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Running in circles

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By Ed Park

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To take a page from last month's column: We learn from John Crowley's "Endless Things," the final book of his "Aegypt" cycle, that "Coleridge had written . . . that 'the common end of all narrative, nay of all poems, is to convert a series into a whole: to make those events which in a real or imagined History move on in a strait Line, assume to our Understandings a Circular motion -- the snake with its Tail in its Mouth."

What goes around comes around. I shouldn't have been surprised to see that self-snacking serpent, the Ouroboros, pop up in Crowley. (It also makes an appearance in his cycle's first book, "The Solitudes.") The potent symbol -- representing time, life and death, any number of cyclical conceits -- has its start (or end?) in Phoenician times, according to psychologist Erich Neumann, who spots it in Revelations, Gnosticism, Navajo sand paintings, Giotto, India and elsewhere. In "The Origins and History of Consciousness," he writes, "It slays, weds, and impregnates itself. It is man and woman, begetting and conceiving, devouring and giving birth, active and passive, above and below, at once."

I have been tracking the Ouroboros for a while now, without quite meaning to. I've found it posing as the frontispiece to William Gaddis' "The Recognitions" (1955); slithering through Harry Crews' "A Feast of Snakes" (1976), where its sexually suggestive contortions come to a nasty head; emblematizing the meta-meditation on creativity that is Charlie/Donald Kaufman's script for "Adaptation" (2002). In "Low Life," Luc Sante configures the population flow and urbanization of Manhattan and the outer boroughs to an Ouroboros (and we can surreptitiously spot the latter in the spelling of the former). Scott David Herman, on his Erasing blog, recently compared certain self-fertilizing entertainment franchises (for instance, Mel Brooks' 1968 film, "The Producers," becomes the basis for the Broadway hit, which in turn inspires a 2005 film adaptation) to that undying tail-biter.

Thus I was more than a little excited to read Spanish author Rafael Ábalos' young adult novel "Grimpow: The Invisible Road" (Delacorte Press, 493 pp., $17.99), the cover of which sports a silvery serpent converting history into a circle, as it were. The book has topped bestseller lists in Spain and Italy and is being published in dozens of countries, and the reason might be summed up in one alchemical formula: Harry Potter plus Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." The titular protagonist is a virtual orphan, touring 14th century Spain with a purportedly charming thief named Durlib. (Not least of the book's shortcomings is Ábalos' infelicitous way with names.)

Like Harry, Grimpow comes from apparently humble beginnings that provide a dramatic prelude to the realization that he's the Chosen One. While trudging along a snowy trail, Grimpow and Durlib happen upon a corpse, which they relieve of a small stone and a letter sealed with the symbol of the Ouroboros; the body mysteriously vanishes into thin air. Only Grimpow is able to utilize the stone, which allows him to read runes and which just might be the alchemists' impossible object, the lapis philosophorum. (The British title for J.K. Rowling's first book, by the way, was "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.")

In Ábalos' novel, Ouroboros turns out to be the name of a secret society associated with the Knights Templar. Its descendants include Salietti and Weienell, a knight and lady whom Grimpow accompanies -- or who accompany Grimpow -- on a puzzle-laden quest across Europe. The deeper symbolic implications of the snake symbol barely resonate here.

Though some of the "Da Vinci Code"-like brainteasers are fun, there aren't nearly enough of them, and they come far too late, crammed in the book's final third; whatever entertainment value is in Brown's book comes from the fact that he throws anagrams at the reader practically from the first page. "Grimpow's" plodding, humorless setup -- too grim, not enough pow -- should have been boiled down to essentials. It's base metal to Rowling's -- and Brown's (why not?) -- gold.

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But "Grimpow" served a happy purpose for this reader, leading me back to the bookshelf for "The Worm Ouroboros" (Dover: 464 pp., $14.95 paper), a massive fantasy that manages to have its tale and eat it too. (Reading is an ouroboric pursuit -- can it be a coincidence that Alison Bechdel includes this book in her father's crammed library?) Published in 1922, the watershed year of "The Waste Land" and Ulysses, E.R. Eddison's epic couldn't be less modern. Eric Rücker Eddison was born 125 years ago last month. He was an Eton and Cambridge man, a decorated civil servant and was associated with the Inklings, the Oxford-based literary circle that included his two most famous admirers, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Though denying any influence, Tolkien wrote in a 1957 letter, "I still think of him as the greatest and most convincing writer of 'invented worlds' that I have read."

Tolkien met Eddison only once, hearing him read a work in progress "of undiminished power and felicity of expression"; Lewis, encountering Eddison's work in middle age, had an even more revelatory experience: "Here was a new literary species, a new rhetoric, a new climate of the imagination." Eddison's star has faded enough by now, however, that a recent Times Literary Supplement review of a book about the Inklings misspelled his name.

Even in 1922, "The Worm Ouroboros" would have seemed old and odd. Eddison's characters favor Shakespearean word-surfeits ("Lovers live by love as larks by leeks") when they're not writing letters in Chaucerian Middle English ("The Goddes graunte unto you moste nowble Lorde helthe and continewance and saffetie meny yeres"). The prose throughout is breathtakingly elaborate, studded with alliteration and archaisms, regularly indulging in superlative lists of banquet dishes ("hedgehogs baked in their skins"!) and vegetation. In his dictionary-defying vocabulary and "Iliad"-caliber violence, he can remind the modern reader of Cormac McCarthy. And in his hilariously versatile conjuring of recondite insults ("fat chuff-cat," "landskip of iniquity"), he sounds like Captain Haddock. As Ursula K. Le Guin has noted approvingly, "His style is totally artificial, but it is never faked."

The verbal energies and vast canvas of "The Worm Ouroboros" make it a daunting but exhilarating read; any writer would benefit from a tour of a chapter or two, if only to see what words Eddison displays from his vocabulary treasure house. The novel begins on Earth, with the super-refined Lessingham retiring to the "Lotus Room" of his house; in his sleep he voyages to Mercury and watches the inevitable unfolding of a massive war between Demonland and Witchland. Despite the names of these and lesser realms (Impland, Goblinland, etc.), the denizens of Mercury appear human, albeit of superhuman strength, beauty and passion.

The good Demons are led by the lords Juss, Spitfire, Brandoch Daha and Goldry Bluszco (Tolkien disliked Eddison's "peculiar nomenclature," but the names throughout seem to me exuberantly stylized). The enemy Witches are on the side of darkness (eventually led by their alchemist king Gorice XII, who sports an Ouroboros ring), though Eddison more than gives these devils their due: Some come off as downright noble. (What if the Witches are the secret society in "Grimpow"?)

The pages are filled with intricately choreographed combat, vivid mountain climbing and spiritual visitation, clandestine escapes and treachery, and yet more intricately choreographed combat. If the copious derring-do at times is exhausting, that's precisely part of the point, for here Ouroboros represents repetition, in particular the death-or-glory cycle that gets spun with every battle. In a brilliant miniature, an Imp tells some shipwrecked Demons how he has observed three great warriors locked in a static plan of vengeance -- the first in pursuit of the second, the second hot to kill the third, the third chasing after the first. They have been like this for nine years.

"It is neither an allegory nor fable but a Story to be read for its own sake," Eddison wrote; Lewis referred to his writing as "works, first and foremost, of art." But it's hard not to read a book published so soon after World War I (and so fixated on martial matters) as a critique of total war. Eddison surely thought his Demons (and some of his Witches) valiant beyond reproach. Yet the final turn of the "Worm" -- as perverse an ending of any book I have read -- is devastating. Bored to tears upon finally vanquishing their nemesis, after four years and hundreds of pages, the Demons pray hard and get their wish: The Witches are alive, undamaged as if by magic, and in a single sentence, the book begins again.

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Ed Park is an editor of The Believer. His Astral Weeks column appears monthly, and his novel "Personal Days" is forthcoming from Random House.

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