Since the fifties, every fantasy novel published is compared to J. R. R. Tolkien'sThe Lord of the Rings. That's as it should be: not only did it set a standard for epic high fantasy, it was beautifully written, extensively imagined, and not dependent on any single work that had come before. Middle Earth even has its own languages, for crying out loud.
Tolkien didn't model The Lord of the Rings on a previous book (other than the Icelandic sagas), but there was a book to which his masterpiece was compared. Eric Rücker Eddison'sThe Worm Ouroboros was that book, and those who discover it have discovered a genuine literary treasure that is too often forgotten or overlooked.
It's been compared to Homer's The Iliad, and Eddison certainly acknowledged his debt to that book; in fact, he models some passages directly on passages from the ancient epic. In addition, Homer's poem is about Greeks fighting Trojans for a very long time, and The Worm Ouroboros is about the warriors of Demonland fighting the warriors of Witchland for a very long time.
If you don't like battles and adventure, you'd better find another book. There's seldom a lull in the action, and when the lords Juss, Goldry Bluszco, Spitfire, and Brandoch Daha of Demonland aren't fighting King Gorice the sorcerer-king of Witchland, they're going on quests or wooing women.
Don't let names like "Demonland" and "Witchland" give the wrong idea. These are merely the names of places, and the people who inhabit them are human (this goes for Pixyland, Impland, and Goblinland, too). King Gorice is a sorcerer, but he's a bad guy, and the lords of Demonland (the heroes) are quite fleshly and excel in the arts of war.
This is in keeping with Eddison's own philosophy. It's interesting that the first generation of great Christian fantasy writers were inspired by a man who was an avowed atheist. Eddison wasnot a Christian, and his beliefs are best summed up in the creature that lends its name to the book, the worm ouroboros—the dragon with its tail in its mouth.
The pagan concept of life as an endless wheel appears throughout literature, though rarely in an English work. But whereas Tolkien drew on Christian Scandinavia as a foundation for Middle Earth, Eddison was inspired by pre-Christian Scandinavia, with its emphasis on bloodshed and warfare as tests for the worth of a man.
Perhaps because of this preoccupation with strength and pagan honor, Eddison employs a pastiche of archaic styles in which to write his novel. The language is somewhere between Christopher Marlowe and the Icelandic sagas, and while it may take some readers an effort to get into, once in the novel's flow it's obvious that only this style could tell this story.
By this time you might be thinking there are too many obstacles to enjoying this book. The author was an atheist, there's too much violence, the writing is dense. But it isn't a difficult book. Getting in its stream might be, but once you're in you'll be carried along by the power of Eddison's imagination and eloquence, and you'll likely want to return again and again.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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