Will Just Keeps Reading! Reviews of Epic-Classics

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
The Well at the World’s End by William Morris
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…

Nit-Pick Department

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.

Nit-Pick Department

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.

The King of Elfland's DaughterThe King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany


Where and When

This tale was composed in 1924 by Lord (yeah, first name) Dunsany. I grabbed a copy off Amazon and sprang for the full-out 99 cents. On his worst day, his sales rank has never been less than three thousand above any title of my own.

World’s Quickest Review

Many, very many things are inevitable whether you are mortal or fae. But the striving is still important.

Middle Earth Sighting

Well, Elves, without any question. And Elven lands if it comes to that (though really there’s only one). Dunsany paints an incredible picture of a world beyond our own that is in fact nothing at all like Tolkien’s straight way into the West. And yet it gives exactly the same feel, produces just the same result in me as I read about it. These are High Elves in just the way Middle Earth has them, proud and tall and capable of just sitting in contemplation while years pass for the rest of us slobs “in the fields we know”. The way Dunsany treats of magic and enchantments is also very suggestive, runes and continuous ritual and more. Finally, it is of course a love story between a Man and Elf, destined to bring great trouble to both kingdoms and yet without the suffering there is no story.

Read it For…

The prose. Or maybe it’s the poetry, not that there are many poems or songs in the story. It’s that the style Dunsany has mastered, his voice is utterly unique, and I struggle to do it justice with description. The tale is straight-up story, but it’s as if the voice had walked half the distance to poetry, then stepped one pace back toward prose before declaiming. It’s THAT CLOSE to Beowulf or Homer. It doesn’t rhyme or have meter, but it constantly makes you stop and think exactly the way good poems make me stop and think.

The Man, a king’s son, sets out to retrieve his lover and reenter the Elven kingdom:

He was an incongruous figure with his stave and his sack and his sword; but he followed one idea, one inspiration, one hope; and so shared something of the strangeness that all men have who do this.

I want to rave about the touch he puts on the ball, the way Dunsany gestures subtly toward an incredible idea like the border to Elfland. It isn’t just “there”, there’s no toll booth or secret door. But those who seek Elfland must walk “behind the houses”, and there are indications that all windows face west, just as all the people in them seldom look east or want to talk about it. Thus, “behind the houses” indicates a secret world, a level of enchantment that seems to me so authentic I never tired of reading about it.

If this kind of poetic, near-purple prose annoys you, stay away from Elfland. And probably epic fantasy if it comes to that– I mean seriously, what are you even doing here? This is the stuff of legend for real fans of the genre and probably the single book that influenced JRRT more than the others combined. So.

Nit-Pick Department

Hammering the Church. Again, oh joy. Of course this was the 20s when raining on organized religion as xenophobic, hateful, greedy and eight or twelve other things was still new and cool. So I should probably just calm down. But trigger warning if you are still confused that people exist who can’t wait to tear down anyone in robes. There’s a priest in this one and he acts like the complete opposite of what he should be. Which means of course, exactly as expected by folks who just love to write from that point of view. Even when the priest is cursing Elfland, there’s poetry in the writing. And what do you know, his incantation kind of works…

Return to product informationJurgen: A Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell

Where and When

Published in 1919, when if you think about it there was a serious dearth of things to laugh about. I took mine off the Zon where you can pay zero cents. Or if you want an audio cassette of it, an extra $76.00; you decide.

World’s Quickest Review

The world’s first legend-realm tour collides with a pre-flapper guide to picking up chicks. There are no survivors.

Middle Earth Sighting

Thought about it a long time, and I got nothing. What I said before, about breaking down the walls and giving imagination free rein, that’s all still true. And this one was the second of the four, so that’s something. But in all honesty– dude runs around all the classic otherworlds of history’s legends, and gets steamy action with serious babes. While searching for justice, which in this context appears to mean “why am I still not happy and what can I do about that”. It’s a mid-life crisis with heavy overtones of misogyny, in my uneducated view.

The guy’s a forty-something who once was twenty years younger, in love with a beautiful woman, and feeling like the world was his oyster. But as the story opens? Not so much. He’s a pawnbroker and poet, married to Lisa (who seems the classic nag) and wondering wha’ hoppen.

The main character disputes with a cleric, speaking up in favor of evil’s place in the scheme of things. And to reward him the Devil (sort of the Devil, maybe it’s actually God and here we go with the whole slamming religion thing again), but anyway he gets a snazzy shirt, those naughty twenty years off his appearance, and a ticket to ride into all the realms of classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages. There’s an Underworld appetizer, followed by Arthurian salad, Trojan main course and a classic Christian after-life for dessert (the flambe first, heavenly hash second).

And while Jurgen is touring these mythical places, he of course meets and seduces the Hot Chick Top 10 list, from the Lady of the Lake to Helen of Troy (somewhat), plus queens and nymphs galore. Not that any of it makes him happier than he was… and in the end, he meets the Maker once more and to the astonishment of absolutely no one, asks for his old life and wife back (because only a classic nag really understands him).

And that, evidently, is all justice is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s full of funny passages, and when you think how the author turns so many classical genres on their sides you have to give credit. But I think I went into this tale a bit fatigued of reading epics, and really hoping to catch sight of something familiar and reminiscent of Middle Earth. No soap.

Read it For…

Ironclad writing, especially dialogue as Jurgen time and again manages to noun-verb his way out of deep trouble. I have no Nit-Pick Department to report from for this piece and that’s a testament either to Mr. Cabell himself or his editor. There are some imaginative passages here about how magical/miraculous rites are conducted which could draw your interest as well. Just brace yourself for an endless parade of women falling for him, each time complete with innuendo so dedicated that it strains your credulity. Believe me, whenever Jurgen is alone with a pretty woman for the first time, it doesn’t matter if he SAYS he’s going to speak of history, or advanced math, or the nutritional value of green stalk-vegetables, it’s all a metaphor for the pretty woman’s education in quite another subject altogether. And always the same one, of course.

In the end, I read four long epics all thought to be influences on the fantasy greats we know well, and came away impressed with how original Tolkien, Lewis and the others were. All four of these “influences” are indeed classics, well worth reading if this is your thing. But the copyright lawyers can take the rest of the decade off. All these worlds are truly different.