Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Eddison, E R

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(1882-1945) UK civil servant, writer and scholar of Old Norse who concealed the intensity of his imaginative life by creating an external existence and career of superficial calm. This tranquil surface no more describes ERE than it does his near contemporary, J R R Tolkien; and there may be some point in emphasizing the fact that both writers were profoundly alienated by the destruction of the Land of Britain, that they both clearly refused the 20th century. In common with others of their generation, both were also psychically wounded and estranged by the apocalypse of World War I; ERE's first published work, Poems, Letters, and Memories of Philip Sidney Nairn (coll 1916), which he edited and to which he supplied an eloquent 100-page memoir, reflects this sense of loss and destruction. (Nairn, a minor poet, died during WWI.) ERE's secret immersion in the creation of a Secondary World can be seen – like Tolkien's – to represent an attempt to claw back a lost Arcadia, a world before the War.

But ERE differs radically from Tolkien through his refusal to accord any supporting or defining role to Religion, either in The Worm Ouroboros or the Zimiamvia sequence; and for this reason he never found full favour with either Tolkien or C S Lewis, both of whom knew him in his last years. In any case, ERE owes nothing to these advocates of Christian Fantasy; and his work therefore stands to one side of fantasy's main line of development, which (perhaps unconsciously) owes much to Lewis's and Tolkien's sense that fantasy requires both a conflict between Good and Evil and a moral ending (> Eucatastrophe). ERE seems mainly to have been influenced by the Jacobean revenge tragedy (for plot) and by the works and example of William Morris (for Landscape and Diction); ERE's style is accordingly ornate, dense and heavily cadenced. Like Morris, he also became deeply intimate with the Norse Sagas, and published, in Egil's Saga: Done into English Out of the Icelandic with an Introduction, Notes, and an Essay on Some Principles of Translation (1930), a highly competent translation of one of them.

ERE's first fiction – and his most popular work – is The Worm Ouroboros (1922), a tale which sounds in synopsis like elaborate Sword and Sorcery but which reads as sui generis. As the title indicates, the Story constitutes a kind of Cycle, but one without any "redeeming" quality, a story with no point beyond the pleasure its protagonists take in living through it. The Worm Ouroboros is a masterpiece of hedonism, a tale which ultimately justifies itself in aesthetic terms, and can still shock an audience used to colour-coded conflicts between Good and Evil (> Colour-Coding). Accusations that the ending is arbitrary and abrupt seem to originate in misreadings of the text.

There is a Frame Story, or seems to be (though the frame is not closed at the end). A human protagonist, Lessingham, is transported via a Portal from his home on Earth to a fantasy Mercury, which is a Secondary World in all but name. Here Lessingham begins to observe the unfolding of a vast Agon-like war between factions whose reasons for fighting are much less important than the fact of the conflict. The names ERE gives to the warring nations – the lands of Witches, Demons, Ghouls and Goblins – have no relationship to normal usage. Lessingham soon fades out of the tale, and the war continues until Gorice, the sorcerer king of Witchland, is definitively beaten. At this point the assembled victors, feeling a staleness in the air, ask the Gods for Time to bite its tale like the Worm Ouroboros and turn backwards, so that the conflict can recur. This boon is granted and, in a brilliant Slingshot Ending, the Agon dawns.

After a historical novel, Styrbiorn the Strong (1926), whose closing chapter is set in Valhalla, ERE began to publish his major work, the Zimiamvia sequence: Mistress of Mistresses: A Vision of Zimiamvia (1935), A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941 US) and The Mezentian Gate (1958), the latter uncompleted; all three were assembled as Zimiamvia: A Trilogy (omni 1992 US), which includes some previously unpublished material relevant to the third volume. The internal chronology reverses that of publication, but the three can be read in any order. Beyond the presence of Lessingham, their main connection with The Worm Ouroboros is that Zimiamvia is a kind of afterworld of the earlier novel; Zimiamvia is also connected to Earth, which is a pocket universe created by King Mezentius (in A Fish Dinner in Memison) to provide a sphere within which to experiment with existences bound by unalterable law and lived on the wrack of an arrow of time which moves only forward. Once Mezentius creates the planet, he and his son Barganax incorporate themselves on Earth in the identity of Lessingham, who returns to Zimiamvia (at the beginning of Mistress of Mistresses) only after he has died, where he encounters (or re-encounters) the true base of being, who is the Goddess in the form of Aphrodite. Once he is safely there the experiment of Earth, which is only a Shadow of the real world (> Reality), is ended.

The four main protagonists – Lessingham (who had been Mezentius) and his mistress Antiope, Barganax and his mistress Fiorinda – engage in two levels of activity. All four are involved in an intricate Agon revolving around a dynastic squabble, in which everyone participates with passionate dispassion; some passages come close to creating a Land-of-Fable version of the Renaissance while others are translucent with play. More profoundly, all four protagonists engage in a sustained mutual exploration and discovery of "inscape", which leads to the revelation that they are Avatars of the two god-principles which govern the Universe (ERE names these universals Zeus and Aphrodite). As the sequence deepens they become more than avatars: godhood shines through their human raiments. There is much lovemaking; the Zimiamvia books are suffused with a joyful erotic glow which, along with their "amoral" refusal to lament a lost Arcadia, must have doubly alienated Lewis and Tolkien.

Because of their high-handed disdain about everything except glory and beauty, ERE's four novels are a highly dangerous example for fantasy; had they been more widely read they could perhaps be blamed for much of the failure of imagination of the Genre Fantasy. But ERE's language has proven too knotted for pillagers to unravel, and his work remains unechoed, except by accident. Every re-reading of ERE is a rediscovery. [JC]

further reading: "Superman in a Bowler: E.R. Eddison" in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy (1976) by L Sprague de Camp; "The Zimiamvian Trilogy" by Brian Attebery in Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature (anth 1983) ed Frank Magill; "E.R. Eddison" by Attebery in Supernatural Fiction Writers (anth 1985) ed E F Bleiler.

Eric Rucker Eddison


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.