative, more surely than any other contemporary work of which I am aware, embodies the warrior ethos and does not refrain from drawing its necessary conclusions.
I have divided my review into four parts. In the present one, I give an overview of the narrative, together with some general indications of why this story might be of interest to the New Right. In the second, I consider the ideas of war and the enemy in the narrative. In the third, I move to an analysis of the characters of Lord Gro and Lord Juss, and what their contrast might suggest regarding the relation between the warrior ethos and the intellectual ethos. And in the fourth and final part, I close with a consideration of the mystery from which this book derives its name.
The Worm Ouroboros chronicles the mighty war between two rival kingdoms, Demonland and Witchland. The arc of the narrative covers four years precisely, beginning and ending with the thirty-third birthday of one Lord Juss of Demonland, who is the foremost protagonist of the narrative. The story (which is most suggestively divided into thirty-three chapters) follows the deeds and travails of the Demons, but from the start it is made clear that this is a mere question of perspective; our witness is deliberately nonpartisan in the conflict between the rival parties of the war – or at least is not partisan in any way we are accustomed to. We are encouraged rather to adopt the point of view of the poet, who, as poet, is capable of entering into all the perspectives of the narrative, and through their unity of attaining a global vision.
Already at the beginning, in the very names of the kingdoms involved, we are made aware that the author has no intention of pandering to our present-day morality. The people of Demonland, called variously Demons or devils, are surely no paragons of Christian ethics – neither in its sense of good nor of evil. Even beyond the indication given with the name, they are not angels, for they are martial and mortal; but still less are they hell-spawn, for they are beautiful in form, candid to a fault, generous as rulers, and magnanimous with those they conquer. They reside in a universe, one might say, untouched by the morality of Christendom. They might find a place amongst the host of fallen angels in Milton’s Paradise Lost, save that there is nothing fallen and lost about them, nor is there any omnipotent “good God” in this universe to condemn and pervert their virtues.
The four Lords of Demonland – Juss, his two brothers Spitfire and Goldry Bluszco, and his cousin Brandoch Daha – are of abounding physical comeliness, puissant of body and noble of visage. They surround themselves with finely wrought things: halls crafted of pure marbles and enormous jewels; statues and paintings and tapestries celebrating the gods and the deeds of their ancestors; artful arms and armors; founts and gardens and castles. They take much joy in these things. They are intelligent, studied, and extraordinarily eloquent men, Juss and Brandoch Daha in particular, though their education is ever subservient to their martial prowess. It is primarily their lofty probity which differentiates them from the other peoples of Eddison’s narrative.
And here we discover the first of the qualities of this narrative which must appeal to this polemical, hopeful movement known as the New Right: it is unapologetically ethnic in its view of the world. The many peoples of Eddison’s imagination are distinguished from one another by differences of physiology and custom, from the gods they worship to the temperaments of their souls to the views they take of reality. There is no hint here of our contemporary evasions on this issue, not the slightest trace of moralistic equivocation between the races. There are distinctions to be made between these peoples which cannot be got around: there are great peoples, such as the Demons and the Witches, and lesser peoples, such as the Foliots, the Fairies, and the Goblins. One people in particular, the Ghouls, was loathed by all “polite nations” (p. 432) and it is considered one of the most glorious feats of the Demons to have extirpated them from the face of the world, and one of the most glaring derelictions of the Witches to have given no aid to their cause. There is no free admixture of these races, save in occasional marriages between the scion of noble households – and even in such cases as these, there are accompanying difficulties due to the clashing customs, ideals, and allegiances of the spouses’ peoples.
The Demons are the narrative’s protagonists, and it thus follows that the Witches must be regarded as the enemies of the story. Yet here again our contemporary expectations are thwarted; for we will not find, as is typical, wicked and contemptible foes for our protagonists to defeat. On the contrary, though the Witches are very different from the Demons, and perhaps in certain respects inferior (their lords tend toward drunkenness and lack of self-control, their physical splendor is not on the same level as the Demons, and several of them are shown to value their lives over their honor), they are nonetheless treated throughout as noble and worthy opponents. The best parallel that might be drawn is with the Iliad, in which the Trojans are anything but despicable – nor could be so, without diminishing the glory of the Greeks. The Witches are admired and feared for their prowess. Their King is described as mighty and terrible, and is respected universally for his mastery of the dark arts – which does not stop him from being a formidable adversary in wrestling matches and melee combat.
Indeed, the narrative begins with a challenge from the Witches to the Demons to decide their long-standing rivalry through a wrestling match between King Gorice of Witchland and Lord Goldry Bluszco of the Demons. The challenge is met, and its outcome propels the plot: Goldry Bluszco slays King Gorice in the contest, compelling Gorice’s successor to summon a power from the underworld in revenge. This summoning destroys the fleet of the Demons and bears Goldry Bluszco away to a magic realm, from which Lord Juss may save him only by overcoming a series of nigh-impossible perils. The larger part of the book is dedicated to the resolution of these two matters: Lord Juss’ rescue of his brother Goldry Bluszco from the weird, and the great battle between Demonland and Witchland for apotheosis over all the world, which concludes with the razing of Carcë, the capitol of Witchland, and the Demon’s annihilation of the Witchland lords.
Throughout all its events, this book remains an unabashed celebration of the masculine virtue, a second aspect which must appeal to the New Right. This is not to say that there are not noble and finely-wrought female characters in this book as well: to the contrary. Never shall anyone who has loved this book as I have forget the soul-wrenching suicide of Princess Prezmyra upon the corpse of her husband, nor the glory of the warrioress Lady Mevrian’s lone defense of her brother’s castle against the invading armies of Witchland, nor this same Mevrian’s sublime defiance before the Witchland lord who intends to rape her. There is also Sriva, the shameless flirt, who does not hesitate to use her body to gain her way, and Queen Sophonisba, granted endless youth by the gods, whose divine beauty and wisdom (this last echoed also in her name, from the Greek sophia) propels so much of the plot. But despite the vividness and virtue of these feminine characters, despite their distinct magnetism, and despite even the centrality of the feminine to this book, which we will consider in due time – despite all this, I say, the driving force behind the events of this story is unequivocally masculine: the hunger for adventure, the desire for a warrior’s glory, the virile craving after beauty, the will to conquer and to be master, and the pure, undiluted lust for the good fight.
Let us state the matter as candidly as would a Lord of Demonland: the New Right is in no way a timely movement. The very name of this journal, Counter-Currents, suggests constant opposition to the day at hand. Truly, we of the New Right are like those salmon which against all probability, ease, and good sense, travel hundreds of miles upstream in angry rivers to lay the seeds of a new generation and win the continuation of their kind. Yet it is still easy for us to fall into the small ideals and petty, decayed pacifism of our epoch, without so much as realizing it. Books like The Worm Ouroboros are a remedy against that illness; they awaken us most viscerally and palpably to the limitations of our present societies, and grant some revelation of visible beauty to our sometimes vague hopes. They remind us of the fallow possibilities still remaining to this Occidental race, and provide us distinct vision of at least aspects of the world we are striving to prepare.
And I suggest, as I will explore in the coming parts of this essay, that the best lessons we may take from this noble book are these: that it is good to be born into hard times, which demand of us the betterment of our caliber; that it is good we do not permit ourselves to become flaccid and dull in peace and comfort; that it is good we lack the kingdom we love – for thus we must make ourselves into its worthy builders.