Mimsy Review: The Worm Ouroboros
“With this sword,” said he, “I went up with Gaslark to the gates of Carcë, four years gone by this summer. With this sword I fought an hour back to back with Brandoch Daha, against Corund and Corinius and their ablest men: the greatest fight that ever I fought, and against the fearfullest odds. Witchland itself beheld us from Carcë walls through the watery mist and glare, and marvelled that two men born of woman could perform such deeds.”
This book does everything wrong; under no circumstances would it be published today, except perhaps as a self-published venture, and then it would be used as an example of why self-publishing is wrong. And yet, it’s a wonderful novel.
Published in 1922, it predated “The Hobbit” by 15 years, although some parts of the Hobbit had seen print as short stories and poems by 1922. “The Lord of the Rings” didn’t come until 1954. Tolkien reportedly did not consider it researched well-enough.
The framing mechanism, involving a dream-traveling earthman “viewing” events on Mercury, has no apparent bearing on the story, and only rarely intrudes even on the author’s style. The fact that this other world is Mercury, but a Mercury that looks amazingly like Earth in land, climate, and inhabitants, makes the reader (or at least this reader) wonder, why Mercury? In 1926 we knew enough about Mercury to know that this wasn’t going to be true. Given that the travel is done in dreams anyway, why not somewhere else? In fact, the dream intrudes obviously only once, and then is gone; it is not even a framing device, for it shows not at the end of the tale.
Instead, the end is a strange one for modern sensibilities, and perhaps even for nineteenth century ones: the great Lords of Demonland, newly-crowned emperors of the known world, having beaten down the Lords of Witchland, fall into depression. They have, at young ages, reached the pinnacle of heroism. What remains for them in perpetual peace? Can they not find peaceful enjoyment and noble deeds of peace to match the noble heroism of battle with the mightiest force the world has so far known?
The answer is, no. They cannot. The Lords of this “fairest country in the world,” this “sea-girt” land, having won their laurels and achieved peace for their peoples, do not know how to find new deeds to accomplish. They are reduced to begging for the restoration of their old enemy, an enemy whose defeat they have already accomplished. There is no point to their heroism beyond itself, and little enough of that.
“This sword Zeldornius gave me. I bare it at Krothering Side against Corinius, when I threw him out of Demonland. I bare it at Melikaphkaz. I bare it in the last great fight in Witchland. Thou wilt say it brought me good luck and victory in battle. But it brought not to me, as to Zeldornius, this last best luck of all: that earth should gape for me when my great deeds were ended.”
The demons, witches, goblins, and imps speak English—archaic english—and quote ancient Earth texts. Their poetry is in an older style of English. They reference ancient Greek texts and mythology. Except that the demons have horns, there is no real reason to name the races demons, witches, goblins, and imps. All are basically human, if slightly larger than life humans.
Everyone is great. There is no inexperienced rookie “learning the ropes” as you would find in just about every fantasy story published today. The story starts with two great warriors wrestling for land, and continues on with those great warriors and their kin. If there is a weakness in the tale, it is not the language, weird beginning, nor the pitiful ending, but the lack of any care for the common soldier lost like dice. The common soldier is dealt with, haphazardly, in one chapter where a young soldier comes home to his bride.
The language is heavy, archaic, and overdone—and changes style mid-sentence. I had to keep a dictionary handy, and even the dictionary didn’t contain all of the words I didn’t know.
And all of those complaints completely miss the point. This is a story about greatness, greatness spoken, greatness earned, and pride. Throughout the story, it is pride that brings down the king of Witchland, that brings down each of his heroic captains, that almost brings down his enemies, and that finally reduces his destroyers to beg for his return.
The characters, both good and evil, are well-depicted. This is really where the story shines. Even the “villains” are reasonably believable. Role-playing gamers, especially game masters, would do well to look here for characterizations of fantasy overlords, their princes, and elite evil warriors. One of the better-drawn characters, an evil confidante of the Witch-king, switches sides towards the end of the book—and continues to recommend “evil” ways of winning the war to his new friends.
On the one hand, the language is flowery, high-handed, and archaic. On the other, it is vivid and describes a heroic adventure. Every time I thought the language was too much, I would run across a phrase or description that made up for it all. If you’re a game master of a fantasy role-playing game, keep your notebook handy alongside that dictionary: you’ll find many ideas for fantastic castles, battles, and objects of art. The book itself looks a lot like a Dungeons & Dragons game. If it hadn’t been written in 1926 I’d be accusing the author of writing his D&D campaign. The names are classic D&D style names: no style at all. The four main heroes, of the same culture and some even physically related, are named Juss, Goldry Bluszco, Brandoch Daha, and Spitfire. Their foes in Witchland have more related names (as they would, being all created by the same person, the Dungeon Master): Corinius, Corund, Gorice.
It’s a fascinating story, if you can get past the language. Simpler than Tolkien’s four-part adventure and far less anal, pre-dating the standard fantasy clichés that Tolkien caused, it’s definitely a fun read, and an interesting look at a completely non-modern mindset.
If you enjoyed The Worm Ouroboros…
If you enjoy fantasy, you might also be interested in A Fish Dinner in Memison, A Princess of Mars, Excalibur, Highlander, Ladyhawke, Mistress of Mistresses, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Hobbit, and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings