Thursday, January 10, 2008

Mistress of Mistresses: A Classic of High Fantasy

Some years ago in an attempt to familiarize myself with the high fantasy landscape before Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, I tracked down a copy of E.R. Eddison's Mistress of Mistresses. Although his The Worm Ouroborous is better known and more highly regarded, when one engages in a dungeon crawl of second hand book stores, one can't be overly selective.

Reading Mistress was quite a rewarding experience, yet was also the most difficult reading I've done in many years. Eddison's language has a convoluted medieval feel and at times is excruciating to digest. This is not light fantasy. Most of the book takes a great deal of concentration and patience to navigate, and even giving the text my undivided attention there was much of the story that I still do not understand having finished the novel. Part of this is the complex structure of Eddison's sentences and chapters, part the vocabulary which was at many times over my head, part that the particulars of many scenes are not fully explained in the text so that even a close reading leaves some ambiguities. At times while reading Mistress I felt I should be reading it for a college course in which I could attend a regularly scheduled lecture that would illuminate for me some of the denser passages.

My next reading of Mistress of Mistresses will involve the use of a dictionary to better come to grips with the vocabulary in the novel. Although there will almost certainly remain some confusing elements to the story, I'm sure a more thorough understanding of the vocab in the text will deepen my grasp on the book as a whole. Certainly there were many words I simply passed by on my first reading since I didn't want to put an immense amount of effort into reading a novel that may, in the end, simply not be worth it. Having finished Mistress I am convinced it is certainly worth a little extra effort to deepen my appreciation of its mysteries.

I have a feeling that there are very few readers that will run out after reading this write-up and commit to Mistress of Mistresses as their next "must read" book. As tough as I've made it out to be, there are numerous rewarding aspects here that make it quite worthwhile. The characters are interesting, especially the noble Lord Lessingham. The story, though it is bogged down at times by Eddison's language and patches of somewhat dry philosophic content, is a good one with lots of intrigue, betrayal, love, murder, and any number of other elements found in any good adventure (or in The Princess Bride for that matter...fensing, fighting, murder, true love...) Very interesting to me is Lord Lessingham, a man of strict principles who must attempt to make the peace in a land of sometimes less than morally upright men. He is the man of unwavering idealism attempting to mold the murky and conflicting reality of the world to his standards.

Most immediately pleasurable in Mistress of Mistresses is Eddison's descriptive style. I'll quote a few passages:

"Their landing was near about the south-east point of that isle, in a little natural harbour, half-moon shaped and with a beach of fine white sand. The sun had gone down, and dusk gathered on the lake; eastward, pale blue smoke hung here and there over Zayana and the citadel; the walls and the roofs and towers were grown shadowy and dim; their lamps came out like stars. In the north, the great peaks still held some light. A wide glade went up into the isle from that harbour in gently sloping lawns, shut in on all but the water side by groves of cypress-trees: pillar-like boles and dense spires so tangled, drenched, and impregnate with thick darkness that not mid-day itself might pierce nor black night deepen their elemental gloom. In the midst of that glade, on a level lawn where in their thousands daisies and little yellow cinquefoils were but now newly folded up and gone to sleep, tables were set for the feast."


"The beetle, winding his faint horn to Zenianthe as he travelled the paths of opening night beside that window, saw her as some titanic figure darkly fair against a background of fire. The firelight saw her as its own, spirit of its spirit, dream of its dream, that which itself would become, might it but be clothed upon with the divinity of flesh: a presence secure, protective, glad, warm, fancy-tree; and so it made sure of her, touching with trembling sudden fingers now her breathing bosom, now a ringlet of brown hair that rested curled on her shoulder, now a ruby warm against her throat."

During these moments Mistress was pure pleasure to read, and so many of them are nestled within the novel that my next, more thorough reading, though at times bound to be slow going, is still highly anticipated. If you enjoy Tolkien and high fantasy and don't mind being challenged by a book, you should give Mistress of Mistresses a try.

More Reviews

  • Try William Thompson's review for a great introduction to this work and much more insight into Eddison's unique writing style. I would say this is the definitive review of the work, Thompson's writing is informative and thorough and I envy his knowledge of the genre.
  • This brief and positive review is part of a large collection of book reviews on the old geocities. The author asserts that of the often compared Eddison and J.R.R. Tolkien, the former was the superior writer, especially when it comes to descriptive quality.
  • Mimsy's review practically glows with praise of Mistress of Mistresses. The author compares this book with The Worm Ouroboros, asserting (as did the previous review) that Mistress is the better book. As I have yet to read Worm, I can't weigh in on this issue, although my previous impression was that Worm was Eddison's best.

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