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Literature: The Worm Ouroboros

"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.
  • Acceptable Targets: In-universe: The Imps are practically the Butt Monkeys for all other nations of Mercury.
  • 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.
  • Agent Peacock: Brandoch Daha, La Fireez, Corinius.
  • All-Encompassing Mantle
  • 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  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.
  • Back from the Dead: King Gorice. Eleven times, no less.
  • Badass Boast: Humility is not the strong (or weak) point of the heroes of Mercury, be they Demons or Witches. Brandoch Daha and the Gorices are especially prone to this.
  • Bad Bad Acting: During Mevrian's escape from Krothering, she has to play drunk to get past Corinius. The narrator notes she acts as if she had learnt the part by rote.
  • Barbarian Tribe: The Imps as a whole. At least that's how the Demons and Witches see them.
  • Beard of Evil: King Gorice has a sinister-looking goatee.
  • Big Bad: Gorice. All of him.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Juss and Brandoch Daha saving Mevrian and Gro just in time from Witchland soldiers.
  • The Big Guy: Goldry Blusczo. While all the Lords of Demonland are supreme warriors, Goldry is the tallest and strongest. Corund is this to the Witches.
  • Bishōnen: Brandoch Daha, for want of a better word to describe him. As he's introduced (though like the rest of the lords he wears mustachios):
    ""His gait was delicate... Very tall was that lord, and slender of build, like a girl... His face was beautiful to look upon, and softly coloured like a girl's face..."
  • Black Magic: Gorice XII's area of expertise.
  • Blood Knight: Most of the characters, actually.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Goldry Bluszco.
  • 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.
  • Born Winners: The Lords of Demonland.
  • Brain Food: Mantichoras supposedly subsist on human brain.
  • Brains and Brawn: Gro and Corund, while their friendship lasts.
  • The Brute: Corund. Strong, loud and likes to fight, but also somewhat dim. However, unlike your typical Brute, Corund is (generally) honorable.
    • Corsus fits this better. And, no, he does not have Corund's sense of honor.
      • On the other hand Corsus tends to use subterfuge and deception, while Corund is more direct in his approach.
  • Call a Pegasus a "Hippogriff": The novel includes both Hippogriffs and "Mantichoras", and both may be somewhat different from what most modern readers would expect.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": "Martlet" is a heraldic term for the real-life bird known as swift. "Flittermouse" is an archaic name for bat.
  • The Cameo: The mysterious, nameless old man that warns Spitfire before the Battle of Thremnir's Heugh is identifiable as Odin for those versed in Norse Mythology and legend.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Lord Gro. Less morally negative than the usual depiction, as this is strongly implied to be due to being the only person who doesn't think War Is Glorious in an entire world of Blood Knights.
  • Citadel City: Carce, capital of Witchland is described as this.
  • Collapsing Lair: The Iron Tower.
  • 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 choose 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 (seemingly irreplacable) 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 use it more than once.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Lessingham, who is simply never mentioned after the first few chapters. He is no loss.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: Gorice XII, instead of having the captive Demons executed on the spot, tortures them by chaining them to a wall and serving them an opulent banquet just out of their reach. — Hardly surprising, this descent into Evil Gloating comes to bite him in the ass.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Gro towards Mevrian.
  • Dragged Off to Hell: Gorice, we must assume.
  • The Dragon: Lord Corund takes the post over from Corsus, and the implication is that Corinius is next in line.
  • Driven to Suicide: Queen Prezmyra.
  • 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.
  • Egg MacGuffin: The Hippogriff egg.
  • The Emperor: Despite not carrying the title, King Gorice embodies most aspects of this trope.
  • The Empire: Witchland and its dependencies.
  • Epic Catalog: In chapter XXXI, the armies and their commanders before the Battle of Carcë are listed.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Corund's sons helping Mevrian escape from Corinius.
  • Evil Counterpart: Corinius to Brandoch.
  • Evil Former Friend: Lord Gro from King Gaslark’s perspective.
  • Evil Gloating: Gorice XII does this a lot. At one point, Gro mentions how hard it is to play yes-man to this sort of person.
  • Evil Is Not a Toy: As Gorice XII is well aware.
  • Evil Overlord: King Gorice's aspiration in all his incarnations.
  • Evil Tower of Ominousness: The Iron Tower in Carcë. Also a Mage Tower.
  • 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.
  • Final Solution: Used against the cannibalistic Ghoul nation.
  • 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.
  • Funny Foreigner: The Imp prince Mivarsh Faz.
  • Great Offscreen War: The 'Holy War' against the Ghouls.
  • 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.
  • Handsome Lech: Corinius.
  • Heaven: The land of Zimiamvia, glimpsed by Juss and Brandoch Daha from Morna Moruna, is an earthly paradise for the people of Mercury, where the worthy go after death.
  • Heel-Face Revolving Door: Gro, he switched sides to the Witches then to the Demons then back again.
  • Heel-Face Turn: Lord Gro. He goes on to do a Face-Heel Turn near the end of the story.
  • Here We Go Again
  • The Hero: Juss.
  • 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.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The Ghouls are supposedly cannibals.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: Corinius to Mevrian. Only it turns out he doesn't.
  • Inexplicable Cultural Ties: The civilized nations of Mercury revere the Greek Pantheon. Also, in chapter V, King Gaslark wears a "kirtle of Tyrian purple".
  • In Vino Veritas: The drunken Corinius spills the secret of the Demons' captivity to Prince La Fireez despite heroic efforts at misdirection by the rest of the court.
  • I Owe You My Life: Prince La Fireez to the Lords of Demonland.
  • It's Personal: Between Brandoch Daha and Corinius.
  • Karmic Death: Gorice XII falls victim to his own sorcery.
  • Kick Them While They Are Down: Witchland declares war on Demonland while the Demons have not yet rebuilt their fleet, which was heavily decimated in the war against the Ghouls.
  • The Kingdom: Demonland, sort of. It seems to lack an actual monarch, but Lord Juss seems to be the informal ruler.
  • Lady of War: Mevrian, at need.
  • The Lancer: Brandoch to The Hero Juss.
  • Large And In Charge: The tallness of a character is a good indicator for the character's political power. Accordingly, Gorice is the tallest, Corund the second tallest of the whole cast.
  • The Leader: Juss.
  • The Load: Mivarsh to Juss and Brandoch.
  • Lovable Traitor: Gro, of course.
  • Love Before First Sight: Corinius falls in love with Mevrian after seeing her in a painting.
  • 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.
  • Mage Tower: The Iron Tower of Carcë, where Gorice XII goes to study Black Magic and call on the powers of Hell.
  • Make a Wish: On behalf of the Demons, Sophonisba prays to the Gods to restore the Witches. And it happens.
  • Master Swordsman: Lord Brandoch Daha, who at age nineteen defeated Gorice X, then the greatest swordsman in the world.
  • Meaningful Name: Corsus is coarse, but Gallandus is gallant. No wonder they don't get along.
  • Medieval European Fantasy
  • Mr. Exposition: The martlet.
  • Mundane Wish: When the Lady of Ishnain Nemartra grants Brandoch a wish, he — instead of making use of her semi-divine powers — wishes to sleep with her. Then he leaves her. No wonder she curses him.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: Corsus is deeply convinced of this, even though it always backfires on him.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: The more honorable Witchland nobles have this attitude.
  • Narrative Filigree: A lot.
  • Nasty Party: In a case of Offstage Villainy, the Witches thus get rid of the Princes of Impland.
  • Honorable Enemy: Mevrian praises Corund's sons for being this.
  • Non-Action Big Bad: Gorice XII (contrasting with Gorices X and XI).
  • Non-Action Guy: Gro relies on his wits rather than his sword; he turns out to be a worse fighter than Mevrian.
  • Non-Indicative Title: The eponymous Worm Ouroboros is not actually an entity in the book.
  • Non Sequitur: Corund's phrase "The devil damn me black as buttermilk" in chapter XI.note 
  • 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.
  • Only Sane Man: Lord Gro can come across as this, as the only major character who isn't a Blood Knight to some degree.
  • Our Demons Are Different: To the point where they have nothing to do with any conventional depiction of demons.
  • Pervert Dad: Corsus comes across as this, especially when he sends his daughter to Go Seduce My Archnemesis.
  • 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.
  • Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: Backfires on Corsus.
  • 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.
  • Purple Prose: And how!
  • 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).
  • Reluctant Warrior: Lord Gro and the Red Foliot. They stick out because all the other characters are Proud Warrior Race Guys
  • Really 700 Years Old: Queen Sophonisba, fosterling of the gods, forever seventeen years old.
  • Respawn Point: The Iron Tower of Carcë for Gorice.
  • Rightful King Returns: After two years of absence, Lords Juss and Brandoch Daha return to Demonland, now occupied by the Witches, to drive out Corinius, the king installed by Gorice.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: Corinius suggests to Mevrian marrying him would be in the interest of her conquered people. She doesn't buy it.
  • Scenery Porn: Both landscape and architecture is often described extensively.
  • Sealed Good in a Can: Goldry Bluszco in his mountain prison.
  • Self-Disposing Villain: Gorice XII.
  • Serenade Your Lover: Laxus for Sriva.
  • Sorcerous Overlord: Gorice XII, though he seems to use his sorcery rather sparingly.
  • Spiritual Successor: The Zimiamvian series is loosely related to The Worm Ouroboros and can be considered a sort of prequel.
  • Standard Evil Empire Hierarchy: Witchland.
    • The Emperor: Gorice XII
    • The Right Hand: Corsus.
    • The General: Corsus, Corund and Laxus.
    • The Guard: Gorice XI.
    • The Evil Counterpart: Corinius.
    • The Oddball: Gro.
  • Stating the Simple Solution: Corund advises Gorice to have the captured Demons executed on the spot. He won't listen.
  • Staying Alive: Gorice.
  • Storming the Castle: The storming of Carcë.
  • Summoning Ritual
  • Superpower Meltdown: The end of Gorice XII.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Mevrian escapes Krothering disguised as one of Corund's sons.
  • Take Over the World: Witchland's unspoken mission statement.
  • There Is Another: It turns out the "last hippogriff egg" wasn't really the last one — there is another on the bottom of an icy-cold lake in Demonland.
  • Tome of Eldritch Lore: Gorice's grimoire.
  • 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."
  • Turn Coat: Lord Gro.
  • The Ugly Guy's Hot Daughter: Corsus' daughter Sriva, "strangely fair for such a father."
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Corund and Prezmyra. Just about everybody views their marriage as a misalliance yet Corund was Prezmyra's own free choice out of a score of suitors.
  • Unstoppable Rage: Goldry Bluszco is seized by berserk fury in the wrestling match.
  • Victory Is Boring: And accordingly sends the Demons off into melancholy.
  • 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.
  • Villainous Glutton: Duke Corsus.
  • Villainous Valour: Displayed by the Witches in many instances.
  • We Have Reserves: The Witches treat the subjugated Imps as cannon fodder.
  • 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.
  • Will Not Tell a Lie: Demons never lie.
  • Words Can Break My Bones: Voarchadumia and Tripsarecopsem.
  • Worthy Opponent: How the Demons see the Witches, particularly Lord Corund.
  • Would Not Shoot a Civilian: The Demons. This is the main reason they come across as the good guys.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Masterfully averted. The book is written in perfect Jacobean English.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: As Mivarsh has to learn harshly.

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alternative title(s): The Worm Ouroboros
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