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Eddison is often treated monolithically: as if all the books he wrote were essentially alike. They are not. Assuredly, there are broad similarities; but we can readily differentiate The Worm Ouroboros from the Zimiamvian almost-trilogy (the third book was incomplete at his death and was, in accord with Eddison’s wishes, posthumously published as he had left it, with chunks of the middle—the opening and closing were complete—supplied by the author’s outline of events).
While there are some trifling narrative connections between the works—Zimiamvia is briefly mentioned in The Worm and the chief character in the Zimiamvian trilogy appears momentarily in The Worm—those connections really are immaterial; but, despite their separate identities, the works are related by more than authorship. What does truly tie the works is not their setting but the philosophy underlying them.
It has become a commonplace to rate Eddison on the strength of the superficies of his works, what I have on this site called the elements of pleasure; that is understandable, because Eddison is stunningly successful with those elements, his works a tour de force of language use. But in his books he is also presenting us with his philosophy; indeed, one might call it his personal theology. That philosophy underlies the trilogy much more than The Worm, which in any event was the earlier book, so let us begin with the simpler tale.
(Sidebar: Eddison’s full name is Eric Rücker Eddison.)
Generally I like to say my own say, but on occasion some renowned reviewer will have said what needs saying succinctly enough for me to quote directly. Here is what Orville Prescott said in an introduction to The Worm Ouroboros:
What are the reasons for considering this flawed masterpiece (so noble in concept and so mighty in scope and yet marred with a few irksome failings) worthy of the attention of serious students of literature? First of all there is the lordly narrative sweep of it, the pure essence of story-telling for its own sake such as has become increasingly rare in our introspective modern world. Second is the splendor of the prose, the roll and swagger and reverberating rhythms and the sheer gorgeousness of much of its deliberate artifice. And third is the blessed sense of vicarious participation in a simpler, more primitive world where wonders still abound and glory is still a word untarnished by the cynical tongues of small-minded men.
Most of the “irksome failings” occur in the first two dozen or so pages, in which Eddison, for reasons best known to himself, uses, clumsily, the hoary device of translating his readers to the world of the tale by way of a magical dream. (The dreamer, an Englishman named Lessingham, who drops utterly and forever from the tale, as does the dream concept, by—in my edition—page 14, is the central figure in the later Zimiamvian trilogy.) The other annoyance, which—however irksome indeed at first—fades quickly from the reader's consciousness is Eddison’s calling his tribes and nations by the silly names of Witches, Demons, Goblins, Imps, and suchlike; they are in truth men and women, but men and women such as we have scarcely seen since poets ceased to sing mighty epics.
The characters are all larger than life, deliberately and exaggeratedly so, as epic heroes and heroines must be. They have correspondingly simple (or, let us say, straightforward) natures. There is little deep thinking going on: this is a tale painted in great swathes of bold primary colors. But in compensation, we have all we could want of action and emotion; and if that was good enough for Homer’s audiences, let it be good enough for us.
But above even the action and emotion is Eddison’s wild language. In snippets, it may to moderns seem affected, for all its power, but at book length it is natural and easy and flowing.
Now they rose up and took their weapons and muffled themselves in their great campaigning-cloaks and went forth with torch-bearers to walk through the lines, as every night ere he went to rest it was Spitfire’s wont to do, visiting his captains and setting the guard. The night was without a star. The wet sands gleamed with the lights of Owlswick Castle, and from the castle came by fits the sound of feasting heard above the wash and moan of the sullen sleepless sea.
That sample is almost timid by Eddison’s standards. Here is a more high-flown passage:
In a while he spake again, saying, I sware unto you my furtherance if I prevailed. But now is mine army passed away as wax wasteth before the fire, and I wait the dark ferryman who tarrieth for no man. Yet, since never have I wrote mine obligations in sandy but in marble memories, and since victory is mine, receive these gifts: and first thou, O Brandoch Daha, my sword, since before thou wast of years eighteen thou wast accounted the mightiest among men-at-arms. Mightily may it avail thee, as me in time gone by.
Well, if we read Shakespeare’s language without flinching, why blink Eddison?
The plot is epic as well; not perhaps convoluted, but there is a definite twist in the tail and in the tale. (As Ahme whispered to Paul, “I can say no more.”)
We can take The Worm simply as a grand and epic adventure story, and Eddison’s writing is enough motive power to make the tale, even on that basis, great forever. But there is more to it than just that; here again is Orville Prescott:
If The Worm Ouroboros were only a glorious adventure story beautifully written it would be a notable achievement. But the fresh wind that blows through it from another world and another system of values gives it an added dimension. Eddison himself, who had no love for the twentieth century, believed passionately in the ideals which inspired Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha, those very great warriors and gallant gentlemen. So in these ringing pages courage and nobility and loyalty are almost taken for granted; women are beautiful and to be served; and glory is worth striving for.
There are no complications, no reservations and no excuses here. Pagan these warriors may be and semi-barbarous, but they are not oppressed by weasel-faced doubts or whining uncertainties. Even the villains are heroic in their monumental villainy. And life itself is joyful and wonderful.
Prescott obviously means well, but even he is, I think, a little caught up in the spirit of the times: essentially, he is apologizing for aspects of the work, and for his—and, by implication, for your—enjoying the work despite its “semi-barbarous” characters and ethos. He has tasted the apple, but not bitten deeply enough into it. We can perhaps get a little more of the full taste of the juice of the fruit from James Stephens—a poet and fantasist of note himself—who also wrote an introduction to The Worm:
Shelley had to write the Prometheus Unbound, he was under compulsion; for a superhuman energy had come upon him, and he was forced to create matter that would permit him to imagine, and think, and speak like a god. It was so with Blake, who willed to appear as a man but existed as a mountain; and, at their best, the work of these poets is inhuman and sacred. It does not matter that they had or had not a message. It does not matter at all that either can be charged with nonsense or that both have been called madmen—the same charge might be laid against a volcano or a thunderbolt—or this book.
Prescott’s remark about the “villains” deserves note. A vital part of Eddison’s conception of the right way of things is living largely: doing nothing in mingey degrees, doing whatever one does in the grandest manner in which one is capable of doing it, even if that “whatever” is evil. That curious-seeming morality is rooted in Eddison’s larger metaphysics, which we will now turn to as we address his other major books.
This site is about literary value. The Zimiamvian trilogy by Eddison has, like The Worm but, we may say, in a different key such value in plenty, a topic I will return to in a bit. But if a literary work is elevated by the degree to which it stimulates our mental processes, Eddison—rightly read and appreciated—may be at the head of all fantasists. Eddison read widely and deeply in philosophy and then thought widely and deeply on what he had read. In the end, he arrived at a philosophy—likely we could call it with no stretch a theology—of his own devising, derived from his contemplations. That philosophy he set forth in his works; but he did not so much explain that philosophy as demonstrate it.
Because that philosophy is a subtle matter, it deserves treatment here. For me to attempt to recount in a few bland lines that philosophy, or theology, would be—possibly literally—sacrilege. Eddison’s whole powers, which are considerable, were bent on persuading us of that philosophy through these deep tales. I have therefore taken the liberty of quoting, at a length exceptional for these pages, from the horse’s mouth: a letter Eddison sent to a dear friend on the occasion of the publication of the second tale of the trilogy. I excerpt from those ten or so pages for brevity, but the whole letter (printed in the generally available Ballantine Books paperback edition) is deeply affecting and rewarding reading.
[I]t is sufficient to reflect that the main difference between earth and heaven may lie in this: that here we are slaves of Time, but there the Gods are masters.
There are no hidden meanings: no studied symbols or allegories. It is the general defect of allegory and symbolism to set up the general above the individual, the abstract above the concrete, the idea above the person. I hold the contrary: to me the value of the sunset is not that it suggests to me ideas of eternity; rather, eternity itself acquires value to me only because I have seen it (and other matters besides) in the sunset and (shall we say) in the proud pallour of Fiorinda's brow and cheeks,—even in your friend, that brutal ferocious and lionlike fox, the Vicar of Rerek [characters in the tales],—and so have foretasted its perfections.
Personality is a mystery: a mystery that darkens as we suffer our imagination to speculate upon the penetration of human personality by Divine, and vice versa. Perhaps my three pairs of lovers are, ultimately, but one pair. Perhaps you could as truly say that [they]…are but two persons, each at three several stages of “awakeness”, as call them six separate persons.
(I am almost in tears that I must elide this letter: ten pages, a “mere” ten pages, in which Eddison presents a masterly synopsis of virtually all human philosophizing; this letter alone ought to be seen as a landmark in eloquence and learning. But I elide and continue quoting.)
Reason, as we have seen [in Descartes], reached a certain bed-rock, exiguous but unshakable, by means of a criticism based on creditability: it cleared away vast superfluities of baseless system and dogma by divesting itself of all beliefs that it was possible to doubt. In the same way, may it not be possible to reach a certain bed-rock among the chaos of fantasy by means of a criticism based not on credibility but on value?
No conscious being, we may suppose, is without desire; and if certain philosophies and religions have set up as their ideal of salvation and beatitude a condition of desirelessness, to be attained by an asceticism that stifles and starves every desire, this is no more than to say that those systems have in fact applied a criticism of values to dethrone all minor values, leaving only this state of blessedness which (notwithstanding their repudiation of desire) remains as (for their imagination at least) the one thing desirable. And in general, it can be said that no religion, no philosophy, no considered view of the world and human life and destiny, has ever been formulated without some affirmation, express or implied, of what is or is not to be desired; and it is this star, for ever unattained yet for ever sought, that shines through all great poetry, through all great music, painting, building, and books by men, through all noble deeds, loves, speculations, endurings and endeavors, and all the splendours of “earth and the deep sky’s ornament” since history began, and that gives (at moments, shining through) divine perfection to some little living thing, some dolomite wall lighted as from within by the low red sunbeams, some skyscape, some woman's eyes.
By a procedure corresponding to that of Descartes when, by doubting all else, he reached through process of elimination something that he could not doubt, we have, after rejecting all things whose desirableness depends on their utility as instruments to ends beyond themselves, reached something desirable as an end in itself. What it is in concrete detail, is a question that may have as many answers as there are minds to frame them (“In my Father’s house are many mansions”). But to deny its existence, while not a self-contradictory error palpable to reason (as is the denial of the Cartesian cogito), is to affirm the complete futility and worthlessness of the whole of Being and Becoming.
Three broad considerations may here be touched on:
(1) It does not seem necessary to postulate a plurality of ultimate values. [Eddison then argues "Truth, Beauty, Goodness" into Beauty alone.]
(2) No sane theory of values will ultimately square with the facts of this world as we know it “here and now.” But ultimate value, as we have seen, is one of the “bed-rocks”: not so, however, this world, which we know only empirically and as a particular phase of our other “bed-rock” (viz. consciousness). Accordingly, the test of any metaphysic is not that it should square with the world as we know it, but that it should square with the ultimate value.
(3)…The Many are understandable only as manifestations of the One: the One, only as incarnate in the Many.
[U]ltimate reality rests in a Masculine-Feminine dualism, in which the old trinity of Truth, Beauty, Goodness, is extended to embrace the whole of Being and Becoming; Truth consisting in this—That Infinite and Omnipotent Love creates, preserves, and delights in, Infinite and Perfect Beauty…Love and Beauty are, in this duality, coequal and coeternal; and, by a violent antimony, Love, owing his mere being to this strengthless perfection which he holds at his mercy, adores and is enslaved by her, while Beauty (by a like antinomy) queens it over the very omnipotence which both created her and is her only safeguard.
That—and especially that last paragraph—is the visualization of the cosmic all Eddison incarnates in the Zimiamvian trilogy, and he does it with a breathtaking beauty and solemnity that oblige us to take his views with no less seriousness than those of any other probers into the ultimate (few enough of whom could portray their visualizations with the beauty and power Eddison commands).
To the attentive, even the sadly abbreviated excerpts above will indicate answers to the matters of how and why even “evil” lived to a full, lively degree, is acceptable or even desirable in Eddison’s universe. The chiefest sin in his world is to be mingey, small, grey, little; the chiefest virtue is to be lusty (in all senses), alive, gargantuan.
Well, so much of philosophy; to say more takes books, and Eddison wrote them. And they are rich, full books. The language does not pour quite so splashingly from the pitcher of style as it does in The Worm, but it is still fuller than our own; here, a random sample:
It being now the fourth week ended since he came down from the Wold, and news of these doings now flown before him about the countryside, he made haste to depart out of Veiring by the highway southward. The second of May he came to Lailma which opened gates to him: and here came word to him that Ercles himself was come down from Eldir and held the swaleback passage by the shore of Arrowfirth. Next day Lessingham moved south, going gingerly with espial before him to feel the way, and pitched for the night a little beside Memmering, where steep and stony hills, covered all with thick-grown trackless forest, begin to close in westward toward the sea shore.
Throughout the trilogy, we have Eddison’s eternals—the Masculine and the Feminine—but we also have that being whom Joseph Campbell has termed “the guardian of the border”, the wise one who sees and comments. Here, it is Dr. Vandermast (are they not often Doctors?). Vandermast guides both us and, since they ofttimes choose to forget Themselves, his eternals, through the thickets of the narrative:
Antiope stood with the Doctor and Zenianthe. Their eyes were on Lessingham, where he sat looking into the sun-path. Vandermast spoke: “You have debated all fully, then, and determined of somewhat?”
Antiope answered, “We have nothing debated, and determined all.”
“That is better still,” said that ancient man.
For a while, they kept silence. Vandermast saw that her gaze rested still upon Lessingham. It was as if she slept where she stood. Vandermast said, in a voice still and warm as the innermost shades of those oak-woods behind her, which outwardly the sun bathed with so lovely a splendour of golden green: “I have opined to your ladyship ere this, That there is but one wisdom. And but one power.”
Antiope stood listening as if for more. “I wonder?” she said at last.
Vandermast said: “It is your own doing, this: a dress of Yours. You choose this. He chooses it with You, whether he know or not, willing it for Your sake. That loftiest of all Your roses, to pluck it for You.”
She said: “I know.”
Vandermast said: “For my part, I had sooner die with your ladyship than be made immortal with—"
She said: “Well? Who is my rival?”
Vandermast said: “You have none: not one: with Your starry beauties to make paragon.”
She waited. The Knidian mystery lay shadowy about her lips. “Before the day was,” she said.
The silence trembled.
Vandermast said: “Yours is not as our choosing, who out of many things choose this thing and not those others, because we judge this to be good. But Your choice maketh good: higheth the thing You choose, were it very nought before, to outsoar all praises.”
She said: “And yet every time I pay for it. The mere condition of being, this of he and she: did I not choose it? Should not He, as easily, had I so chosen instead, have created and made Me of His omnipotence self-subsisting and self-sufficing? But this I chose rather: to be but upon terms to be loved, served, made, recreated, by that which is My servant. How were love serious else?"
Vandermast said: “Death: a lie: fairy-babes to fright children. From within, sub specie æternitatis, what is it but vox inanis, a vain word, nothing?”
She said: “And yet, how were it possible to love entirely except some living being which liveth under the terror of those wings? Else, what needed it of love?”
Vandermast said: “And time: what evil was there ever but time sowed it, and in time it hath root and flourisheth?”
She said: “And yet, without time what were there?—the crack-brained ecstatic’s blindation of undiscerning eyes upon me: the music of the spheres condensed to a caterwaul. Or how else should beauty round her day? how else should he tell my lip from my eyebrow, but in time?”
Just in that brief passage, part of the narration of actions in the tale, what depths of consideration! The mysteries of the nature of time husked like a nut for a snack. (By the way: aspiring authors—note how easily a writer of power makes do with “X said:” instead of remarks, whispers, ejaculations, mutters, shouts, opines, and burbles.)
So: just read these books, and possibly change your life but certainly augment it.
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There is now a nicely done and comprehensive dedicated Eddison site on line. There is also The Works of E. R. Eddison, which is utile, especially concerning choices of editions.
Beyond those two dedicated sites, there are some interesting pages, one being an interesting short review of Eddison’s tales at Dani Zweig’s Belated Reviews #19 (that entire collection of reviews is very well worth reading through—I don’t myself agree with everything said there, but the reviewer is obviously a person of some sense). Another is the SF Site has useful reviews of both Ouroboros and of Mistress of Mistresses, the first part of the trilogy. And, as expected, there is a useful Eddison entry at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
That’s not all there is, but it’s the top layer.
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There seems to be one—Eric Rücker Eddison, edited by August Nemo and published by Tacet Books as part of a 92-book series, “Essential Novelists”. The book seems impossible to locate these days.
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This page was last modified on Thursday, 15 April 2021, at 4:06 pm Pacific Time.