E.R. Eddison – his life and works

E.R. Eddison taken by George Beresford c.1922

E.R. Eddison taken by George Beresford c.1922

E.R. Eddison (1882-1945) was a civil servant, Norse scholar and author of heroic fantasy. His career as a civil servant spanned 32 years and was distinguished by the award of two honours. In his free time, he studied Old Norse, wrote and translated Icelandic sagas, and produced four remarkable fantasy novels.

It is for his fantasy works that he will be remembered. C.S. Lewis described The Worm Ouroboros [in a Jacobean pastiche] as ‘the most noble and ioyous book I have read these ten yeres’, and J.R.R. Tolkien called Eddison, ‘the greatest and most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds’ that I have read’. The novels are all linked by the imaginary world of Mercury and by the character of Edward Lessingham. They are works of action, adventure and intrigue, written in a rich vocabulary which abounds in description but never seems verbose. ‘Those who care for it at all, will not merely enjoy it but revel in it’, wrote Mary Agnes Hamilton in her contemporary review of The Worm Ouroboros (Time and Tide, 12 Jan 1923).

Eddison was a man of many friendships, conducted both by letter and by convivial meetings in the Athenaeum Club in London. He valued any opportunity for discourse and debate, and delighted in discussing his works in draft, with friends and critics, a process which helped to crystallise his writings. From this wide circle, four may be mentioned as contributing significantly to the success of his works. George Rostrevor Hamilton (1888-1967) poet, writer and civil servant, whose ‘criticism was generous and acute’, gave unstintingly of his time to comment on the works in draft form. The artist Keith Henderson (1883-1982), Eddison’s brother-in-law, provided the illustrations and decorations which grace most of the published works. Gerald Hayes (1889-1955) chief cartographer for the Admiralty and later its Head of Welfare and Accommodation, ‘mapped both Mercury and Zimiamvia’ as well as providing the maps for Egil’s Saga. Edward A. Niles (1894-1963), an American lawyer and expert on music copyrights, described by Eddison as ‘father and mother of all the American editions of my books’, helped to ensure the publication of the fantasy works in America.

In Who’s Who Eddison listed his recreations as mountains and books. His works certainly testify to the breadth and depth of his reading. They also abound in descriptions of mountains, many of them reminiscent of the Lake District, where he walked the fells with friends as a young man, ‘braced against the wind on the Pikes of Scafell’, and later with his wife and daughter, reciting Christina Rossetti’s poem, ‘Uphill’, as they climbed. The Alps were another favourite destination, visited as a young man and later on family holidays in Switzerland and Austria; these experiences surely honed his descriptions of the icy summits in The Worm Ouroboros.