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4:15pm on Monday, 13th August, 2018:
I've just finished reading The Worm Ouroboros, a book by E. R. Eddison first published in 1922.
I read it because it's an example of a paracosm — a detailed, self-contained, fictional universe — with a high fantasy setting that predates high fantasy as a genre. It was written before the works of Tolkien (who was an admirer), and there isn't anything else quite like it out there.
Hmm. Well I'm glad I read it, because the story itself and its characters are pretty good. The world it describes is very well realised, too, but suffers from rather too much detail. When a character is about to make a speech at a critical moment, I don't want to know what gemstones are embedded in her dress nor where the trees that are the source of the incense perfuming her hair are grown. There's a time and a place for this, and crucial plot points are neither.
The main problem with it is that it's written in cod Shakespearian English. While this does allow for some wonderful use of metaphor that might seem out of place had it been written in modern English, it does become very wearing very quickly. Eddison uses it consistently throughout, which is an admirable achievement, but he didn't really need to do so. Indeed, he really needed not to do so.
The opening to the book is also odd. It starts off with someone going off to have a dream, which is inspired by the planet Mercury. The dream begins, and that's the last that we hear of it. The story kicks in and that's that. I suppose, given that there was no great tradition of stories set in paracosms at the time, that Eddison may have considered it a necessity to introduce his readers to the notion that what was being told was set in an invented world, but nowadays it seems a strange device; I'd rather he'd played it straight.
The story concerns the war between the countries of Witchland (the bad guys) and Demonland (the good guys). Other lands include Impland, Pixyland and Goblinland. The peoples of these lands are humanoid, and although they have some differences (it's mentioned that demons have horns and goblins have tails) these are no more relevant than the names of peaks or rivers. The plot is like a medieval romance, throwing together quests and battles until in the end the quest is to battle. Interestingly, several major battles are described only after the event by survivors, which is refreshing; this happens a lot in stage plays (so you don't have to have a hundred actors on horseback), but in film and prestige TV shows these days it's all CGI action that starts to drag after a while and becomes more and more ludicrous as the director tries to make each battle more thrilling than the last. Having a mix of battles and reports of battles works quite well, introducing as it does the possibility of some character development in the relating of the news. Also refereshing is the possibility that important characters can be killed without any fuss at all.
The novel doesn't come with a map. I don't know if Eddison drew one, but I didn't find myself wondering where places were at any point. My greatest confusion was caused by similarity in the names of three of the main Witchland characters: Corinius, Corsus and Corund. I could have done without that.
Overall, I'm glad I read the book, but gladder that I read Tolkien first. If I'd come across The Worm Ouroborus in my teens when thinking about world design, I might have been side-tracked by character design instead. As it is, I didn't like many of the protagonists in The Lord of the Rings and the only persistent character in the Conan books is unidimensional, so I wasn't distracted.
As for the next paracosm book I look at, I've long had a copy of Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia on my bookshelf that I've still yet to read. I'm reluctant to start, though, in case it goes the same way as Gormenghast (that is, downhill).
Maybe I'll try some early fantasy instead. Lord Dunsany seems to have a way with words...
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