I've read several dozen works of fiction this year, some for the second or third time. I revisited Malacandra and Perelandra. I progressed with Bunyan's Christian before regressing with Lewis's John. Once again I drank and groaned with the last (or next to last) priest in Graham Greene's Mexican communist state, and once again I found the third man in the sewers of Vienna. I had the delightful, illuminating experience of enjoying a book I had disliked several years earlier, Evelyn Waugh's Helena. I endured Cormac McCarthy's awful new screenplay, by far his worst published book, which I will never reread. I read all six of Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novels, five of which were new to me. The epics of Homer (trans. Lattimore and Fagles) and Virgil (trans. Dryden) were also new. With our children I became acquainted with Roxaboxen and reacquainted with Frog and Toad, treasures we made sure to bring to our new home in southeast Asia.
The most interesting character I've met in 2014 has the unpropitious name "Gro." I expect never to meet anyone like him. Neither the hero nor the villain of E.R. Eddison's fantasy The Worm Ouroboros (1922), Gro is a "Goblin"--a name which, as far as I can tell, indicates nothing of traditional goblinry, but a distinct race or nation. The story is set on the planet Mercury. Other humanoid races populate the planet, such as the Witches, the Demons, the Imps, and the Pixies. Monsters, satyrs, fairies, and talking animals appear on occasion, too.
Gro is a traitor to his people; when we first meet him, he is advising King Gorice XI of "waterish Witchland," intent on war with the lords of "many-mountained Demonland." Gro plays several crucial dramatic and dialogic roles in the story. C.S. Lewis remarked that dialogue is the chief means by which Eddison shapes his characters. Gro, a master of language and political strategy, moves back and forth from one faction to another, sometimes facing personal peril, nearly always working his will. Both Gro's skill and his creator's fertile idiom are on display in the following scene, when Gro advises a Witch general to try treachery before laying siege to a temporary Demon stronghold in "far-fronted Impland":
"Yet consider," said Gro, taking him by the arm. "So shapeth the matter in my mind: they be few and shut up in a little place, in this far land, out of reach and out of mind of all succour. Were they devils and not men, the multitude of our armies and thine own tried qualities must daunt them. Be the place never so cocksure, doubt not some doubts thereof must poison their security. Therefore before thou risk a repulse which must dispel those doubts use thine advantage. Bid Juss to a parley. Offer him conditions: it skills not what. Bribe them out into the open."
"A pretty plan," said Corund. "Thou'lt merit wisdom's crown if thou canst tell me what conditions we can offer that they would take. And whilst thou riddlest that, remember that though thou and I be masters hereabout, another reigns in Carcë."
Lord Gro laughed gently. "Leave jesting," he said, "O Corund, and never hope to gull me to believe thee such a babe in policy. Shall the King blame us though we sign away Demonland, ay and the wide world besides, to Juss to lure him forth? Unless indeed we were so neglectful of our interest as suffer him, once forth, to elude our clutches."
"Gro," said Corund, "I love thee. But hardly canst thou receive things as I receive them that have dealt all my days in great stripes, given and taken in the open field. I sticked not to take part in thy notable treason against these poor snakes of Impland that we trapped in Orpish. All's fair against such dirt. Besides, great need was upon us then, and hard it is for an empty sack to stand straight. But here is far other matter. All's won here but the plucking of the apple: it is the very main of my ambition to humble these Demons openly by the terror of my sword: wherefore I will not use upon them cogs and stops and all thy devilish tricks, such as should bring me more of scorn than of glory in the eyes of aftercomers." (Chapter 11)
Gro's "gentle" laughter is a wonder, especially in contrast with the (relatively) honest Corund. A short time later, one of Corund's hotblooded Impish lieutenants disrupts a parley with the Demons by stabbing one of them -- unsuccessfully as it turns out -- and Corund is enraged. He lops off the offender's head. The Imp may or may not have been acting under Gro's advice. The Goblin plays dumb, remarking to Corund afterwards that "Such strokes come home or miss merely" and, with delicious irony, "This was well thought on: to flaunt the flag of seeming honesty, and with the motion rid us of this fellow that promised ever to grow thorns to make uneasy our seat in Impland."
Gro's allegiances shift as he pleases, and the changes receive little or no comment from the narrator. Close attention is necessary if we intend to follow Gro's plots. Sometimes his motives remain mysterious. Gro's expertise in policy gives special significance to an apparent departure from his custom. It is in fact so significant and revelatory of character that Eddison has Gro himself, the master of speech in the novel, introduce it in a soliloquy:
Gro said in himself, "How shall not common opinion account me mad, so rash and presumptuous dangerously to put my life in hazard? Nay, against all sound judgement; and this folly I enact in that very season when by patience and courage and my politic wisdom I had won that in despite of fortune's teeth which obstinately hitherto she had denied me: when after the brunts of divers tragical fortunes I had marvellously gained the favour and grace of the King, who very honourably placed me in his court, and tendereth me, I well think, so dearly as he doth the balls of his two eyes." (Chapter 25)
Gro's skill in language makes him a fascinating character. But this is to say that his value cannot be abstracted from its context. Gro's placement among and against other characters in Eddison's novel is essential to his development as a character. Sometimes this development is implicit, requiring reflexive consideration, and sometimes it is explicit in the text, though Eddison prefers to leave all comments to his characters rather than the narrative voice. Corund establishes the moral parameters of his world by refusing to adopt Gro's "devilish tricks." Similarly, only after another character, Lady Prezmyra, evaluates Gro's habits and speech do we learn how to judge him aright (Chapter 15).
The Worm Ouroboros has much more to offer than Gro, including strengths distinct from character. The chief of these is Eddison's own language. At first I was skeptical of the heavy archaism, but after two or three chapters I gave in completely. I was engrossed, transported. The narrative voice entices, requiring the absorption of unfamiliar syntactical patterns: "The eastern stars were paling to the dawn as Lessingham followed his conductor along the grass walk between the shadowy ranks of Irish yews, that stood like soldiers mysterious and expectant in the darkness" (Chapter 2). Many parts of the story will be difficult for readers who have not read older English poetry. Here's an extract from a letter transcribed in Chapter 18:
"So havinge ridde me wel of Vol, and by my hoep and secreat intilligence these were thayr entire flete that was nowe al sonken and putt to distruccioun by me, and trewely hit was a paltry werk and light, so few they were agaynst my foarce agaynst them, I dyd comme alande att the place hyghte Grunda by the northe perte of the frith wher the watere owt of Breakingdal falleth into the se" (Chapter 18).
Only one word here is entirely foreign to Modern English ("hyghte," which means "called"), but the irregular spelling and convoluted syntax will frustrate some readers.
Those who stick with the book will meet diverse delights. The pace of the narrative is alternately exciting and soothing. Several passages have intensely propulsive narrative power (the wrestling match in Chapter 2, the fight with the manticore in Chapter 12, the darkly erotic "embassage" in Chapter 16). I have a low tolerance for landscaping, but the terrain of this alien world is (mostly) imaginable. The names Eddison invents are rich: Tivarandardale, the Foliot Isles, and Impland the More are the names of a village, a province, and a nation. Major characters include the lords Juss and Brandoch Daha (emphasis on Bran and ha, says the preface), the dissolute and aging Duke Corsus, Corinius ("rhymes with Flaminius"), Queen Sophonisba, Mivarsh Faz, the Lady Sriva, the Lord Spitfire, King Gorice XII ("Gohr-ice"), and (best of all) Lord Goldry Bluzco. Each of these characters has a distinct and in some cases developing personality. The story is unexpectedly full of humor, in both domestic scenes and the thick of battle. The narrative is interspersed with poetry and song precisely in the manner of The Lord of the Rings (though to put it this way gets the cart before the horse, in terms of influence). Just as Tolkien imagined an ancient and extended version of "The cow jumped over the moon," Eddison's characters recite poems from actual history. Here's one by John Donne, sung by Lady Prezmyra:
He that cannot chuse but love,
And strives against it still,
Never shall my fancy move,
For he loves 'gaynst his will;
Nor he which is all his own,
And can att pleasure chuse;
When I am caught he can be gone,
And when he list refuse.
Nor he that loves none but faire,
For such by all are sought;
Nor he that can for foul ones care,
For his Judgment then is naught.
I don't know all of the poems Eddison uses; some may be of his own invention. But I recognized Shakespeare and The Duchess of Malfi, at least. As the Donne poem indicates, the story includes romantic love, both pure and corrupt. It also contains battles, some described by the narrator (the Burg of Eshgrar Ogo), some recapitulated in dialogue or letter (the battle of Krothering Side), some not described at all, but summarized (the Straits of Melikaphkhaz). Other elements of the story are white and black magic, courage and cowardice in war, spycraft, portents in dreams and stars, courtly love, courtly decadence, hunting parties, semi-divine virgins, and the invocation of classical deities. The novel's nearest moral relative is Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, but it sometimes seems like a much older story, with feats of strength of biblical or Beowulfian proportions, visits to the underworld, and the Chaucerian combination of saucy humor with virtue, piety, and friendship. Sometimes modernity peeks through, in our competing, contradictory attitudes toward outer space as a promise and a horror: "he now felt within him the like whereof he never before had known: a death-like horror as of the houseless loneliness of naked space, which gripped him at the heart" (Chapter 28).
The piety is not specifically Christian, though it is in some respects compatible with Christianity. Natural virtue rather than supernatural virtue inspires the heroes, and Fortune rather than Providence superintends their affairs. But Christians have a license to enjoy nature, which was created by God and is fundamentally good, though corrupted. Furthermore, the novel questions the sufficiency of natural life, sometimes striking notes of nihilism worthy of Ecclesiastes. The very image of the self-consuming worm suggests inevitable defeat, and the theme is made explicit by the thoughtful Gro. Watching a brave military procession in Demonland, he remarks, "to the ear of one that useth, as I use, to consider the vanity of all high earthly pomps, the music of these powers and glories hath a deep under-drone of sadness. Kings and governors that do exult in strength and beauty and lustihood and rich apparel, showing themselves for awhile upon the stage of the world and open dominion of high heaven, what are they but the gilded summer fly that decayeth with the dying day? …Fate will not be cheated, cog we never so wisely." Noble sorrow competes with the novel's celebratory element: the sheer goodness of life and peace, great deeds in war, beauty, heroism, fidelity. I am not sure which theme dominates.
N.B. Do not read the original Preface by James Stephens in advance, if at all. It spoils and misleads, and is poorly written.