E. R. Eddison
The Worm Ouroboros
Charleston, S.C.: BiblioBazaar, 2008
The blood which binds one to one’s family and to one’s people is treated throughout The Worm Ouroboros as one of the strongest and least questionable motivators of human action, and proves to be finally decisive in all the characters to whom we are presented. All, that is, save one.
This is a most intriguing case: the case of Lord Gro – so far as I know, the first noble turncoat in all our literature, and outside of Socrates the profoundest poetic representation of a philosopher of which I am aware. This Gro belongs neither to the Demons nor to the Witches. He hails from the kingdom of the Goblins, which he betrayed for the good of faltering Witchland, on the eve of the Goblins’ victory – a truly anomalous habit which lands him on both sides of the war between the Demons and the Witches, depending on who is further behind in the game. He is described as being enamored of lost causes. Lord Juss of Demonland relates Gro to us thusly: “[He is] a philosopher. I knew him well of old in Goblinland, and I judge him to be one who is not false save only in policy. Subtle of mind he is, and dearly loveth plotting and scheming, and, as I think, perversely affecteth ever the losing side if he be brought into any quarrel; and this dragged him many times into misfortune.” (VIII, pp. 127-128) Not false – save only in policy! That is a remarkable statement, and bears pondering.
Lord Juss, by contrast, is not false in anything, including his policy. He is a man of his promises: when he makes a great oath to rescue his brother Goldry, he is willing even to thrust aside the exigency of war with the Witches to fulfill his word. Lord Gro has a very different idea about oaths: “But he, rising up, said, ‘Madam, this and thy noble words hath given such rootfastness to the pact of faith betwixt us that it may now unfold what blossoms of oaths thou wilt; for oaths are the blossoms of friendship, not the root.’” (XXV, pp. 318-319)
One is reminded of the furious argument between Pike and Dutch in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch over whether an oath depends on the man who gives it or the man who receives it – whether it is permissible to break an oath made to a worthless person. Gro’s belief that it is permissible, his strange numbness to ideals, seems related to his philosophical spirit, the spirit of wandering, which owes neither love nor allegiance nor fidelity to anything or anyone. Indeed, those words that Gro whispers to his horse are among the finer descriptions of the philosophical mood that I have found: “Come, gossip, we must on, and marvel not if thou find no rest, going with me which could never find any steadfast stay under the moon’s globe.” (XXV, p. 312) To such a vagabond as that, the oath can have no binding value, save as it is bolstered by truer considerations. In and of itself, it is a hollow thing, mere words that one speaks easily and can as easily unspeak.
Juss’ sense of oaths as binding on the oath-maker, notwithstanding any and all external circumstance, seems related rather to his martial spirit. It is unbecoming for a man of honor to rescind his word. Lord Gro is utterly unconcerned with the warrior’s honor which governs all the other protagonists of the narrative. Twice he recommends sneaking up on opponents and pinching the breath out of them as they slumber, and once again he counsels snaring the enemy generals in a trap with promise of parley.
This lack of martial virtue extends also to Gro’s physical person and his habits. He is a thin and pallid man amongst a host of brawny warriors, and is referred to several times as being little fit for battle, even womanish. (The high and beautiful Queen Prezmyra, for instance, who otherwise thinks very well of Gro’s intellect and character, says he is “too feminine” to make a fit husband. Most significantly, the only other mortals to willingly follow his tracks are Juss himself and Juss’ companions.) Like Juss, Gro is somewhat versed in alchemy and conjuring, which renders him fearless before illusion and evocations. He knows aught of natural philosophy, on one occasion winning a bet over the outcome of an encounter between four spiders and a toad. His counsel is much sought and generally heeded, at least when it does not infringe upon the honor or the arrogance of those who receive it. When he is not stabbing the winning powers in the back, he wanders the lands, passing a long period in solitude in the strange and desolate beauty of the Moruna, where mortals fear to tread, and composes learned books upon his discoveries and investigations there. He, even more than most of the warriors of Witchland, is inured to death: as he himself most stoically says, after receiving portents of his own demise, “Fate will not be cheated, cog we never so wisely. I do not think there be not many extant that in a noble way fear the face of death less than myself.” His death proves that these words are no boast.
Given this point of similarity between Gro and the Lords of Demonland, a question arises as to what causes his disdain for the warrior ethos, or more accurately his obliviousness toward it. We risk this interpretation: Juss’ warrior spirit is permitted precisely by his love of his land, his people, his family. His bonds with other human beings, bonds established by the merest accident of blood, but strengthened to iron over years of mutual experience as well as shared customs and views, and the common overcoming of challenges, grant him the right to posit goals and ends, to make oaths, and to respect the binding quality of his own word. All of this would become impossible for him were he severed in space and sentiment from his brethren. One cannot build a world if one’s heart does not crave as much. Juss’ honesty in particular cases does not depend on his kith and kin – he is willing, for example, to defy even Brandoch Daha when he decides to free his brother before tending to the war – but without his brethren, probity should lose its decisive value for him, as indeed it does with Gro. Honor, we may say, is a social virtue, even if, at its height, it may flout society.
Gro, meanwhile, does not feel the pull of blood, is too wise to share the erroneous opinions of his peers, and has no desire to conquer in war, either for riches (he has the philosopher’s fine contempt of material things) or for power (he is promised a kingdom by King Gorice of the Witches, but this proves insufficient to secure his loyalty), nor for victory itself (he is, as said, incurably enamored of the losing side). His independence from blood and brethren detaches him fundamentally from honor, and this is shown as a barrenness in his soul.
The one passion which might substitute for the love of blood and brethren in Gro is the impartial, philosophical love of truth. But this is manifestly insufficient, for Gro is ever seeking to join himself to the human world. He is plainly enamored of Lady Prezmyra, and he asks the hand of the Lady Mevrian, but in both cases he is denied the favor of woman. And his last act is a final betrayal, this time inspired directly by the merest hint of human affection: when in the midst of battle Lord Corund of Witchland calls Gro an erstwhile friend and laments his joining with the Demons, Gro is “moved in spirit” and forthwith turns against the Demons, cutting down one of their men, thus compelling Lord Spitfire to destroy him by driving a sword through Gro’s brain, the philosopher’s intellectual organ. Eddison’s last word on Gro beautifully encapsulates the aloof ambiguity of the philosophical way:
In suchwise and by such a sudden vengeance did the Lord Gro most miserably end his life-days. Who, being a philosopher and a man of peace, careless of particular things of the earth, had followed and observed all his days steadfastly one heavenly star; yet now in the blood battle before Carcë died in the common opinion of men a manifold perjured traitor, that had at length gotten the guerdon of his guile. (XXXI, p. 397)
Regarding his tendency toward treachery, Gro makes the following remarkable soliloquy:
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. . . . And who dares 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. (XXV, pp. 312-313)
Thus the word of the philosopher. In large part thanks to this vision of things, Gro does not survive the war. Lord Gro is the very opposite of a cyclical creature; he is disconnected from the wellsprings of life at a dozen points. He is impotent as a warrior, failed as a wooer, and eternally discontent. His speeches on the vanity of life are profound and dark:
“In the hills is wisdom’s fount . . . [I]f their large philosophy question not if [their snows] be a bridal sheet or a shroud, hath not this unpoliced calm his justification ever in the returning year, and is it not an instance to laugh our carefulness out of fashion? of us, little children of the dust, children of a day, who with so many burdens do burden us with taking thought and with fears and desires and devious schemings of the mind, so that we wax old before our time and fall weary ere the brief day be spent and one reaping-hook gather us home at last for all our pains.” He looked up and she met the gaze of his great eyes; deep pools of night they seemed, where strange matters might move unseen, disturbing to look on, yet filled with a soft slumbrous charm that lulled and soothed. (XXV, p. 320)
One is tempted to say that the philosopher Gro sees more deeply than the other characters of the book, Juss included, and that his melancholy thoughts here are the result of his unique wisdom. But this is belied by the fact that Juss confronts the same terrible insight, and overcomes it, in his quest to recover his brother Goldry. At the climax of that quest, a voice speaks within Juss, saying:
Thou art nothing. And all thy desires and memories and loves and dreams, nothing. The little dead earth-louse were of greater avail than thou, were it not nothing as thou art nothing. For all is nothing: earth and sky and sea and they that dwell therein. Nor shall this illusion comfort thee, if it might, that when thou art abolished these things shall endure for a season, stars and months return, and men grow old and die, and new men and women live and love and die and be forgotten. For what is it to thee, that shalt be as a blown-out flame? and all things in earth and heaven, and things past and things for to come, and life and death, and the mere elements of space and time, of being and not being, all shall be nothing unto thee; because thou shalt be nothing, for ever.” And the Lord Juss cried aloud in his agony, “Fling me to Tartarus, deliver me to the black infernal Furies, let them blind me, seethe me in the burning lake. For so should there yet be hope. But in this horror of Nothing is neither hope nor life nor death nor sleep nor waking, for ever. For ever.” (XXVIII, pp. 360-361)
Most strikingly and insightfully, Eddison does not permit Juss’ nihilistic despair to induce thought of suicide; nihilism rather numbs his spirit and his mind so totally that he becomes willing to follow the deadly illusion of a beautiful woman who guides him to her chamber and denudes herself before his eyes. The bleak sight of the void Nothing, the emptiness of all human striving or ambition, does not bring one to crave death as such, but rather brings the death of the heart, and prepares one for merest sensualism and basest hedonism. And upon the very brink of perishing in this oblivion of mindless desire, “fortune, or the high Gods, or his own soul’s might, woke yet again in [Juss’] drugged brain remembrance of his purpose, so that he turned violently from that bait prepared for his destruction, and strode from the chamber up to that roof where his dear brother sat as in death.”
Three possibilities: “fortune, the high Gods, or his own soul’s might.” The question of which is Juss’ true savior would be fit work for a long discourse. But we may perhaps derive some insight by concluding our contrast between Juss, the kin-loyal warrior, and Gro, the kinless philosopher.
Gro’s particular inhumanity belongs specifically to the philosopher – his detachment from the pleasures of the flesh, his inveterate frigidity to the idea of honor, his utter lack of bonds with his kin, his king, his kingdom, his fearlessness in the face of death, but his simultaneous disregard of glory – his hopeless and roving pursuit of something he, in the end, realizes he can never have:
To [Gro’s] sick imagining, the blackness of Carcë which no bright morning light might lighten seemed not as of old the image and emblem of the royal house of Witchland and their high magnificency and power on earth, but rather the shadow thrown before of destiny and death ready to put down that power for ever. Which whether it should so befall or no he did not greatly care, being aweary of life and life’s fevers, wild longings, and exorbitant affects, whereof he thought he had now learned much: that to him, who as it seemed must still adhere to his own foes abandoning the other’s service, fortune through whatever chop could bring no peace at last. (XXXI, p. 392)
It is this sense, which would seem to lead him, in the course of the fray, to commit an act as ambiguously suicidal as Socrates’ defense before the Athenian jury – an act, that is, which directly brings about his death, and in a manner that one so wise must surely have foreseen and been able, had he wished, to avoid. The philosopher’s very detachment from all human allegiances renders him in a certain way unfit for life, unable to extract the truth he seeks out of existence. While it is Juss’ love of his brother that carries him past despair, Gro’s break with his people, his lack of rootedness, his indifference to his blood and his country, destroy his ability to discover a purpose strong enough to overcome the terrible vision of the vanity of life. He is a “man of peace,” as no one attached to a people and a nation can unequivocally and always be. He who is in no way a warrior does not adore war; and so the continuation of war, the necessity that war will carry on despite all, should strike him, the philosopher, as a final argument against life. It is weariness that speaks here; it is a physiological deficit within the ill-formed Gro – a failure, not of “fortune” nor certainly of the “high Gods,” but of might. And it is the very excess of strong and vital will which permits Lord Juss to persist where Lord Gro falls: Juss adores the battle and the turning of these cycles, and would perish in his soul, not if the war should prove boundless, but if the peace should prove final.
Any of us who have pursued with enough discipline and enough love, enough intensity and enough duration, the winding paths of philosophy, shall well feel the edge of this critique; we will perceive that Nietzsche was most certainly right when he claimed that truth, too, wants only a warrior.
1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), “On Reading and Writing,” p. 28. See also the “Third Essay” of On the Genealogy of Morals.