The Forgotten Father of High Fantasy
1922 was one of the biggest years in literary history. Within that twelve-month period, people were reading The Beautiful and The Damned, Ulysses, Babbitt, Jacob’s Room as well as a little poem called The Waste Land. These were risky works, which pushed, twisted and thrashed against the confines of traditional poetry and literature. Writers born that same year, such as Kerouac, Vonnegut, Gaddis and Saramago, would go a great deal further in pushing the boundaries of storytelling. Now, it’s well known that the '20s drew a line in the literary sand. There was before and there was after. However, one bold, imaginative voice got lost amidst the titans of modernism -- that of Leeds’s first celebrity, Eric Rucker Eddison. Though he carved out a name for himself in the fantasy genre with his 1922 debut novel, The Worm of Ouroboros, preceding both The Hobbit and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Eddison has been largely left behind. Before digging into those he influenced, it’s worth pointing out that The Worm of Ouroboros easily stands alongside those other great works of 1922. It’s just as formally inventive, exciting and, in some cases, challenging. But, it’s genre fiction and seems to have been passed over in favor of Eddisonian acolytes. It’s a damn shame, unjust, and, frankly, perplexing as to why.
Perplexing may be too delicate a word. How often are Tolkien and Lewis’s educational pedigrees, or academic foci, referenced in an effort to express surprise at their emphasis on fantasy if not to lend it credibility? That’s not why their works have endured. Their works are great triumphs of the imagination, yes. But, Eddison’s quasi-miltonic language and thematic construction is just as formally inspiring, if not more so, as Tolkien’s invention and use of Elvish. Before Lewis and Tolkien famously worked at Oxford, Eddison had befriended a young Arthur Ransome and jumped through the hoops of Eton and Oxford, then distinguishing himself as a civil servant. Only much later did he become a writer. Yet, Eddison is the father of high fantasy, and should be revered as such.
Upon beginning Eddison’s novel, a reader might expect a hobbit, a dragon, or a couple other token creatures. It’s hard to approach it in this day and age without imposing subsequent classics, and their constraints, against it. Yet, within a couple flips of a page, you’re captivated by the eccentric but beautiful style. In his laudatory but incisive forward, James Stephens offers up a layout of the novel and its creator. For him, “Mr. Eddison is a vast man. He needed a whole cosmos to play in, and created one; and he forged a prose to tell of it that is as gigantic as his tale. In reading this book the reader must a little break his way in, and must surrender prejudices that are not allowed for.”
Though the novel’s two seemingly disparate locales include an English country home and the planet Mercury, both are rendered fully and with astonishing linguistic depth. Whereas Tolkien used the Edda Saga and Niebelungenlied, Eddison’s influences are the Greeks and Milton, with a smattering of the epics amongst rich, ornamented, ornate language. For Stephens, “Mr. Eddison’s prose does not derive from the English Bible. His mind has more affinities with Celtic imaginings and method, and his work is Celtic in that it is inspired by beauty and daring rather than by thoughts and moralities.” More Yeats, than one might expect from a fantasy author.
Here is Stephens again, with a greater explanation of what makes Eddison’s prose sing. “Quotations can give some idea of the rhythm of his sentences, but it can give none of the massive sweep and intensity of his narrative. Milton fell in love with the devil because the dramatic action lay with him, and, in this book, Mr. Eddison trounces his devils for being naughty, but he trounces the Wizard King and his kingdom with affection and delight.”
Ostensibly, it’s the tale of a curious man, Lessingham. The reader’s introduction to him serves as a great indication of the importance of nature in the telling of Lessingham’s story. “There was a man named Lessingham dwelt in an old low house in Wastdale, set in a gray old garden where yew-trees flourished that had seen Vikings in Copeland in their seedling time. Lily and rose and larkspur bloomed in the borders and begonias with blossoms big as saucers, red and white and pink and lemon-colour, in the beds before the porch.”
One of Eddison’s most endearing qualities as a writer is the bald display, either nominally, or stylistically, of his influences. The first spoken line of the novel is Lessingham’s wife inquiring, “Should we finish that chapter of Njal?” Shortly afterwards, they head to separate beds, Lessingham intent on seeing more of the sky. That’s when his life changes irrevocably. Amidst beautiful rendering of interrupted sleep, during “the deep and dead time of the night,” a martlet enters Lessingham’s room. She says, “Time is.” He responds, completely unflustered by a talking bird, with “I am ready, my little martlet.” With that sentiment, the novel takes off to truly fantastic heights.
As Mercury is reached, “Time was swallowed up in speed; the world reeled.” Well, the world as we earthly readers know it. The world that we discover is Demonland -- “ a country of rock mountains and hill pastures and many waters, all a-glimmer in the moonshine.” Demonland is ruled over by Lord Juss, a man of wealth, temper and fearful family members. After arriving on Mercury, as the reader catches his breath, Lord Juss is instructed to pay homage to a king who he remains disloyal to. The king’s ambassador is ushered into court and told: “Say thine errand freely, and imagine not that we shall hold thee answerable for aught thou sayest…”
As with any great author, a reader cannot hold them accountable. To revel in their words is pleasure enough. Eddison’s prose and worlds are so intoxicating, one wants simply to be continually immersed. It doesn’t matter what happens, as long as something keeps happening. And, boy, does it. Stick with it, as the rewards are greater than the challenge. There truly isn’t another fantasy novel like this one. This is the ur-text of today’s fantasy, but still somehow forgotten. Anything you pay will be a pittance for such a treasure, for what really amounts to the Rosetta stone of fantasy.