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Saturday 20 June 2015

☵ The Saviour of English Language - Paavo's Pix

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison

Orville Prescott once described 'The Worm Ouroboros' as 'An epic fantasy to compare with Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings'', but that is to do it an injustice.  It is 'an epic fantasy', that is true, but that is where all similarity ends.  Where 'The Lord of the Rings' has its roots in Norse myth, 'The Worm Ouroboros', written in 1926, is born out of Tudor England - its magic, its swashbuckling heroes, its bestiaries.

Eddison, who references the Lake District and Norway in this and his 'Zimiamvian Trilogy' (see a future blog!), adds a touch of Tudor intrigue and politics to an imaginary version of both locations - the island kingdom of Demonland (don't be put off by the name) is full of Cumbria-like names: Owlswick, Krothering, Stitchwater and Erngate End to name but a few.  He was also fascinated by mountains in all their forms, from the Lakeland fells to the Himalayas.  The book, with its countless battles, creatures, conjurings and political machinations, has a central quest to climb not one but two mighty peaks.  The dangerous ascent of Koshtra Pivrarcha is described in incredible detail, and the whole range lovingly pictured:
"Soon the new daylight flooded the snowfields of the High Glacier of Temarm, dyeing them green and saffron and palest rose.  The snows of Islargyn glowed far away in the north to the right of the white dome of Emshir.  Ela Mantissera blocked the view north-eastward."
Which brings me to my main point.  Yes, there are wonderful set-pieces to the book - the perilous conjuring of King Gorice XII at the start; the flight on the hippogriff towards the end; Lord Juss's fight with the manticore on his mountain quest.  But that is not why 'The Worm Ouroboros' is such a great book, and why it captivated me nearly 40 years ago on a long car journey to the Austrian Alps.

'The Worm Ouroboros' is unique in its author's use of language.  Today, a virtue is too often made of simple, straightforward, almost minimalist writing - I remember my Dad remarking that my own attempts at prose had 'too many adjectives'.  E.R. Eddison is completely unafraid of language, of adjectives, of description.  It is not that he overdoes things - he is just in love with words, and with their power to create wonder.  Another thing I should say here is that the book is written in an archaic, almost Tudor style (think of Shakespeare or the King James Bible and you'll get my meaning), which suits this kind of description.  Here is an example from the climax of the Manticore battle:
"And Juss, for all his bitter pain and torment, and for all he was well nigh stifled by the sore stink of the creature's breath and the stink of its blood and puddings blubbering about his face and breast, yet by his great strength wrestled with that fell and filthy man-eater."
'The Worm Ouroboros' starts with the conceit of a Lakeland dweller, Lessingham, being led in a kind of dream to this fantastic world, where the protagonists are introduced to him.  It is a strange disjointed way of starting the book, and poor Lessingham is forgotten about within the first 20 pages (if you read the 'Zimiamvian Trilogy' this makes at least some sense).  I strongly advise you to persevere through the start of the book, though, and beyond.  Embrace Eddison's language yourself, and you'll be in for an unforgettable trip.
"The [martlet] sprang skyward...over a great island that slumbered on a slumbering sea, with lesser isles about it: a country of rock mountains and hill pastures and many waters, all a-glimmer in the moonshine."

Image: - © The National Trust for Scotland
"Turn thy gaze first on him who walks in majesty...his tunic of olive-green velvet ornamented with devices of hidden meaning in thread of gold and beads of chrysolite. Mark how the buskins, clasping his stalwart calves, glitter with gold and amber. Mark the dusky cloak streamed with gold and lined with blood-red silk; a charmed cloak, made by the sylphs in forgotten days, bringing good hap to the wearer, so he be true of heart and no dastard."

"From the horizon, high beyond the pine-clad hills of Westmark, a range of clouds reared themselves, solid and of an iron hue; so hard-edged against the vapoury sky of sunset, that they seemed insubstantial mountains, not clouds: unearthly mountains divinely raised up for Demonland, for whom not all her ancient hills gave any longer refuge against her enemies. Here, in Krothering gates, wintersweet and the little purple daphne bush that blooms before the leaf breathed fragrance abroad."

"It walked back and forth in the candle light, averting its eyes from them. The feathers on its neck were fluffed up with anger and wondrous swiftly twirled its scaly tail...Gro beheld the light of its eyes that were as sick moons burning poisonously through a mist of greenish yellow in the dusk of night."

"And in a mighty chair beside this table was King Gorice XII, robed in his conjuring robe of black and gold, resting his cheek on his hand that was like an eagle's claw. The low light, mother of shade and secrecy, that hovered in that chamber moved about the still figure of the King..."

"On the eighth day they left the shore of that waterless sea and came by broken rocky ground to the descent to a wide vale, shelterless and unfruitful, with the broad stony bed of a little river winding in the strath. Here, looking eastward, they beheld in the lustre of a late bright-shining sun a castle of red stone on a terrace of the fell-side beyond the valley."

Image: © Sanjib Das
"Here, alone on that field, Zeldornius leaned upon his spear, gazing downward in a study, his arm cast about the neck of his old brown horse who hung his head and sniffed the ground. Through a rift in the western clouds the sun glared forth; but his beams were not so red as the ling and bent of Salapanta field."

Image: book cover
"Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha watched, as men watch for a star to rise, that radiant portal. And like a star indeed, or like the tranquil moon appearing, they beheld after a while one crowned like a Queen with a diadem of little clouds that seemed stolen from the mountain sunset, scattering soft beams of rosy brightness. She stood alone under that mighty portico with its vast shadowy forms of winged lions in shining stone black as jet."

Image: © Kelly
"Next morning, when it was light enough to climb, they set forth. For two hours' space on that traverse not a moment passed but they were in instant peril of death. They were not roped, for on those slabbery rocks one man had dragged a dozen to perdition had he made a slip. The ledges sloped outward; they were piled with broken rock and mud; the soft red rock broke away at a hand's touch and plunged at a leap to the glacier below."

"On the morrow while yet sunrise was red, Lord Zigg went down to the sea-shore to bathe in the great rock pools that face southward across the little bay of Owlswick. The salt air was fresh after the rain. The wind that had veered to the east blew in cold and pinching gusts. In a rift between slate-blue clouds the low sun flamed red...[he] laid down his sword and spear and looked south-east across the firth; and behold, a ship in full sail rounding the ness and steering northward on the larboard tack."

Image: book cover
"Small time was there to ponder. Swinging from hold to hold across the dizzy precipice, as an ape swingeth from bough to bough, the beast drew near. The shape of it was as a lion, but bigger and taller, the colour a dull red, and it had prickles lancing out behind, as of a porcupine; its face a man's face, if aught so hideous might be conceived of human kind."

Image: © Jonathan Griffiths
"Then befell great manslaying between the sea-cliffs and the sea. The Demons, taken at that advantage, were like a man tripped in mid-stride by a rope across the way. By the sore onset of the Witches they were driven down into the shallows of the sea, and the spume of the sea was red with blood."

"And I, running forth in my shirt in the misty gray of dawn, beheld Corsus standing forth in a gallery before Gallandus's lodging that were in an upper chamber. He was naked to the waist, his hairy breast and arms to the armpits clotted and adrip with blood, and in his hands two bloody daggers. He cried in a great voice, 'Treason in the camp, but I have scotched it.'"

Image: book cover
"The hour was upon them. For even as day striding on the eastern snow-fields stormed night out of high heavens, so and with such swift increase of splendour was might bodily and the desire of the upper air borne in that wild steed. It shone as if lighted by a moving lamp from withinward, sniffed the sweet morning air and whinnied, pawing the grass of the waterside and tearing it up with its claws of gold."

Image: - © James Horan photography

"On the thirtieth morning from their sailing out of Lookinghaven they sighted the long gray cliff-line of Impland the More dim in the low blown spray of the sea...Black precipices shut in the straits on either hand, and the sea-birds in their thousands whitened every little ledge of those cliffs like snow. Great flights of them rose and circled overhead as the ships sped by, and the air was full of their plaints. And right and left, as of young whales blowing, columns of white spray shot up continually from the surface of the sea."

"The king took wax and taper from the great gold ink-stand, and sealed the warrant with the ruby head of the worm Ouroboros, saying, 'The ruby, most comfortable to the heart, brain, vigour, and memory of man. So, 'tis confirmed'."

Image: book cover

Paavo Shaman
(BooksChatter contributor)

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