Lessons from Demonland, Part TwoJohn Bruce Leonard
Part 2 of 4 (Part 1 here)
E. R. Eddison
The Worm Ouroboros
Charleston, S.C.: BiblioBazaar, 2008
We lovers of the Occident are in a hard battle; before the end of it, we will be tried in ways we might not even now imagine. All of us, I think, perceive as much. We know that before it ends, and certainly if we are to be in any way victorious, we will have to summon from our spirits qualities which now lay dormant and untried within us. The West has long grown over-quiet and soft; its swords have rusted, its once-bright spirit has dulled. This is a cause, not a consequence of the time of peace it has lately enjoyed; the West needs renewal.
Here, in the mouth of Lord Volle in Book XIX, on the eve of a lost battle, is a speech fit for the sons of the Occident in their present evil hour:
Lift up thine eyes . . . and behold the lady moon . . . [A]s little as earthly mists and storms do dim her, but though she be hid awhile yet when the tempest is abated and the sky swept bare of clouds there she appeareth again in her steadfast course, mistress of tides and seasons and swayer of the fates of mortal men: even such is the glory of sea-girt Demonland, and the glory of thine house . . . And as little as commotions in the heavens should avail to remove these everlasting mountains, so little availeth disastrous war . . . to shake down our greatness, that are mightiest with the spear from old and able to make all earth bow to our glory. (XIX, pp. 289-269)
But all of this presupposes, of course, the fall or diminution of that glory – the veiling of the Western moon behind mists and dark clouds. Our task, put it in the widest possible terms, may be posited thus: to rekindle the dying flame of Occidental glory. That is the struggle upon which we are embarked, and it is my proposal that The Worm Ouroboros expresses, as only poetry may do, the qualities requisite to our task.
Item: the speech of the Lords of Demonland, when they are told in Book X that the land they are to enter to recover their lost kinsman, the dreaded Moruna, is certain to destroy them: “Do not too narrowly define our power . . . restraining it to thy capacities. Know that our journey is a matter determined of, and it is fixed with nails of diamond to the wall of inevitable necessity” (X, p. 148) – by which necessity, they mean nothing more than their will. Shall we not respond this way to those doubters and scoffers who call our cause a doomed one? This will seem to some ears mere boastfulness. It is rather to be regarded as a promise. As Brandoch Daha says – the beautiful Brandoch Daha, to some eyes a dandy, but a devil of martial prowess – “I was never so poor a man of my hands that I need turn braggart.” (XII, p. 184) The trial of words is in deeds; by speaking willfully of our cause we are speaking in oaths, and the realization of these oaths depends on our fortune and our will. But we may prove our will only in the effort we put toward the realization of our oaths: oaths are the tests of will. For an oath is a kind of imaginary principality, an ideal built upon the air, which we can found solidly on the earth through right action alone.
Even supposing our cause is as hopeless as some believe, shall we not speak then as Brandoch Daha to the Queen Sophonisba, when he returns in Book XIV, at the limits of his energy, from a doomed journey, bearing on his back the half-dead Lord Juss? “Blame us not overmuch, dear Queen,” quoth he. “Who shoots at the mid-day sun, though he be sure he shall never hit the mark, yet as sure he is he shall shoot higher than who aims but at a bush.” (XIV, p. 184) There is a certain glory to be had even in a brilliant failure, supposing only that one has aimed at the highest. It is certainly not the part of a noble man to go tossing for bushes; he seeks the best, even when he cannot have it.
Indeed, these Demons in their high struggle reveal to us a subtle truth about the world: the world is a testing stone for the power of the soul. In good fortune and in ill, experience can be made into a school for the heart and the head. This is not necessarily to suppose any cosmic schoolmaster; it is rather to insist relentlessly on our ability to school ourselves – on the capacity of the human being to reform himself by and within his own powers. This is the very opposite of a doctrine of self-help egalitarianism, for it implies that there are iron limits set upon each of us beyond which we may never stray. But the knowledge of those limits can only be had in the trying of them.
The greatest enemies of this attitude are cowardice and complacency, as one of the more laughable characters of the narrative teaches us. Mivarsh Faz of the Goblins accompanies Lord Juss and Lord Brandoch Daha across the Moruna on their hazardous quest to rescue Goldry, but he goes in constant terror of the prophecy he once received from an oracle that he would be eaten by a crocodile. His life is governed by the obsession with this prophecy. His dearest wish is to evade his fate and his death, rather than confronting it with the manful stoicism which, as we have seen, characterizes the Demons. The result of all his pains is that he plummets into a crocodile-ridden lake from the back of the hippogriff which he thought would bear him to safety, and is duly devoured. We become aware in Mivarsh’s death that the prophecy was not realized merely at the end of his life, but rather described his fate as such, throughout the entirety of his life: Mivarsh Faz’s entire existence was a perpetual “being eaten by a crocodile.”
By seeking the heights with all our power, we begin to sense the barriers surrounding us; more, we begin to comprehend where those barriers are flexible, and where they are rigid: we begin to determine what points we may expand and perfect, and which are merely fixed. This book teaches a radical method of discovering oneself, of becoming oneself.
In this attempt, moreover, we are brought to love of life and love of victory, and we begin to understand why the Demons, despite their high warrior ways, are perennially full of jest and mirth. The love of life and of victory is the very opposite of the mere fear of death and defeat, though at times they appear identical. The love of life and victory is a masculine attitude which presupposes a degree of self-overcoming and self-mastery; contempt for death and detestation of the mere possibility of defeat. For even in noble defeat a warrior retains that which is best within him; and if he fails to attain that for which he has fought and suffered, he is rewarded even then with the chance to demonstrate a sublime cheer in defeat, which is triumph of a different kind.
The Demons, who understand this, are free men in an older sense of that word. We note here that Demonland lacks a King, while Witchland is unambiguously a monarchy, not to say tyranny. The four Lords of Demonland exist as equals, superior to all their subjects, but on par with one another. They are bound to each other, not by mere political allegiance, but principally by bonds of affection and kinship. In consequence, none of them must swear fealty to any single head; they are all of them proudly free in the true and original sense of freedom – not this modern, etiolated idea of being at one’s liberty to behave like a slave, but rather in the sense of possessing a liberal soul, which means, at its highest, a soul liberated from common bonds and common prejudices. Such a one lives as a complete human being, in the health, serenity, and felicity of that completeness.
This is incompatible with quiet subjugation to any authority. As Lady Mevrian says to the Witchland general who offers to make her queen so that he may bed her, “The dominion of the Demons hath used to soar a pitch above common royalty, and like the eye of day regarded kings from above.” (XXIV, p. 300) That is a superb manner in which to refuse a crown, and it reveals the perspective of a great soul. It is well for us to remember this attitude in our own battles. To be a part of our movement is to be branded with a bad sign. One can well be ostracized for holding certain opinions today, and among these unspeakable beliefs are most of those that we hold. For those in our movement who have talent and ambition, the temptation will thus present itself now and again to soften our principles or bend to convention, even halfway, that we may attain the honors and the acknowledgment which in a just society would come to us of their own accord. When such temptations are presented to us, we would do well to recall what Brandoch Daha responds, when Corund of Witchland attempts to bribe him to betray his people: taking the offer that Corund had written, Brandoch Daha swears himself to a great oath:
“This shall be a keepsake for me of thee, my Lord Corund. Reminding me,” and here his eyes grew terrible, “so long as there surviveth a soul of you in Witchland, that I am still to teach the world thoroughly what that man must abide that durst affront me with such an offer.” (XI, p. 161)
I have thus far offered only scattered excerpts from the narrative, mere passages which indicate the virtue of the Demons, and from which we poor moderns might take inspiration and refreshment. But there are more pressing matters to extract from these pages. This too, my friends, may we learn from the Lords of Demonland: the art of loving one’s enemy. Needless to say, I speak not in the bloodless Christian theme; I speak of loving one’s enemy, because he is a worthy and noble enemy who presses one to great achievement, or else because he furnishes the conditions in which one’s mettle can show. I speak of that chivalry and delicacy of high mind, which permits King Juss to send the very leader of the opposing army home safe after the Demons conquer him in battle, saying, “O Laxus, I give thee not thy head only, but thy sword . . . For thy dealings with us in the battle of Kartadza, let time that hath an art to make dust of all things so do with the memory of these. Since then, though hast shown thyself still our noble enemy; and so shall we account thee still.” (XXVI, p. 338)
This chivalrous magnanimity is accounted by the Witches to be a weakness of the Demons which might be exploited. There is thus a constant pressure on the Demons to make them more calculating, to make them forgo their high honor for a little low and pragmatic gain. But the Demons perceive that there are matters in this world worth more than victory. There are conditions under which merely winning a war becomes contemptible and detestable to right minds and elevated souls. It is not sufficient to emerge triumphant: one must be triumphant by one’s own standards. Nietzsche reminds us of this most forcefully when he tells us that “whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
We must bear this firmly in our minds, for it is true often enough that we cannot account our enemies so noble as the Witches. We are often thrust against contemptible foes, unworthy certainly of anything like love, and hard enough to respect. Alas, but it is often the rabble that speaks through our adversaries. All the greater then is the temptation to fight our opponents in a manner befitting, not our rank, but theirs. But this belittles us, and bespeaks an unworthy desperation. One who corrupts himself to win the war loses the better part of his triumph even as he attains it. Let us then never stoop for our victory, else our muscles cramp like vices and we lose the power to stand upright.
Better instead to learn the art of interpreting the world in a nobler light. I find Eddison’s book exemplary as an education in this art: for in The Worm Ouroboros, we are made visitors and spectators to a lofty reality which is not our own, and we may therefore learn something of our own lives, looking down on them from such unruly heights. And thus we might learn that there are other reasons yet to love even such enemies as the most despicable. For I ask you, my comrades in this battle, what manner of lives you should have lived without this struggle? It is good to laud peaceful times, and to wish that these troubles had never come to us: it is the mark of a great and insatiable soul that it knows to savor the nectar of tranquility as much as the heady draught of war, and to favor whichever should come. But the fact that we are here reveals a certain desire in our hearts to find some worthy enterprise on which we might set our hands and our wills. Why should we hide this? Why not celebrate it?
When the war with the Witches is concluded and the Demons return home, and the fruits of victory and peace hang heavy on the bough, this proves an unhappy season for these Demons, who without the war and the possibility of noble deeds fear that the long remainder of their lives will be a wretched waste. The sword wrought into a ploughshare, that most beloved Christian symbol by which the hope of an entire faith is expressed, is lamentable to these Demons. Their thirst for warfare, for the heat and trial of combat – shall this not enliven us, too, given our present battle? Shall we not drink long of this fount, and glean from some vigor for the coming travail? Shall we not take heart, as these Demons do, and thank whatever gods may be that these troubles have come to us?
Much in the fire is lost to the ash. That which survives is, however, hardened for its passage. We are not scrap metal or stray bones that have been cast into a furnace. We are human beings, endowed with that most perilous and ambiguous prerogative of human beings, to make of ourselves something we have never yet been and to play the smithy to our own mettle. Whatever heat and pressure our day exerts on us is also exerted by us on ourselves; let that be our pride and let it inform our task. We could issue of this trouble pettier and fiercer and more miserably cynical, forced to become small so that we could winnow through the tightening spaces about us: or we may learn by these troubles to anneal our virtues, and to make of ourselves, insofar as it is possible, such citizens as we would see in some new society, yet unstamped by human will and unchristened with human desire.
That choice remains but our own. May we take this lesson, then, from the Demons: that he who barters his virtue to attain mere victory – he who rides the hippogriff to flee the crocodile – has in truth lost not only the war, but his life as well.
1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, in The Basic Writings of Nietzsche (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), aphorism 146, p. 279.