Like The Worm Ouroboros, Mistress of Mistresses is a book that only E.R. Eddison could have written and is one that is likely to garner an even smaller following than the admittedly obscure Worm. For my part I think that Mistress of Mistresses, and its subsequent sequels that make up the ZIMIAMVIA trilogy, is perhaps Eddison’s best work. It may not be as approachable as The Worm Ouroboros (and boy is that saying something!), but I think its greater depth and scope make for what amounts to a truly impressive achievement.
The main character is Edward Lessingham, that enigmatic figure last seen in the prologue to the The Worm Ouroboros whose dream sequence led us to Eddison’s Mercury and then, to most reader’s disdain and confusion, was promptly dropped. The only other obvious link between the works is in a short scene in The Worm Ouroboros with Lord Juss and Brandoch Daha after the two have climbed the mountain Koshtra Pivrarcha and look into the distance where they can see and ponder upon:
…the fabled land of Zimiamvia. Is it true, thinkest thou, which philosophers tell us of that fortunate land: that no mortal foot may tread it, but the blessed souls do inhabit it of the dead that be departed, even they that were great upon earth and did great deeds when they were living, that scorned not earth and the delights and glories thereof, and yet did justly and were not dastards nor yet oppressors?
This scene, I think, is key to understanding the trilogy, and indeed Eddison’s worldview which permeates all of his work; more on that later.
As with The Worm Ouroboros we again have a prologue that moves from what seems to be our world to another and it may appear in some ways divorced from what follows, though this one is much more clearly linked to the fantasy world that makes up the rest of the book. In this prologue yet another character never to be seen again is introduced to us, a friend of Edward Lessingham’s who sits by the latter’s deathbed as the years catch up with him and reminisces about his meeting and subsequent adventures with the great man. A hidden portrait is revealed and an enigmatic poem is read and then the book proper begins as we are placed squarely next to a young Lessingham dreamily staring into a goblet of wine as his aide-de-camp Amaury berates him for a particularly impolitic deed. From here on in we will follow Lessignham in his adventures in the fabled land of Zimiamvia where an old and ruthless king has died and his somewhat less able son sits precariously upon the throne.
The basic outline of the story that follows is of the simplest: varying groups are vying for power as the long-established stranglehold of the dead King Mezentius is loosened and opportunity arises for the powerful and the clever. What elevates this story above a mere kingdom-squabbling fantasy, in my mind at least, are the characters. As the story unfolds we are introduced to a large cast of characters, each vying in different ways to be masters of their circumstances and all of whom are to play significant parts in the intrigues that follow. These characters are almost all equally fascinating (with the one glaring exception of Antiope who is something of a pill) and they live, die, love and breathe with such gusto and power that it is hard not to fall in love with them a little.
In addition to the heroic and danger-loving Lessingham these characters include the Duke Barganax, an illegitimate son of the dead king whose martial prowess and valour are only superseded by his love of luxury and culture; Barganax’s lover Fiorinda, a mysterious and alluring femme fatale whose very being seems to harbour secrets about the nature of existence; Dr. Vandermast a strange old courtier of the Duke’s whose learning is almost as opaque to the characters of the novel as it is to the reader and whose role in the story is nearly as mysterious as that of Fiorinda; Princess Antiope, daughter of Mezentius and possible pawn to a host of would-be regents; and last, but best of all, Horius Parry, the Vicar of Rerek, cousin of Lessingham, and perhaps the most delightful (dare I say delicious?) villain I have ever encountered. Pug-faced and pugnacious, the Vicar is a man we love to hate (or maybe hate to love). Bull-necked, hot-blooded and quick-tempered, the Vicar can appear on the surface to be little more than a ham-handed thug, but beneath his bristly scalp is a clever mind able to take nearly any circumstance and turn it to his benefit. Almost as good are his sycophantic and sly major domo Gabriel Flores and his pack of man-eating hounds.
Lessingham, much to the chagrin of his noble friend and lieutenant Amaury, has thrown in with his cousin the Vicar and has set himself on a knife’s edge path of trying to both fulfill his obligations to his cousin while steering these plans towards ends that will allow his own noble conscience to be satisfied. It’s a fascinating relationship as each views the other as perhaps his only valid peer and seems to hold the other in an equal amount of loving admiration and disdainful hatred. The back and forth of their machinations as each tries to retain the assistance of the other while maintaining the upper hand is fascinating and is probably my favourite parts of the book. Next would be the scenes in Barganax’s court where many of the intrigues revolving around the throne of Mezentius are hatched and we watch as the man viewed by many as a pleasure-loving fop shows himself to be a dangerous man to cross and whose role in the coming conflict will be pivotal.
Spread amongst these conspiracies and outright battles runs a strange vein of philosophical and cosmological musing based on Eddison’s own eccentric flavour of Spinozan philosophy and centering on the figures of Vandermast and Fiorinda wherein all of the events of the novel seem to be nothing more than the manifestations of the desires of the goddess Aphrodite and her lover. This is where things get weird and I imagine most readers are lost. Hints and innuendo are constantly dropped throughout the story that Lessingham, Antiope, Barganax, and Fiorinda are each manifestations of these celestial figures for whom the world of Zimiamvia was brought into existence by Vandermast as a playground wherein they might be free to experience their heart’s desires free from the ennui of godhood and immortality. Thus heroic struggle, undying but dangerous love, and the chance to both fail and succeed epically are central to everything these characters undertake. Much like the conclusion to The Worm Ouroboros, wherein paradise was the ability to love, hate, and fight against the greatest odds, here we have the same philosophy writ even larger and expounded upon in some detail.
As I noted many readers will likely be turned off by this, either because (like Tolkien) they may find Eddison’s morality distasteful, or they simply find the long-winded and opaque meanderings of Vandermast boring. I can’t say that these are my favourite parts of the book, but upon multiple readings I have found them to be essential to the tale, and they certainly give to what might otherwise be seen as little more than an adventure power-fantasy an essence that elevates it into something a bit more substantial. The story proper of Mistress of Mistresses ends in media res, and in a way that would be fully unexpected of anyone save Eddison, for here the worm ouroboros again rears his scaly head and the endless cycle of death and life, the movement from one pinnacle of great deeds leading to a paradise wherein they are re-enacted or even bettered, is again brought forth. It’s great, heady, and very weird stuff.