One of the stranger roots of Sword & Sorcery lies far back in the family tree, coiled around itself and eating its own tail. Before Tolkien or Lewis defined in the popular imagination what “fantasy” was, things were much more fluid, and back before all of them was the strange artistry of Eric Rucker Eddison and his weird, fascinating near-masterpiece The Worm Ouroboros.
Eddison was a much-read author in his day, and he was an occasional member of the so-called “Inklings” - the writer’s circle at Oxford that included Tolkien, Lewis, Dyson, Barfield, and a slew of other academics. However, like most of the rest of them, Eddison has long faded into obscurity. There seems to be a cutoff in genre fiction at World War 2, and very few of the writers who made their mark before the war have been much read since then. Eddison is probably mostly forgotten because his philosophies did not align with the late-60s progressives who were largely responsible for bringing fantasy to a wider audience.
The Worm Ouroboros is a strange novel. Rather than a modern approach, it is written in a very conscious imitation of Norse sagas and a carefully-crafted Jacobean prose style that pulls in influences from both Elizabethan drama and Homeric literature. It was not like anything else written at the time or since. Eddison had a fantastic ear for words and rhythms, and the prose of the book is often just achingly beautiful.
The story is a high heroic romp through an alternate world populated by rival kingdoms of “Demons” and “Witches” who, however, look entirely human, save for small horns on their heads. There are also goblins, imps, and other rather loosely-defined races that may or may not be human. The exact detailing of the world and it’s peoples and histories did not seem to interest Eddison very much, as it was just there to serve as the backdrop to the tale of epic warfare he was intent on spinning.
Contrary to later writers – but entirely in line with most of his contemporaries – Eddison did not take the time to invent a really detailed, consistent world, so all his places and names were kind of lifted as needed from history or simply made up out of gibberish, resulting in such names as “Goldry Bluszco” and “Lord Spitfire”. Eddison was not interested in consistency of language. Instead, like his heroes, he plunged headlong into furious contests indulged in seemingly more for the fun of it than for any real reason. Like Homeric or Nordic heroes, Eddison’s characters contended with one another for the sheer joy of it, seeking violence and war as the only worthy occupations for noblemen. Indeed, at the end of the book, having won, the Lords of Demonland wish their enemies back to life so they can start the war over again. The last chapter ends with the beginning of the first, symbolizing the eternal nature of the title.
The story is a sword-slinging, swashbuckling ride, though it is far from the action-packed, chopped-down style of Howard. It does resonate more with the elevated prose he used for “The Shadow Kingdom”. The book was published in 1922, so it is entirely likely that he read it. Both Karl Edward Wagner and Micheal Moorcock have praised the work, and indeed, it is hard not to, with its language so beautifully constructed. That said, Eddison was too wordy, and often got in the way of what he was saying by how magnificently he was saying it. To a modern reader, he takes far too much time to move the pieces around, and your eyes start to glaze over. The language is gorgeous, but it is gorgeous constantly, to the point where it is too much and all drama is numbed out.
Still, the book paints a colorful, vivid world with heroes who seek out battle and solve problems with their swords – and furthermore feel that is the way it should be. Eddison’s starkly aristocratic point of view would not survive the war, and the essential element of Sword & Sorcery as it was formed proved to be an antagonism towards nobility, and a fundamentally lower-class, blue-collar perspective. Those elements would have to wait seven more years for the publication of “The Shadow Kingdom”, but there in the first tale of Kull and the serpent men, you can see the mark of the worm.