Archives: E.R. Eddison


I’ve nearly completed re-reading “The Worm Ouroboros,” E.R. Eddison’s underappreciated masterpiece. It is a mine worth delving into again, its depths not fully plumbed, its treasures still unmeasured. If I haven’t made myself clear, I love it. The villains are Shakespearean, complex and fascinating. The heros are Homeric, grandly larger than life, embodiments of virility and arete. The language is gorgeous, archaically poetic.

An aside: I know Tolkien read and appreciated “The Worm Ouroboros” despite Eddison’s philosophy, as espoused in the book, being antithetical to Tolkien’s. But I wonder how deeply “The Lord of the Rings” was inspired by “Worm,” if at all. I mention it, because while reading a description in “Worm” of a mustering of troops I was reminded of the scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring” when Pippen is watching the arrival of soldiers before the siege of Gondor, the description of the men, the naming and characterization of the leaders, their homes, etc. A side by side comparison would be interesting, I think.

I’m also in the last third of Steven Brust’s most recent Vlad Taltos novel, “Hawk.” “Hawk” is about as stylistically far away as it is possible to be from “Worm.” It is written in first-person smart ass. It is terse, sarcastic. Descriptions are sparse. The language is colloquial, contemporary. If I haven’t made myself clear (and I probably haven’t) I love it.

There are many who cannot appreciate “Worm.” The prose is too dense, too purple. The speech is stilted, unnatural. And he who requires a novel to reaffirm his socio-political convictions will not make it through the first fifty pages.

There are many who cannot appreciate the Vlad Taltos books. The prose does not conform to some readers’ notions of what period fantasy should be. It is unabashedly contemporary. He who requires immersion in faux-historical language will not make it through the first page (though this particular reader might enjoy the “Phoenix Guard” novels.)

Me, I love the gamut. I look for a good story, and I don’t care if it is vintage or modern. So I’ve got that going for me.

Fiction Description

Opinion time, readers. What is your preference, or perhaps tolerance, for the amount of description of places, things, physical appearance, etc. in fiction? Do you like to have an exacting rundown of what the characters look like, what the furniture in a room looks like and how it is arranged, and what everyone is wearing? Or do you tend to skip the descriptive paragraphs and scan down the page until the action recommences?

Twenty Silver Jakatas per Gross Weight of Lembas

Building a believable fantasy world is a challenge. There is no precise recipe, but there are ingredients. One of those ingredients is a sense of an economy, the suggestion that in the lands the characters live in, visit, or simply pass through there are people farming, building, manufacturing, and trading. This doesn’t require a treatise on local coinage or an exegesis on the bailment laws. But a writer who wants the world to feel lived in and vibrant will hint at activity occurring at the margins of the action, that daily life goes on even if the hero isn’t present and that that daily life is of the mundane, work-a-day sort we all experience.

Some writers do this exceedingly well. J.R.R. Tolkien sits at the head of the table of world-builders. MIddle-Earth feels real. He mentions dwarves passing to and from their mines. He builds inns and fills them with travelers. He describes roads and highways and indicates their decay and growing disuse, both suggesting a dwindling of trade and hinting at a time of greater commercial activity. He builds a world of increasing provincialism, of commerce becoming increasingly localized, of long-distance trade growing ever more hazardous. It aids tremendously in making Middle-Earth seem an actual, historical place, and the inhabitants as real as your Aunt Joan.

Robert E. Howard pulls off a similar trick. I’ll write at some later date about his strengths and weaknesses as a world-builder. But the Hyborian Age of Earth, when Conan trod the jeweled  thrones under sandaled feet, does seem alive with ships, caravans, and traveling merchants. The cities appear to bustle with buying and selling. Often Conan is in some hinterland or other, but the reader still gets the impression that somewhere there is a core of nations whose inhabitants are constantly trading, squabbling, and intriguing. The sweat of the laborers, the goods exchanging hands, the clinking of gold coins, all seem real, adding to the verisimilitude.

Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Land never seemed believable to me. I never got the sense that his communities could actually function. They seemed facades, Potemkin villages, or sets thrown up in the desert for a Western. I never got a sense of a working economy, how these people could live, where their stuff came from, how they exchanged goods and services. Now that might have been deliberate on Donaldson’s part. He may have been trying to reinforce the suggestion that this was all a hallucination. But once he introduced a second point of view character from Earth, that red-herring slipped out of the net and swam off.

This isn’t to say that a realistically portrayed world is essential to quality fantasy literature. E.R. Eddison’s Mercury doesn’t require a mention of trade routes or the types of crops the farmers grow in Demonland. But what Eddison is writing is akin to a fable. Like Lord Dunsany and William Morris, what he wrote were long form, adult fairy-tales. With these writers you always have the sense that someone is telling you a tale, you never fall into believing it to be a story told of a real place. You don’t get the immersiveness of Middle-Earth (a fairy-tale, perhaps, but one with solid foundations), or Westeros, or the Malazan Empire. You can almost imagine yourself falling through the pages into Hobbiton or King’s Landing.

And if you did, you just might be able to get a job.

Happiness and Endings

We look for happy endings. But there are no endings. Except, y’know, death. The story may stop, but it doesn’t end, only the narration ceases at a particular moment, a transition to some other event the author doesn’t record.

Everyone is looking for a little slice of paradise. No one finds it. At best it’s transitory, that blissful stretch in Margaritaville where the beer is too cold and the daiquiri too fruitiful. And then the bar tab arrives and you come back to earth, or the hangover arrives, or you roll over in bed and see that you just might have made a huge mistake.

It’s all cyclical. Every paradise contains the seeds of its own hell. And we’re all capable of creating our own individual circles of the inferno. James Branch Cabell knew this. Read “Jurgen.” Our humble protagonist, the pawnbroker Jurgen, is given a second chance at youth, a chance to avoid all the errors of his life. But of course he simply makes a similar sequence of mistakes, complicit in his own miseries. It’s what we do.

No true story has a happy ending. J.R.R. Tolkien writes of the ‘eucatastrophe’ in which the tides abruptly shift, bringing a wave of happiness. But even “Lord of the Rings” ends on a bittersweet note. “The Princess Bride” (the book, not the film) get it exactly right, cycling from ‘the happy ending’ on to the immediate difficulties that follow.

Of course some seem to like the problems. E.R. Eddison’s “The Worm Ouroboros” for example deliberately eschews peace exchange for an immediate reset to turmoil. Less boring, you see. I do see, but I for one could put up with the occasional stretch of boredom for a corresponding length of peace.

But, that’s life. We know it from infancy. Watch a baby through the day transitioning endlessly from delighted wonder to wailing despair. “And they all lived happily ever after” is rightly confined to children’s fables. Stories, if they are honest, reflect the fragile and temporary nature of happiness.

I suppose that’s how it ought to be. Things are defined by opposition. How could we recognize happiness without a bit of misery? What would we have to look forward to, to strive for? In that respect, the emotional cycle is a boon, right?

How’s that for a happy ending?



The writing savants instruct that we not employ a ten-dollar word when a nickel’s worth will suffice.  You will lose the reader if he is forced to consult a dictionary.  You risk appearing pretentious.

This is no doubt sound advice.  And yet I struggle with it.  I like archaic terms, obscure, little-used words and expressions.  I enjoy encountering a new word, even if it means heaving open my brobdingnagian 1920’s era dictionary, or hopping onto the web for a quick search.  I loved it even as a kid.  A new word was a precious find.  I hoarded them like gems.  Reading L. Sprague de Camp was like a treasure hunt.  I’d roll “yclept” about like a shining jewel.  An archaism that I valued precisely due to its rarity.

I like the baroque stylings of a Jack Vance, or the dense, lush lyricism of E.R. Eddings just as much as the more approachable, breezy prose of Elmore Leonard.

So I find myself torn.  I do err on the side of caution, many of my jewels not surviving the culling of the first draft.  Of course infrequency causes the remainder to stand out, and a word that stands out can lead to the very problems the wise and experienced writing gurus warn about.  Thus I weed out even more – the story itself being more important than one of my beloved treasures.

But sometimes the nature of the story allows me to indulge.  And I do.

What are your thoughts?  Does it diminish your enjoyment of a story to stumble across an unfamiliar word?