Week 3: The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison (1922)
This is a really strange book. It's one of the very early British fantasy classics, and though most people have not read it, it has shaped everything that came afterwards and has many elements familiar to anyone who has ever read fantasy. Tolkien liked this story a lot, and it's easy to see that it was a great influence on him. Eddison had many of the same tastes as Tolkien--Greek epics, Norse sagas, medieval literature, etc. and the writing is like the Silmarillion on steroids. Here's a sample:
In a while the King said: “I sent for thee because thou alone wast so hardy as to urge to the uttermost thy counsel upon the King that is now dead, Gorice XI. of memory ever glorious. And because thy counsel was good. Marvellst thou that I wist of thy counsel?”
Gro said, “O my Lord the King, I marvel not of this, for it is known to me that the soul endureth, albeit the body perish.”
“Keep thou thy lips from overspeech,” said the King.
It's all like that, so it takes some time to read.
Eddison modelled his book on the heroic sagas, with lots of battles, enchantments, and adventuring across the world. In theory it's set on Mercury, but that's only a way of saying "long ago and far away"--in fact the setting is the medieval Earth-like landscape which has become so familiar in fantasy stories since. Likewise, the battling nations are called Demons, Witches, Imps, etc., but really they're all human beings after the pattern of King Arthur, Holger Danske, and so on. And it starts with an odd, unfinished framing device; a man on Earth is transported in a dream to Mercury and invisibly observes the story--but he disappears after a couple of chapters and is never mentioned again. All this seems to have been meant to make the book more accessible to readers.
The story concerns the wars between the nations of Mercury, especially Demonland and Witchland. The Demons are noble heroes, and the Witches are treacherous villains who use black magic, though equally valorous in battle. (The battle scenes are often reminiscent of the Iliad.) Among the various rulers of these countries moves Lord Gro, who is the most conflicted and interesting character; he constantly changes sides, advising whoever he feels is on the losing side. Though he prefers deceit and secrecy to open battle, he also has moral standards of his own--he just can't bring himself to be on the winning side. He is a devious Machiavelli among straightforward Vikings. The title figure of the Worm Ouroboros is symbolic of the story and characters, so I don't want to spoil it by saying more.
If you're interested in early British fantasy and enjoy reading, say, Howard Pyle's language, this is a book worth reading. The Worm Ouroboros is completely unlike anything else, but at the same time its flavor is in every fantasy book you read. It's not an easy book, though, and will take some time and effort. I'm glad I read it.
(The quotation and some information is taken from the essay "Where Head and Tail Meet" by Ryan Harvey.)