Another reading choice influenced by Stephen R Donaldson (not actually one of his recommendations, but one he’s mentioned on his gradual interview). This novel is a fantasy written back in the 1920s, which makes its author a contemporary of people like Lovecraft and Howard. However, like the somewhat earlier The Well at the World’s End by William Morris (yes, the wallpaper man), it’s written in a quasi-archaic style. It’s full of thees and thous and eres (“ere” meaning “before”) and lots of obscure vocabulary. I think the writing here is more deliberately Shakespearean than Morris’s work. As a result, it’s hard going reading it – for me, the experience was much slowed by my desire to note down all the unusual words so I can post them here as part of my lexicon project. Here are a few examples:
“At last, ” murmured Lessingham, “at last, Lord Juss!”
“Little art thou to blame,” said the martlet, “for this misprision, for scarce could a lordlier sight have joyed thine eyes.”
And he took a phial of crystal containing a decoction of wolf’s jelly and salamander’s blood, and dropped seven drops from the alembic into the phial and poured forth that liquor on the figure of the crab drawn on the floor.
“Mark with what ridiculous excess he affecteth Demonland in the great store of jewels he flaunteth, and with what an apish insolence he sitteth at the board. Yet this lobcock liveth only by our sufferance”
As the critic, Orville Wright notes in his introduction to the book, the story is introduced via the device of a man who goes into some sort of trance or astral journey and who observes the events unfold – a device that is completely unnecessary and can be totally ignored. It’s not even really a framing device as it doesn’t crop up again at the end.
The story concerns the war between the Demons of Demonland and the Witches of Witchland. These names are only names, as all the characters are human. The Demons are the heroes and are not at all demonic. The story spans a few years of quest and conquest.
The Demon lords travel into the heart of a great mountain range to recover one of their own, climbing the greatest peaks in the world in a matter of days, with seemingly little in the way of special clothing or equipment. When all their forces have been destroyed by the Witches they still manage to gather a mighty army to avenge themselves. It’s all a bit silly, looked at in the harsh light of modern realism, but the story is a romance in the medieval sense of the word. It’s supposed to be full of epic deeds expounded with flowery verbosity.
The biggest problem with the story, even if you don’t mind its language, is its slowness. Maybe I had an exaggerated sense of this, with the speed at which I read the book, but events seem to move pretty slowly. It’s also written in such a way that you don’t engage with the characters or the action much. And the heroes are seemingly invincible.
One good thing is how the narrative is divided between the different sides. The Witches have a lot of page time, as do a number of female characters (although less so), even though they are less important to the story. One character in particular was quite interesting. Lord Gro is a Goblin who has defected to the Witches, and who later defects to the Demons; his third defection, in the heat of battle is the cause of his death. I felt that his end was too abrupt and didn’t do him justice.
The end of the story was strange (I don’t usually give spoilers like this in my reviews, but this is an old book and it’s an important part of how the story should be understood). The Demons win through and defeat the Wtiches – although more through the Witches’ self-destruction that through their own might and main. Then, while the Demons are bemoaning the fact that they have no worthy foes left to battle, and because of the Witch King’s special power, the story resets back to the beginning. Hence the theme of the Worm Ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail.
All in all, not so easy to read, not so easy to take seriously, but not so bad. It’s good to stretch one’s mental muscles with something new. The epic sweep of the story, the archaic diction and the small amount of magic on display all brought their own pleasure.