Literature for Magicians: The Novels of E. R. Eddison

As opposed to the previous entry in our series, Literature for Magicians, this post is more holistic and less pointedly pragmatic in nature. Less of a toolbox, this set of works is inspirational and philosophical. So: have you heard of E. R. Eddison?

It’s likely you have; or, at least, you’ve heard of The Worm Ouroboros, which is often cited as the first fantasy novel. Whether that’s true or not, it does appear to be the first fantasy novel to have a fully constructed other world, published in 1922. Except that may not be true either. Look, it’s complicated.

So all of Eddison’s novels are linked, though Worm barely shows how, while the following three books are a trilogy. They are Mistress of Mistresses (1935), A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), and The Mezentian Gate (1958, posthumous). I am recommending you read all of them. And that’s a lot, I know. I really know.

They’re sort of Victorian, mostly Edwardian, but written in an archaic style that is still not only readable but pleasurable. Poetry is quoted throughout, from a wide variety of authors. How people in Fingiswold know Shakespeare is anyone’s guess, given what I’ll tell you later about the relationship between the zero world (our world) and the world of the novels. They know Greek and Latin, despite Greece and Rome apparently being, well, not really real in the setting. But who cares?

That actually demonstrates the first point I want to make to you: these were fantasy novels before that was a genre. Before the genre sort of hardened, you could do whatever the hell you wanted. That’s still true, of course: fantasy is the most free genre, given that its only requirement is “stuff that’s not real in the zero world.” But you also know what I mean: a young person must get involved in something bigger than them, probably suffer a loss, and grow as a person as they also get into position to save X from Y. Zimamvia (the setting and title for the books as a whole) gives zero fucks about that. Young people exist to grow up into adults so they can do something interesting. The good guys are good basically because they keep their word, and for no real other reason: they kill, murder, start wars, annex land, duel, and have just a lot of sex, both with their partners and other people too.

Here be a spoiler for Worm: the main characters defeat the world-threatening evil, which in this case is an expansionist empire run by a wizard, and then they get bored. They ask the spirit/goddess/sorceress they met earlier to help them in their doldrums. She resurrects the bad guys and their entire war appraratus, so the good guys can go to war again. Ouroboros, yes? If you think about all the foot soldiers and civilians who are going to suffer and die this is not exactly hero behavior. But they’re not heroes, so, you know, whatever.

End the spoilers.

You can easily position Zimiamvia in its milieu: they are war novels. The World Wars were either looming or happening while Eddison was writing. And war is, as pre-war poetry often said, an honorable and desirable state of affairs. At one point in Gate a character here on Earth laments that things have gotten to the point where no one can actually change anything anymore, and this is from the background of someone who commanded troops in both wars and is now apparently some kind of terrorist. “War is sort of good, actually” is not necessarily the kind of message that would have me recommending the books, especially not to magicians. But if you want, you can take some kind of Martial lesson from the books and the way it positions war as something less moral and more actionable, and, you know, maybe create action in your life that’s less about killing people. Hopefully.

But Mars is not the premiere god in the novels. Venus is. The whole of the Zimiamvia trilogy is about Venus and her manifestions on the the ground of mundane reality. Appearing in multiple characters, from Fiorinda to the mother of Fiorinda’s lover, who is also the queen of Fingiswold, Venus at times remembers who she is and at times forgets. Her lover the King, a god who is not named and one presumes is just capital g God, is also manifested in the world. The theology is both banal and interesting, which makes the books really interesting, at least to me. It’s based on the gender dichotomy that men are active and women passive, but passive in a sense that they are the winding springs that make the men move. Men do because women are. It’s, I mean, look, it’s still a misogynist gender binary but Eddison was born in the 1800s what do you want from him? What’s really interesting is that the gods are two-in-one: Eddison is still Christian, and God is still God, but Venus is a god and also somehow still God. It would sound Gnostic but it’s not. He’s coming at it from the other direction: life is lived by sex, and sex takes two. God is complete, and therefore God must fuck. And I need you to understand that it’s not erotica but these characters fuck. Some of the descriptions of decolletage are more arousing than actual erotica, and Fiorinda, the most aware avatar of Venus, is nude often enough for Eddison to talk about how, well, how Venusian she is. So there is some very interesting stuff about the relationships of gods to humans (manifestation and perhaps invocation) as well as the relationships between gods (emanations of God but also independent things) that make this book not really stodgy at all for all that it looks like it will be.

I told you above that I’d tell you about the relationship between Zimiamvia and our world. So our world is a shitty simulation world they make over dinner one night. In Fish Dinner, all the assembled versions of the two gods meet, mostly unknowing of what they are of course. Also the Parry is there, the antagonist. They drink and eat and flirt and a question is posed: if we were gods, what world would we make? They agree this world is the best. Shades of Leibniz appear. But Fiorinda is curious, and says she would like to see another world, where people are subject not only to death but to senseless suffering; a world, she says, where no one can effect any change or improvement except blindly, through her whims. The king, Mezentius, suddenly, briefly, aware he is God, makes the world in a bubble above the table. It runs the course of its entire history there, and they observe it. Some go into it. Then Fiorinda, bored, pops it with a pin.

This bears unpacking. They make our world as a party trick. Some of them enter into it (Fish Dinner was published in 1941 and I am not sure at this date if Tolkien read it but it sure sounds a lot like the Valar entering into Arda). They live out lives, sometimes managing to meet again and live incredible lives of powerful love – and this is where the huge “subplot” of the novels is explained: alongside everything that’s happening in Zimiamvia, things happen in our world as well, where a man named Lessingham meets the love of his life, things happen, and he becomes the aforementioned bitter old man apparently terrorizing some place with planes because nothing can change in this dreadful world.

Fiorinda says change and improvement should only happen through her whim, and I’m pretty sure that’s evolution: as an avatar of Venus, sex is the way for change to happen, and generation is the way change occurs in evolution. So we, the novel says, are trapped in a world where will cannot escape the shackles of history and evolution. We are bound by Venus more tightly than those in Zimiamvia are. And that is our honor. We live in a world totally devoted to Venus, to love and, frankly, sex (my asexual peeps out here will still enjoy the novels but you will be sighing a lot as you see, once again, sex posited as a universal. I know you’re used to it, but still, sorry).

Why should magicians read it? This is the summary section, if that wasn’t clear. Gods interacting, forming worlds, dropping into mortal guise, forgetting their divinity to live life as a mortal, musings on said divinity and the amorphousness of identity in a world where we partake in the divine, it’s got it all. Read these books.

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