Worm Ouroboros, The
by E.R. Eddison
There might have been a time when this tale was effective, or even interesting; when it might have had an impact on the literary community and other writers of fantasy-epics. The year 2014, however, is not that time.
Here are the problems: Eddison writing in opaque, olde-ish English, spending too long on ornate descriptions of landscapes and banquet halls, being weirdly cheesy with talk of Demons, Witches and Pixies, and constantly shifting between all of his one-dimensional characters, thus preventing attachment to any of them. You could throw in the trivial issue that while the story ostensibly takes place on Mercury, the characters somehow have knowledge of all of earth’s mythology and customs. In other words, it’s silly.
He also had a strange tendency to skip the most dramatic scenes, only to have a messenger recount them after the fact. And what dramatic action there was, he would spoil in pre-chapter summaries before you even read them. So in a book that was already difficult to approach due to its language, I was kept at an even further remove from the action by these bizarre narrative choices.
I read this at all because of its title, Ouroboros being a strangely fascinating archetype. Unfortunately this concept is only vaguely addressed in the book, although the thematic connection is obvious. And I’m not even sure what Eddison is trying to say with the ending — that war is necessary? That attempting to overcome evil is futile because it will always be reborn? That life without glory is worthless? — or if he was even trying to say anything (he introduces the book with a claim that it’s only supposed to be a story). I don’t really care at the end, because it’s still silly.
I had been excited about reading this, just because of the aforementioned archetype and hearing it mentioned in the same breath as Tolkien. My excitement grew the longer I looked for it — I was never able to find it in used book stores, so I figured it must be pretty good.
But now I think I understand why it’s hard to find: not due to high but rather to extremely low demand. It’s uninteresting, extremely dated, and pretty much irrelevant to all but the most ardent fantasy enthusiasts who might like to trace their genre back to some of its earliest 20th century roots. I wanted to like it but was disappointed.