Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Worm Ouroboros Sighting

Ouroboros by Theodoros Pelecanos (1478) - scanned by Carlos Adanero for Wikipedia Commons - public domain There is an antique symbol of eternity and recurrence, called by the ancient Greeks the ouroboros, and taking the form of a serpent devouring its own tail. This is of course a quaint fancy of our unscientific forebears, which does not occur in nature. Oh, yeah?

Reggie the King snake of the eldritchly named Faygate, West Sussex, would beg to differ.


Reggie's owner found him with a mouthful of himself, and headed straight for the vets (sic) . Little did he know that Reggie was close to digesting himself. Removing his tail required patience and skill because the snake's teeth face inwards.

Stupid owners, getting him vetted on spurious health 'n' safety grounds just as he was about to become an incarnation of immortality! (No, not this kind, in which case he might have rather more to thank them for.) Boo hiss, sssaith Reggie!

The ouroboros's evil twin - that tutelary spirit of bureaucracy which might in its serpentine form be dubbed the ouroborarse - continues to elude the most earnest efforts of modern zoology.

The Worm Ouroboros is also the theme and title of one of the foundation-stones of modern fantasy, which was written by E R Eddison in 1922 and which subsequently blew my mind at the advanced age of eleven. Interestingly, this is supposed to be about the age at which the story began to come to him. Like many foundation-stones, its public visibility is not especially high. It is written in a dense, ornate, heavily archaising style better illustrated than described:

So huge he was that even here at six miles distance the eye might not at a glance behold him, but must sweep back and forth as over a broad landscape, from the ponderous roots of the mountain, where they sprang black and sheer from the glacier up the vast face, where buttress was piled upon buttress, and tower upon tower, in a blinding radiance of ice-hung precipice and snow-filled gully, to the lone heights where, like spears menacing high heaven, the white teeth of the summit-ridge cleft the sky.

and, like Marmite, this tale divides its acquaintances sharply into opposing camps of lovers and loathers. Also like Marmite, the 'loathly' camp is noticeably the stronger.

This ain't just a question of style. Eddison's heroes and villains alike are drawn on a genuinely heroic scale. Not only do the heroes positively ooze the classical virtue of magnanimity, but rarely will even the villains stoop to a mean little wickedness. Summon devils from the vasty deep to dive-bomb your unsuspecting enemies as they sail away under truce, right on - kick their cat, not so likely.

Unfortunately, a part and parcel of this very aristocratic virtue of magnanimity is - at best - a benevolent contempt for the lower orders, i.e. just about everyone. "All's fair against such dirt," says the mostly-sympathetic villain Corund of the entire population of barbarous Impland; and whilst his heroic enemies would object to the all's fair, it isn't at all clear that they object to the dirt. As they obligingly explain at one point to the Impish princeling they do befriend upon their quest, they exceed him as demigods exceed men, and do things for breakfast that he could barely imagine on an opium supper. And they're right, too - and he knows it.

Wisely, Eddison doesn't let them spend too much time in the company of their inferiors. On the one occasion we meet a common soldier and his family, it is at home when their lords are absent. This lad is more than a bit effusive about his master Brandoch Daha, but at least is neither servile nor even especially impressed by rank as such. Nonetheless, the overall reader-experience is often a bit like going down for a quick one to the Rat and Carrot with Coriolanus - and keeping the Shakespeareian idiom, to boot.

My temper is not aristocratic. I admire magnanimity, real greatness of soul, as indeed the crown of all virtues, and I despise the pettifogging minions of the ouroborarse above all for their ceaseless labours (in the name of the common good) to stamp out any sign of it amongst common men and women. But much as I love to read about Brandoch Daha and Corund and Gro, they are not altogether humans as I know them. Amongst my own species, somebody who talks and acts like Brandoch Daha is almost certainly a crazy sociopathic braggart to the bone - though considered purely as a historical character, they may be quite as magnificent and entertaining. Unless you are stuck in their story...

And that last is how the Worm became one of the firmest subterranean foundations for my own Three Katherines of Allingdale, with its driving opposition between the hard careful magnanimity of the peasant-girl Katy Johns on the left hand, and the savage glorious vanity of her overlord Golden Kate and the local Prince Charming on the right. If that were all there were to it, William Morris might have given me inspiration enough in The Well at the World's End, another archaically-fashioned work which has influenced my Muse most variously.

Yet only through reading and loving Eddison could I have ended up writing something like my present project Killer-Kate, about those ways and hours in which my battered old monsters - a little wiser now, a salt ocean sadder - are more nearly right than Katy. Like them, this tale will succeed nobly or fail horribly. I can't say which way it will go, yet. If there is anything in Three Katherines that will last as well as the Worm, it will be because I've finished it with this, and done it justice along the way.

That is a lot to owe an ouroboros, and what can I do but be grateful in advance? Read The Worm Ouroboros, if you don't know it yet and the spirit so moves you. You might also consider Eddison's later tales of Zimiamvia, which are much philosophically denser and politically grittier, and of which some foretaste may be caught here.

You will probably not much care for either. Most people don't. But if you do... if you do...!

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