How I met Lord Brandoch Daha

I picked up The Worm Ouroboros in a second-hand bookshop more than ten years ago. The title intrigued me, with its hints of esoteric mysticism and its old-fashioned use of the word Worm. The Worm, or wyrm, is an Old English word for dragon, but the ouroboros is Greek, alchemical, and is signified by a serpent biting its own tail – it’s the equivalent of a Möbius strip, the never-ending and ever-repeating flow of energy that is harnessed by Enochian magic.

Fascinating, indeed.How I met Lord Brandoch Daha, and Goldry Bluszco, and Queen Sophonisba

When I turned over the cover I was even more intrigued by the book. The art on my copy was the 1960s paperback, a childish style that mimics the woodblock style that Tolkien favoured for his own art and also references Lowry and Bruegel. The artist is unlisted, and according to the ISFDB there is no record elsewhere, which is disappointing.

My childhood, in the 1970s, was littered with books under these type of covers, and the jumble sales I frequented in the 1980s also steamed with this sort of artwork on book covers, mainly for children. There’s a touch of Noggin The Nog about it.

Anyhow, the appearance of The Worm Ouroboros in my local Oxfam bookshop coincided with my reading of the Histories of The Lord Of The Rings. The cover copy emphasised that Eddison  had been the writer used as comparison when Tolkien first appeared. I’d read the C S Lewis Cosmic Trilogy by then, and the full five volumes of T H White’s Once And Future King (which I adore – more on that elsewhere).

I was eager for more of the same.

So far, without even opening the book, I was intrigued. I had to be careful, though – it was a paperback which had obviously been well-loved, and was wrapped in sticky-backed plastic, and the glue along the spine that kept the pages in place was growing brittle with age. With gentle care I parted the covers to see if the words inside were what I was looking for.

It was.

Eddison’s language, when I flipped through the pages, was a challenge.

He challenged me to read him.

His prose is old skool even for those of us who love old skool. He’s been compared to Elizabethan English, to Shakespeare, and his use of language in The Worm Ouroboros certainly has that cadence and complexity of form.

He challenged me.

I rose.

I’ve read books where the story is sometimes tangled up in the writer showing off their mastery of something more than writing. Umberto Eco’s Name Of The Rose is one example – I came to the book after falling in love with the film, watching it more than a dozen times, and also with the words of my English-teacher father ringing in my ears that “Eco shows off” in his writing.

When I got round to reading the book of Name Of The Rose, I found myself skipping parts of the page when he got too tied up in monkish politics or descriptions of church procedures. Nice, but a bit like the raisins in a rum’n’raisin ice-cream – adds texture, doesn’t change the flavour. (At least I didn’t do what I did with Moby Dick [short of hurling it at the wall] and skip whole pages.)

Anyhow.

Eddison isn’t one of those writers. His prose is elaborate where needed, and adds juice to his fruit. The characters are mega-characters, straight out of the heroic epics, as if the Norse Gods had grown up in Ancient Greece or Turkey, and they act with such mature grace it makes us all feel like awkward adolescents.

The textures he evokes, the journey, is purposeful, and makes you want to follow wherever he goes.

The Worm Ouroboros itself is a trope, a meme, a theme throughout the book that lends an edge to the story but isn’t part of it. There’s no dragon hunt, no actual worm, no rescue of maidens.

There are enormous characters who live their lives with the strength of mythic beasts.

I wish Eddison was more accessible, because he deserves it. The Lord Brandoch Daha and Queen Sophonisba deserve it, the epic journeys they undertake across the landscape of his world. Game Of Thrones has nothing on this.

But I also like Eddison’s obscurity. It’s like a secret handshake. A key to a hidden land, perhaps, and only on Goodreads have I found fellow travellers.

If you’re up for a challenging read, an epic of heroes and villains and opulence and mythic elegance, for characters that glow with life and landscapes that maim the mind’s eye with their beauty, come join us.

Again, and again, and again.

7 Comments

  1. That is an awesome book review. I began with no knowledge of the book, and finished determined to get a copy book by hook or by crook.
    Though, will let you know if I agree with your review once I’ve finished it!

    • Thanks! I’ve got a few more like this lined up so hopefully you’ll enjoy those too. This book is definitely one of those that divides opinion. I have reservations about some aspects but the language is so lush I just get swept away every time…

      P.S. Goodreads has an ebook version of The Worm Ouroboros if you can’t get a print copy, but I don’t know what the quality is like.

  2. I’m not familiar with E.R. Eddison at all, but after that review I’ll see if I can pick up a copy at the local library.

    (Is “The Last Rhinemaiden” only available on Amazon or can I get it on Smashwords. I’m not based in the US and I don’t have a kindle so Smashwords is the best place for me to buy ebooks.)

    • Hello! Thanks for dropping by. See my reply above about the ebook on Goodreads, if the library copy isn’t forthcoming.
      “The Last Rhinemaiden” is on Smashwords at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/123096. Let me know (here, please!) how it looks on your e-reader, won’t you?
      Cheers,
      Lee

      • Thankyou for both links and I will certainly let you know how TLR looks in my e-reader. 🙂

  3. This book is utterly alone and beyond approach in its sheer colossal magnitude as a work of heroic fantasy. It is necessarily replete with such, one might unpleasantly say, stock heroes and villains and supernatural creatures that every fantasy writer of every sort and from every era, must not have neglected to include to satisfy the parameters and expectations of this genre, but E.R. Eddison, comparatively scantily known though he shall likely ever remain, has done so immeasurably more skillfully, in my opinion, than anyone else ever could or ever shall, which opinion was implicitly shared by such stellar authorities and, let us add, stellar competitors, such as Professor Tolkien himself and C.S. Lewis. These giants of the genre, their awe of the overwhelming powers of the astonishing E.R. Eddison in his thirty year quest to produce the greatest work of imaginative fiction the English language has ever known, “The Worm Ouroboros” leave no doubt where they set him along side their own very high quality works, which is at a far higher level, a level that they both sought to approach insofar as their considerable powers allowed, both knowing that it was beyond any mortal’s scope to achieve parity with a tsunami who walked like a man.

    Now Eddison did go on to write the Zimiavian Trilogy thereafter, three works every bit as dull and ponderous — IMO completely unreadable — as The Worm was breathtakingly, thunderously magical and a unique ecstasy to read. He simply shot his wad in that one superhuman work, and what else would there be to be looked for, really, when a superhuman work ought to be be expected to take out of a fellow pretty much every last shred of such precious stuff any single man could hope to have ever once possessed? He poured most painstakingly, to say the very least,, this mysteriously sorcerous energy, all of it, I think, into one bubbling, boiling vat of swashbuckling derring-do and more-than-mortal language such as might never be approached again in English literature. It is closing in on a century since he first conjured this wonder into living, breathing life. When — and how — can we with any slightest hope expect to see its like again?

    • Awesome comment, thank you!
      I think you overlook the Zimiamvian Trilogy a little hastily, though. A Fish Dinner In Memison is my favourite, especially as a work of literary art, although Eddison does lose the fancy language outside The Worm Ouroboros, which is a shame.
      It’s worth comparing Eddison with contemporary writings within the (specifically) English fantasy genre – T H White, Tolkien, C S Lewis and the others.
      The review of The Worm Ouroboros at http://www.sfsite.com/07b/wo85.htm says: “…as pointed out by L. Sprague de Camp in his essay on Eddison and others elsewhere, nobody today receives the broad Classical Oxford/Cambridge educations that the great British fantasists like … C.S. Lewis, Mervyn Peake and E.R. Eddison did”. One might even add in A A Milne and Aldous Huxley, if the point were to be stretched somewhat. Sounds like material for another post, later.
      So, back to Eddison:
      Can you imagine how different the fantasy genre might look if the great blockbuster of the 20th Century had been The Worm Ouroboros, instead of The Lord Of The Rings?


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