"Rightfully, having such a timeless life, this King weareth on his thumb that worm Ouroboros which doctors have from of old made for an ensample of eternity, whereof the end is ever at the beginning and the beginning at the end for ever more."
— Lord Juss, Chapter XIII: Koshtra Belorn
A High Fantasy novel written by Eric Rücker Eddison in 1922, predating the Lord of the Rings by more than 30 years. The novel focuses on a long war between Witchland (under King Gorice) and Demonland (led by Lord Juss and his brothers) in a fictional version of the planet Mercury, inspired primarily by Norse sagas. Another similarity to LOTR is that both novels feature a heroic quest (Juss and Brandoch Daha's quest to rescue Goldry Bluszco) against the backdrop of a protracted war.Note that the names "Demons", "Witches", "Imps", "Pixies" etc. do not have their traditional meaning. Rather, they are more like nations, and are able to interbreed. Basically, they're all either humans or Rubber-Forehead Aliens.Despite drawing on similar sources as J. R. R. Tolkien's masterwork, Eddison's world contrasts strongly in tone and morality: it is a world of Chivalric Romance high and proud warriors who believe the best way to die is on the field of battle. War Is Glorious and without valiant heroes and great battles the world would be quite boring. Another difference between those two novels is that Eddison's world is made largely ad hoc by mixing elements of various Mythologies (primarily Norse and ancient Greek, but also some Arabic and Arthurian) and assigning names almost randomly. This was the main complaint Tolkien had about the novel, but he praised it overall nevertheless, particularly its originality. As the man said: "The greatest and most convincing writer of invented worlds that I have read." Finally, although both LOTR and The Worm Ouroboros contain a number of poems, Tolkien's poems are his own creations, while Eddison's novel incorporated actual early modern poems (all properly credited).The Worm Ouroboros is in the public domain. You can find the text online at Sacred Texts or Wikisource. Or listen to the audiobook.
The Worm Ouroboros provides examples of:
Aborted Arc: The story begins with the avatar of a man called Lessingham going to Mercury (note that this Mercury has no resemblance to the real-life planet), but this whole arc gets dropped after the first few chapters. Lessingham is never mentioned again.
Lessingham is actually the hero of Eddison's later Zimiamvia trilogy, in which there are brief nods back to his experiences in this book.
Aerith and Bob: While some characters have names you'd expect in a fantasy novel (Corinius, Gorice etc.) others... not so much. Examples: Lord Spitfire (nothing to do with the airplanes), Goldry Bluszco, Lady Prezmyra.
The Alliance: Demonland and Goblinland, later also Impland and Pixieland.
Alternative Calendar: The timeline in the appendix uses Anno Carces Conditae dates, "in the year since the founding of Carcë".
Always Chaotic Evil: The Ghouls, according to the testimony of the civilized ("polite")note Where Witchland, Demonland, Goblinland and Pixieland are regarded as the major "polite" nations. Mercurians.
Arch-Enemy: Corinius and Brandoch Daha to each other.
Asexuality: In contrast to the Witches, the Lords and Ladies of Demonland are mostly asexual beings — with the single exception of Brandoch Daha, none of them show interest in sex, and none at all (including Brandoch) show interest in a romantic attachment. This even includes Goldry Blusczo, who is "betrothed" to Princess Armelline of Goblinland, but whose bride has about two appearances in the book – after all, it is only a political marriage.
Bond Villain Stupidity: When Juss and Brandoch Daha are captured in the failed surprise attack on Carcë, Gorice XII (instead of executing them at once) cannot resist the temptation to keep them alive to revel in their humiliation. This, of course, gives them opportunity to escape.
Combat by Champion: A wrestling match between Goldry Bluszco of Demonland and King Gorice XI of Witchland sets the main plot in motion.
Conflicting Loyalties: Prince La Fireez has to chose between his vassal duties to King Gorice and his debt of honor to the Demons, who once saved his life.
Costume Porn: Very much. Special mention to the King's mantle of cobra hides.
Curse: Zeldornius, Helteranius and Jalcanaius Fostus "ensorcelled" in Impland. The "weird" imposed on Brandoch by the Lady of Ishnain Nemartra.
Darkest Hour: There are two instances when temporarily all hope seems lost for the Demons: Juss and Brandoch getting captured in their botched surprise attack on Carcë, and the loss of the (presumedly unique) Hippogriff egg in Ravary.
Death or Glory Attack: Gorice XII’s "sending". While it is an extremely powerful spell, performing it is so difficult and dangerous that Gorice is reluctant to us it more than once.
Decoy Protagonist: Lessingham, who is simply never mentioned after the first few chapters. He is no loss.
Dropped a Bridge on Him: The death of Lord Gro. For a major and probably the most complex character in the book, his abrupt death in the Battle of Carcë is treated very curtly and feels decidedly anticlimactic.
Due to the Dead: The victorious Demons have their dead enemies buried magnificently.
The Exile: Lord Gro, banished from his native Goblinland for treason.
False Reassurance: Lady Sriva tells Corinius he will "find her chamber-door unlocked at midnight". And she keeps her promise. Only she isn't there.
Fantastic Racism: Because of their weaker physical build, Goblins are not regarded as worthy opponents on the battlefield by Witches and Pixies (and probably Demons too). Imps are regarded as primitive barbarians by the 'civilized' peoples of Mercury.
Fantastic Slur: The Witches repeatedly liken the Red Foliot to a lobster behind his back.
Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Demonland bears a strong resemblance to medieval Norway. The towns and castles have English names, though.
Fat Bastard: Old and gluttonous Corsus. As it turns out, he still can be quite capable when needed.
Fate Worse Than Death: According to the grimoire, making a mistake in the "sending" ritual will not only mean death for the performer, but also his eternal damnation. Ouch.
Foreshadowing: Many instances, sometimes lampshaded and sometimes not. For example, the King's wild eagle tearing out the eyes of the King's hound foreshadows the murder of Gallandus by Corsus.
Forever War: Although there are brief periods of peace, any given country is constantly at war with one other country.
Food Porn: The description of the banquet at Carcë.
Friendship Moment: When Corund, suspicious and annoyed at Gro, threatens to kill him, Gro offers him a sword to do it with. Gro later tells Prezmyra that she and her husband are his only real friends in Witchland.
Greek Mythology: Although it takes place on a fantasy world, the only gods mentioned are those of ancient Greece.
Guilt-Free Extermination War: The "Holy War" that ended in the Ghouls' extinction. Lampshaded when Lord Gro tries to mine the genocide for anti-Demonland propaganda and is rebuked by the Red Foliot (the most peaceful and mild-mannered ruler in the book), who assures him that the extermination of the Ghouls was most certainly a praiseworthy heroic. As the Ghouls were cannibal sea-raiders, it can be inferred that they felt no different towards the other races of Mercury.
The High Queen: Prezmyra has the personality, and is crowned Queen of Impland later.
Horned Humanoid: According to chapter I, the Demons have (small) horns. However, they are never again mentioned after chapter I. Whether other races have horns is unclear.
Hot-Blooded: Gaslark. It combines poorly with the below trope.
Hufflepuff House: The Goblins (with the exception of Lord Gro). We are informed that Goblinland is a major power on par with Demonland, but in the struggle for world domination against Witchland, they are effectively just extras sticking to the coattails of the Demons. And whenever King Gaslark tries to do something grandiose and heroic — like ambushing Carcë or conquering Impland — it backfires spectacularly.
Love Redeems: Gro's defection from Witchland is triggered by his crush on Mevrian. Of course his initial loyalty to Witchland seems to have been due to his crush on the beauteous Prezmyra. Apparently he's a 'love the girl you're with' type.
Magic Knight: King Gorice XII and, to a much lesser extent, Lord Juss.
Non Sequitur: Corund's phrase "The devil damn me black as buttermilk" in chapter XI.note The reason being that it's a garbled echo of the line said by Macbeth that goes "The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!" (Act V, Scene iii).
Ouroboros: King Gorice wears a ring with this symbol. But the book's name also refers to something else... the ending
Odd Name Out: The top military command of Witchland consists of Corund, Corsus, Corinius and ... Laxus.
Parental Abandonment: Although the Lords of Demonland all are in their early thirties at most, they apparently have no living parents — nor is there a single word dropped on what happened to their parents or who they were.
Politically Incorrect Villain: The Witches are considerably more dismissive of other peoples than the Demons. Fits especially on Corinius, who never misses out on an opportunity to show his disapproval of Gro, whom he likes to call "the Goblin". He is also an unabashed macho (See I Have You Now, My Pretty).
Prophecies Are Always Right: A soothsaying woman once prophesied Mivarsh the manner of his death: He would be eaten by a crocodile. As it turns out, she wasn't a fraud.
Punch Clock Villain: Laxus, Admiral of Witchland. The Demons themselves acknowledge that he is an utterly decent guy, only he happens to serve the evil side. And he has an exemplary sense of duty!
Corund's sons Heming and Cargo seem to be rather decent fellows, too.
The Quest: The two expeditions into Impland to rescue Goldry Bluszco.
Really Gets Around: Sriva, who at one point is justifiably worried because she has one boyfriend waiting in her room and another one singing ballads outside the window (and then traipses off to seduce another).
Treasure Is Bigger in Fiction: Juss' palace at Galing takes the cake. Not only are the high seats of the Demons carved from single gemstones "of monstrous size", there's more: "(...) the capital of every one of the four-and-twenty pillars was hewn from a single precious stone (...) all hewn from faultless gems, thrice the bulk of a big man's body."
Villainous Crush: Gro, Heming and Corinius fall for Mevrian. She's quite something! Unluckily for them all she's also vowed to Artemis. Recognizing the honorable character and intentions of Gro and Heming Mevrian turns them down gently and with courtesy as opposed to her scornful rejection of the brutish Corinius.
What Measure Is a Mook?: Heavy case. Both Witches and Demons worry little about the countless mooks that have to die for their war, including those of their own side.
White and Gray Morality: Bear in mind that the morality on this world is different from our own, being more in line with that of medieval Norse warriors. The Witches come across as worse because they're trying to subjugate all the smaller nations. King Gorice and Lord Corinius come across as thoroughly evil (and Lord Corsus is not far behind), but the same cannot be said of the other Witchland nobles.