The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison

Two rings surrounding a person on a purple background.  Two open white pages on an orange background.  A black background with a white W.  A black background with a white symbol, that has a black play symbol in the middle.  A black background with a white tentacled cat.

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It’s not easy writing a high fantasy classic. Your competition is immense. You’ve got J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Terry Pratchett, C. S. Lewis, and so many more it’s impossible to make a dent, even with a long list. But in the top echelons, there’s another name – E. R. Eddison, author of The Worm Ouroboros.

The Worm Ouroboros is different from a lot of the other writers. Tolkien, Martin, Sanderson, Lewis, and others write their high fantasy as part of a larger world – epics in scope and deed. Eddison’s classic is only slightly related to his other famous works, the Zimiamvian trilogy, consisting of:

  • Mistress of Mistresses (1935)
  • A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941)
  • The Mezentian Gate (1958)

Besides a small crossover, Ouroboros is entirely self-contained. It features the tropes we’re used to: great deeds committed in a fantastical world for honor, loyalty, and the thrill of the fight. Tolkien said of the work:

I read the works of Eddison, long after they appeared; and I once met him. I heard him in Mr. Lewis’s room in Magdalen College read aloud some parts of his own works – from the Mistress of Mistresses, as far as I remember. He did it extremely well. I read his works with great enjoyment for their sheer literary merit.

While C. S. Lewis said:

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.

Eddison was different from Tolkien in some important ways, though. For one, Tolkien placed a heavy premium on the linguistic aspects of his created world. His names had meaning, and the overall legendarium is steeped in mythology. In contrast, E. R. Eddison had begun thinking up The Worm Ouroboros while he was a pre-teen child. He imagined some of the story, the characters, and the setting then – and seemed to have kept parts of it. This is especially notable in the names for some of his characters: Lord Spitfire, La Fireez, Fax Fay Faz, Goldry Bluszco, etc.

However, that is hardly a significant criticism of what, in the end, is a high fantasy classic, worthy of greater consideration. You can buy a paperback copy of the book here and an illustrated version here.