A brief prelude takes the setting to Mercury, where the story begins in the capital of Demonland, Galing, on the Lord Juss’ birthday, where his brothers the Lord Goldry Bluszco and Lord Spitfire, as well as the trusted Lord Brandoch Daha, and all the rest of the lords of Demonland were gathered in a sumptuous and beautiful feasting hall. Just as the festivities started, an ambassador from Witchland came to request their obeisance to King Gorice XI of Witchland. Naturally they refused and challenged Gorice XI to single combat with Goldry Bluszco at a neutral country. This was agreed to, and King Gorice XI chose wrestling as the combat, at which he was slightly better than Goldry Bluszco. Bad omens before the start caused some of King Gorice’s advisors to attempt to talk into withdrawing, but he refused. The first round was inconclusive, but an attempt to cheat by Gorice made Goldry angry, and in wrath he picked up Gorice bodily and drove him headfirst into the ground at the beginning of the next round, and King Gorice XI died. Lord Gro, a traitor from Goblinland and advisor to King Gorice, convinced the king of the neutral country to delay the Demons from sailing for a number of days.

During that time, the Witches sailed back to Witchland and crowned King Gorice XII. The new king, a practicer of grammarie (black magic) tested Lord Gro for his faithfulness and, succeeding, had Gro help him send a malevolent evil creature to attack the Demon fleet. The King lost control of the spell and would have been destroyed like his ancestor Gorice VII, but Gro was able to complete the binding. The sending almost destroyed the Demon fleet, but they had amulets that protected them, except for Goldry Bluszco, who had not worn his amulet for some reason, and was taken somewhere they knew not where. This they related to King Gaslark of Goblinland, who happened on their fleet afterward.

King Gaslark persuades them to attack the Witchland castle of Carcë, and being somewhat confused in the wake of Gorice’s sending, he agreed. They attacked at night by stealth, but were discovered and, despite valiant fighting, their men were killed and Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha were captured. A vassal king of Gorice, brother to Lady Prezmyra (wife of Lord Corund) was attending a banquet with the Witches and Lord Corinius in a drunken craze boasted of having captured the two Demon lords. The vassal king had been helped by the Demons in the past, and was friends with them, and he attacked the Witches, incapacitating them due to the copious wine they had drunk, and freed the two Demons, who managed to make it back to their homeland.

Upon arriving at Demonland, Lord Juss found Spitfire had given orders for the building of ten ships, which was fortunate, since they were much diminished. That night Lord Juss had a dream reminding him that he had lost his spear with which he could do all things but without which he could do aught—Goldry Bluszco—and that he should inquire of the location of Goldry at Kohstra Belorn, which was a tall mountain impossible to climb. Juss went to Lord Brandoch Daha’s castle at Krothering the next day, and Brandoch Daha tried to counsel him out of going, but Juss was determine to rescue his Goldry Buszco. Brandoch Daha had a book describing the path to Kohstra Belorn, written by Gro while he was still with King Gaslark, and this they read, in the company of his beautiful sister, Lady Mevrian. There was some discussion about the trustworthiness of Gro, but Juss noted that he was a philosopher (meaning he could talk to animals and insects) and that while he shifted political allegiances, since he was a philosopher he was trustworthy about the natural world. So they set off for the wastes of Outer Impland (not the inhabited part, which had they leisure time they would happily have fought the kings there) via the Straits of Melikaphkhaz with twelve ships and 1800 men.

A storm ruined their fleet and they arrived with only 333 men. After traveling many days, they came across Brandoch Daha, who had been separated, and who had found an army from Witchland pursuing another army; the general had been betrayed by another Witchland general. That night an army from Witchland marched up that was pursuing the first general for similar reasons, and they persuaded him to stay and wait for the first army to return, since they had been chasing it for some years. After a few days they caught an Implander, Mivarsh Faz, who informed them that a third foreign army was chasing the second. Shortly afterwards the first army arrived and there was a great battle where all the Witchlanders killed each other, but the second general gave gifts to the Demon lords because he was victorious, albeit dying, and because they were known to be great fighters.

The Demons headed eastwards toward Morna Moruna, interrupted with a dalliance by Brandoch Daha with a beautiful otherworldly lady, and when he took leave of her, she cursed him to be ravaged by the one he hated worst but not to get revenge by his own hand. The third Witchland army, generaled by Corund, caught up with them on the desert plains, and they escaped to the hold of Esgrar Ogo. Corund had a parlay, one of his party attempted a treachery unsuccessfully, like Corund’s attack that followed. The next day they had another parlay and traded insults, so Corund sat down for a seige. After a week or so a fog came and the Demons made a break for it, the result being told by successive runners to Corund. The end result was that the Demon’s were all killed except Lord Juss, Brandoch Daha, and Mivarsh, which had become separated from the army. Shortly afterwards they arrived at Morna Moruna.

The castle of Morna Moruna had clearly once been a beautiful place, but the history described in Gro’s book said that King Gorice I had ravaged it completely unprovoked, and it still stood in a state of somewhat arrested decay with the torn banners still on the walls. The castle was on a high cliff, so high that it was winter on top but the valley below was still summer, and they could see the twin peaks of Kohstra Belorn and Khostra Privarcha, which must be climbed first, though it be higher, if they wanted to succeed in ascending Khostra Belorn. They climbed down and spent the winter in a cave in that valley, where the animals knew no fear and brought them food, and when they crossed the river in the spring, the crocodile came at their call and ferried them over. But Mivarsh was constantly afraid, especially of the crocodile.

They soon came to the ridge where Gro’s book said there were mantichores, which eat men’s brains. Brandoch Daha wanted to climb up, and having climbed up was afraid to climb back down. And so the mantichore found them, and it promptly attacked Brandoch Daha who fell off the ridge onto the snow below, and it attacked the other two. Juss managed to kill it by getting a slice of his sword in its belly and then attacking its innards with his hands, and in dying it, too fell off. Just and Mivrash went down, and covered themselves in the stench of the mantichore, because mantichores abhor other mantichores, so they would be protected.

They climbed Khostra Privarcha through the force of will alone, though their consummate heroic nature gave them the skills to barely be able to do it. The reached the peak and looked down on Khostra Belorn, as is required to be able to ascend it. They then descended very carefully and without sleep. They saw lights at night partway Khostra Belorn, and upon climbing up they found a tunnel. They followed this to a magnificent room where they were met by a beautiful young woman, Queen Sophonisba, with little martlets flying around her head. She inquired if they were the Lords Juss and Brandoch Daha, who alone of all men were permitted to come to Khostra Belorn. When they mentioned they had come through Morna Moruna, she told them the fuller story of how King Gorice had ruined their land, after which the gods raised up the land in memory of it, and granted Sophonisba the eternal youth of seventeen—she was the fosterling of the gods. She had a great aversion to the name Goldry Bluszco, and did not know where he was, but she did tell them that Gorice was actually one soul that kept being reborn after the previous Gorice died, and so to continue to trouble the world. Juss said this was fitting, since the seal on his finger was the worm Ouroborous, a snake in a circle biting its tail, and representing eternity.

After a number of days of making some sort of inquiry, the Queen took them down to the base of the mountain and showed them the mountain Zora Rach in the distance, taller and even more beautiful than Khostra Belorn, were it not for an evil air about it. Juss recognized it from his dream, but the Queen said that it could only be reached by riding on a hippogriff (which had been seen in Demonland in years long past and was now their symbol). This could be done only by hatching the egg of a hippogriff by sleeping with one’s arms around it while dreaming of their heart’s desire, and if they be man enough, they could ride the hippogriff when it hatched. The Queen had an egg, because Zimiamvia, the land around Khostra Belorn, was the garden of the dead, and was a paradise. This she gave to Lord Juss. But Mivrash despaired of returning to his own lands if they flew up to Zora Rach on a hippogriff, so he stole the egg in the middle of the night and hatched it thinking of his home city. But when he tried to ride it, it was spooked and he fell off in the air, falling into the water of the lake they had camped by, and was eaten by a crocodile. Lord Juss regretted the bad end Mivrash gat himself into, but the Queen said that the only other hippogriff egg she knew of was in northern Demonland. She promised to visit Lord Juss when he had rescued his brother and avenged himself on Demonland.

Back in Carcë, the Lady Prezmyra, now styled Queen of Impland thanks to her husband Corund’s overcoming the other two armies and with the reward as King of Impland, was dissatisfied and scheming. “Crowns are cheap trash tonight,” she complains to Gro after Laxus was made king of her homeland after what she perceived as a good deal less skill than her husband Corund displayed. Feeling that Lord Juss had betrayed their promise to her brother, she wrote to her husband requesting permission to talk to King Gorice about mounting an invasion of Demonland and naming him as general. Corund replied in the affirmative to invading Demonland, but said that Corsus or Corinius (still in bad graces from his drunken revelation of the capture of Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha) would be better. Lady Sivra, Corsus’ daughter, heard them scheming, and goes to the King, who had just finished sealing a parchment to Corsus naming him general of an invasion to Demonland, to request the same. The King kept his cards close, and Lady Sivra, who has had a bit of a fling with the lustful and demanding Corinius despite being betrothed to Laxus, went so far as to suggest herself to the King. He revealed that he had already done as she requested—to show that his mind is not swayed by women—but accepted her offer. Since she had arranged a tryst with Corinius, he was upset. Lady Prezmyra made her request the next day, which the King denied, and after she admitted that her enthusiasm outflew her husbands, the King reprimands her to “match her steed” with her husband’s. Lord Gro also tried, and the King gave a number of reasons for Corsus, including that Corund and Laxus have got crowns and Corsus had no reason not to get one too. Gro said he feared that it will not turn out well, and the King replied that he would take his chances, but even so he had a backup plan.

Corsus left Carcë with much marching and fanfare to prosecute the invasion of Demonland, with Laxus commanding the fleet, and Gallandus as his under-general. Some months later a ship returned with a letter from Corsus saying that he had shut up Lord Spitfire in his castle. Some time later Lord Gro returned to tell the King that they had captured Spitfire’s castle Owlswick, but Corsus was jealous of Gallandus and kept thinking that his advice was for the purpose of harming Corsus. So he did not take the advice to advance on the Demonland capital, Galing, but instead went and burned Goldry Bluszco’s houses and wrecked havoc on the countryside (as was part of the King’s edict, although prudence indicated a later date). This allowed Spitfire to raise a small army and counter-attack, a problem which Corsus compounded by refusing Gallandus’ prudent advice and instead doing a militarily foolish move, with the result that half the army was destroyed and the Witches were shut up in Owlswick by Spitfire. Then, Corsus murthered [sic] Gallandus on a flimsy pretext. At dinner that night he invested Corinius as King of Demonland and told him to fix the problem and earn back his good graces.

This Corinius did. With a maneuver of ships out of sight of the Demons, he was able to land an army at night and outflank Spitfire, catching him on two sides, from the castle and from the landed army, soundly defeating him. He then marched on Lord Brandoch Daha’s castle Krothering, and seeing the very beautiful Lady Mevria reject his demand to deliver the castle, was inflamed with desire for he. He offered her safety if she would surrender the castle and marry him, but suggested that he would have her willingly or unwillingly. She resisted, desiring to hold the castle for her brother, but she had too few men, and for their sake surrendered the castle, and delayed giving herself to Corinius, who was much put out. He behaved so unmanly that Laxus, who was jealous, told Lord Gro that this whole affair was unseemly and if Gro would escape the lady he would not be minded to stop it. The sons of Corund also discovered their displeasure to Gro. Gro himself, had been on good terms with Lady Mevria when she was a child and in Goblinland before his exile. So he had the older son switch clothes with Lady Mevria, and the younger son, together with the “older son” left the castle and parted ways at a division of the road.

Lord Gro decided to defect and left the castle. As chance would have it, he came to the secret dale where Mevrian hid out. She caught him unawares and he was pressed to persuade her of his trustworthiness, having been the enemy’s counselor for years. But he did, and they dwelt there for some time, until six soldiers caught them unawares. Though they defended themselves bravely, they were overcome, but it turned out to be with joy, because it was Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha as if returned from the dead.

They took counsel on how to attack Krothering, but the land was not accommodating to an attack and their numbers were few. Eventually, Brandoch Daha suggested a daring plan to put the army at Krothering in a pincers, and since there was no alternative, they adopted it. The story of the battle was narrated by a young soldier returning to his father’s farm: Brandoch Daha rode all night with his two hundred horse on a difficult ride through biting cold and wet weather which was accomplished only by willpower and the constant encouragement of Brandoch Daha, riding up and down the line. Juss marched out in the open and was engaged by the army at Krothering Side. He would have been overwhelmed, had not Brandoch Daha’s force arrived exactly when it needed to be there, riding down unseen from the hills and smashing the other side. The battle was great, and both sides were hard put to it, but the Demons prevailed, and Corinius fled to his ship and sailed back to Demonland. It was a sorry Krothering that they recaptured, for Corinius had revenged himself on the castle and grounds.

Having recovered their country and found the hippogriff egg, when Spring came Lord Juss was minded to raise another army and sail back to Impland. Lord Brandoch Daha tried again to convince Juss to attack Demonland first, but he would not. Nor was Gaslark, who had arrived, successful in that endeavor. So with four thousand men they went back to Outer Impland. Juss and Brandoch Daha and Gro left them at Muelva and journeyed back through the Moruna, arriving safely in sight of Zora Rach, in the company of Queen Sophonisba who was glad to see them.

The Queen advised Lord Juss that all was illusion except when he saw is brother in his true form. So Lord Juss slept with the hippogriff egg on his chest. It hatched, and he rode it higher and higher, into biting cold and alighted some distance below the peak, whereupon the hippogriff, being terrified of the mountain, flew off. By willpower, love for his brother, and the sheer heroism inherent in Great Men, he climbed the summit. On the way he was tested with diverse illusions pretending to be his brother and making requests like imploring Juss to take him down the mountain, but he remembered the Queen’s advice and resisted. At the top was a ring of flame surrounding Goldry Bluszco, who looked out impassionately over the landscape. The flame parted for Juss, but Goldy was stone cold and unmoving, and Juss thought he was dead. Spectral mourners came, and they mourned, and then afterwards Juss barely avoided the temptations of a female who offered herself by luckily remembering his mission. He kept vigil that, not daring to sleep there, but his brother did not stir. So he carried his brother back down the mountain, laboring a night and a day, but reaching the bottom safely. But Goldry was still stone cold. The Queen gave Lord Juss a gentle kiss on the lips to give to Goldy, which Juss did, and Goldry woke up. They returned to the fleet at Muelva, where they discovered that Laxus was holding the narrow Straights of Melikaphkhaz against them. Having no choice, they joyfully engaged in battle.

In Witchland, Lady Prezmyra engaged in idle chat with her servant about the most desirable man, and her nurse thought the King of Demonland the most desirable. In the distance she saw a battered ship arrive, and at dinner King Gorice announced that their fleet and seven thousand men had been destroyed by the Demons. Carcë lay open to the Demons, so they hastily sent for men from their vassal states. That night Lady Prezmyra read a letter from Gro, who acknowledging that he was a traitor, warned her that Carë was sure to fall. Some vassal states refused to send anything, and nearby Pixyland was late with its thousand men. Corund counseled to wait for the Pixyland reinforcements, although it was risky. But the Pixyland forces did arrive.

With the Demons arrayed in front of Carcë and but a small force to protect them, successfully holding Carcë seemed doubtful. Gorice tried a parley, but haughtily insisted that the Demons acknowledge him lord of the world, which they refused. That night before the battle, Lady Prezmyra tried to get her husband to flee, but he insisted on keeping his responsibility to lead battle, and so she supported her husband despite their fears. King Gorice took out his grammarie instruments in his tower and read through his locked books. Despite the prophecy that trying a summoning twice would lead to it failing, the end of the Gorice line, and the eternal damnation of the soul that did it, King Gorice saw no other option should defending Carcë fail.

In the morning, battle was joined, and went from side to side until the Demons won the day, with Corund killed. At dinner, the King was absent. Corund lay in state in the great hall. At dinner, Corinius led them in drinking to the King, which they did, and then had them pass their cups and drink quickly for the safety of Witchland, a new custom he had learned from Corund overseas. His wife drained Corinius’ cup, but Corsus refused the cup given him. It came out that Corsus had poisoned the wine of everyone else to buy him friendship with Demonland, but had not expected passing the cup. At the same time there was a loud noise, and Corsus could see through the window King Gorice’s conjuring had failed and the keep was destroyed. Corsus turned to flee, but Corinius, stout of constitution had not yet succumbed to the poison and ran Corsus through with the sword. The Demon lords arrived in the hall to find everyone dead except Corinius slowly expiring. The Lady Prezmyra arrived in her finery, and Lord Juss offered her friendship, for their quarrel was not with her. But she haughtily refused, and despite Lord Juss’ attempts, she drank a cup of poisoned wine and lay down with Corsus, to sleep with him, or to reign with him in death, as the case might be.

The next April, Queen Sophonisba arrived as she had promised Lord Juss, and toured Demonland, except for Krothering, which Lord Brandoch Daha said was not yet undespoiled. She saw the beauty of Demonland, and the beauty of the halls of Galing, and the magnificence of Lord Juss’ treasures. After a week was out, on night the Demons confessed that they were in despair, for they were noble warriors who joyed in the fight, but now that the rapacious Gorice and Witchland was defeated (and the despicable Ghouls eradicated some years before by an alliance of the whole world), and as the world was now at peace, there was now no evil opponent left fight. And so they wasted away. Queen Sophonisba loved the Demon lords and so she prayed to the God’s that their wish would be granted. There was a meteor storm from Cancer the Crab (the symbol of Witchland) falling to the distant earth, and by magic the Queen could see Carcë reborn with all its inhabitants. And so the Demon lords rejoiced to be able to continue to live life to the fullest.

The next day was Lord Juss’ birthday, the same day as four years before when the story began. Just as the festivities were about to begin, the ambassador from Witchland was announced...

I read The Worm Ouroboros because C.S. Lewis said it was one of the best examples of Story, and it certainly has a unique quality to the narrative. There is a certain fractal nature to the narrative, where there are setbacks and successes in the large narrative of rescuing Goldry Buszco, but also each segment has its own rise and fall (or vice versa), and even every chapter plays out a little story as the characters banter or argue or battle. Even the a conversation has little conflicts and rises and falls, discoveries and setbacks. Brandoch Daha is dead set on attacking Witchland before rescuing Goldry, and the second time the subject comes up he even storms out of the room to return home, only to return the next day because of his devotion to Lord Juss. Similarly, when Lord Gro approaches Lady Prezmyra about persuading King Gorice to attack Demonland, he starts off by praising her beauty, which she rejects as flattery, and they go back and forth until it becomes clear that both are in agreement, but even then Lady Prezmyra tells Gro that she wants her husband as general, but her husband refused, and then they are stopped by running into Corinius. The incident with the three armies chasing each other starts off with a mystery (why are they chasing each other), then becomes an opportunity for Lord Juss to get his enemies to destroy each other (albeit his enemies are also on good terms with him due to his valor and sometimes because of help in times past). For the general the story is less happy, but even then he dies nobly, praising Juss and and Daha and giving them such gifts as he can.

I also liked the narrative device of telling what happened in battle from the perspective of the people waiting for the outcome via a first-hand account from a messenger who reported what he saw, or sometimes a letter sent back help. This allows the reader to learn the outcome, but changes to a different perspective from the usual third-person narrator, and it also allows personalities of different characters to shine through, and also gives their view of the events, as well. So instead of continuing the narrative of “the general attacked this place in Demonland with this result, and then they did something else, to which he responded”, we see how King Gorice responds to the setback, and it allows the furthering of the castle intrigue in Carcë. Similarly, after setting up tension with a daring but likely foolhardy Demon battle plan requiring precision timing for success, we are told the battle by a weary young man returning to his father, and we know not whether he barely escaped the defeat or wearily won a great victory until it happens.

The story itself is a combination of hero literature and medieval Romance. It is written in Elizabethan English, while the characters act like medieval knights and ladies, and the quests are more like Odysseus’ adventures getting home or Hercules’ impossible labors. The medieval values seem to govern, in particular, the importance of acting nobly, especially toward your enemies, and of keeping your promises. So when Witchland tries to gain an advantage by deceit and guile several times at the beginning (cheating at wrestling, persuading the host to keep the Demons from sailing by various pretexts as the host, and of course the use of grammarie or black magic instead of fighting honorably) signals that Witchland will ultimately lose the fight. Similarly, the Demons treat their enemies honorably, and are known throughout the world for both their prowess at arms and their nobility, so we can expect that they will ultimately be the victors.

I found the heroic aspect to be troubling, though. In actual heroic literature, the hero acts on his own, and his actions usually affect himself. In Irish hero literature, frequently the hero starts out with no position and his actions create a place for him. In this story, however, the heroes are larger than life, but all the people that are under them are simply plot fodder. The Demons lose an army of four thousand men over the course of several chapters with no mourning, but of course the lordly leaders escape unharmed. It reminds me of playing computer games: rats, that attack failed, well, let me build another army of disposable numbers and try again, but in a story about people, this comes across pretty harsh. Similarly, Lady Mevrian has such noble femininity and Corinius’ behavior so contrary to the grace she displays that her enemies come together to rescue her. However, all the other women in the castle are left to the usual fate—even alluded to—of women before a conquering army. Are those women not worth saving because they have not the inborn grace of the noble-born? While a narrative has a limited number of characters it can focus on, even so, it seems that human life exists to serve the great warriors.

Tolkien’s complement of the book’s worldbuilding graces the front of the cover, and there is a certain similarity in the lushness of the description of the physical world in The Lord of the Rings and The Worm Ouroboros. There is also a similarity in the rise and fall within chapters that I think contributes to the epic-nature of both books. But Tolkien seems to have an opposite view of the world, because his heroes are nobody, while the Classical heroes (the elves, Gandalf, and to some extent, Aragorn) act to enable the nobodies to fulfill their calling, thus becoming Leaders instead of heroes. Lord Juss, who as far as I can tell, is able to accomplish great feats of strength and stamina because he is a Great Man and thus has the strength to do what no one else can. In contrast, the hobbits, particularly Frodo and Sam, stumble through in pain and confusion, and Frodo even arguably fails in his mission at the very brink of destroying the Ring. Aragorn is a more typical Hero, but he faces the terror of the dead, and is chooses to remain unknown fairly long after returning to his kingdom.

Given the name Ouroborous, you expect to find a cyclic pattern, and indeed, Gorice meets the expectation, being reborn as a new Gorice and so to continue terrorizing the world. (Although the younger Gorice would need to be living while the older one is still living, so its not clear how this can be the same spirit.) The ending is, on the one hand satisfying in that it makes a larger cycle, with Good overcoming Evil, but then repeating itself, and thus fulfilling the title. However it either portrays a fairly hopeless view of the world (evil cannot be vanquished because good must have something to fight), or more likely, The Demons are not really true Heroes, for they value their own pleasure in combat over the peace and security for the world they are ostensibly fighting for. Contrast again with Tolkien: Evil is not a sparring partner or an opponent in sport, it is something that must be vanquished. No one in Middle-Earth longs for the return of Sauron so that they have a challenge; there are challenges enough restoring Beauty to the world that Evil destroyed. (Incidentally, the world is referred to as “middle-earth” a couple times.) But the Demons reveal they have no value for peace or the beauty of their treasures and gardens, because they are happy to risk it all again for the pleasure of a challenging foe. They are fine with remote parts of the world falling again into the hands of Evil—and the gods, too, apparently, for they bring Witchland back for the Demons.

This is an intriguing book, which while the highest level plot goes as expected (Lord Juss rescues Goldry Bluszco and conquers Witchland), nothing else went as I expected. In particular, the Hero typically ends up with the beautiful woman (the feminine counterpoint to the Hero), but everyone in Demonland remains single, nor does Lord Juss marry Queen Sophonisba. The true hero would marry the Queen—who seems to be very favorably disposed to Juss—and lead his kingdom in peace, prosperity, and beauty even down to the least peasant. Instead, Juss spurns that, and the Queen and the gods aid him. On the surface, the plot is satisfying, but the kind of men, woman, and gods that would agree to this situation are actually awful. On the narrative level, well done: rich characters (albeit one-dimensional, although that is part of the genre), a plot of fractal complexity, and a world lavishly described. But the underlying value system—perhaps unwittingly created—is deeply troubling.

Review: 9
This would be a ten, except that the value system is just disturbing if you think about it. But suspend disbelief, as it were, and enjoy the story.