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The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock

Sword and Sorcery had its first heyday in the 1930s, with Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and their successors – most more or less Conan clones, although C. L. Moore and Fritz Leiber were more original. The genre virtually died out in the grimmer post-war years, but by the end of the Fifties, there was a mood to revive it. Among the newcomers was a young British author, Michael Moorcock, and his hero Elric of Melniboné.

Michael MoorcockMoorcock was born in 1939 in London. He started writing at an early age, publishing his first story in 1958. He’s published a huge quantity of books, mostly fantasy or science fiction (or often somewhere between the two) – his best-known characters are Elric and Jerry Cornelius.

He’s also had a distinguished career as an editor, starting with Tarzan Adventures in 1956. For most of the period between 1964 and 1996, Moorcock edited the ground-breaking SF magazine New Worlds. He’s also had a career in rock music, releasing albums under his own name as well as collaborating with several bands, notably Hawkwind and Blue Öyster Cult.

Towards the end of the Fifties, Moorcock developed a character wholly unlike the normal S&S hero. Since Conan had set the mould, the heroes of the genre had usually been muscular barbarians, interspersed with the odd warrior-woman or small, nimble thief. Elric, on the other hand, was among the last survivors of an ancient, not-quite-human race which loved pleasure, cruelty and sophistication for its own sake.

Not only is Elric from the kind of race more often cast as the decadent enemies of the honest, direct barbarian – he’s not even very tough in himself. An albino, he relies for his strength on a hell-forged sword, Stormbringer, which consumes the souls of those it kills and shares the nourishment with its wielder. Nevertheless, Moorcock has observed:

Elric is often described as an anti-hero, but I prefer to think of him simply as a hero. When I was growing up my favourite heroes…all seemed people struggling for liberty and identity, forced to rely on their own wits and values but ready, at some point, to make a serious, if reluctant sacrifice in the common interest.

The Stealer of Souls (cover 2)Moorcock introduced Elric with The Dreaming City, published in Science Fantasy in June 1961, and he followed it with a string of tales in the same magazine. In 1963, the first five were published together as The Stealer of Souls, and the remaining four were combined, in 1965, to form the novel Stormbringer. This brought the series to an end, although Moorcock has published a number of prequel novels and short stories since the 1970s.

Elric’s world is said to be ours – Ten thousand years before history was recorded – or ten thousand years after it had ceased to be chronicled – though there’s none of even the vague familiarity of landmasses seen in Howard’s Hyborean Age or Tolkien’s Middle Earth. This is effectively a world of its own.

The island-kingdom of Melniboné, with its capital Imrryr, the Dreaming City, has flourished for ten thousand years, ruling the world with detached cruelty, but most of its power is gone now. The world belongs to the Young Kingdoms of humans, who view the strange-featured Melnibonéans with a mixture of awe, envy and hatred. Elric, last heir of the ancient emperors, has gone into voluntary exile to explore a world he finds much more alive than the decadence of the Dreaming City, where the Dragon Masters and their ladies and their special slaves dreamed drug-induced dreams of grandeur and incredible horror while the rest of the population…tried not to dream of their squalid misery.

Elric feels dissociated from his people, but he’s still very much of them. Besides being a wandering swordsman, he’s also a dark sorcerer whose patron god is Arioch, Lord of the Seven Darknesses, one of the lords of Chaos. He’s torn throughout between a desire for the warmth and humanity of the Young Kingdoms and the ten thousand years of heritage that have formed him – a struggle made even harder by his dependence on the vampire sword Stormbringer.

The Stealer of Souls (cover)In spite of Moorcock’s opinion of Elric, the opening story doesn’t show him in the best light. Although we might sympathise with his motives, the fact is that he hands over his city and his people for sea-raiders to sack, and then abandons his companions to their doom to save his own life. In subsequent stories, Elric is shown as slightly less destructive, if little less self-centred, while Stormbringer, which seems to delight in taking souls Elric cares about, kills the innocent and admirable along with the evil.

Nevertheless, at times Elric does attempt to fight for good, in spite of the Black Sword. By the end of the book, he’s found love and a measure of peace, his greatest goal, although we’re left doubting that it’ll be permanent – not while Stormbringer’s around.

The stories abound with colourful characters, friends or enemies to Elric – Moonglum, the cheerful, down-to-earth foil for the brooding hero; the petulant dark sorcerer Theleb K’aarna; the sultry queen Yishana; Zarozinia, Elric’s strong-willed young lover – but the relationship that really matters through the whole series is that between Elric and the Black Sword.

Stormbringer is said (in the novel of the same name) to have been forged by a race older even than the Melnibonéans to fight evil with evil, although they, themselves, were not pledged to Chaos, but to Law. The sword is a sentient entity, which sings in battle and seems able, at times, to take control of Elric’s sword-arm – usually to kill someone he values.

Elric of Melnibone (cover)Elric both hates and needs Stormbringer, in a way very reminiscent of drug addiction – I’m not suggesting it’s meant to be an allegory for drugs, but the parallel may have been intentional. The sword leads him into committing unforgivable acts of evil, but without it he’d be condemned to a life of helplessness. (This, incidentally, is not an accurate description of albinism, which is only associated with a few specific medical problems, although Moorcock fudges it with references to Elric’s particular type of the condition.) On two occasions, he attempts to throw Stormbringer away, but it returns to him.

Elric’s ongoing quest isn’t so much a traditional heroic one as a quest for understanding. When he goes in search of the Dead God’s Book, said to embody ultimate knowledge, he describes his goal:

My mind goes out, lying awake at night, searching through the black barrenness of space for something – anything – which will take me to it, warm me, protect me, tell me that there is order in the chaotic tumble of the universe; that it is consistent, this precision of the planets, not simply a brief, bright spark of sanity in an eternity of malevolent anarchy.

This, rather than the somewhat haphazard kingdoms of Elric’s world, is the true landscape of the saga: the eternal opposition of Law and Chaos – also referred to as Order and Entropy – and the cosmic balance between the two. The concept has become so entrenched in fantasy today that it’s easy to overlook how revolutionary it was when Moorcock first introduced it.

Stormbringer (cover)This opposition runs throughout Moorcock’s work, though not always in the same way – in a later work, for instance, he turns the normal orientation around, portraying Law as a monolithic tyranny and Chaos as the stuff of life and creativity. In the Elric stories, the relationship between the two forces is ambiguous. Elric is nominally allied to Chaos, whose effects manifest as psychedelic beauty as well as horrific destruction, but frequently fights on behalf of Law, or at least of maintaining the balance.

Moorcock brought several concepts from his involvement in science fiction – besides the idea of entropy, he’s always been fascinated with the theory of the multiverse, quite a new scientific idea when he was writing these stories. Having written several S&S series about different heroes, he developed the figure of the Eternal Champion, a single soul existing in endless iterations and endless universes, who fights with many versions of the Black Sword in the eternal struggle between the two forces. The four main S&S heroes – Elric, Dorian Hawkmoon, Corum and Erekosë – occupy a central place in the Champion’s identity, but the list of characters identified as aspects is extensive.

Although I’m not aware that Moorcock has ever stated this, I suspect that the idea may have been an extension of James Branch Cabell’s Biography of Manuel, in which the descendents of the titular character over seven centuries are regarded as variations of the same person. Moorcock, though, has taken the theme considerably further, from history into the multiverse.

Elric, though, was the first version of the Champion, and remains the best loved. These are very early stories, begun when Moorcock was barely twenty, and his technique wasn’t as strong as it became in later work. There are many grammatical and stylistic errors in the writing; the point of view is all over the place; and the world-making is very inconsistent. In one area, for instance, a sub-tropical desert and a half-frozen sea lie almost next to one another.

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (cover)Nevertheless, the stories and characters remain compelling, and much of the writing is beautiful:

One night, as Elric sat moodily drinking alone in a tavern, a wingless woman of Myyrrhn came gliding out of the storm and rested her lithe body against him.

Not a bad opening for a story.

It’s difficult to give a definitive list of Elric books, partly because there are several conflicting editions, partly because of Moorcock’s habit of revamping stories. The 1973 story The Jade Man’s Eyes was not only rewritten as part of the 1976 novel The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, but changed to the extent of being set at a different stage in Elric’s life.

Most readers would doubtless prefer to start with the novel Elric of Melniboné, the first story sequentially, and UK readers would do well to get the two Gollancz omnibuses, Elric of Melniboné and Stormbringer – the stories from The Stealer of Souls are now divided between them.

Nevertheless, this was the book that introduced the world to one of the three classic series all fans of Sword & Sorcery should at least sample – the others being Howard’s Conan and Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser – and this was where we first met Elric.

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Rating: 9.6/10 (7 votes cast)
The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock, 9.6 out of 10 based on 7 ratings
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One Comment

  1. Nice piece. Moorcock was an early favourite of mine, and Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon … all feature large in my imagination even today.

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