Thursday, March 3, 2011

Literature Review: The Worm Ouroboros

The Worm Ouroboros is probably the best fantasy book of which you've never heard.  If Scott over at the defunct Huge Ruined Pile hadn't been "the prophet of ER Eddison", I might not have prioritized it so highly on my reading list.  I'm glad I did.

The book was written in 1922, predating Tolkien, and the cover of my edition has a quote from the Professor praising Eddison as "the greatest and most convincing write of 'invented worlds' that I have read."  High praise.

The story has an epic sweep in the style of Homeric or Arthurian myth - nations at war, epic heroes battling, armies on the move, the mustering of massive naval fleets.  There's politics, romance, betrayals and treachery, important quests, and even a few monsters.

I should take a moment and caution the reader on the writing style.  It's written in 1922, but the narrative style seems earlier (19th century), and the dialogue is downright Shakespearian.  I flipped to a random page to grab a sample.  Here, Lord Juss (one of the heroes, the other being Brandoch Daha) has just had a dream about the location of his missing brother.  His brother was carried off by a demon, summoned by their enemies in Witchland with whom they're at war, and imprisoned on a distant mountain across the ocean.

"Is thine heart utterly bent on this journey?" said Brandoch Daha.  "Or is it not preposterous, and a thing to comfort our enemies, that we should thus at the bidding of a dream fly to far and perilous lands, rather than pay Witchland presently for the shame he hath done us?"

Juss answered him.  "My bed is hallowed by spells of such a virtue that no naughty dream flown through the ivory gate nor no noisome wizardry hath power to trouble his sleep who sleepeth there.  This dream is true.  For Witchland there is time enow.  If thou wilt not go with me to (the mountain) Koshtra Belorn, I must go without thee."

See what I mean?  Either you can read a 440 page book in that style, or you'll put it down after a few pages.  It took me about twice as long to absorb The Worm Ouroboros than the recent page turners I devoured.  Out of the 6 or so Appendix N books I've read since starting the reading project, I had been ranking The King of Elfland's Daughter as my favorite, the most literary and worthy of a second read in the future.  The Worm Ouroboros is right up there.

As usual, my goal here is to highlight some of the inspiration these books provide for gaming and what kinds of ideas I'll mine from them for future games.  Here goes.

High Level Play
The main characters in the story seem like 20th level fighters, and they are all sorts of awesome.  Whether it's battling  a horde of soldiers alone, holding a besieged castle, or leading an army, their deeds jump off the page.  Rarely have I so enjoyed the exploits of such larger than life characters.

Politics and War
In some of my recent posts I've wondered whether I should create War Machine and Dominion Economics statistics for all the nations of Greyhawk.  Now I see that experiencing the awesome politics and war in The Worm Ouroboros was certainly part of that inspiration.  There's diplomacy, ambassadors, jockeying for influence amongst the generals and military commanders, relationships complicated by marriage and loyalties, all the things you'd expect.

No Humanoids!
It took me a bit to get used to this idea, but in hindsight it was brilliant.  The lands of the world have names like Demonland, Witchland, Goblinland, and Impland… and the people that live in those lands are called Demons, Witches, Goblins, Imps, Pixes, Ghouls, etc.  This is a story that predates the Orc or Hobgoblin of modern fantasy.  At one point it's mentioned the Demons have small horns on their heads, and some of the Witches know magic, but otherwise the story is about people vs people, man vs man.  That feels completely different in tone than standard fantasy, humans versus orcs (or whatever).  It humanizes it.

If I choose to get rid of humaonoids in a setting, I'd take the approach used by ER Eddison here.


  1. I have to confess I've tried to read this book twice and both times have put it back on the shelf after just a few pages. Since I used to be geeky enough to read Shakespeare for fun, I guess I just need to be in the mood for an archaic reading style. Your post makes me want to try again Beedo, who knows, third time lucky maybe?

  2. Great post! I have recommended, lent, and given The Worm Ouroboros to friends, and everyone seems to have the same initial adverse reaction to the prose style. All I can (and do) say to them is: Persevere!

    There are riches here of a splendour and potency that is very rare, even in the best imaginative literature. I've been rereading Fritz Leiber recently, and Fafhrd and the Mouser's ascent of the mountain Stardock (which is wonderful stuff) reminded me of the still-more-splendid escalade of Koshtra Pivrarcha undertaken by Lord Juss and Brandoch Daha in "The Worm" - surely the best mountaineering sequence in Fantasy. (I've just picked it up and read a little. The Demons' mountainside encounter with the manticore is heart-poundingly intense, jaw-droppingly visceral, and something to bear in mind when describing combat actions in RPGs, I think.)

    As some of my friends will attest, I could rave about "The Worm" forever. I'd compare reading it to embarking on one of the major Icelandic sagas (or watching The Wire). Yes, you have to be prepared to put in some effort but, if you do, you will be rewarded a thousandfold.

    Word verification: perch. (What Brandoch Daha falls off during the aforementioned manticore attack.)

  3. I agree with ClawCarver about that mountaineering sequence. Brilliant. I recall when reading various other authors, including Tolkien, having to read back through more than once to get a clear picture in my mind of the terrain they were trying to get across. For example, I and Peter Jackson definitely have a different mental picture of Helm's Deep. I've also had a hard time before describing mountain journeys in my DnD game in a way so my players can quickly and clearly grasp what's around them. No such difficulty in 'Worm.' Eddison seems to choose the perfect words and phrasing to immediately and excitingly convey the physical scene.

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