|The cover of the new edition|
The dust-wrapper blurb on the original Cape editions reads as follows:
The Swedish prince, called Styrbiorn the Strong, after a meteoric career in which he shook the lands of the Baltic, fell in the year 983, still in his early youth, in the attempt to wrest the kingdom from his uncle.Styrbiorn was Eddison's second novel, the next after The Worm Ouroboros (1922). It was followed in 1930 by Eddison's translation of Egil's Saga, after which Eddison returned to his invented world of Zimiamvia, with Mistress of Mistresses (1935), A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), and the posthumous Mezentian Gate (1958).
The writer follows history closely. His intimate knowledge of the Viking civilization and spirit is taken at first hand from the ancient literature of the North. In his swift, dramatic narrative he takes no sides, but leaves his actors--Styrbiorn, King Eric the Victorious, and his fatal queen--to impress their personalities on the reader by their own words and actions.
We do not know the precise date that Tolkien first encountered Eddison's writings (beyond Tolkien's comment that it was "long after they appeared"), but it is very probable that Tolkien read them soon after his friend C. S. Lewis discovered them in late 1942. Lewis frequently shared his enthusiasms with Tolkien and other members of their small literary group, the Inklings. Lewis in fact wrote a fan letter to Eddison on 16 November 1942, calling The Worm Ouroboros "the most noble and joyous book I have read these ten years". Eddison replied and sent Lewis a copy of Mistress of Mistresses. A correspondence developed, such that Lewis hosted Eddison at a dinner-party in Oxford on 17 February 1943. There Eddison met Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Lewis's brother, Warnie. Eddison read aloud the chapter "Seven Against the King" from A Fish Dinner in Memison, then published only in the United States. Eddison returned for a second gathering of the Inklings on 8 June 1944, reading a chapter from his work-in-progress The Mezentian Gate. Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher that this new chapter was "of undiminished power and felicity of expression".
The main source of Tolkien's views on Eddison is a letter Tolkien wrote to Caroline Everett for her M.A. thesis at Florida State University. The letter, dated 24 June 1957, contains the following paragraph:
"I read the works of Eddison, long after they appeared; and I once met him [sic]. I heard him in Mr. Lewis's room in Magdalen College read aloud some parts of his own works—from Mistress of Mistresses, as far as I remember [sic]. He did it extremely well. I read his works with great enjoyment for their sheer literary merit. My opinion of them is almost the same as that expressed by Mr. Lewis on p. 104 of the Essays Presented to Charles Williams *. Except that I disliked his characters (always excepting Lord Gro) and despised what he appeared to admire more intensely than Mr. Lewis at any rate saw fit to say of himself. Eddison thought what I admire 'soft' (his word: one of complete condemnation, I gathered); I thought that, corrupted by an evil and indeed silly 'philosophy', he was coming to admire, more and more, arrogance and cruelty. Incidentally, I thought his nomenclature slipshod and often inept. In spite of which, I still think of him as the greatest and most convincing writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read. But he was certainly not an 'influence'." (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, 1981, p. 258)
Styrbiorn as an historical novel set in the old North is about as far removed from Eddison's invented world of Zimiamvia as you can get, but the gorgeous prose is as seductive as ever. This long-overdue reissue is an event.
* Lewis wrote: "You may like or dislike his invented worlds (I myself like that of The Worm Ouroboros and strongly dislike that of Mistress of Mistresses) but there is no quarrel between the theme and the articulation of the story. Every episode, every speech, helps to incarnate what the author is imagining. You could spare none of them. It takes the whole story to build up that strange blend of renaissance luxury and northern hardness. The secret here is largely the style, and especially the style of the dialogue. These proud, reckless, amorous people create themselves and the whole atmosphere of their world chiefly by talking."