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.
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.
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’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.)
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.