Friday, December 16, 2022

Why is E.R. Eddison's Worm Ouroboros set on Mercury?

It’s always nice to learn an author’s answer to a vexing question about their works. A new (to me) small cache of letters from the early 1930s provided some enlightenment.

In the early 1930s a young American fan sent letters to some of his favorite authors of fantasy and science fiction, asking for autographs, and sometimes making comments and asking questions. This young fan, Richard Wolford Dodson (1915-2002), became a very distinguished scientist, working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in the Second World War, and later he founded and ran the Brookhaven National Laboratory's Chemistry Department.  

Like many readers of E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, Dodson wondered why it was set on Mercury. So in writing Eddison on 26 December 1933, after fulsome praise of the book he noted:

Only one thing about the story would I have had otherwise: its place. Mercury is so tiny a planet, so near the sun. One of its small hemispheres must be piteously [and] constantly fried by the heat. This doesn't jibe with the story, whose atmosphere is distinctly that of earth. The tale is too vast, possessed of too much grandeur to be pinned down to such a prosaic clod as Mercury. Why must Dreamland and Carce and all the other fabulous lands be definitely located?  Wouldn’t it be artistically better to have their position indefinite in both time and space? I should have preferred it that way. [Note 1, text from a draft of the letter retained by Dodson]

Eddison replied on 21 January 1934:

Perhaps you are right about Mercury. But I meant it as a pure convention. As you say, the world of the Worm is so obviously earth-like (or heaven-like?) that it should make the reader dismiss any idea of astronomical accuracy. Probably the martlet told L[essingham] it was Mercury in order to stop him asking too many questions! [Note 2]

The mentions of Mercury first appear in the opening “Induction” in conversation between Lessingham and his wife. In chapter one, after Lessingham and the little black martlet have landed “as in a dream,” the martlet tells Lessingham, “thou, first of the children of men, art come to Mercury."

Eddison continued:

Lessingham himself, & the whole Induction, are perhaps little more than machinery for letting the reader down gently into another world. But personally I have an affection for L. & for his wife (née Lady Mary Scarnside), & I am glad I made their acquaintance in this book, if only because they have, after 10 years or so, furnished me with the theme for a new book which I hope will be out before long. [ibid.]

The book to which Eddison refers took a year to come out. Mistress of Mistresses: A Vision of Zimiamvia was published by Faber & Faber of London in January 1935, and by E.P. Dutton of New York in July 1935.



1. "Richard Dodson letter to Eric Rocker Eddison 1933-12-26", Richard W. Dodson Collection of Science Fiction, Digital Initiatives, University of Idaho Library

2. "Eric Rocker Eddison letter to Richard Dodson 1934-01-21", Richard W. Dodson Collection of Science Fiction, Digital Initiatives, University of Idaho Library


  1. I’ve taken it to be the case that Eddison used a number of names in The Worm Ouroboros almost entirely for their connotative suggestiveness rather than a literal, denotative quality. Thus “Demonland” and “Witchland” are not inhabited, respectively, by fallen angels and a whole race of practitioners of witchcraft. The Ghouls (now extinct) should not be assumed to have been a race of gobblers of graveyard meats, and we need not be troubled about the physical dimensions of the peoples of Pixyland and Impland.

    Rather, these names are working best upon us if they help vaguely to suggest agents inhabiting a different realm from that of our “common” daylight. In fact, we won’t go too far wrong if we think of them as inhabitants of Faërie. But in Eddison’s time and even still in ours, the connotations around “Faërie” wouldn’t match up with the world of Renaissance-type splendor and heroism that Eddison seeks to evoke.

    As for “Mercury” – Dainis Bisenieks has passed on to me a couple of letters from Scottish reader Colin Grant, with whom Dainis got in touch after seeing his letter on Eddison in the Times Literary Supplement. (I don’t have the date of that issue, but Grant’s first letter to Dainis, from which I will quote, is dated 8 Nov. 2007. It’s reasonable to guess that his TLS letter had appeared within a few months of then.)
    Grant wrote, “The placing of the main story of the ‘Worm’ (and as is often forgotten, of the Zimiamvian books) on Mercury, may not be a random choice. In Dante’s ‘Paradiso’, Canto VI, Dante and Beatrice, rising through the heavens, meet the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sphere of Mercury, which, he tells them, is the part of Heaven assigned to those who performed great deeds, not unselfishly, but for the sake of honour and glory. This would seem to fit the heroic character of the books, as well as the more familiar Valhalla echoes.

    Dale Nelson 16 Dec. 2022

    1. Doubtless there could be many reasons why Eddison chose Mercury (I've seen others). My point here is that this is the first time that I've seen Eddison make any kind of explanation.

      You might also note that the characters and events of Worm stretch back into Eddison's childhood (there are early tales and drawings by Eddison in the Bodleian, dating to his youth). Some of the races date from that time too, so when Worm was first published in 1922, as Eddison approached forty, the novel really reflects his youthful interests, and aspects of the novel were certainly codified by those interests.

  2. There's another reason, as well as Grant's, why I very much like Mercury as the setting of The Worm. That reason is that, of the five planets readily observable by the naked eye, Mercury is the most elusive. I believe that Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn may be seen more or less throughout the night at some times. Venus is most readily seen as an evening or morning "star," but, as I understand without personal experience, may sometimes be seen even during the day if you know where to look, though never all through the night. Venus and Jupiter are often brilliant, and Mars is discernibly red unlike any other naked-eye celestial objects except Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus and Antares in the constellation Scorpius.

    But Mercury must be seen, if at all, hovering near where the sun has just set or near where it will soon rise, low on the horizon. It's easy to miss although often not hard to see if you know where to look. So I think Mercury's elusiveness is well suited for the locale of an epic fantasy or tale of Faërie. It is a beautiful but remote celestial object.

    I wonder if Eddison had any telescopic experience? There were several transits of Mercury, in which the planet passes in front of the sun, after his birth but prior to 1922, though I'm not sure which of them would have been visible from England.

    I was able to observe the 2019 transit of Mercury with a beginners' telescope, likewise the 2012 transit of Venus, and the difference between the sizes of the planets as they passed in front of the sun was striking, since Venus is not only much bigger than Mercury but much closer to the Earth than Mercury.

    Dale Nelson

  3. And of course there's a fourth red celestial object, Betelgeuse in Orion.

  4. Where Mistress of Mistresses (which I've just been rereading) is carefully planned and arranged, revealing mysteries one at a time and developing its themes around Lessingham/Barganax, The Worm Ouroboros gyres at crazy speed through grand disasters and triumphs long past the point where reader and author both have forgotten all about Lessingham and the martlet. So I'm inclined to take Eddison's word for it when he says Mercury was just a convention. Certainly it doesn't seem relevant to anything in the actual story, and the three books set in Zimiamvia (which is glimpsed by the heroes of The Worm, and so placed in the same world) never mention or allude to it in any way.