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Meeting Elric

Elric by theirisonUnlike many people who’ll see this post, I am a total newbie to the character and world of Elric and indeed to author Michael Moorcock. Lest I be burned by the fantasy community for heresy, I decided to seek out the Elric books, but quickly discovered that finding a place to begin wasn’t so simple. Many describe Moorcock’s Eternal Champion as a mythology and the only comparison I have is Tolkien. Where, for example, would one begin a journey into Middle Earth? The Silmarillion recounts the formation of the world, but it’s a dense, episodic book and I’d hesitate to recommend it to a new reader. Instead I’d opt for The Hobbit, or The Fellowship of the Ring, more plot-driven novels, which set about creating a mythology through character rather than the accretion of history.

So, returning to Elric, I finally settled on Gollancz’s Elric of Melniboné and Other Stories, book one of a series that attempts to chronologise the Elric tales. The book opens with several introductions and a short article on epic fantasy by Moorcock. And then follows a great short story featuring the hero Aubec of Malador and his journey to the mysterious castle Kaneloon. Its placement at the beginning works well; it introduces us to the eternal struggle between Law and Chaos and plants the roots of the Young Kingdoms, whose humans pose such a threat to Melniboné in later years. And of course Elric himself wields Aubec’s sword. This tale is so reminiscent of Lord Dunsany’s “How One Came, as Was Foretold, to the City of Never” – a short story in The Book of Wonder, which is well worth a read. Kaneloon and the City of Never share a sense of isolation and each seems strange and unchanging, situated as they are on the edge of the world. Moorcock’s writing manages to be rich and vivid while avoiding the elaborate and I found it easy to read.

Elric by urban-barbarianUp next in Elric of Melniboné and Other Stories is something I’ve never encountered before: a graphic novel in text format. It’s called Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer and I can see why it was included in this volume, as it recounts the trials Elric had to undergo in order to be named official successor to his father, Emperor Sadric. It’s laid out rather like a film script, with notes from Moorcock to his illustrator, some of which make for amusing reading (look for the reference to The Matrix). The format took a while to get used to and some readers might find it underwhelming, but Moorcock’s descriptive direction and engrossing dialogue more than make up for the lack of pictures. The section is broken into four books, each of which focuses on a different trial, and each begins in the present with Cymoril (Elric’s cousin and lover) and Tanglebones (an old sorcerer-physician) fretting over Elric and his latest dream quest.

That received wisdom is gained through reliving the trials of your ancestors is an old and fascinating idea. Robert Jordan’s Rand al’Thor undergoes a similar experience in Rhuidean and indeed the episodic nature of these quests and the promise of leadership as reward is something both encounters have in common. Each of Elric’s dream quests are designed to test him in different ways and they are made harder by the intrusion of his cousin, Yyrkoon, who also seeks to prove himself worthy of Melniboné’s Ruby Throne.

Elric’s role as last emperor of Melniboné really begins in the titular story, Elric of Melniboné, a short novel of about 170 pages. And this is where it first becomes apparent just how much Elric strives to deny his heritage and yet remains bound by it as ruler. We’re told many times that Melnibonéans aren’t human; they regard the humans of the Young Kingdoms as barbarians, and they live by a twisted moral code that inevitably reminded me of Menzoberranzan, the dark elf city in the Forgotten Realms universe. Melnibonéan society is founded on selfish principles, its only rule being – as Elric’s friend, Dyvim Tvar, puts it – ‘seek pleasure however you would’. This is what Elric struggles against, being more of a mind with his ancestors, who were honourable, pursued higher principles and strove to avoid dealings with the demon lords of Chaos.

Elric of Melnibone by Isra2007But Elric inherits a dying civilisation. He knows that Melniboné must shed her isolationism, make alliances with the Young Kingdoms, or perish. It’s refreshing to read about a people on the brink of collapse, whose glory days are past and whose future is so very uncertain. It’s also a poignant political metaphor.

For all his idealism, Elric is a pragmatist too. There’s a scene where he visits some spies who are being tortured for information. Although he doesn’t enjoy watching his sinister torturer at work, tradition and his own integrity both press him to remain until the intelligence is gleaned and the prisoners are dead. As emperor, it is his duty to protect Imrryr, the Dreaming City, from invasion and to use whatever methods are at his disposal. He’s also capable of coming up with some creative and frankly gross punishments for those who betray him – a quality you’d not usually expect to see in a fantasy hero.

The Black Sword, for which Elric is so famous, makes an appearance at the very end of this book after a great scene where Elric battles both Yyrkoon with Mournblade and his own sword, Stormbringer, for mastery. And through this trial and many others, Elric encounters Arioch, the Chaos Lord, who is a part of Elric’s destiny. An archetypal trickster, Arioch helps Elric on many occasions, but it’s a devil’s pact, and you get the feeling that one day the debt will have to be paid. In the meantime, it’s awesome whenever Elric cries out, “Arioch, Arioch, blood and souls for my Lord Arioch!” I am seriously looking forward to more Black Sword appearances.

Elric Stormbringer by paradanmellowAfter reading only a fraction of the Elric stories, I can already see why he’s so beloved of the fantasy community. He’s a complex and intriguing character; his adventures have a distinctly Odyssean flavour and indeed, like Odysseus, he’s restless. Even after winning a victory, he cannot rest; even when his love, Cymoril, tells him his going will destroy them both, he still goes. The world he inhabits has a kind of Tolkienian vastness to it, both geographically and culturally, and the people, creatures, gods and demons Elric encounters are all so sharply drawn. (I particularly like the earth king, Grome).

It hasn’t escaped me how many literary comparisons I’ve made in writing this post; I’ve never personally encountered how hugely influential Moorcock’s writing has been on the genre. Discovering the Eternal Champion mythology is an education in itself and now that I’ve begun, I’d echo Tad Williams in saying it is essential reading for anyone interested in fantasy.

I’d like to hear your thoughts: what do veteran Moorcock readers think of this series? What aspects make it a timeless classic?

Title image by theirison.

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3 Comments

  1. Avatar Jon_Anon says:

    I would advise any fan of Moorcock\Elric new or old to give the Titan graphic novels a read. There is currently two volumes, Vol 1 Elric: Ruby Throne and Vol 2 Elric: Stormbringer. Moorcock himself calls them the best adaption of his work ever and I tend to agree.

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