Time for Some E.R. Eddison

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.


Zimiamvia’s Cartographer: Gerald Ravenscourt Hayes (1889 – 1955).

Put the name of Gerald Ravenscourt Hayes into Google, hit the ‘feeling lucky’ button and it might handily come up with the goodreads.com entry which announces him proudly as the ‘Cartographer of Mistress of Mistresses.’ ‘Bullseye!’ you might think, but unfortunately that’s about as good as it gets! If you want to find out anything more about the elusive Mr. Hayes you are going to have to do some serious digging.

What follows below is as much as I could unearth online and is linked together where necessary with a little not too far-fetched (I hope) speculation. I would particularly have liked to have had the time to visit the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office Archive in Taunton, so as to try and flesh out the material on his career. If any readers of this article happen to be his descendents, or are otherwise in possession of biographical material on him I would be delighted to hear from you, with a view to expanding this piece. A photograph of the man would be nice!


Gerald R. Hayes was born in 1889, in Hammersmith, London, the eldest son and the second of four children of the noted landscape painter Frederick William Hayes (1848 – 1918) and his wife Eliza. He was educated at Cranleigh School, and entered the Hydrographic Department of the Admiralty as a cartographer in February 1911 on foot of a successful Civil Service Commission examination. A few years on, 1918 saw both his father’s death and his own marriage to Mary Winifred Yule in Chelsea that September.

He enjoyed a successful lifelong career as a civil servant at the Admiralty, mostly in the Hydrographic Department, before eventually transferring to become the Head of Welfare and Accommodation in the Establishment Department, this probably a result of his lifelong interest in Whitley Councils[1]. He was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in the New Year’s Honours List for 1950 and shortly afterwards retired to Chichester in Sussex, where he died on September 13th 1955.

The obituaries that followed his death invariably labelled him as ‘the civil servant and eminent musicologist’ and it is this statement that is key to the man – the Civil Service may have been his life, but music was clearly his love. Gerald Hayes was a gifted pianist and had a particular liking for Scriabin. He had also learnt to play the viol, being a passionate adherent of the teachings of Dolmetsch, in particular the idea that early music sounded best when played on the instruments for which it was written.   From his twenties onwards he was a regular contributor to various academic music journals. It is no surprise, therefore, that he was a founder of the Dolmetsch Foundation in 1928 and first editor of its journal The Consort. At the time of his death he was editor of The Galpin Society Journal.

His reputation as a musicologist rests substantially on his definitive scholarly work Musical Instruments and Their Music 1500 – 1750 (1928-30). Two volumes were published, the short introductory volume entitled The Treatment of Instrumental Music and the longer, second volume on The Viols and other Bowed Instruments. More volumes were planned, but never published, although some work was done on the third, to be entitled The Lutes and other Plucked Instruments. Its non-appearance may perhaps be explained by the fact that a facsimile edition of a seventeenth century work on lutes[2] on which he has been working and which contained substantial critical analysis and annotation, had reached an advanced stage of preparation when it was destroyed in the London Blitz. Hayes later wrote, “By 1940 everything was ready and the letterpress, duffed-out photographs, and engraved music were all photographed together onto glass, from which the zinc lithographic plates were made: at that stage a bomb fell on the printing works and everything disappeared without a trace.”

Hayes would have been no stranger to the ideas of fantasy and of the mediaeval setting. His father had been a friend of Samuel Butler (1835 – 1902) and Haye’s himself attended some of the Erewhon Dinners that Butler’s friend and biographer Henry Festing Jones had organised to celebrate his life and works in the period 1908 to 1914. In 1926 Hayes himself had written a book on sixteenth century playwright Anthony Munday’s romances of chivalry and he is also known to have been a devotee of the Georgian language and Georgian literature. Without a doubt he will have felt completely at home with Zimiamvia.

Clearly Hayes’s day job as a cartographer well qualified him for the role of Zimiamvia’s mapmaker. In 1927, The Admiralty Chart Agency had published a slim volume of 22 pages by him entitled The Production of An Admiralty Chart, intended as a reference work for mariners, and he published several more volumes on charts over the course of his career. A more pertinent question might be what led him to get the Zimiamvia job, for whilst by the early 1930’s he would have been well connected in the publishing world in general, there must have been many more obvious candidates who had the established track record in book illustration.

For the answer, Occam’s Razor tells us to look no further than good old Civil Service networking. In his after-note to Mistress of Mistresses (1935) E.R. Eddison specifically thanks three friends of his: Keith Henderson for the decorations, George Rostrevor Hamilton and Gerald Ravenscourt Hayes for a critical reading of the manuscript and of Hayes ‘…also for his delightful maps which should help readers in picturing to themselves the country where the action takes place.’ Eddison (1882 – 1945) worked at the Board of Trade from 1906 to 1938, Henderson (1883 – 1982), already an established artist and book illustrator, had been despatched to the Western Front by the War Ministry (which led to his brilliant illustrated memoir Letters to Helen (1917)) and in later life he designed posters for London Transport and the Empire Marketing Board. So it may well be that they had become initially acquainted through their Civil Service connections.

But we need to return to thirteen years before Zimiamvia, to 1922, when Eddison had burst onto the literary scene with his utterly unique first novel, The Worm Ouroboros. The critical reception of it will have generated an enormous amount of interest in the kind of circles that Hayes moved in. Equally it is known from contemporary accounts that many readers were frustrated by the lack of maps in the book. So it ought to come as no surprise that by 1925, someone with Hayes’s background should have a sufficently piqued curiosity to try to map Witchland and Demonland for himself. Hayes, writing in the Civil Service Arts Magazine (the August – October 1930 issue)[3] takes up the story as follows:-

‘Guided only by internal evidence, I constructed a series of maps, both on small scales and large enough to show all the details. Everything fell in happily and even latitudes were available from references to stars. Some time after, I found that the author, with characteristic thoroughness, had made relief models in wax when planning his book. The agreement of my maps with these, proved the realism of his scenes.‘

Based on this, we might deduce that Hayes did not know Eddison in 1925, but became acquainted with him ‘some time after’ that and before he penned his article in 1930, either through Civil Service happenstance or through a definite wish to have his maps validated by the source.

There is a postscript to the Worm Ouroboros map story. February 17th 1943 was the occasion of the first of Eddison’s two meetings with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings[4] and whatever they talked about it is hardly likely to be coincidence that four days later Hayes wrote to C.S. Lewis, presenting him with one of the Worm Ouroboros maps that he had made. Lewis wrote back ‘I have a passion for imaginary maps and look forward to hours of amusement with yours!’ Apparently this map has survived to the present, but I can find no instance of a picture of it having ever been published.

Hayes produced three maps for Mistress of Mistresses:-

·         The Three Kingdoms, showing Rerek and Meszria and in the northward continuation on a reduced scale, Fingiswold. The same map was also published with the second and third volumes of the trilogy (A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941) and The Mezentian Gate (incomplete and posthumous 1958). This is the only one I can find an image of online here;

·         The Meszrian Border – plotting Lessingham’s rout of Roder at the Ings of Lorkan;

·         The Campaign in North Rerek – plotting the manoeuverings of the armies that culminated with Lessingham’s victories against first Ercles at Leveringay and then Jeronimy at Ridinghead.

What one can say of Hayes’s style is that they are more map-like than many of the arty or cartoonish maps we find adorning fantasy books today. They have an indefinable sense of balance, scale and accuracy that perhaps only a working cartographer could pull off so effortlessly and the adornments of little ships and huge compass points hark back to a particular time and place that is perfectly in keeping with Eddison’s setting.

Update: July 2017

I discovered recently that Hayes also produced the maps for Eddison’s translation of Egil’s Saga (1930).  One of them, ‘Norway in the Saga Time,’ is pictured here.  The other is the ‘Map of Burgfirth.’

Based on this timing, it’s likely that Eddison’s initial contact with Hayes was made while seeking an illustrator for this work.  When Hayes penned his civil service article, therefore, he must have already completed the Egil’s Saga commission.  It’s interesting that the style of these maps is distinctly more modern than the Zimiamvian ones that came later.


[1] An industrial relations instrument – effectively an early attempt at putting in place a means of collective bargaining.

[2] The Lutes Apology by Richard Mathew.

[3] Source: Saler, Michael T. (2012). As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. OUP (US), pp 224.

[4] A society of Oxford writers, set up by Lewis, Tolkien and others.