The Worm Ouroboros

03 Sep

When I was in elementary school, I hated the dictionary. With a passion. The main reason for my hostility was that sometimes, in school, I was actually expected to (gasp) look up words in the thing. I found dictionary activities absolutely boring, and my mother’s repeated injunctions to “Look it up in Noah [Webster]!” didn’t help.

At some point my feelings toward the dictionary changed. Part of the reason is that I am no longer required to use it. The other part is that I’ve actually found it useful—mainly in conjunction with my writing, although I’ve needed it at other times, too. The time I read The Worm Ouroboros was one of those.

The “worm Ouroboros” is the serpent that swallows his own tail—a symbol of eternality. Ouroboros is on the ring of King Gorice, one of the story’s major villains, but it also provides a rather unexpected framework for the book itself. The only other story I can think of which includes a similar plot device is Ted Dekker’s Circle trilogy, though the author of The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison, was an atheist. Whatever Dekker’s reasons were for his “circle” framework, Eddison’s use of Ouroboros is a clear outgrowth of his religious views.

But, although The Worm Ouroboros most certainly does not come from a Christian perspective, it is worth reading. It isn’t an easy read—Eddison uses a lot of archaic language to lend atmosphere to the story—though, if you like good fantasy, Ouroboros is worth the struggle. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis both admired him, and, in Lewis’s case anyway, that admiration was due partly to the language. In Lewis’s own words:

In the works of the late E.R. Eddison it [perpetuating a certain atmosphere] succeeds completely. You may like or dislike his invented worlds (I myself like that of The Worm Ouroboros and strongly dislike that of Mistress of Mistresses) but there is here no quarrel between the theme and the articulation of the story. Every episode, every speech, helps to incarnate what the author is imagining. You could spare none of them. It takes the whole story to build up that strange blend of renaissance luxury and northern hardness. The secret here is largely the style, and especially the style of the dialogue. These proud, reckless, amorous people create themselves and the whole atmosphere of their world chiefly by talking.

The story itself is a sort of complicated quest–Lord Juss of Demonland loses his brother Goldry to the magic of the evil king Gorice of Witchland, and he and his friends Lord Spitfire and Lord Brandoch Daha have to save Goldry while protecting Witchland from Gorice’s invasion. (Note–“Demonland” has nothing to do with real demons. And though king Gorice uses evil magic, the name “Witchland” doesn’t suggest anything about the inhabitants. The names of other countries in this imaginary world include “Impland” and “Goblinland,” again signifying nothing about their inhabitants.) Other major characters include Lord Gro, a traitor who betrays again, twice; and Lady Mevrian, Lord Brandoch Daha’s sister, who must protect his castle in his absence. Eddison’s female characters are very strong. In fact, Lady Mevrian, though she does not go on the sort of exploits the men do, was my favorite character.

There’s a certain longing to be found in The Worm Ouroboros, a longing for the present world, accompanied by what might be termed a fear of “fading.” For Lord Juss and his companions, the purpose of life is to live entirely in the moment, to experience life to its fullest. To them, a decline in martial glory and physical prowess is worse than defeat in battle.

Tolkien, too, deals with the concept of “fading”—both the Numenoreans and the Elves of Middle Earth have to deal with “fading” in different ways. The Numenoreans are simply facing death from old age. Having been granted longer lives, they struggle with a fierce desire to continue living, to avoid the “gift of Ilúvatar” and prolong their power. The Elves find that the days of their “morning” have faded. With the end of the First Age, those who remain in Middle Earth can only preserve what remains of Elvendom, not extend it. Slowly, the Elves begin to decline. Tolkien, however, suggests that the proper response to natural decline is acceptance. A reality lies beyond this world, and an obsession with prolonging our ability to experience this world will likely lead to trouble.

The ending of Eddison’s book, rather than pointing beyond the world, gratifies the desires of Lord Juss and his friends. They want life and strength, even at the expense of peace—progress, even if it means making the same progression over and over again.

In some ways, Eddison’s viewpoint brings the book to a slightly frustrating end. But his viewpoint alone is a reason to read the book. Reading philosophical treatises should only be one part of Christian apologetics. Understanding arguments is no more important than understanding someone’s imagination. The imagination is in some ways more closely tied to a person’s affections. If you want to really see what someone’s beliefs cause them to love (and hate), don’t read their essays. Read their stories.


Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Fantasy


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2 responses to “The Worm Ouroboros

  1. asinusspinasmasticans

    September 4, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    I thought Eddison and Ouroboros (I have never read the Zimiamvian books) a wonderful anti-histamine from Tolkien and the Inklings. Instead of a Catholic Christian waxing nostalgic about a dying Light, you have a lusty martial old aristocrat longing for an earlier, more permissive age whilst surrounded by a decayed Evangelical moralism and the petty concerns of pettier people.

    • A. Carroll Crowe

      September 4, 2013 at 10:56 pm

      I found Eddison perhaps less an anecdote to Tolkien than an anecdote to Phillip Pullman. “The Worm Ouroboros” manages to project a strongly atheistic worldview without having to base that worldview on a negative attitude toward Christianity, as Pullman’s His Dark Materials series does. Eddison’s message is similar to Pullman’s, but I enjoyed the greater confidence he showed by letting his worldview stand more on its own.


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