E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros is a strange and improbable book, the kind of book one expects to find (but cannot expect to find) tucked away on a shelf in the basement of a used bookstore somewhere. It occupies a strange place between the antique legends from which it draws inspiration and the modern fantasy novels to which it is inevitably seen as a kind of precursor. Like David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, which preceded it by two years, Ouroboros begins with a journey to another planet, but there its twentieth-century credentials end. Lindsay may have been more forward-thinking in employing a spaceship for this voyage; but Eddison, perhaps perceiving the vanity and superfluity of pretending to any sort of scientific accuracy, takes his apparent protagonist to the planet Mercury by hippogriff, only to promptly abandon him after establishing that he will be, after all, only an unseen observer to the events that follow his arrival. Like Middle-Earth, this is not another planet, but an imaginary time. What kind of time this is will soon be apparent.
The Dover reprint quotes Tolkien on the cover and LeGuin, Lewis, and James Stephens on the back, so you know what you’re getting into. And why not? It’s easy to see in Eddison’s Mercury a possible inspiration for the Lord of the Rings, the Space Trilogy, and Earthsea. It is an evocative work, an evocative world. Nothing would be gained by trying to summarize the plot; the magic of Ouroboros is in its sights and sounds. The names of the characters read like a litany from Oz: Goldry Bluszco, La Fireez, Brandoch Daha, the Red Foliot, but they talk like knights of the Round Table and inhabit a veritable Scottish lexicon of glens and heughs and nesses from which they wage war against their equally sonorous enemies. Ouroboros has none of the philosophical pretensions that characterize A Voyage to Arcturus, but there is philosophy here, and much more: reflections on loyalty and betrayal and heroism, a discourse on the virtues of living among mountains, intimations of privileged insight into the titles of French baroque keyboard compositions, and improbable quotations from Shakespeare, Donne, Herrick, and the Greek Anthology. If Thomas Malory had been interested in science fiction, this is the book he might have written. If the Vikings had developed space travel and established an extraterrestrial society based on incessant medieval warfare and dark magic, maybe it wouldn’t be fiction.
Occasional Inkling though he was, maybe it’s not fair to retroactively include Eddison with Tolkien and Lewis, whose positive or negative influences are now so unavoidable in the realms of fantasy. But the comparison may be instructive. Ouroboros is neither an imitation of Middle-Earth nor a bitter reaction to the Christian imagination of Narnia, but it is suffused with nostalgia for another world: the world of the Greek myths and Norse sagas. Tolkien and Lewis, through their very love of mythology, saw a way forward, a way beyond the pagan myths; their beauty, they believed, was caught up and even redeemed by the true myth of Christianity. Eddison’s Ouroboros is as the title suggests: a closed world, an endless loop. Mercury has no redeemer, no eucatastrophe, and does not look for one. It is a world of desire without final fulfillment, with no promise of attaining the ultimate joy to which Tolkien and Lewis point us, the joy that is glimpsed and hinted at in every true fantasy and fairy-story. But this can be felt as a loss even if it is not understood as one. There is honesty here, and nobility, and a gleam of transcendence, for to feel the loss is to be open to the signs of hope. Like the virtuous pagans of old, Eddison still believes in beauty, and revels in its reality. Ouroboros is not a way out of fantasy, but—as the Dover reprint reminds us—it is still a way in.