So last year my friend, Janrae, asked me if I had ever read the Wyrm Ouroboros. I said no. She said I should get it and read it. She said this because she knew I’d enjoy it and also she wanted to know my thoughts about it. Not sure why, but she was always keen to discuss literature with me.
Unfortunately she died last January. I got the book for Christmas and had only just started it. I left it alone for a while for obvious reasons, then began to read it, just as I had promised her. I will never get to talk to her about this book, nor find out what she liked or disliked about it. I feel sad about that. However, I am very glad she got me to read it and so I feel I should talk about it, even if just to myself.
Janrae hadn’t told me anything about it. Well, that isn’t strictly true. I didn’t know it at the time but she had given the ending away, but she had not explained the plot or premise to me. So I just started reading. It left me a bit confused at first, with the introduction depicting a couple simply sat and talking, and then the man gets whisked away to the planet Mercury. It was all very odd. Mercury was not the planet as we know it, either. It was like Earth, and the inhabitants were human-like. This wasn’t scifi but fantasy. E. R. Eddison, the author, took a known world and made it his own. It took me a while to get get to grips with this.
So I dove into the book. We are introduced to great lords, such as Juss, Brandoch Daha and Spitfire. These are the famous (in their world) lords of Demonland. Now they aren’t demons, nor do they look like we might expect demons to look. In Eddison’s world of Mercury, there is Demonland, Witchland, Impland, Goblinland, etc. I don’t know why he used these names, but in no way are we to think of witchs and imps. The people of each land are human. The Demons are noted to have horns on their heads, but that’s it.
The plot pushes on, leaving behind the character who was brought here to show us this world, and we never see or hear from him again. An unusual trick, but it worked. I was soon immersed in Mercury and the actions of its inhabitants. The Demons and the Witches are rivals, which leads to a wrestling match, which leads to the death of King Gorice of Witchland, which leaves his lords to return home where the heir, King Gorice (the twelth to carry the name) awaits them. He is intent on revenge.
This story is akin to the Greece legends and Scandinavian sagas. It has magic and swordplay, adventures and quests, and war. Gorice XII kidnaps one of his enemies, Goldry Bluszco, the very man who defeated and killed the previous Gorice. He whisks him away to some unknown place, and Goldry’s brothers set out to find him. This is where the adventure/quest part is strongest. In time the Witches have invaded Demonland, and many other lands, and war makes misery of a once strong and proud nation.
I have to pause a moment and remark that I love the names Eddison created. Also, his characters, while fairly set types that we can expect in such a classical fantasy story, are striking. Gorice XII is a very imposing and ruthless tyrant, who daunts even his court. He strides and glares and rules with calculating, cold cruelty. Lord Juss and his fellow Demons are far more honourable and gallant. Brandoch Daha is deemed the greatest fighter in the world and is more than happy to face any enemy. Corund, a lord of Witchland, is a broad and powerful man, steady in loyalty and fearsome in combat. Corinius, a younger lord of the same realm, is at once both a remarkable general who the Demons respect in battle, yet also a right cad – yes, I used the word cad, and I won’t take it back! – towards women. His one mistake when leading the invasion of Demonland is obsessing over Brandoch Daha’s sister. She epitomises the type of noble lady you would find in this kind of story. She is proud, kind and strong-willed. The exchanges between her and Corinius only heighten your respect for her and your disgust at his young lust.
A word of warning, I am going to cover this story to the end. The end is what matters in this one. I am skimming over the plot, much is being left unsaid, but I am going to reveal the outcome.
Oh, hang on, almost forgot to mention Lord Gro. Now this is perhaps the most interesting character in the story. He is from Goblinland, an exile, who serves Gorice faithfully. He is usually giving advice and is almost always right, yet rarely listened to. For this reason, and for his love for the Lady Mevrian, Brandoch’s sister, he switches sides. He was mistrusted in Witchland, this does not improve much in Demonland. When Goldry is rescued and the demons fight back at full strength, their war carries them to the capital of their enemy. Here Lord Gro, who never glories in war as the others do, who has few friends and cares for them, who is not much of a fighter, takes part in the battle with a heavy heart. He kills a solider of Witchland, is scolded by Corund, so strikes down a solider of Demonland, which provokes Spitfire to kill him. Gro is a sympathetic character with a complex personality and storyline, who dies in a tragic way. He stands out very much from this array of champions.
The final battle goes for the Demons and Gorice tries another spell to overcome his hated rivals. It goes wrong. We never see him carry this one out nor how it backfires, just the result. Corund has already fallen to Juss by this time, the rest die due to poison; Corsus, an older lord who wants Corinius dead, watches as the tainted cup is passed round, dooming everyone, even his own wife. He is slain by Corinius. This young and brash bully stays alive long enough for the Demons to arrive and spit hate at them. He is easily dislikable and yet admirable in a way.
Gorice’s spell has broken his own stronghold. The Demons storm the place and win the war. Their enemies are dead already. It is something of a hollow win. However, the Witches can threaten them no more. The world is safe. Many lives have been lost, but the war is over.
So here we come to the end, and this is the most remarkable section of the book. Our heroes are downcast. Their enemies are no more. There will be no more wars. The other lands are nowhere near their equal. Those lords of Witchland were powerful men to respect. The women were too. Ladies of beauty and intellect wield both to get their way. Witchland was a worthy adversary for Demonland. Now Lord Juss and his compatriots, in their thirties, have a long and dull life ahead of them. They wish, if they could wish such a thing, that the lords of Witchland were alive again.
This great rivalry reminds me of the Illiad. Heroes and champions on both sides. True, this time one side is clearly more moral than the other, but both are not perfect and their struggle is titanic. In truth, I hoped for an ending to fit these titans. To see Brandoch battle Corinius, as he swore to do. To watch the many notable allies and captains on both sides face each other, as does happen in the Illiad. Yet perhaps the way the war ended was exactly what Eddison wanted to bring about the end of his story.
So the wish of the lords of Demonland is granted. They are told Gorice and the rest are alive. How? Gorice XII was the same Gorice as before, and always was. He reincarnated after each death. He even thinks about bringing back one of his lords to aid him, but is unsure which he can trust enough. Through this, all have been reborn. The stronghold is populated with the enemy. Even Lord Gro is there with Gorice as the king plots. Corund, Corinius, Corsus and Laxus are all back.
On another note, I do wish Eddison had varied his names among the Witches a bit. Early on, until the characters stood out more, I had trouble with the C names.
Juss and his brothers (Brandoch is their cousin but hey) are so ecstatic to hear this they beg that this isn’t just some dream. But no, the enemy is alive and well. Not just that, but they are granted eternal life and youth as well. Their future is one of everlasting war. They could not be happier.
That is the part Janrae revealed to me. She told me the book was about a world of eternal war as warriors on both sides are reborn to keep the fight going. When I began to read, I kept waiting for this to be revealed somehow, then just got on with the tale itself. Once I reached the end, I got it. That was the world post-story, not during it. It didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the book.
I’m sure this is the part Janrae wanted to discuss the most. Eddison’s ending was and likely is controversial. The term ‘and they lived happily ever after’ really does apply here, and yet not in the way we would assume. This ending celebrates warfare and the glory to be found therein. It has our heroes proclaiming their desire to compete against greats rather than live in peace. They are not cruel or unkind men either. They care for their people and often show it. But they want this.
There is a logic to their words. Only by rivalry can one test oneself. Their rivalry with the lords of Witchland proved their qualities, even in mercy. It also kept them sharp, in mind and body. They are also warriors-born. Fighting is their way. It must be admitted, this is a book about lords and champions, not the little people involved. We are not here to see sons taken to war or farmers leaving home to fight in something senseless. This is war the old-fashioned way. It is about conquest and power and glory for the Witches. It is about protection and honour and, also, glory for the Demons. Juss, Brandoch Daha, Goldry Bluszco and Spitfire are men of action, so to think they will never again get to live their creed out dismays them. They aren’t renouncing their ways. They will remain leaders of dignity and mercy, which the Witches laugh at. But what use is being honourable or honest or brave when this cannot be tested?
Still, the morality of this ending was tough for many to take. I think Janrae would have had a liking for it. It speaks to that part of us which wants to believe in glory and courage, that old-fashioned sense of good versus evil, with good winning by strength of arms and supported by a true heart. The wish is brash and reckless, like characters such as Corinius and Spitfire, and the outcome is something that will test even the immense willpower of Juss and Gorice. I doubt any would truly want such a thing in real life, although you do wonder – eternal life mixed with eternal struggle could outweigh what we face now. But it does have that appeal for a fantasy world. Heroes and villains conflicting forever, constantly proving their true nature, performing deeds to last the ages.
General Patton once said the best way for a soldier to die was to be killed by the last bullet of the last battle in the last war. Something like that anyway. His point, of course, is that sometimes it is harder for the warrior to live with the peace than the war itself. This is often true. Two books I have read, written by former soldiers – one during WW2, the other during Vietnam; one by a Brit, the other by an American – both cited the same trouble: settling into normal life. You see this played out in fiction too, often in westerns. The gunslinger who saves the town is later viewed with suspicion once peace becomes the norm.
I believe that is the angle Eddison is taking. I have no idea whether he felt this way personally or was just writing it. It certainly suits the characters. It is a rare moral tale to be told, but the way it is done, well, you do kind of feel this is the happiest of endings. These heroes belong in combat. Still, it is a selfish and harsh wish as well for those who serve.
I admit I liked the ending and, as I’ve made clear, felt it fitted to the characters. I imagine Janrae and I would have had a big ole chat about the book and agreed on that much. We both loved classical literature, especially the old fantasy. This is a prime example of writing about heroism without questioning the consequences. I do like when that is done too, yet also get tired of how much it is done today. War is hell, we know and it should never be forgotten. But there has always been something about epic battles of good versus evil that I enjoy deeply, and just wish to enjoy at that level. In fiction, of course. I speak as someone who has never been in a war and hopes to stay that way.
The Wyrm Ouroboros is an excellent read, I would have said to Janrae. The language is very classical, so quite wordy. Lengthy descriptions have never been my thing. I do think we could have spent time getting to know certain characters better. I would have liked to have witnessed some more of the action. I think it could have been a bit more concise, if the repeating of certain events is part of the cyclic nature of Eddison’s world. It isn’t perfect, but I did enjoy delving into his world and the characters and ending struck a chord with me. When I think of this being done as a movie or tv show, I would imagine the language would have to be altered and likely certain issues addressed – more action, less journeying. Still, it could work, and I would love to see the reaction to the wish of the Demons. In this day and age, war eternal would provoke a lot of outrage, I’m sure. More so, the glory of it.
I thank Janrae for getting me to read this. It makes me sad that I can’t talk to her, but there’s nothing to be done about it. This is the real world. I don’t get to bring her back. I can only continue on having learned from her and appreciate what she brought into my life. This book counts among them. It does so rightly. Classical, fantasy literature of the heroic adventure genre is something I will always find appealing and be influenced by.