When I was a lad, when let loose in a mall, I would make a beeline for the science fiction section, where I would check if J.R.R. Tolkien had written the Silmarillion yet, and if not, if there was anything else like it. And back then there wasn’t anything like it, but Ballantine Books would republish anything in its vaults that wasn’t quite LOTR: Mervyn Peake, David Lindsay, and E.R. Eddison.
(I don’t know what happened to swords & sorcery; I don’t recall ever seeing it. I didn’t even see a Conan book till college.)
I picked up The Worm Ouroboros, and I’m not sure I ever finished it; the prose was extraordinarily difficult. And for over thirty years A Fish Dinner in Memison has stood on my shelf unread, quietly retaining through all those years the title of Best Fantasy Title Ever.
I finished it last night, and it’s truly singular— in both positive and negative ways. In some ways it’s quite horrible, and it’s a mess structurally. But the intensity of its vision can get to you after awhile.
First you have to get used to his prose.
She dismissed her girls, Myrrha and Violante, with a sign of the hand, and, while the nurse braided, coiled and put up her hair, kissed the flowers again, smoothed her cheek against them, as a beautiful cat will do, gathered them to her throat. ‘Dear Gods!’ she said, ‘were it not blasphemy, I could suppose myself the Queen of Heaven in Her incense-sweet temple in Cyprus, as in the holy hymn, choosing out there My ornaments of gold and sweet-smelling soft raiment, and so upon the wind to Ida, to that princely herdsman,
ὂς τότ’ ἐν ακροπόλοις ὄρεσιν πολυπιδάκου Ἵδης,
βουκολεσκεν βοῦς, δέμας ἀϑανάτοισιν ἐοικώς…’
Oh, he does provide glosses for his lapses into Greek or Latin (not for those into French or Italian); the reader, don’t you know, can be assumed to have studied the ancient languages but not to have recalled every word.
Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to take seriously sentences like this:
And Barganax’s face, as by star-leap received up into that heaven, rested, unseen, unseeing, where, as it had been two doves, her breasts sat throned, ivory-smooth through the silk, violet-sweet, proud, and Greek.
The prose does contribute to the atmosphere, which is a strange and unapologetic mixture of philosophy, romantic adventure, and sensuality. Moorcock and Miéville had trouble with Tolkien; they’d be gobsmacked by Eddison, who’s the most aristophilic writer I’ve ever read. It’s not that he wants to oppress the commoners; he doesn’t even glance at the commoners. Occasionally a rural worker appears, purely as decoration, but he has even less interest in economies and cities and statecraft than Tolkien.
Rather, he’s interested in noble characters. The man are brawny, proud, and bearded, and their business is intrigue and war— though poetry, painting, and philosophy are also approved. The women are more than their equals, invariably beautiful, imperious, independent, aloof, and passionate. They inspire worship, and woe to the man who trusts merely to his position or good looks to woo an Eddison heroine. He must suffer rejection first, show respect, and above all never bore her.
The world these characters move in is full of splendors, both natural and man-made, lovingly described— though it’s clear that to him, mountains and beasts and gold and silks never quite do justice to the beauty of his women.
If that weren’t enough, the book is an exposition, both directly and in allegory, of Eddison’s own metaphysics, which apparently starts from Spinoza but reminds me much more of Romanticism. He simplifies the values of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty into one supreme value— Beauty. This then informs a cosmic dualism, masculine Love and feminine Beauty:
Infinite and Omnipotent Love creates, preserves, and delights in, Infinite and Perfect Beauty. Love and Beauty are, in this duality, coequal and coeternal; and, by a violent antinomy, Love, owing his mere being to this strengthless perfection which he holds at his mercy, adores and is enslaved by her, while Beauty (by a like antinomy) queens it over the very omnipotence which both created her and is her only safeguard.
The sensuality, the delight in the endless variety of nature, of human affairs, and of eros, are thus not accidental; they are the very purpose of the universe. The male characters are to some extent avatars of God/Love; the female characters are, even more, avatars of the Goddess/Beauty.
Structurally, as I said, the book is a mess. For one thing, Eddison has insisted on intermingling sections set in his fantasy realm, Zimiamvia, with sections on Earth, chronicling the love affair and lives of two English aristos, Lessingham and Mary. The latter bits make for a weak early-20C romance, which despite its brevity takes the time to cover an entire cricket game and reproduce a story written by the couple’s 8-year-old daughter, plus repulsive bits of politics:
And your unhaired woman (they’ll be as common as the cartway soon) and your unmasculated man, are part of the engine, worker ants, worker termites, neuters: worthless lives to themselves, which only exist to run the engine…
He goes on to explain that the big mistake of WWI was giving an armistice, rather than carrying the war “to destruction clean through Germany”. Well, he was writing during WWII when it was easy enough to feel that the Prussians hadn’t been sufficiently beat down the first time.
A bit later he clarifies that his ideal is a Greek city-state, with a population in the tens of thousands. The aspect of modern life that gave Tolkien the horrors was evidently industrialization; what bothered Eddison was not even the fall of aristocracy but population. You can only have a termite society because people are as numerous as insects. It makes sense in terms of his ideal: bold lusty men and women, powerful and individual. Strong as they are, they get lost in a crowd.
The 20C sections are largely a failure largely because he makes his central couple as heroic as he can. Lessingham is a brilliant painter, an indispensable diplomat, a fabled soldier, and a canny businessman. Oh, and he worships his wife. It’s just silly.
The Zimiamvian parts are much better— the larger-than-life characters work better in a larger-than-life world. There’s an attempt at danger— a plot against the King— which is resolved in an unusual and interesting way… only this happens a third of the way through the book! Then the story concentrates on the romance between the King’s illegitimate son Barganax and the Lady Fiorinda. The major obstacle is that Fiorinda is already married, but we’re among Olympians here, and conventional morality need not apply; it’s explicitly stated that the man is not worthy of her.
(Fiorinda appears on Earth a couple of times, bridging the two narratives, though this is never explained, beyond the strong hints that she’s a particularly clear avatar of the Goddess.)
As conworlding, it’s kind of inexplicable. There’s a handsome map provided, and Eddison obviously relished creating geographical names, as well as the intrigues of the nobles. Fiorinda has a couple of handmaidens who are dryads and change shape at will. But the world hardly exists as a world; it’s more like the Arcadian backdrop of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a stage for the players to strut upon, without the distractions that would arise setting it in an actual historical reality.
There actually is a fish dinner, which turns into a symposium on Eddison’s cosmology, with a subtext of Barganax’s seduction of Fiorinda. (He already succeeded once, but she’s made it clear that she is not to be taken for granted and must be won anew each time.)