The Worm Ouroboros is a curious book. Written 30 years before The Lord of the Rings, it is often seen as the Ring’s predecessor. And when Tolkien’s work was published, the comparison with Eddison’s book did not always go in Tolkien’s favour. Eddison too gives us a fully realised world, the creation of which began in Eddison’s teenage years.
Eddison believed in living life to the full, like soda commercials tell us today. All his characters are larger than life, glorious heroes and passionate villains. Houses are grand, the landscape is legendary, women are beautiful and glory is worth dying for. The book is hitting its own chest with a fist and lets out a primordial scream, but it is not a primitive book. There is real philosophy behind it.
Eddison believed in this world, and especially that beauty, beauty of women, beauty of landscapes and beauty of action, is a real tangible thing in this world and the only thing of real worth. At the beginning it sounds overdone, but it has a cumulative effect to the extent that you actually feel like you are experiencing a world with a different set of values. It is the only way in which the ending of the book would make any sense (I can say no more).
Add to this that Eddison is a fantastic storyteller. When the action starts, it is there to stay till the end of the book. And he tells his story in Shakespearian proze, which might be hard at first, but gives a wonderful feel to it. It will make you read the story in small pieces so you can savour it slowly and let the wonderful feeling linger in your brain. (Here I must confess that I have read the Dutch translation, but even so, the book’s volcanic nature apparently has radiated through.)
So here we have scene after scene of beautifully crafted material. Our heroes are happily climbing an unclimbable mountain, while looking to tame an untameable animal to ride to a land which cannot be reached, while their country gets invaded by a perpetually resurrecting villain.
Still, the book is a flawed masterpiece, because it has some irksome failings. First of all, the first 15 or so pages give an introduction about a guy who dreams about flying to the planet Mercury and then disappears from the story. It is a very slow start and perhaps Eddison tried to frame the story as taking place on Mercury, I’m not sure. And secondly, all the nations have names like demonland, impland and witchland, but all the inhabitants are simply humans. Let us forgive and forget these quirks. Perhaps Eddison could not discard some of his teenage ponderings.
This book is a force of nature. It becomes the symbol of a philosophy that stays with everyone who reads it.