It’s a constant source of amazement to me that in a time of big screen Tolkien and Narnia adaptations and quality fantasy all over our TVs, the third corner of England’s big ‘between-the-wars’ trinity should remain so unexplored.
One can understand why E.R. Eddison’s books have had a limited readership over the years; some readers find his faux-archaic prose difficult, others fall asleep within seconds of Doctor Vandermast opening his mouth to deliver another philosophical treatise, still more have a job getting their head around characters that seem to morph into each other. Well, it seems to me that these are all reasons for adapting his stories for the screen rather than the opposite. Coupled of course with the fact that they’re amongst the finest fantasies ever written.
The opening of The Worm Ouroboros is famously lame. A narrator dreams his way to Venus and is quickly forgotten. Thereafter it is fantasy gold, describing a glorious war between the witches and the demons, with an ending to die for, all delivered in flawless cod-Elizabethan; a device which after the first fifty or sixty pages, you’d think you’d been reading your whole life. Don’t believe me? Try it!
If Worm is Eddison’s masterpiece, then the later Zimiamvian trilogy (Mistress of Mistresses, A Fish Dinner in Memison, The Mezentian Gate) is the most heroic of failures. A book is hardly the best medium with which to pull off what Eddison is attempting but he almost manages it; maybe if he had lived to complete the third volume, he would have done so. The plot is simple enough – an early twentieth century English industrialist escapes the tragedy of his own life to live out a second life as an adventurer in a fantasy world that intersects with ours.
The masterful trick that Eddison pulls off is that he makes Lessingham (same name as the narrator of Worm but maybe not the same guy; Zimiamvia is mentioned in Worm as being visible in the distance from the high mountains of Impland but those two links are as far as the connection with the trilogy goes), the hero we’re clearly to root for, into the brilliant, incorruptible and courageous right hand man of one of the principal villains. For Lessingham to triumph, the good guys have to lose and Eddison finds a classic bittersweet way of resolving this.
What makes the trilogy complicated is that the principal heroes and heroines are archetypes who can become inhabited by the gods. Thus when Lessingham notices the similarities between Mary and Fiorinda, he is seeing the common characteristics of the goddess who inhabits them both. When he sees himself through Barganax’s eyes he is seeing what the god, who can inhabit both of them, is seeing. It’s a difficult philosophical trick to pull off through the written word – it aches to be filmed.
The Zimiamvian trilogy has a wonderful ready made tag-line – Game of Thrones meets Downton Abbey – that alone ought to be enough to get it made. The Three Kingdoms of Zimiamvia pre-date the seven of Westeros by fifty years as the original low-magic, high political intrigue fantasy world. Boy-king Derxis of Akkama makes Joffrey Baratheon look like Peter Pan and the Vicar of Rerek could out-Tywin Tywin with one hand tied behind his back. As for Vandermast, just think Pycelle on acid, constantly surrounded by a bevy of nubile lycanthropes in vintage underwear.
Eddison relates the Zimiamvia story backwards, so a good ploy might be to tell it in straightforward chronological order instead. And of course any adaptation would have a lot of work to do fleshing out the big parts of the third book that only exist as Eddison’s outlines. And as for those difficult characters who blur identities with each other from time to time – well just ask David Lynch to direct. Problem solved.