The Appendix N Book Club has posted the podcast they recorded with me in mid-June, 2022:
Caroline Stevermer joins us to discuss E.R. Eddison’s “The Worm Ouroboros”, depictions of Elizabethan masculinity, characters that don’t have parents, archaic language, excerpts from Western European literature, understanding characters through their deeds, a woman’s virtue measured by her maidenhood, the passage of time in Tolkien’s work, the taming the savages trope, the changing landscape of contemporary academia, San Francisco in 1906, and much more!
Appendix N ringleaders Ngo Vinh Hoi and Jeff Goad asked me thoughtful questions and charmed me into answering candidly and at length. I remember talking a lot and having a great time.
Here’s something about what “The Worm Ouroboros” is and how this came to pass.
My dear friend Ellen Kushner was featured guest for Appendix N’s episode 107 – “Ellen Kushner’s ‘Swordspoint’ with special guest Angela Lemus-Mogrovejo.” She had such a good experience that she introduced me to Hoi and Jeff, who were interested in a discussion of “The Worm Ouroboros.” What’s that, you ask?
I’ll let Ellen Kushner explain with an excerpt from her Substack “Bad Advice” for December 4, 2021 and then one from December 11, 2021. I’ll include links to the full entries, because you really don’t want to miss the full Ellen Experience.
From December 4, 2021:
As soon as I get this written, I’m going back to doing what I’m actually meant to be doing this weekend, which is writing the introduction to the new French translation of one of the greatest and weirdest fantasy novels of all time: The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison, published in England in 1922. If you’ve read it, it was most likely when the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series initiated the U.S. paperback printing in 1970. That series was created in a hurry: The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s history-changing trilogy, was a bestseller 1960s – the Harry Potter of its day, in that people of all ages, including the vast tribe of those who “never read this sort of thing but I loved this” took it up – and were naturally asking, “What else can I read that’s like this?”
The answer, at the time, was Not much.
So Ballantine started putting out whatever adult fantasy already existed, giving it a cover like the Tolkiens, no matter what was inside it.
My essay is going to cover how I found the book impossible to read, until my college friend Caroline Stevermer showed me how. Before you mock me, here is a brief excerpt:
“Write thou,” said Corund to Gro. “To write my name is all my scholarship.” And Gro took forth his ink-born and wrote in a great fair hand this offer on a parchment. “The most fearfullest oaths thou knowest,” said Corund; and Gro wrote them, whispering, “He mocketh us only.” But Corund said, “No matter: ’tis a chance worth our chancing,” and slowly and with labour signed his name to the writing, and gave it to Lord Brandoch Daha.
The fool man who has chosen to translate this into French is a brave man. I can’t wait to see how he handles what is basically straight-up Elizabethan prose! Will he use the diction of French Renaissance poet Ronsard? Or seek the abundant formalities of the classical playwright Corneille, as being more suited to the work?
Actually, I can ask him, because he is M. Patrick Marcel, who did the superb French translation of Swordspoint – and is even now waiting for me to finish the Ouroboros intro for Editions Calidor.
And here’s an excerpt from the introduction to the French edition she wrote for Editions Calidor, which appeared in her December 11, 2021 entry:
It took my friend Caroline Stevermer to show me the way in to E.R.Eddison’s world. We had met our first day at University, quickly discovered our love of the same books (which always makes a friendship!), and gradually admitted to each other that we both wanted to be writers of fantasy.1
Caroline is much better-read than I. And happens to be one of the world’s great readers-aloud. She picked up my copy of The Worm, leafed through it a little, and then began to read to me, her voice pitched low with amusement:
Then fared Juss to the guest-chamber, where Lord Brandoch Daha lay a-sleeping, and waked him and told him all. Brandoch Daha snuggled him under the bedclothes and said, “Let me be and let me sleep yet two hours. Then will I rise and bathe and array myself and eat my morning meal, and thereafter will I take rede with thee and tell thee somewhat for thine advantage. I have not slept in a goose-feather bed and sheets of lawn these many weeks. If thou plague me now, by God, I will incontinently take horse over the Stile to Krothering, and let thee and thine affairs go to the devil.”
And there it was at last! A hero I could recognize: the sharp-tongued, witty one who also just happened to be the best swordsman in the world…. In his company, I was willing to venture along with his companions. Each of whom had their own style of speech, expressing character as clearly as the elegant swordsman’s, though not necessarily as amusing. No less a critic than C.S. Lewis wrote, “The secret here is largely the style, and especially the style of the dialogue. These proud, reckless, amorous people create themselves and the whole atmosphere of their world chiefly by talking.”
Mind you, this delightful speech of Brandoch Daha’s does not come until Chapter Eight, on page 131 to be exact. But observing my interest, my friend flipped through the book, stopping at other of her favorite bits: humor, yes, and clever dialogue; but also heart-breakingly beautiful moments, and death-defying adventure. And so I was privileged to encounter the gallant Lady Mevrian, the lustful Corinius, the steadfast Lord Juss, and the tormented, clever Lord Gro.
Like Shakespeare’s Juliet reaching out to Friar Lawrence for the potion that will send her into a death-like trance, I reached out my hands to her for the book: Give me! Give me! Tell me not of fear!
1 A wish that came true! Caroline is the author of novels including A College of Magics and A Scholar of Magics, both of which have been translated into French. And guess who translated them? Patrick Marcel, the translator of Swordspoint and of The Worm Ouroboros! Talk about a worm biting its tail. I’m also very proud to spill the beans about the fact that three of my favorite of her books are coming out in March 2022 from OpenRoadMedia – including The Serpent’s Egg, in which I feature as not one but two characters.
Here are the links to Ellen’s full Substack entries:
P.S. I am not better read than Ellen (if only I were!) and I am thrilled to learn her opinion of my ability to read aloud.