The Worm Ouroboros
by E.R. Eddison
'The Worm Ouroboros' Summary
A framing story in the first two chapters describes the world of the novel as Mercury, though it is clearly a fantasy version of Earth, a "secondary world"; no effort was made to conform to the scientific knowledge of Mercury as it existed at the time of writing. At a number of points the characters refer to their land as Middle earth, used here in its original sense of "the known world", and the gods worshiped have the names of deities from Greek mythology.
Oddly, the introductory framing story has a beginning, but is not referred to once the actual fantasy adventure begins. (Framing, as a technique, usually opens and closes a separate story contained inside the frame-narrative.)
The framing story having introduced the chief lords of Demonland—the brothers Juss, Spitfire, and Goldry Bluszco, and their cousin Brandoch Daha—the story begins in earnest with a dwarf ambassador from Witchland arriving in Demonland to demand that the Demons recognize King Gorice XI of Witchland as their overlord. Juss and his brothers reply that they and all of Demonland will submit if the king (a famous wrestler) can defeat Goldry Bluszco in a wrestling match.
The match is held in the neutral territory of the Foliot Isles, and Gorice is killed. His successor (or reincarnation) Gorice XII is a sorcerer who banishes Goldry to an enchanted mountain prison, by means of a perilous sorcery requiring the help of the devious Goblin traitor Lord Gro.
While Lord Spitfire is sent back to raise an army out of Demonland, Lord Juss and his cousin Brandoch Daha, aided by King Gaslark of Goblinland, attempt an assault on Carcë, the capital of the Witches, where they think Goldry is held. The rescue fails, the Goblins flee, and Juss and Brandoch Daha are both captured. They escape with the aid of La Fireez, the prince of Pixyland and vassal of King Gorice, who helps them at great personal cost because he owes them a debt of honor.
Juss and Brandoch Daha return home to Demonland and then start an expedition to rescue Goldry Bluszco from his terrible prison, somewhere past the mountains of Impland. Lord Spitfire again stays behind to lead Demonland's armies against an expected invasion from Witchland.
The expedition's fleet is smashed and its army destroyed. Juss and Brandoch Daha meet with three strange enchanted heroes of an earlier time, and Lord Juss is later nearly killed by a manticore. After a year of wandering they climb the mighty peak of Koshtra Pivrarcha and then attempt the even more difficult peak of Koshtra Belorn. Before reaching the summit of Koshtra Belorn they encounter Queen Sophonisba, a royal from that area to whom the gods had granted eternal youth when her realm was laid waste by the Witches.
From Sophonisba they learn that Goldry is held in prison on the top of Zora Rach Nam, a mountain which cannot be climbed and whose peak is surrounded by unceasing flames. There is only one way to free him: they must find a hippogriff's egg, and one of them must ride the newly hatched hippogriff. Queen Sophonisba gives Lord Juss one hippogriff egg. Alas, their lone companion, the Impland native Mivarsh Faz (fearing that he will have to walk back home alone, if the Demons get the hippogriff) steals the egg and tries to use it himself, causing his death. Lord Juss and Brandoch Daha set out for home, their quest defeated for the time being. But matters are not completely hopeless, as one of Queen Sophonisba's martlet scouts have told them of another hippogriff egg, lying at the bottom of a lake in Demonland.
Meanwhile, the armies of Witchland have attacked Demonland. Duke Corsus is the first commander of the Witchland army, and conquers part of Demonland, but is defeated by Spitfire. A new Witchland army, under the command of Lord Corinius, defeats Spitfire and captures most of Demonland. This includes Brandoch Daha's castle of Krothering, which had been watched over by his sister Lady Mevrian.
At this point, Lord Gro changes sides and helps Lady Mevrian escape from the grasp of Corinius, who wishes to marry her against her will. A few months later, Lord Juss and Brandoch Daha return and expel the Witches from Demonland.
Equipped with a new hippogriff egg, Lord Juss makes a second attempt to rescue his brother, and this time is successful. However, his forces are trapped in an inland sea by the Witchland navy; forced to engage in battle directly, they completely destroy that navy. La Fireez dies in this battle.
The Demons then sail to Carcë and face the remaining forces of Witchland in a climactic struggle. In the battle, Lord Gro is lambasted by Corund for switching sides; Gro responds by killing a Demon and is himself killed by Spitfire. Corund dies from wounds he suffers fighting with the heroes of Demonland.
His armies having failed, King Gorice attempts another terrible summoning; lacking the aid of Gro, he is unable to complete the spell and is destroyed. Duke Corsus poisons the remaining nobles of Witchland, and is killed himself by the dying Corinius.
Though triumphant, the Demon lords find that victory is bitter because there are no more enemies worthy of their heroism, no more great deeds to perform. Sophonisba, seeking to reward their heroism, prays to the gods who return the world to how it had been four years before. And so, with a blare of trumpets, an ambassador from Witchland arrives, "craving present audience" and the story starts anew.
Eric Rücker Eddison was an English civil servant and author, writing epic fantasy novels under the name E. R. Eddison. His notable works include The Worm Ouroboros (1922) and the Zimiamvian Trilo...More on E.R. Eddison
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