In this corner of the review world I will place brief assessments of four books that are considered to be pioneers of epic fantasy, possible influences on Tolkien, etc. I’ll give an overall impression, list anything I see that could have influenced LoTR, and try to recommend whether there’s enough to be learned (fellow authors) or enjoyed (fellow readers) to make such an epic worth your while.
I mean, there are lots of epic fantasy stories out there, am I right? I could recommend some if you’re not clear on that…
The four titles in a very specific order (namely, the order I read them):
The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison (DONE! See below)
The Well at the World’s End by William Morris
(DONE! See below)
The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany
Jurgen A Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell
The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
Where and When
Written in 1922, back when people still used the word “high fantasy” to describe books. I found a copy on the Zon for nothing (it’s public domain).
World’s Quickest Review
A novel packed with heroism in the old style: battle and struggle on nearly every page, but imbued with the interaction of characters that seems ahead of its day.
Middle Earth Sighting
Wellll… it IS the tale of a world-spanning quest, for the most part featuring one company of noble heroes (sometimes sundered, or held in prison). But the nation-versus-nation cadence of warfare, strategy, victory and defeat in this novel reminds me more strongly of The Silmarillion than LoTR. This is the tale of kings and princesses, the mighty giving commands and seeking rescue or revenge.
Read it For…
Some of the best and most engaging dialogue I’ve ever seen. These guys bid defiance, throw insults, pitch woo and argue with friends better than any book I can think of. There are so many names and titles here, but once they get talking their character comes shining through–a braggart, a calculator, this one cruel, that one lusting, ah yes, him.
The book also has some marvelous scenes of exquisite tension. When the chief antagonist King Gorice summons the quisling Goblin Lord Gro to attend him in the attempt to summon a demonic power, I couldn’t have scraped the book off my hands with a knife. Two of the worst guys in the story, and I still felt anxious at what they would suffer should they fail.
Later on, two of the heroes are captured and held in durance vile by the lords of Witchland. But their torture and death must be delayed, as one of King Gorice’s vassals arrives for a feast, and all the Witch nobles are sternly warned to say nothing of their prisoners, for this lord is honorable and owes our heroes a debt. The conversation during the feast is priceless, as of course one of the nobles just cannot keep his hands off the wine…
The book was started when Eddison was very young and won great accolades when it came out, even from Tolkien himself who lauded his invention. C.S. Lewis said plainly “no writer can be said to remind us of Eddison”. High praise from those we highly praise. Yet I’m pretty sure this book as written would never have made it today! It would have been good to go first.
- Rickety Starting “Framework”– the first two chapters are about a guy who travels to the planet Mercury, witnesses the beginning of the war between Demonland and Witchland… and is never heard from again. No, I’m not kidding you. I confess I forgot all about him myself. Incredible that this classic work started this way. Half a frame story, can you imagine sending that over to a publisher?
- What’s in a Name? One article speculates that Eddison made up many of the names used in the tale when he was just a teen, and that he “lacked the heart to change them” later. It’s not just that he grabbed words from all over the map (of earth)–sometimes European, sometimes Asian, sometimes faerie, sometimes gibberish–that, I could easily deal with. The world of Ouroboros is not coherent like Middle Earth, it doesn’t have a consistent or well-defined theology. But when you have so many minor characters, would it be too much to ask that you not name three vassals to the evil king Corinius, Corsus and Corund!!
- Ring-a-round-the-um, Wormy– the Kings of Witchland wear a ring of the Worm Ouroboros, a dragon biting its own tail. This is heavily symbolic, and it’s not just that the tale seems to go on forever. That part was fine with me, I really enjoy long immersive epic tales. And despite the lack of a centered worldview, or the other nit-picks here mentioned, there was also a theme of true circularity to this story that I didn’t find personally appealing. To tell more would be a spoiler, but I will admit that while I like classic happy endings better, I was moved by the notion forwarded in this story. It stayed with me for days.
On balance an excellent book: depending on your needs and preferences you might get what you want from the first few chapters (but go beyond the first two!).
The Well at the World’s End: A Tale by William Morris
Where and When
This one comes from 1896, and is also in the public domain (I got a copy at the Gutenberg Project).
World’s Quickest Review
An allegorical tale wherein The Red Cross Knight meets a real world, yet not ours.
Middle Earth Sighting
I didn’t see the connections, though I admit some were game to try, lining up the essential elements of Ralph and Frodo. Sure, it’s a there-and-back-again tale, and whenever you cross the world there’s sure to be mountains no one’s ever crossed before, etc. But Ralph is without doubt the questing knight of old, and that’s the running flavor of this tale, the heroic adventure of much more personal meaning than the world-saving brand of quest.
Fair enough, there’s a guy named Gandolf in it! But lo and behold, he’s the tyrant of a town, and a dope to boot, just about the opposite of the wizard we know. The Sage of Swevenham, now, he’s definitely more the Gandalf type–older yet vigorous enough to fight, has great advice and maybe even knows some magic. But they don’t give him a name. Ralph has a lover in the story (in fact, two), and perhaps there’s a kind of Aragorn-Arwen romance there. In my opinion Jackson and company put more of that we’re-in-this-together theme into the films. But I don’t think Morris was the inspiration there; just Hollywood doing its thing.
When Ralph returns home his aura and courage is enough to panic the thugs threatening his family and lands, and that rang a bit like the four battle-forged Hobbits charging in to free the Shire. But for the most part, I think the “influence” of authors like Morris and Eddison on Tolkien, Lewis and later on us, is just that they went ahead and did it. Hey look, you can make up a world, races, monsters, anything you like and then have a story there. For people who make things up, that is…
Read it For…
A pioneering work in third person sympathetic point of view. That was what struck me most powerfully about this tale. In structure it’s very close to allegorical (the knight stands for you and me, and everywhere/one he goes/meets is like a personification of a Virtue or Vice). But Morris stayed off the lecture circuit and just told us the story of a younger son with a specific character, whose actions we could root for and who interacted with others in just the way you’d hope. A simple thing, perhaps to think about today, but back then, to my reading, even the ripping sci-fi tales of H.G. Wells tended to be much more omniscient third: even when they stick with a single character you don’t get into their thoughts and feelings much.
I loved how the author consistently carried the water throughout such a long tale. Right at the start, the father assesses his four sons rather frankly, and to Ralph he says, in essence, “sure, you’re a handsome lad”. Throughout his travels, Ralph meets women who mean him ill, and they act strangely from the first moment they see him. Morris never writes “taken with his looks”, he stays with Ralph who is understandably confused. But you begin to realize, the dude is a stunner and also honest, brave, kind. He’s having an effect on people, and you the reader can enjoy knowing more than the hero. This is just one of many examples.
Of course the scenes at the height of the tale when they get to U-No-Where have to be handled with skill, and in my opinion they are. You’re in another world, and you’re thinking about yet another world; an event or accomplishment so great it changes all the rules. From his first step back toward home, Ralph has a quality I think any of us would envy. He’s very sure what he needs to do.
I assume as a reader that you’re up for a long tale if it’s good enough. This one is, no question, but I think it’s also true that Morris put a pretty big load on his character’s back, one that might have modern readers drumming fingers as they read.
- You Already Know, You Know? Here we have 300+ pages, but honestly you can sketch out the shape of this story just from the six words of the title. Really cool place is far away. Dude’s going to seek it. PROB-ably going to get there! And then, by the way? He’s going to come all the way back, isn’t he. With such a weight of predestination hanging over the hero’s head, it’s like I say, should have flipped into an allegorical tale of some kind. But Morris casts a spell with the way he keeps the story personal, with characters whose qualities entwine on every page. You stay immersed and have a great time: it’s only when you put it down that you think, “oh man, I KNOW where this is going, how much longer”.
- Names, I Need Names! Maybe he didn’t have an editor? Should we all send a thank-you card to ours, perhaps! For the second epic-classic in a row I have some serious difficulty with keeping track of who’s-who. Sometimes Morris gives you a name, usually a first one, and then it’s the usual problem of “wait, is Ralph talking to Richard now, or is it Roger”. But sometimes the name is a version of Bull, and once in a while he veers toward the allegorical gravity of the tale with a title like “The Lady of Abundance”. All in all, that’s just sauce for the goose.
- But the dream… in the middle of the tale, Ralph has a dream in which his past love, now dead, comes to comfort him and let him know it’s alright for Ralph to move on to the woman he’s interested in now. Then he has a vision of that woman in his dream, who he’s trying to find and rescue, and she tells him her name is Dorothea. Terrific. He finally meets this woman again in the waking world, and the most absurd dialogue occurs in which he says basically, “Hey, you’re Dorothea” and she says “Um, no, my name is Ursula”. And Ralph says, “Oh. How about that” and they go on with their adventure and never bring it up again. What the actual? In what way does an exchange like that, a do-over of that magnitude make its way into a manuscript? Can you imagine leaving a thread like that hanging out of your submission?
You’ll need to decide if you’re an epic-reading man or mouse for this one. The payoff of Well at the World’s End comes only from reading the whole thing. I can assure you it’s “well” worth it (oh the pain), because of the way Morris combined archaic quest and language with a decidedly-modern sympathetic or close point of view. That juxtaposition is quite unique and pulls you in as a reader.