Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #21: E.R. Eddison, Mistress of Mistresses

Let me gather my thoughts a little, sitting here alone with you for the last time, in this high western window of your castle that you built so many years ago, to overhand like a sea eagle's eyrie the grey-walled waters of your Raftsund.  We are fortunate, that this should have come about in the season of high summer, rather than on some troll-ridden night in the Arctic winter.  At least, I am fortunate.  For there is peace in these Arctic July nights, where the long sunset scarcely stoops beneath the horizon to kiss awake the long dawn.  And on me, sitting in the deep embrasure upon your cushions of cloth of gold and your rugs of Samarkand that break the chill of the granite, something sheds peace, as those great sulphur-coloured lilies in your Ming vase shed their scent on the air.  Peace; and power; indoors and out:  the peace of the glassy surface of the sound with its strange midnight glory as of pale molten latoun or orichalc; and the peace of the waning moon unnaturally risen, large and pink-coloured, in the midst of the confused region betwixt sunset and sunrise, above the low slate-hued cloud-bank that fills the narrows far up the sound a little east of north, where the Trangstrómmen runs deep and still between mountain and shadowing mountain.  That for power:  and the Troldtinder, rearing their bare cliffs sheer from the further brink; and, away to the left o them, like pictures I have seen of your Ushba in the Caucasus, the tremendous two-eared Rulten, lifted up against the afterglow above a score of lesser spires and bastions:  Rulten, that kept you and me hard at work for nineteen hours, climbing his paltry three thousand feet.  Lord!  and that was twenty-five years ago, when you were about the age I am to-day, an old man, by common reckoning; yet it taxed not me only in my prime but your own Swiss guides, to keep pace with you.  The mountains; the unplumbed deeps of the Raftsund and its swinging tideways; the unearthly darkless Arctic summer night; and indoors, under the mingling of natural and artificial lights, of sunset and the windy candlelight of your seven-branched candlesticks of gold, the peace and the power of your face. (pp. 3-4)

The beginning to English fantasist and scholar E.R. Eddison's Mistress of Mistresses (1935) is a huge tangle to unravel.  I have quoted the entirety of its introductory paragraph in order to illustrate Eddison's tendency to utilize 17th century writing patterns in this dual-world court intrigue fantasy.  The story begins with an eulogy, addressed to the now-deceased Lessingham.  Based on references to "Arctic summers," "Samarkand," and "the Caucasus," among others, it is clear that the introduction takes place in our world.  But this is only a fleeting scene, as the flashbacks that constitute the vast majority of Mistress of Mistresses take place in a Renaissance-level society in the secondary realm of Zimiamvia.  The diction of this eulogy is purposely archaic in order for Eddison to prepare the reader for the type of society that will be found in Zimiamvia.  This is not to say that parsing Mistress of Mistresses will be easy; if anything, the archaic style employed here throughout the book, full of untranslated quotations from Greek, Latin, and French authors may raise too high of a barrier for several readers.  But for those who persevere or who perhaps have some grounding in at least one of these languages, this novel does offer up some rewards for the diligent concentration required to unlock its secrets.

Mistress of Mistresses is a political intrigue.  The old king, Mezentius, has recently died and his heir is viewed as a weakling.  The Three Kingdoms are ripe for a coup d'etat and the main conspirators are Duke Barganax and the Vicar of Rerek, Horius Parry.  However, it is the younger version of Lessingham, Parry's cousin, who lies at the heart of this.  Just who or what is Lessingham and what abilities does he have to alter the course of events in Zimiamvia?

It would be a mistake to view this book merely as a political fantasy.  Yes, there are countless asides to discuss matters of culture, but what might be most striking about Eddison's novel is how the characters are portrayed.  In most of the political intrigue fantasies of the past generation, members of the nobility generally have their opinions, attitudes, and expressions played up in such a fashion that the reader can detect the dissonance between what is being said and what is truly occurring behind the scene.  The nobility, unless they are seen as taking the side of the commoners, rarely is portrayed in a positive light in these fictions.  However, in Eddison's tale, he chooses to go another route, as he uncritically portrays the lords and ladies as being above the fray, as the quote below illustrates:

'I would give much,' said Barganax, 'but to see your mind.  Do you understand, that every road I tread leads to you?'

'I have heard you say so,' she said.  'No doubt your grace will accept the same comforting assurance from me.'

'It is true I am a proud man,' said Barganax then; 'yet I doubt my pride for this.  For this, I must know in myself perfection.'

Fiorinda smiled.  It was as if the termlessness of some divinity, clear, secure, pitiless, taking its easeful pleasure in the contemplation of its own self, lay veiled in that faint Olympian smile (pp. 128-129)
"Olympian" perhaps is the best word to describe these characters and their actions.  They are distant, far removed from quotidian concerns.  Theirs is a game of thrones, not in the petty, bourgeois understanding of political manipulation and maneuverings that are often covered in minute, almost pornographic detail in some more recent political fantasies, but rather it is an intricate dance, a bon mot here and there, a slicing wit that defeats an opponent just as readily as a bare bodkin may.

This does not mean that Mistress of Mistresses makes for a thrilling read.  It is a stately novel, one that depends more on the elevated language of its prose than it does on plot or characterization.  There are places where this high language can become overwhelming, with clothing descriptions that are a match for the worst excesses found in more recent series such as Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series.  But yet despite the oft-sluggish pacing of the novel and the distant, Olympian feel to the characters and their motivations, Mistress of Mistresses does contain elements of eventful intrigue.  The machinations of Parry and Barganax, hideous and repulsive as they may be when examined closely, are yet strangely fascinating.  The enigmatic Lessingham also serves to provide enough intrigue to this novel as to make the journey toward the somewhat ambiguous conclusion somewhat worthwhile.

Mistress of Mistresses is an odd story to judge in regards to its current status.  Are there elements contained within it that influenced other writers?  Yes, particularly in the way that Eddison established his court intrigues, although this is not exactly a ringing endorsement for the fashion in which he accomplished this.  His use of elevated language is often elegant, if somewhat archaic to readers more accustomed to less high talk.  The story itself is not all that memorable, at least not in comparison to his earlier 1922 novel, The Worm Ouroboros, nor is it something that can easily be parsed by contemporary readers.  Yet there is something about this novel that makes me what to re-read and reconsider it at length sometime, a quality that not too many novels possess.  Therefore, I would argue that it is a "Masterwork," but of a type that is more suitable for those who prefer to wrestle with the text in order to appreciate its more intricate details than it would for those who want a quick and easy-to-process story.


  1. Well done for tackling this book. Can't be the easiest of the fantasy masterworks to review.

    I freely admit that I struggled with this book when I read it, far more so than I did with "The Worm Ouroboros". I definitely intend to re-read it some time though, perhaps I will get more out of it after a second reading...

  2. Good review. I have probably read the series six or seven times over the past 35 years. It's a world in which I can lose myself endlessly. I am beginning to sense why he created his world as he did.

  3. A world well worth plagirizing, Witness oafish Martin's shameless popularization.

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