A Cure For Conan

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The whole point of the Reading Canary concept is to help people choose which parts of epic, long-running fantasy sagas they want to read without wading through the ill-conceived, idiotic additions authors feel compelled to tack on if the series is permitted to keep going for long enough. This being the case, the Canary can’t confine itself to simple linear sequences of novels, so I’ve decided to take the plunge and start working on charting the bibliography of an author who has devoted decade after decade of his illustrious career into turning his back catalogue into an enormous labyrinthine mess.

Specifically, I’m going to tackle Michael Moorcock.

It is extremely difficult for newcomers to know where to start with Moorcock, not least because one of the things his work is most famous for is its level of interconnectedness. As Moorcock explains it, more or less all of his work is based around his core ideas of the multiverse and the Eternal Champion. Each one of the fantastical worlds, potential futures, alternate histories that Moorcock’s stories are set in comprises a different plane of the multiverse, a vast cosmic battlefield across which the forces of Law, Chaos, and the Cosmic Balance duke it out, whilst we mortals are puppets in their vast games who might hope, one day, to see a day when Law, Chaos, the Balance and Gods in general are things in the past and we are our own masters, not subject to the whim of competing cosmic forces.

One of the primary pieces in the grand chess game between Law and Chaos is the Eternal Champion, a figure incarnated in plane after plane of the multiverse, always serving the will of the Balance to prevent either Law or Chaos from completely winning out and always wondering whether there will ever come a day when his (it’s almost always a “he”) cyclical torments will cease. The Champion is not entirely alone in this; he often has a love interest who might be an incarnation of the Eternal Consort, and it’s also common for him to have a best friend in the form of an Eternal Companion (although sometimes the Eternal Companion can strongly resemble another incarnation of the Eternal Champion, so perhaps the Companion is a wiser and more mellowed-out version of the Champion).

Moorcock’s conceit is that each one of his stories is based around an incarnation of the Champion. To be fair, this isn’t necessarily as repetitive as it sounds because he does allow himself to toy with differing interpretations of the key ideas he plays with. Not all of his stories involve travel to other planes, the multiversal references being confined to the occasional name or character popping up who’s also figured in other stories taking place in other universes. And the concept of the Eternal Champion itself doesn’t necessarily work the same way in every one of the stories. Sometimes the Eternal Champion idea may just be a metaphor, or a Jungian concept – the Champion may be an archetype which anyone could end up tapping into under stress – whereas in his more fantastical sword and sorcery stories the various Eternal Champions are quite literally reincarnations of each other. (In the later Jerry Cornelius stories Moorcock develops the idea that his various recurring characters are like the characters from the commedia dell’arte – like Pierrot, Harlequin, and the rest, Jerry and company are stock characters with particular developed associations who can be pulled out to tell stories which don’t necessarily have to be absolutely consistent with each other.)

If only it were as simple as that. The fact is, although Moorcock came up with the Eternal Champion idea fairly early on in his writing, it was only later in his career when he decided that he could associate everything with the Eternal Champion concept. Moorcock has often shown willing to revise his stories after publication. In some cases, such as Gloriana or The Transformation of Miss Mavis Ming, he’s revised his books because someone has given him harsh feedback and he’s been all “Holy crap, what have I done?” In many, many, more cases, however, he has revised stories in order to bring them closer to the overarching Eternal Champion concept.

In particular, between 1992 and 1993 Orion/Millennium released The Tale of the Eternal Champion, a 14 volume series of omnibuses of Moorcock’s material to date, which provided Moorcock with an opportunity to revise a great many of them to add more Eternal Champion connections. (These revisions often took the form of changing character’s surnames to variations on “Von Bek”, since at some point in the 1980s Moorcock decided that the Von Bek stories were absolutely central to the mythos.) A very similar but not identical series of omnibuses came out in the US under the auspices of White Wolf, the variations in contents resulting from differences between the UK and US as to who owned the rights to what novels. This would be a convenient way to collect Moorcock – except they, and most of Moorcock’s other work, are currently out of print. (Apparently this is deliberate – Moorcock’s agent has convinced him that it’d be best to create some artificial scarcity before the long-awaited Elric movie comes out and causes a spike of interest in his work – though since the film is in development hell I wonder whether this is necessarily a smart approach.)

According to Moorcock, the point of the omnibus series was to provide new readers with some guidance as to a suggested reading order, but he since appears to have repented of the project, expressing a desire to see the various books just revert to their individual volumes. I think that’s fair enough, because Moorcock’s work doesn’t really lend itself to being read as one huge series, and the omnibus editions both left out some fairly important works and put the stories they did include in an occasionally eccentric order. Why, for example, would you wait until you were eight volumes into such a series before including the first Elric stories?

Wait, fuck, I was meant to be reviewing Elric wasn’t I?

OK, Elric is Moorcock’s most famous character, and rightly so. He’s often cited as being the antithesis of Conan, written at a time when the sword and sorcery market was clogged with rippling-thewed barbarians with a disdain for city life and a suspicion of magic. The invention of Elric shouldn’t be mistaken for a grand blow for diversity, bear in mind: he’s just as male and straight and culturally European as Conan was, and if anything he’s even whiter. Where he differs is in personality and background. Where Conan is the rugged product of a rugged upbringing, Elric is an albino who as a result of a congenital illness must rely on outside sources such as drugs or magic for strength and grew up surrounded by decadent luxuries in one of the most cultured cities of his world. Where Conan is usually assumed to dislike sorcery and its users (especially in the lesser stories written by post-Howard authors), Elric himself is one of the most powerful wizards of his age.

But the most important difference between Elric and Conan is doubt. Conan doesn’t question his principles and doesn’t really think about his moral philosophy; he makes snap judgements about what is right and wrong, sticks to them, and the story usually reveals him to be correct. Prevarication and hesitation are not in him; Howard considered them weaknesses, and therefore so does Conan. Elric, however, second-guesses himself, and questions his own actions before and after they happen. He is tormented by moral questions and at points finds it easier to live the life of a bandit and a renegade, retreating into nihilism to avoid confronting his awful deeds. Even at the end of his tale, when his world has literally ended and he’s been drafted into playing his role in bringing about a new one, he ponders whether what he’s done was really for the best and seeking some source of philosophical comfort. Whilst Conan represents an impossible heroic ideal, Elric resembles his readers in that he’s a puny little nerd who reads books all the time instead of going outside to get exercise a fallible human being who’s not sure whether he’s doing the right thing and has to figure out his own answers like the rest of us.

Embodying the thorniest of Elric’s dilemmas is his magical sword Stormbringer. An entity of primal Chaos forged at the dawn of time, Stormbringer is what enables Elric to do all the action-packed daredevil stuff he has to do in his stories; the sword consumes the souls of those it kills, and uses them to feed Elric with horrible, supernatural strength and vitality. Worse still, it is a living, thinking creature with its own agenda, and the souls it finds the tastiest tends to be those of Elric’s friends and loved ones. Elric’s abject reliance on Stormbringer is far from being his only character flaw, but it is the one which causes the most trouble for him.

What I Am Reviewing, What I Am Not Reviewing

Of course, as Moorcock’s longest-running character, Elric’s series is one of the most complicated to sum up, but I’m going to try anyway. Wish me luck!

The first Elric stories consisted of a run of nine novellas in Science Fantasy magazine, from The Dreaming City to Doomed Lord’s Passing – the last four of which form the novel Stormbringer, the finale of the story. Written in a burst of creativity from 1961 to 1964, the original novellas were key to establishing Moorcock’s reputation as a writer. After workong on other projects for a while, Moorcock started writing new Elric stories in 1967, slotting them in at earlier points in the timeline to fill in the gaps, and by the mid-1970s he had expanded the saga significantly. In 1977, DAW books in the US brought out a 6-book series taking in the entire Elric canon as it existed at that point – plus a seventh volume, Elric at the End of Time, which collected a couple of non-canonical Elric stories, some non-Elric stories, and a sprinkle of essays – and in 1984 Grafton in the UK published the DAW series there too. The six books of the DAW/Grafton series (not counting Elric at the End of Time) collected the stories in order of the internal chronology, and since then the structure of the saga has been pretty fixed. The subsequent Elric novels The Fortress of the Pearl and The Revenge of the Rose were intended to slot in at particular points in the DAW/Grafton sequence, and the 1993 omnibuses by Orion/White Wolf collected the six books of the DAW sequence plus the two new novels in their respective places (with the non-Elric stories Master of Chaos and To Rescue Tanelorn removed from The Weird of the White Wolf and The Bane of the Black Sword respectively).

By this point, the series had become a lot like this Hawkwind video (featuring Moorcock because it’s from a tour they did showcasing a concept album they did about Elric). As you will note, the video is a mixture of the mediocre (that’s a pretty low-tier Hawkwind track Moorcock is reciting over), the awesome (the monologue itself is actually pretty cool), and the completely stupid (as you might have noticed, the stage is overrun with LARPers). As this review is going to illustrate in eye-bleeding detail, that’s kind of how the stories ended up: a bunch of average and occasionally just stupid content obscuring what was actually a really neat core.

It’s the two Orion omnibuses I’m working from to do this review, so the primary reason I’m not including any stories that aren’t in them is my convenience. Deal with it. But don’t worry, if you can’t deal I’ve got rationales for why I’m not including all the content that this review doesn’t cover.

The Last Enchantment is a non-canonical Elric story that was written in 1962 as a potential end to the sequence. Moorcock’s editor, knowing a cash cow when he saw one, convinced Moorcock not to end the series just yet, and for that we can thank him because it meant Moorcock wrote Stormbringer instead. Likewise, Master of Chaos and To Rescue Tanelorn, whilst set in Elric’s world, don’t actually include Elric and aren’t actually part of his story in any way. If you’re really interested, they were collected in the Earl Aubec compilation in 1993, which was a grab-bag of all the Moorcock short stories Orion could get the rights to which didn’t fit into one of the other omnibuses. Knock yourself out, I’ve not read it yet so I don’t know if they are any good.

Elric at the End of Time was another non-canonical story, this time written as a crossover with Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time series. It was originally published as a lavishly illustrated book stuffed with art by Rodney Matthews, the intent presumably being to earn both Moorcock and Matthews some drinking money, and in the Orion omnibuses it was collected in Legends From the End of Time. Here is my one sentence review: it consists entirely of Elric running around the End of Time being confused and ends with a stupid joke about how one of the characters from that series is totally kind of like Elric’s patron god Arioch a little bit except not really. Not worth bothering with really.

The novel trilogy of The Dreamthief’s Daughter, The Skrayling Tree and The White Wolf’s Son are generally considered separately from the main Elric series; whilst they do feature Elric, they also heavily feature Oona von Bek, the titular Dreamthief’s Daughter, to the extent that they’re often referred to as the Oona von Bek trilogy, and they’re intended to provide an overall ending to the Eternal Champion series as a whole (though Moorcock’s tried that stunt at least three times…). I might get around to reviewing them separately if I keep going with this damn fool stunt.

A bunch of Elric comics have been produced, many not written by Moorcock at all and therefore of dubious canonicity. There were some Elric stories that were penned by Moorcock published as part of the Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse comic series, but I don’t have that, and if I did I’d probably want to review the series as a whole anyway. And there’s an Elric graphic novel that came out in 2005 and is meant to be a prequel to the entire saga but really, at this point how necessary can it really be?

I’m not even going to begin trying to review all the Elric-inspired music that’s been brought out because there’s a ridiculous amount, and a bunch of it was made with Moorcock’s direct involvement. Actually, fuck it, here’s a quick review of that Hawkwind concept album from earlier; the studio album (The Chronicle of the Black Sword) is kind of mediocre but the live version (Live Chronicles) is pretty good because the songs have more energy and there’s more tracks and they incorporate some of their classic songs into the show, but it’s not up to the standards of their best albums like Space Ritual or Warrior On the Edge of Time because it doesn’t have Lemmy. Try to get the recent 2CD version from Hawkwind’s Atomhenge record label that includes the entire show, because most previous editions are abridged to an extent.

In terms of the stuff I am reviewing, like I said I’m working from the 1993 omnibuses, your mileage may vary depending on how much Michael Moorcock and his publishers fucked around with the version of the stories you are reading after publication. I’m structuring this review around the divisions presented in the DAW sequence for sanity’s sake, and each book will include a little “Multiverse bollocks” section – that’s the part where I’ll be keeping track on how many utterly needless and lame references, cameos, cross-overs and tie-ins between the Elric series and his other stories Moorcock deploys in order to emphasise the whole multiverse/Eternal Champion thing. Here we go.

Elric of Melniboné

The first book in the sequence came out in 1972 and was the first full-length Elric novel which wasn’t simply a compilation of novellas and short stories lashed together with some linking text – even Stormbringer, the climax of the sequence, is just four novellas lashed together, though to be fair there was an overarching plot linking the four when Moorcock originally wrote them. In fact, until 1989’s The Fortress of the Pearl it was the only Elric story originally written as a novel. That’s a measure of how seriously Moorcock took the task of coming up with a decent starting point for the saga, and I think he made the right call this time around, because the book not only manages to provide Elric with a good adventure that is just about meaty enough to justify the page count, it also establishes a baseline for the character’s psychological development; it creates an image of Elric as a troubled idealist whose desire to set Melniboné on the right path leads to some bad decisions, and you can see how the character of the novel became the more cynical figure of the early novellas.

It’s also one of the few opportunities Moorcock has allowed himself to depict Melniboné as it exists under Elric’s rule – and it starts, indeed, with a ball held in Elric’s throne room. The ball allows Moorcock to quickly and efficiently fill us in on where we are and what is going on; we’re with Elric in the hall of the Ruby Throne, in the city of Imrryr, capital of the Bright Empire, realm of the Melnibonéans (who are basically elves). Once the Bright Empire ruled a great swathe of the world, but that was centuries ago; now, they only rule Imrryr and the isle of Melniboné, guarded by their fleet of dragons and the sea-maze protecting the only safe route to Imrryr itself. The Melnibonéans sustain their wealth through trade, and are immersed in a cruel and hedonistic culture; Imrryr is called the Dreaming City because almost everyone spends their lives in a drug-induced stupor, most arduous work is carried out by slaves, and the music for the ball is provided by a sort of pain organ – slaves, mutilated through surgery so that they each scream with a different finely tuned-note, who are stimulated through pain into producing the music to which the Melnibonéans dance.

A public spat at the end of the ball establishes the positions of the three central characters. We see that Elric himself is an Emperor seeking to undermine centuries of tradition in order to reform Melniboné but hampered by the frailty of his body, and reliant on herbs and drugs to make him strong enough to carry out his business. We are introduced to his cousin and lover Cymoril, who (like other Melnibonéans) doesn’t understand why Elric tortures himself with this “conscience” thing which seems a human affectation; and we also meet Cymoril’s brother Yyrkoon, who makes little secret of his ambitions to seize the Ruby Throne and lead Melniboné into a new golden age of conquest and pillage. Yyrkoon baits Elric, but Elric holds to his ideals of a just, liberal, tolerant Melniboné and refuses to have Yyrkoon silenced or eliminated. Some time later, after Elric leads the Melnibonéan navy in a successful action against invading forces from the Young Kingdoms hoping to sack Imrryr, Yyrkoon attempts to assassinate Elric, failing only because of Elric’s royal blood and the ancient pact between the lords of Melniboné and the elemental rulers of the ocean.

Elric has Yyrkoon arrested, and again fails to order his execution, finding it more pleasingly ironic to subject Yyrkoon to the cruelties of old Melniboné which he himself would reimpose. This, of course, gives Yyrkoon sufficient time to mount an escape in which he kidnaps Cymoril and retreats with her and his allies to the Young Kingdoms, there to plot an invasion of Melniboné. To track down Yyrkoon and defeat him, Elric chooses to summon Arioch, the Chaos god who was patron of the Melnibonéan imperial family in time immemorial. Of course, by calling Arioch to Melniboné, Elric brings his world to the attention of Arioch and the other Lords of the Higher Worlds – and whilst Arioch’s help does guide Elric to Yyrkoon and Cymoril, it also leads him to take up Stormbringer, the impossibly ancient demon blade, the stealer of souls who nourishes its bearer with the life-essence of the people it kills.

Probably the most impressive thing about Elric of Melniboné is how Moorcock is able to simply and clearly state the themes which will come to dominate the series in the context of a fast-paced fantasy adventure. This is particularly true in the case of Elric’s decisions regarding Yyrkoon, which almost invariably lead to disaster. At first he holds to his ideals and is lenient, even when Yyrkoon openly declares he intends to oust Elric and crush the ideals he holds so dear, and Yyrkoon abuses the freedom he is given to get a chance to strike at Elric; then he brings the full force of Melnibonéan tradition against Yyrkoon, which prompts Yyrkoon into a desperate act. There’s two things at play there: firstly, there’s Elric’s struggle to find a balance between his ideals and the traditions Melniboné lives by, and secondly there’s Elric’s refusal to take the pragmatic route and just have Yyrkoon killed off. The struggle to find balance in life is something which is a constant preoccupation of Elric throughout the story, and in particular the balance to be found between ideals and pragmatism is a regular problem for him.

At this stage, Elric’s ideals are barely formed, stunted by the cynical and amoral environment of Melniboné, and his capacity to act on them is similarly limited. There’s a particularly uncomfortable bit where Elric watches moodily as his torturer, Doctor Jest, puts a group of human spies to the question, and Elric broods about how really he doesn’t especially approve of torture but practically there’s nothing much he can do about it. The book itself notes that whilst Elric does not follow all the traditions of his ancestors, he is still bound by a great many, thanks to having never really known a culture other than his own; in fact, the matter of Yyrkoon is really the only one in which he allows his idealism to override pragmatic concerns, which may be why he buggers things up so thoroughly whenever he has to make a decision about Yyrkoon – he’s so desperate to do something his way for once, he doesn’t stop to think whether under these particular circumstances his way is particularly stupid, and the sort of happy-clappy caring sharing culture Elric wants to foster is always going to be vulnerable to people like Yyrkoon who act in bad faith.

In this light, the conclusion of the novel – in which Elric, having faced down Yyrkoon and forced him to back down, leaves him as Regent of Melniboné and goes off on a gap year touring the Young Kingdoms to try and find inspiration for reforming Melniboné, makes a lot more sense. When I first read the book I echoed the opinion of the ever-practical Cymoril that Elric was being completely stupid, but a more careful reading this time around means I can accept that he’s at least behaving consistently with his character and motivations (even if he is still being a bit daft). First off, it’s suggested that Elric and Yyrkoon’s feud was being manipulated by Arioch in order to bring Stormbringer and its twin, Mournblade, back into the world in order to hasten the apocalypse, and Elric’s determination to make his peace with Yyrkoon is born in part of his desire to not be a pawn of the Chaos Gods. Secondly, Elric cannot bring reform to a stagnant culture like that of Melniboné without devising a coherent political philosophy, and to do that he needs to actually get out and see something of other cultures; someone will need to be Regent, and Cymoril point-blank refuses to do it. Thirdly, it fits the ongoing theme of Elric vacillating wildly between trying to cure Yyrkoon with kindness and wanting to just kill the guy. Fourthly, the end of the novel makes it explicitly clear that Elric is just plain kidding himself – about the extent to which Yyrkoon has reformed itself, about the extent to which Melniboné can be reformed, and about who calls the shots in the relationship between himself and Stormbringer.

But even if you can cook up these justifications, I suppose it is still a problem that Moorcock puts you in a position where you have to try to in the first place – if he had just toned down the portrayal of Yyrkoon this time around rather than making him such a blatant megalomaniac the contradiction would have been avoided. (But then he would have needed to cook up a new villain for this novel.) And even if this particular contradiction is resolved, there are yet others between Elric of Melniboné and the original novellas which all Moorcock’s revisions have failed to smooth over. For example, in The Dreaming City the defenders of Imrryr’s sea-maze are utterly astonished that the Young Kingdoms should dare attempt to slip a war-fleet through the sea-maze… except why would that be such a surprise when, in Elric of Melniboné, we find out that precisely that has happened a mere year or two before? Before Elric of Melniboné was written the reaction of Imrryr’s sea-guard in The Dreaming City is perfectly fine for a haughty and isolationist race of elves who believe the barbarbians of the Young Kingdoms would never dare mount an act of aggression against mighty Melniboné; after reading Elric of Melniboné their reaction becomes that of morons who can’t remember shit that happened a year ago.

If I had one big complaint about Elric of Melniboné which didn’t have anything to do with any contradictions it introduces to the wider saga, it’s Cymoril – she’s pretty much the only female character, and she spends almost the entire story being repeatedly threatened by Yyrkoon and having to be rescued by Elric. On the one hand, this is sort of consistent with the events of The Dreaming City, in which she is once again doing the whole damsel in distress thing, but on the other hand the whole point of The Dreaming City was that it was a startling inversion of the usual hero-saves-the-girl narrative. In this novel, the figure of Cymoril merely perpetuates the cliche she was invented to criticise. Moorcock scholars may well point out that Cymoril may be one of many incarnations of the Eternal Bit of Stuff that appear throughout the Eternal Champion series – that just as Elric, Corum and the rest taken on the archetype of the eternal hero, so too do characters like Cymoril end up channelling the recurring damsel in distress figure in our culture. It may even be said that Moorcock’s entire body of work is a critique of such archetypes, and the whole Hero’s Journey idea, and that the apocalyptic events of the overall saga are meant to be an allegory for the postmodern twilight of the idols in which we are free to liberate ourselves from the bonds of symbols like the dashing hero and the helpless maiden. But you’d need to read a whole heap of Moorcock novels to come to that conclusion, and in this one novel there isn’t enough pointing to it to suggest that this may be the case; rather than questioning the “rescue the completely passive princess” story, Elric of Melniboné reiterates it repeatedly and essentially without question.

Also, one of the means in which Yyrkoon imperils Cymoril towards the end of the novel – binding her in a magical sleep – is exactly the same as the curse he’s put on her in The Dreaming City. That’s just plain unimaginative of both Yyrkoon and Moorcock.

This is, of course, true of a lot of early-1970s sword and sorcery stories, but it’s especially disappointing here because Moorcock clearly wants to have a progressive agenda with the novel. The allegory present in the novel really isn’t that hard to follow; Melniboné, a former imperial power reduced to ruling its home islands and reliant on its capital’s status as a major trading centre doesn’t resemble post-war Britain by accident, and in his questioning of his tradition and his seeking to explore the cultures of the nations formerly oppressed by Melniboné Elric mirrors the desire of the 1960s counterculture to bring about radical reform. Of course, by 1972 you could see that the promise of the flower power generation hadn’t translated into as much progress as they’d wanted to see. As a novel, Elric of Melniboné both harks back to youth’s desperate desire to make something better of the world, and in its foreboding, doomy atmosphere is a prelude to the disillusionment that inevitably follows.

Multiverse bollocks: Really very little this time around, despite the journey to other realms Elric and Yyrkoon undertake when they pass through Shade Gate. The only thing that really sticks out is a poor, wretched Chaos-warped entity, which it is hinted was formerly a human being who served Chaos for too long and lost their grip on their own physical form, and may have once been called Frank; this might be a reference to Frank Cornelius, the Yyrkoon-equivalent in the Jerry Cornelius series (Moorcock’s only saga which is even more convoluted than the Elric stories).

The Fortress of the Pearl

Written a good decade or so after the Elric saga had appeared to be mostly finished, The Fortress of the Pearl not only sows the seeds of The Dreamthief’s Daughter and the rest of the Oona von Bek trilogy, but also – alongside The Sailor On the Seas of Fate – sheds some light on Elric’s gap year travelling the Young Kingdoms for the sake of learning their ways. This time around, we find Elric in Quarzhasaat – the former capital of a mighty northern empire that once rivalled Melniboné, but whose lands were transformed into the Sighing Desert by a botched spell cast by one of Quarzhasaat’s rulers in the War On Elves.

Anyway, Elric’s in town after getting thoroughly lost searching for Tanelorn, the Eternal City with incarnations on many planes of the multiverse where people have got the knack of living just about right. He’s weak as anything because he’s run out of drugs and Stormbringer hasn’t had a good kill for ages, and he’s being looked after by Anigh, a streetwise young boy who vaguely intends to sell Elric into slavery if he gets better, and to sell Stormbringer on the open market either way. Before he can do either, however, an agent of the devious Lord Gho, mistaking Elric for a member of the secretive order of dreamthieves, invites Elric to come to his Lord’s manse to hear about a job offer. Lord Gho wants Elric to steal the legendary Pearl at the Heart of the World from the equally legendary Fortress of the Pearl, a task which he believes only a dreamthief can achieve; having no idea what the Pearl is, or indeed what a dreamthief is, Elric plays along, but when he discovers that the medicines that Lord Gho has been giving him to restore his strength contain a poison which will kill him within the month – and that Lord Gho has kidnapped Anigh as a safeguard against Elric betraying him – he finds himself compelled to strike off on the quest for the Pearl.

So far, this is an archetypal sword and sorcery story premise: adventurer comes to decadent city, local bigwig uses lure of fabulous rewards combined with strongarm tactics to make adventurer go steal something valuable, adventure ensues. What Elric discovers in the Sighing Desert, though, is not the Fortress of the Pearl, but the khasbah of the Bauradim, the nomadic peoples of the desert who shun the corrupt ways of Quarzhasaat. After a vicious attack by the Sorcerer Adventurers, mercenaries of Quarzhasaat who also seek the Pearl, the Bauradim are in crisis: Varadia, the Holy Girl who is considered the repository of all their people’s wisdom, is in a deep coma, and cannot wake up. Elric finds that to get to the Pearl, he may need to rescue the Holy Girl. And to rescue the Holy Girl, he must learn to trust the mysterious Oone – for Oone is the dreamthief summoned by the Bauradim to enter Varadia’s dreams and rescue her from the dream that holds her prisoner.

The Fortress of the Pearl is an odd, transitional sort of work. Whilst the framing story surrounding Quarzhasaat adheres to a sword and sorcery formula as old as Conan himself, Moorcock doesn’t seem particularly inspired; the opening of the novel just plain drags, and whilst the conclusion in which Elric exacts his over-the-top Melnibonéan vengeance on Lord Gho and the other corrupt masters of Quarzhasaat is kind of fun, it seems to be there mainly to give Elric something to do. For most of the novel, Elric is tagging along with Oone as they physically enter Varadia’s dreams and quest for the Pearl (for the Fortress is at the centre of the dream). On the one hand, this adventure is an awful lot of fun – there’s a playful, anything-goes quality to it and it’s stuffed with allegory, a lot of it apparently influenced by the various Grail quest narratives that Moorcock seems to have used as inspiration for the Pearl quest. You’ve got your mysterious wounded knights who might have been past questers for the Pearl, you’ve got your recurring characters who appear spontaneously out of nowhere, you’ve got fairytale logic in full force; it’s all good, and the recasting of the Grail quest as a passage through someone’s dream is quite clever because a lot of the old Grail narratives have this weird dreamlike quality to them (in that almost nothing that happens in them makes very much sense, at least to us modern readers).

On the other hand, however, I do question why Elric is even here. Despite Oone’s insistence at the end of the quest that she couldn’t have done it without him, he’s just kind of a liability; he regularly misunderstands what is going on, only grasping what Oone’s been doing in imposing a pattern on the dream by the very end, and is incredibly vulnerable to the particular moods and influences of the various dream realms. Oone kicks more than enough ass to do the quest without Elric getting in the way, to be honest, and her declaration that he made his own special contribution to her success seems to me to be a white lie of the sort you tell to a small child who you have given an inessential task to in order to make them feel as though they’ve contributed. Really, the dream-quest is sufficiently alien to the metaphysic of the rest of the Elric stories, and so far removed from the usual themes that link the series together, that I almost wonder whether it wasn’t originally composed as a standalone novel before being tweaked to include Elric.

Heck, he doesn’t even have Stormbringer with him for most of the book – this is presumably why it has been placed early in the chronology, since later Elric is pretty much married to the sword – and the weakness which characterises him when he is away from Stormbringer is also absent, so you could argue that Elric isn’t in the story – that the character called Elric who participates in the dream-quest lacks the qualities which we associate with Elric of Melniboné, and therefore for all intents and purposes is a different character. Yes, occasionally he thinks about Cymoril or Yyrkoon or Melniboné or his dad, but he doesn’t really come to any conclusions about them, and the end of the story more or less explicitly says he’s learned pretty much nothing from this particular experience.

About the only good reason for Elric to be present is the implication that Oone was setting him up as a hero-figure that Varadia could see come charging in and save the day, which would provide her with sufficient reassurance to emerge from the dream-fortress she had built herself. But there’s two problems with that. First off, Oone sets herself up as a parallel hero-figure, making Elric himself redundant even in this capacity. Secondly, if you want someone to rescue a princess from a spell of eternal sleep, and you happen to have some foreknowledge of Elric’s fate (as Oone appears to), you do not fucking pick Elric of Melniboné to do the job. You’ll see why when I get to The Dreaming City.

Plus, what the hell, another supernaturally slumber-bound girl for Elric to save? That’s what, Cymoril (twice), the titular character of The Sleeping Sorceress (of which more later), and now the Holy Girl? I can see how repeating the Sleeping Beauty trope once, in The Sleeping Sorceress, could be interesting for the inevitable reminders of what happened to Cymoril in The Dreaming City it evokes in Elric (and the reader), but doing it yet again is just plain repetitive – again, this would be evaded entirely if Moorcock hadn’t shoehorned Elric into this story.

That said, as far as allegorical stories with heavy Jungian influences go the dream quest narrative is alright. The idea that the dreamthieves have created this conceptual geography of dreams which they impose on a dreamer’s nocturnal world in order to make sense of it makes them come across as high fantasy psychotherapists, but in a way which makes psychology seem cool rather than making dreamthieves seem prosaic, and the imagery both of the entry into dreams and that encountered within the dream itself is at least entertaining. The Fortress of the Pearl does, at its heart, contain a good story; it’s just that it’s not a good Elric story, and the superficial Elric story it’s been embedded in detracts from it.

Multiverse bollocks: Oone’s name is almost certainly meant to remind the reader of Una Persson, a character mainly associated with the Jerry Cornelius stories. Oone and Elric at pone point encounter “Jasper Colinadous”; Oone’s recognition of him implies a connection to Jerry Cornelius, but his possession of a winged cat called Whiskers and his job description as Companion to Champions more directly links him to Jhary-a-Conel, the Cornelius incarnation who is mainly known for being Corum’s buddy.

Though Jhary himself was originally cooked up as a reference to Jerry, the novel on the whole doesn’t really have many connections to the Cornelius stories, whilst the Jhary connection is underlined by the actual ritual surrounding the process of dreamthieving, which is highly reminiscent of an attempt by Jhary to cure the cursed mind of the High King of the Mabden in The Oak and the Ram, one of the Corum novels. (The main difference is that Jhary’s cat Whiskers takes the place of the dreamthief’s staff there.)

Oh, and the cosmology of seven realms with the core being a land of nightmare and madness previously appeared in The Dragon In the Sword.

The Sailor On the Seas of Fate

A “fix-up” novel consisting of three Elric novellas with a vague ocean-going theme, with revisions to patch over the gaps between them, The Sailor On the Seas of Fate consists of material written between 1973 and 1976, and to be honest is more than a little patchy. In particular, the first and the shortest of the novellas, Sailing to the Future, represents a shameless recycling of material, in which Moorcock retells an incident from The Quest for Tanelorn – the seventh and final Hawkmoon novel – from Elric’s point of view.

Specifically, it tells of the adventure of the Four Who Are One – four incarnations of the Eternal Champion, Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum and Erekosë, brought together by the mysterious blind captain of a ship that sails an ocean which spans several different planes of the multiverse. The blind captain has summoned them, and sixteen warriors under their command, to mount an attack against Agak and Gagak, monstrous siblings and sorcerers from a different cosmos entirely who have taken advantage of a momentous dimensional convergence to set up their headquarters on an island between planes, from where they intend to drain the life energy of the entire multiverse for themselves.

This whole incident is clearly just a bit of fun for Moorcock, who makes no secret of the fact that he wrote the Hawkmoon novels at speed to make a quick buck. It’s not horribly unreadable, but it isn’t exactly brilliant either. With a force of twenty men attacking Agak and Gagak’s base, erected in the ruins of one version of Tanelorn, and only 50 pages for Moorcock to work with, there’s absolutely no space for Moorcock to properly introduce us to more than a fraction of the characters involved – and those he does bother to introduce us to are sometimes the least relevant ones. Really, this is a missed opportunity on Moorcock’s part – it could have been a chance for him to introduce Elric readers to Hawkmoon, Corum and Erekosë as a way of tempting them to branch out into those characters’ respective series. However, you don’t come away knowing very much about Corum or Hawkmoon, aside from the fact that Corum has a silver hand and an eyepatch and is cheerful and probably an elf of some kind, and Hawkmoon is… some guy. Erekosë does at least get a decent introduction, but that’s because you can get the basic idea behind Erekosë across in a single sentence: he’s the incarnation of the Eternal Champion who, through a fuckup of fate, can somehow remember being all the other incarnations, which makes him sad. Big whoop.

That said, the conclusion of the story is a lot of fun, when the Four Who Are One merge to become a giant eight-armed eight-legged monstrosity, which eats Gagak and kicks Agak’s ass. Ridiculous, yes, but also bizarre and faintly horrifying, and it’s no surprise that Elric is more than willing to forget the whole experience as a bizarre dream – which is convenient, since it never has any particular impact on the rest of the Elric series. Unless the reader is in the mood to read some lighthearted fluff rendered particularly meaningless by being ripped out of its original context, you’d be best advised to skip Sailing to the Future or discount it as a bad dream yourself.

Sailing to the Present is more lightweight fare, although at least this time it isn’t rooted in a pointless crossover. As it turns out, the blind captain’s route doesn’t extend all the way back to Elric’s world, so he sets Elric down in as close a dimension to the Young Kingdoms as possible. There, Elric meets Count Smiorgan Baldhead, a merchant of the Purple Towns, who himself has been stranded in this strange pocket dimension after taking on a mysterious passenger – one who paid her way in Melnibonéan currency. In seeking the Crimson Gate which will take him and Smiorgan back to the Young Kingdoms, Elric finds he has to battle the ancient Melnibonéan sorcerer Saxif D’Aan, ruler of this plane, who pursues Smiorgan’s passenger Vassliss in the belief that she is the reincarnation of Gratyesha, the woman who broke his heart and taught him the meaning of guilt – something few Melnibonéans learn.

Considering that Elric is meeting a fellow Melnibonéan with an actual functioning conscience for the first time in his life, it’s kind of a shame that this story is so lightweight, Moorcock expending sufficient page count on relating Elric being dropped off by the blind captain and meeting Smiorgan for the first time that the actual conflict with Saxif is over pretty quickly – and even then it feels sparse and underdeveloped, as though it were just something Moorcock threw in for the sake of making Smiorgan and Elric’s return to the Young Kingdoms a bit more complicated than “go to ship, sail through Crimson Gate”. It’s not dull, but it’s not really thrilling either; it’s just sort of there. To be honest, I question the point of Moorcock writing an entire story to explain how Elric met Smiorgan, since the character only appeared in The Dreaming City in any event; clearly Moorcock had decided at this point that there was a market for covering every single little incident in Elric’s life and had no qualms about meeting that demand.

The final part of the novel, Sailing to the Past is a revision of the 1973 novella The Jade Man’s Eyes, which was originally published as a limited edition small press affair. Most of the revisions are devoted to dragging the story to an earlier point in the saga’s chronology (so Moonglum is replaced by Smiorgan), and to altering the way in which Elric and Smiorgan join up with the scholarly Duke Avan’s expedition to the abandoned city of R’lin K’Ren A’a – where according to legend the Melnibonéan people originated, and which was supposedly abandoned by man and beast after the Lords of the Higher Worlds convened there to decide the rules of the Cosmic Struggle between Law and Chaos.

Again, you’d think that’d give space for a fairly meaty addition to the saga, but no: there’s a fight with some lizardy people who could be the ancestors of the Melnibonéans, Elric summons an insect god who he then promises to never summon again ever (neatly explaining why he never contacted the bug king in the original novellas), and he has a vision of Erekosë which means nothing to him because he’s already forgotten who Erekosë is.

The most interesting thing that happens is the party meeting the Creature Doomed to Live – a Melnibonéan resident of the city from the time when it was still a thriving metropolis who refused to leave when the Jade Man – one of many forms of Arioch – showed up and said PISS OFF PUNKS, THE BIG BOYS ARE HAVING A MEETING, and was punished for not doing what the big statue told him to by being cursed to live forever until the Jade Man leaves the city (and, incidentally, by being cursed to being unable to actually communicate what the gods talking about, avoiding the danger that he might actually tell Elric something Moorcock doesn’t want him to hear). The Creature happens to be named J’osui C’reln Reyr, and when you’ve read enough Moorcock your first inclination on reading a name like that is to check if it’s an anagram – sure enough, it’s Jerry “I’m an Eternal Champion too!” Cornelius. (For what it’s worth “R’lin K’Ren A’a” is an anagram of “Linear Rank”, but I don’t think that means anything.) So moved is Elric by the plight of Reyr/Cornelius that he summons Arioch to shift the Jade Man, even though Arioch pretty much directly says HEY MAN DO YOU REALLY WANT TO DO THAT, IT’LL MEAN WE HAVE TO GO ALL RAGNAROK ON THIS DIMENSION YOU KNOW.

Thus, Cornelius’s intervention in Elric’s saga is the catalyst which provokes the end of the world in Stormbringer – the departure of the Jade Man apparently being the prophesised signal starting the countdown – which kind of makes sense since a fair number of the Jerry Cornelius stories have him acting as the trigger man on one apocalypse or another. Therein lies the secret truth behind The Sailor On the Seas of Fate: a third of it is an overt crossover story with three other series, another third is a covert crossover with the Jerry Cornelius stories, and the final third is a bridge linking the crossovers. It’s as though at this point in time Moorcock would have preferred to write anything other than more bloody Elric stories, and it really kind of shows. The novel as a whole just leaves me cold; it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose to actually give us new insights into Elric, like Elric of Melniboné did, it’s just a tedious cash-in with blatant plugs for Moorcock’s other sword and sorcery characters at one end and a sly reference to his postmodern surrealist Burroughsian SF saga at the other. If The Sailor On the Seas of Fate sank to the bottom of the ocean I don’t think anyone would really miss it.

Multiverse bollocks: The novel consists of almost nothing but pointless references to other works in Moorcock’s cosmology, to the point where if you stripped them out you’d be left with almost nothing of substance.

The Weird of the White Wolf

Another fix-up novel of three Elric novellas – plus a non-Elric story set in the early days of the Young Kingdoms, The Dream of Earl Aubec – AKA Master of Chaos – which, as I mentioned, I won’t be covering here – the stories that comprise The Weird of the White Wolf were written between 1961 and 1967, and therefore are a decade or so earlier than the material in The Sailor On the Seas of Fate. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that the book as a whole is significantly better than Sailor; whilst in that volume Moorcock appeared to be weary of Elric, the novellas in Weird of the White Wolf were mostly written in his first rush of enthusiasm for the character. The first two, The Dreaming City and While the Gods Laugh, are actually the first two Elric stories he wrote, whilst the third, The Singing Citadel, was a contribution to The Fantastic Swordsmen, a 1967 anthology of sword and sorcery stories edited by L. Sprange de Camp.

The Dreaming City itself is just great; it exposes just how much page count that Elric of Melniboné and The Fortress of the Pearl wastes in narrating in fine detail every broody mood that troubles Elric, and just how much Moorcock was dully going through the numbers in The Sailor On the Seas of Fate. Tightly-written, devoted to exploring Elric’s character through his actions and behaviour rather than constantly sitting inside his head covering his every sob and mope, dripping with wild imagery and with a shocking conclusion, the tale of how Elric leads Smiorgan’s raider fleet in a raid against Imrryr itself to destroy the last city of the Melnibonéans – all for the sake of getting revenge on Yyrkoon and rescuing Cymoril, neither of whom survive the assault – must have been incredibly shocking when it appeared on a sword and sorcery market used to thirty years of heroes who might have sometimes been a bit mercenary but certainly weren’t quite as craven, black-hearted, and selfish as Elric shows himself to be this time around.

The pathetic nature of his reliance on Stormbringer is made startlingly clear in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, in which Cymoril is killed by Yyrkoon throwing her in the way of one of Elric’s thrusts. Elric is unable to cast away the weapon which killed the only woman he ever loved, even when the memory of the blade’s betrayal is still fresh and raw. The bleak oath Elric swears – that he shall remain with Stormbringer, and between them the pair will give their age a reason to hate them – is all the evidence you need that what has occurred is completely disastrous to Elric’s psyche, without Moorcock saying “the events of the last day had been completely disastrous to Elric’s psyche” as you might expect him to do in the later books. As fun as Elric of Melniboné was, the comparatively laid-back and placid Elric of that story is nowhere near as compelling as the virile, intense, and hate-filled creature we see here.

Elric might be an incarnation of the Eternal Champion to Moorcock, but really he’s the Eternal Teenager – brash, arrogant, convinced he knows it all, angry at the world not living up to his expectations and scrabbling to find his place in it. Going from The Sailor On the Seas of Fate to this is a bit of a shock, because whilst the writing in that is a bit more mature and self-assured (it’s speak badly of Moorcock if it wasn’t), it also suffers from not having quite the same energy and zeal as the early stories. And even though the armchair psychology is less evident in this story, Elric’s metamorphosis from the quiet confidence of its early pages to the hate and grief-warped bitterness of the conclusion feels more profound and important than any of the developments of Elric of Melniboné. Quite simply, although there are three books in the saga that predate this one in terms of the internal chronology, none of them feel as important or essential as The Dreaming City – and many of them reduce its impact, due to contradictions and underminings that I’ve pointed out earlier. (And there are more – for example, in theory Elric only notices in The Dreaming City that Stormbringer has its own agenda, but for Elric to have not reached that conclusion long before is nigh-inconceivable.)

The high quality is sustained in While the Gods Laugh, the followup. Lost in mourning for Cymoril, Elric is sought out by Shaarilla of the Dancing Mists, who is one of the winged people of Myyrrhn. She herself has no wings – it’s not ever clear whether this is a result of an injury or a birth defect – and she has come to believe that the means of attaining wings may be found in the Dead Gods’ Book, a tome containing the wisdom of the ancient gods who existed before the rise of the Lords of Law and Chaos and their Cosmic Struggle. She intends to quest for the Book and seeks Elric’s help, and as payment offers to give Elric the Book once she has her wings back. Suffering an existential crisis after the events of The Dreaming City, Elric seizes upon the opportunity to discover once and for all whether there is an ultimate order of things, some supreme power behind both Law and Chaos – which would enable Elric to find some kind of meaning in life.

What Shaarilla does not count on is the extent to which Elric throws himself into the quest. On hearing of the Book and learning that Shaarilla knows where it is, Elric becomes absolutely obsessed, to the point where he becomes determined to press on even when Shaarilla is convinced that the dangers that they face are too great, and that the peril the Book poses to their minds and souls exceeds any benefit they might get from it. Whereas your typical questgiving heroine in a sword and sorcery story of the time would usually tag along with the hero, encouraging him not to give up the quest, and eventually fall for his manly charms, Shaarilla accompanies Elric at first because she wants to succeed in the quest (and, admittedly, because she is sexually attracted to him), but later on she loses all desire to complete the journey but keeps going anyway, because she just can’t look away from this awful thing Elric is doing to himself. The journey puts Elric at risk of life and limb, binds him ever closer to the Black Sword, threatens to set him at odds with his own Chaos patrons, and pushes him to the very brink of insanity. In the wake of the cruel ending in which he is cheated of any comforting knowledge the book might have given him and realises that will never find the absolute certainty he is clutching for, Elric straight up abandons Shaarilla at the underground fortress where the Book had been kept and never looks back. (Though to be fair to him, there’s good reason to believe her journey home will be immeasurably less dangerous than the journey there.)

There is one silver lining to the journey, however, and that is that Elric makes a new friend – Moonglum of Elwher, a pragmatist and realist who’s more interested in the gemstones decorating the Dead Gods’ Book than any wisdom to be found therein. The model for all of Moorcock’s Eternal Companions, Moonglum is one of those extremely rare light-hearted sidekick characters who aren’t insufferably annoying. Although his outlook is much happier than Elric’s because he isn’t tormented by philosophical wrangling, he doesn’t make tenuous and unfunny jokes for the sake of them; Moorcock manages to keep Moonglum’s quips reasonably amusing without being mood-wrecking and usually quite to the point. Plus, he isn’t a bumbling idiot like many sidekicks, but a capable warrior in his own right.

This novella is also the first one (in terms of order of writing) in which Moorcock lays out the cosmology of the great struggle between Law and Chaos, and the introduction to the concept here is a good deal more engaging than the discussions in Elric of Melniboné and the novellas that make up The Sailor On the Seas of Fate, most likely because the Lords of the Higher Worlds are introduced tersely and with a minimum of faffing about rather than with extended musings. The story as a whole may be an unsubtle way of saying “Elric lives in a postmodern world, much like our own, in which the certainties past generations adhered to have lost their credibiltiy and all is in flux” and “Elric is an existentialist who is forced to construct his own reasons for living as opposed to relying on an absolute external truth”, but it’s also a pretty powerful way of saying it, and is probably responsible for introducing existentialism to more teenage fantasy fans than any other source. The story isn’t perfect – one could have wished that Shaarilla could have played more of a part in her own quest, and in fact James Door wrote a short story (The Song of Shaarilla) that retold the events of While the Gods Laugh from her point of view in order to redress the balance – but it more than keeps up with the pace set by The Dreaming City.

The Singing Citadel was written after Moorcock wrapped up Stormbringer and had turned his hand to other heroic fantasy series, but unlike Elric of Melniboné or The Fortress of the Pearl, which seemed to try (even if they didn’t quite succeed) to be important new additions to the series which expanded its scope, or The Sailor On the Seas of Fate, which just seemed like an unpleasant chore for Moorcock, it seems that this time around Moorcock was just having a bit of fun and letting off steam.

After beating down a gang of bloodthirsty pirates, Elric and Moonglum sail into the land of Jharkor in some style – attracting more attention than they had wanted to, since in Jharkor (as in many of the Young Kingdoms) Elric is widely despised for leaving so many heroes to die by dragonfire after the sack of Imrryr. However, at least one resident is interested in Elric for other reasons – Queen Yishana, ruler of Jharkor, is displeased with the failure of her court sorcerer (and lover) Theleb K’aarna’s abject failure to rid the land of the Singing Citadel, a bizarre structure which has appeared in the vicinity recently and lures people inside to an uncertain fate. Elric, well-schooled in the lore of Chaos, realises that the Citadel is the home of Balo, the Jester of Chaos, a minor godling who is clearly up to no good. Can Elric save Yishana and the land from Balo’s fortress of happy noises and pretty twinkling lights, and save himself from the jealousy of Theleb K’aarna, who dislikes the way Yishana skips off to Elric’s bed the first night he’s in town?

I found this one really disappointing after the excellence of The Dreaming City and While the Gods Laugh, though part of this is the way it really doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of The Weird of the White Wolf. Balo is a clown. His fortress is full of gaudy colours and pretty lights and sounds generically psychedelic. That doesn’t really match the stark, grim tone of the other two novellas in the collection. Mixing clowns with horrifying violence and dark, grim, doomy atmospheres is a difficult task; sometimes it can work and you get Pennywise from It, most of the time it doesn’t and you get the Insane Clown Posse – who come to think of it have have their own Singing Citadel. Rapping Citadel. Whatever. Fact is, Balo’s antics aren’t quite funny enough to turn this into an Elric parody but are just silly enough to make this story really incongruous when placed next to the other two. It doesn’t help that the story adds another contradiction to the overall series – Elric’s father supposedly brought him into the realms of Chaos in order to meet Arioch when he was initiating Elric into the ways of sorcery, which you’d have thought Elric might just have recalled when he was intending to summon Arioch in Elric of Melniboné, which reads as though Elric had never spoken to Arioch before. Possibly Elric only remembers this shit when Moorcock remembers.

Another thing Moorcock does with The Singing Citadel which, again, he finds himself compelled to do with the latter-day additions to the series, is narrate how Elric meets characters from the original novellas – in this case, Yishana and Theleb K’aarna, who he originally created for the novella The Stealer of Souls. Theleb K’aarna doesn’t really do much in this story except sulk and summon a dragonfly. Yishana, meanwhile, is established as a sexy dominant woman who finds herself fascinated with Elric, even though he is generally held responsible for her brother’s death. Moorcock seems to consider the character of Yishana to be important to his feminist credentials, since he refers to including a character based on her in a draft of the Elric movie (which as far as I can work out is stuck in development hell) and says he wouldn’t have done so if he didn’t feel the Weitz brothers and their team had a pro-feminist stance that could do her justice.

Now, it is true that Yishana as a female character who is generally in charge of her own sexuality is a rarity in sword and sorcery fiction as it stood in the 1960s. However, she’s also depicted in this story as a powerful woman who maintains her power over men by using sex as her primary tool of control – her hold over Theleb K’aarna is directly stated to be based on sexual dominance, and she is shown to have no qualms about playing Elric and Theleb off against each other. The manipulative seductress trope was not exactly new to sword and sorcery when Moorcock used it in this story, so – this time around at least – I don’t think Moorcock gets to claim the feminist points he seems to want to claim. Granted, the idea that women use sex as a weapon seems to have more currency today amongst misogynists than ever before – just browse a few forums devoted to the “Men’s Rights Movement” if you are in any doubt about that – but it ain’t exactly new either.

In fact, let’s review: of the three named female characters in The Weird of the White Wolf, Cymoril gets her soul nommed by Stormbringer, Shaarilla is shoved to the side in her own quest, and Yishana is an absolutely typical sword and sorcery seductress. I’ve got to say, that isn’t exactly a fantastic track record. I know I’m kind of playing the dudes calling dudes out on not being feminist enough game, but Moorcock has shown willing in the past to claim feminist points by virtue of being friends with Andrea Dworkin, so I don’t think it’s completely unfair to put this aspect of his writing under the microscope. This is especially true since, as I mentioned, his work is often cited by critics and fans as being a counterpoint to the brutishly macho tone taken by the Conan stories and their later imitators, so I think it’s important to point out where the Elric stories end up being just as bad as their competition.

To be fair to the Moorcock of 1962 and slightly less fair to the Moorcock of 1967, I would say that whilst it is true that Elric is an utter shit to Shaarilla in While the Gods Laugh and (accidentally) kills Cymoril outright in The Dreaming City, I don’t think Moorcock is asking us to endorse Elric’s actions in those novellas. By contrast, in The Singing Citadel it is Moorcock himself who portrays Yishana with the tired-out manipulative seductress stereotype, and Elric kind of goes along with that because hey, he’s had a hard time of it and it’s not often his author dumps a willing queen in his bed at a whim.

I’m going to expand a bit on the whole “you’re not meant to approve of what Elric does” thing, actually, because I think it represents a key difference between the original run of novellas and later addition to the series – even those later additions written soon after the completion of Stormbringer, like this one. In the early Elric novellas, and especially in the first two, I read Elric as being precisely the sort of antihero he’s always described as when people are summarising the series. He’s not an example to emulate, he often fails at the tasks he sets himself, he’s a dangerous ally who will most likely get you killed in the long run, and he’s not even an especially likable guy. Of course, people ended up liking the stories despite the protagonist being an utter arsehole, and it seems to me that this hugely positive reception ended up prompting Moorcock to warm to Elric and write him as a more sympathetic character – here he even seems to be not a complete miseryguts, and in the three novels preceding The Weird of the White Wolf in the chronological sequence his less appealing qualities have been almost excised. Because people like the Elric stories, there’s been this odd transference to people ending up liking Elric even though he’s a shit, which has resulted in him metamorphosing from antihero into just plain hero, completely subverting the point of the exercise.

But for its first two thirds, The Weird of the White Wolf shows Elric for the nasty little fucker he really is, and it should be valued for that at least.

Multiverse bollocks: Pretty much minimal. It is possible that Balo is meant to be a reimagining of the Fireclown from The Winds of Limbo, a standalone SF novel, but having not read that one yet I’m not going to make the call. And of course, when The Dreaming City and While the Gods Laugh were written Moorcock hadn’t really kicked the multiverse thing into high gear.

The Vanishing Tower (AKA The Sleeping Sorceress)

Yet another fix-up novel, 1971’s The Sleeping Sorceress (retitled The Vanishing Tower in the 1977 DAW editions) consists of three novellas written for a proposed series in Ken Bulmer’s Sword and Sorcery collections which fell through. The first part, The Torment of the Last Lord – originally published as a standalone novella as The Sleeping Sorceress in the Warlocks and Warriors anthology – opens with Elric and Moonglum hot on the trail of Theleb K’aarna, following the events of The Singing Citadel. They come to the land of Lormyr, at the southern edge of the Young Kingdoms, and after some misadventures encounter a mysterious tower, in which is to be found a sleeping woman who reminds Elric uncannily of Cymoril. It eventually transpires that Myshella, the Dark Lady of Kaneloon – loved, in ages gone by, by Earl Aubec of Malador, who it is said created much of the world of the Young Kingdoms by forcing back the encroaching tides of Chaos. Speaking of Chaos, it seems that Myshella’s magical sleep has been inflicted by Theleb K’aarna, who has entered the service of Prince Umbda, a powerful champion of Chaos from beyond the World’s Edge. Only Myshella’s magic can stop Prince Umbda’s armies from conquering Lormyr, and perhaps the whole Young Kingdoms – and only Elric can find the magical ingredients needed to awaken her.

Earl Aubec is in fact another Moorcock protagonist (and, therefore, another incarnation of the Eternal Champion), whose only significant appearance is in the 1964 story Master of Chaos (also known as The Dream of Earl Aubec, or simply Earl Aubec). In the mid-1960s Moorcock did in fact toy with the idea of writing a four-novel series entitled The Chronicle of Earl Aubec, which would take in the early years of the Young Kingdoms just as the Elric series is an account of their last days, and he even got as far as developing a story outline; however, he never got around to writing it. I do wonder whether Moorcock recycled some of the abandoned ideas from the Aubec trilogy in this story; it’s a fun enough tale, but somehow it doesn’t feel quite like an Elric story – it’s got a little too much fairytale whimsy and not quite enough grimdark menace.

Speaking of grim darkness, Elric’s mental state is another aspect of this story which doesn’t quite sit right. Yes, it does kind of make sense that he’d be plunged into impression on seeing Myshella because of her eerie similarity to Cymoril (what with them both being incarnations of the Eternal Love Interest), but this mood doesn’t seem to match the mood Moorcock is going for with this story. In most of the rest of the saga, Elric’s moods reflect and are reflected by the tone of the story – if Moorcock is writing a tale that is big and broody and grim like While the Gods Laugh Elric will be all broody and grim, if Moorcock is writing something thoughtful and philosophical like The Fortress of the Pearl Elric will be thoughtful and philosophical, and so on. Here, Moorcock seems to be writing a frivolous and slightly whimsical little adventure, which would seem to call for Elric to be in one of his more reckless and devil-may-care moods, but instead Elric is stuck in a full-on mope for most of the tale. This clash with the tone of the story feels really awkward, in the same way that someone bursting into loud, gushing tears after you tell a perfectly innocuous joke is awkward.

Speaking of “frivolous and slightly whimiscal”, Moorcock goes out of his way to emphasise the fact that this story – and really, the whole novel – is one of the less essential volumes of the saga. Not only does Arioch pointedly fail to provide any aid to Elric when he calls on it early on, having entirely more important matters to think about, but Moonglum says right at the beginning that Elric’s pursuit of Theleb K’aarna, which drives the entire book, is a superfluous distraction from Elric’s true destiny. This is actually true, but it really doesn’t help you get absorbed in a story if the author has characters regularly point out to you that you shouldn’t get too invested in it.

Following up the whimsically frivolous with the occasionally just plain stupid, To Snare the Pale Prince has Theleb K’aarna, having survived the last story, offering his help to King Urish the Seven-Fingered, despot of Nadsokor, the City of Beggars. Urish has his own reasons to dislike Elric, and together the pair hatch a plan to lure Elric to Nadsokor by stealing the Ring of Kings which symbolises his rulership over the Melnibonéan people. But whilst Theleb K’aarna would rather just hack Elric’s head off and have done with it, King Urish has a better use for him – sacrificing him to the Burning God, a Lord of Chaos that was imprisoned at the heart of the city aeons ago by the powers of Law.

Now, I don’t object to the Beggar City as a setting feature per se; fantastical cities of beggars and thieves are a staple of fantasy fiction, and so long as the residents are clearly meant to be storybook beggars rather than reflecting the author’s opinion of actual homeless people I don’t personally find anything wrong with that. And in the other stories in which Nadosakor is mentioned, it’s essentially there for flavour – you don’t have Elric going there and exploring it, you don’t have any of the inhabitants coming onstage, the mention of it is just a cosmetic background detail.

This time around, Moonglum and Elric go to Beggarville itself. And unfortunately, Moorcock takes the opportunity to see just how grimy and sleazy a city description he can cook up, which culminates in this bit of ridiculousness:

…there came a scream from one shattered doorway and a young girl, barely over puberty, dashed out pursued by a monstrously fat beggar who propelled himself with astounding speed on his crutches, the livid stumps of his legs, which terminated at the knee, making the motions of running. Moonglum tensed, but Elric held him back as the fat cripple bore down his prey, abandoned his crutches which rattled on the broken pavement, and flung himself on the child.

Not only is this a ridiculously over-the-top and crass use of child rape as a quick and lazy way to make the reader dislike Nadosokor, but it’s so overblown it ended up reminding me of Jack Chick’s Sodom-themed comics, at which point any hope the story had of winning me over was completely lost.

The rest of the story is just as inconsequential as The Torment of the Last Lord, and I don’t really have much more to say about it in isolation, but I want to talk a bit about how it fits into the series – or rather, how it doesn’t. Not only does this story take a minor setting detail which looked OK when it was in the background and make it look completely stupid by bringing it to close attention, it and The Torment of the Last Lord together introduce a fairly thorny inconsistency into the saga as a whole. In the original novellas, it is not until the events of Stormbringer that Elric definitively takes up arms against Chaos. (He’s mildly going against Chaos in While the Gods Laugh, but he’s going against Law to a similar extent, and for reasons which become brutally apparent at the end of that story he couldn’t have actually harmed the interests of Chaos by pursuing the Dead Gods’ Book in the first place.) In The Torment of the Last Lord, however, Elric sides with Law against Chaos, and in To Snare the Pale Prince he directly accepts help from one of the Gods of Law. The consequence of this is that Arioch lets him off with a slap on the wrist, which makes him seem less like a dire and perilous Duke of Hell and more like an ineffectual ditherer. Arioch regularly justifies this on the grounds that Elric has a special destiny to participate in come the end of the world – but in Stormbringer, when the end of the world finally arrives, Arioch makes no attempt whatsoever to actually get Elric onside.

This gets even more ridiculous when you factor in The Revenge of the Rose, the bulk of which has Elric acting in direct defiance of Arioch – and yet, in the stories that come after it in the timeline from The Stealer of Souls to the opening act of Stormbringer, Elric is still calling on Arioch to aid him. The arc of Elric’s relationship with his patron Lord of Chaos, which once made sense in the original novellas, has become so ridiculously tangled that the story becomes less coherent, and suffers as a result.

The last part of the book, Three Heroes With a Single Aim, is another Moorcock cut-and-paste job, retelling the events of yet another multi-Champion team-up from Elric’s point of view (like in Sailing to the Future) – this time, it’s the bit in the Corum novel The King of the Swords in which Corum, Erekosë, and Elric’s adventure in the Vanishing Tower of Voilodion Ghagnasdiak is related. The story goes something like this: Elric and Moonglum are hanging out in Tanelorn, which is a sort of urban Nirvana which exists in one form or another on almost all the planes of Moorcock’s multiverse. Elric feels suicidal and goes out into the desert with the intent of dying of exposure. Myshella shows up again and tells him that he can’t die because he needs to stop Theleb K’aarna’s army of lizard people from another dimension from attacking and conquering Tanelorn.

Then there’s an accident and Elric ends up in another plane of the multiverse. Soon enough he encounters Corum and Erekosë. Corum wants both Elric and Erekosë to help him break into the Vanishing Tower to rescue Corum’s incarnation of the Eternal Platonic Life Partner, Jhary-a-Conel, who has been captured by the dastardly Voilodion Ghagnasdiak. Once the bad guy is defeated Jhary leads the gang to the man’s treasure room, where he doles out deus ex machina to each of the Eternal Champions present – including the means by which Elric can save Tanelorn.

Jhary-a-Conel is, of course, one of the many versions of Jerry Cornelius scattered about Moorcock’s writing (as a matter of fact, Corum’s full name is Corum Jhaelen Irsei, which is an anagram of Jeremiah Cornelius…), and in this story it seems he vaguely remembers being the other incarnations of the Eternal Champion present – that’s how he’s able to pick out the best prizes for each of them. This blurring of the boundary between Eternal Champion and Eternal Homeboy represents one of the points in Moorcock’s work where the whole story seems to involve different iterations of the same person standing around and talking to each other, and I’m sure it was totally mindblowing in 1971, but 40 years down the line it just looks really stupid.

The centrality of Tanelorn is another way in which the development of Moorcock’s multiverse means that the later Elric stories simply don’t fit with the original novellas. In the original Elric novellas he never went to the place, though he did know Rackhir the Red Archer, a champion of Tanelorn – it was just thrown out there as a place that happened to be a stronghold of the Grey Lords who serve the Cosmic Balance, and its main appearance was in To Rescue Tanelorn, a Rackhir tale in which Elric does not feature and which, by its exclusion from the Elric omnibuses, I think we are meant to conclude is not part of the Elric saga itself but a side-story that happens to be set in the same world.

So taken was Moorcock with the idea of Tanelorn that he reused it over and over, until it became one of the hallmarks of his multiverse – Tanelorn as a sort of urban Nirvana has some expression on every one of the planes, even if in some realms it is only an aspiration rather than a physical city. Thus, whilst in the original Elric novellas Elric doesn’t really give much thought to Tanelorn aside from it being the place where Rackhir lives, in the later additions to the story it is a glorious ideal that he yearns for – but then ends up kind of going to without trying and then leaving because he got bored. The clash is most noticeable when reading the omnibuses which put extremely late stories next to extremely early ones, and I find it incredibly irritating.

But worst of all is the fact that, as presented here, the story just isn’t very good, at least in the form it’s presented here. Maybe it worked better in its original context – it’s been long enough since I read the Corum novels that I don’t remember, but here it just doesn’t function. The big problem is that whereas in Sailing to the Future Moorcock managed to do a little legwork to make the incident seem as important to Elric as it was to the other participants, and to give the reader enough context to understand what was going on, here the action is so rooted in Corum’s story that a reader who hadn’t read The King of the Swords would be completely lost – without reading that you wouldn’t know who Corum was, who Jhary was, how Jhary got kidnapped, why it was important for Corum to get Jhary back – nothing! You’re left with little idea of who Corum is, who Erekosë is, or why we should even slightly care about either of them.

Even more infuriatingly, at the end of the novel Rackhir gives Elric a potion to let him forget most of what happened, so once again Moorcock finds himself obliged to come up with some absolutely half-baked plot element to explain why the major events of this story don’t come up in The Stealer of Souls – the final story featuring Theleb K’aarna, in which you really would have thought Elric would have mentioned Theleb’s direst act in this story at some point during their final confrontation. In the early 1970s Moorcock seemed hell-bent on making sure that if Elric showed up in a guest appearance in one of his other series, that appearance was included in an Elric story in order to keep Elric’s timeline absolutely detailed. I kind of wish he’d applied the commedia dell’arte ideas he’d cooked up in the Jerry Cornelius series to his heroic fantasy, because then at least he would have been able to use Elric as a stock character whose personal timeline doesn’t have to be consistent outside of the stories in which he takes central stage.

Unfortunately, with all the inconsistencies I’ve noticed so far it’s become clear that Moorcock has accepted the worst possible compromise for the Elric series as extended beyond the original novellas: it’s got the carefully-planned and rigid timeline of a consistent chronology and all the inconsistencies you’d expect from making the Elric stories possess a variable degree of canonicity, and that just doesn’t work.

The worst is yet to come, though. The Vanishing Tower might be inconsequential drivel, but it’s not the nadir of the series at any rate. It is, at least, marginally better than The Sailor On the Seas of Fate. And both those books are miles ahead of The Revenge of the Rose.

Multiverse bollocks: Earl Aubec strictly speaking isn’t an inhabitant of another universe, but he is another incarnation of the Eternal Champion so the references to his story and the role of Myshella (and the suggestion that Cymoril and Myshella were different incarnations of the Eternal Girlfriend) totally counts. But the most galling slice of multiversal tomfoolery in The Vanishing Tower is, of course, the chunk of Corum shoved forcefully into the end regions of the book.

The Revenge of the Rose

Oh god, where to begin?

The Revenge of the Rose starts promisingly. Elric is moping around on his own being all philosophical when he ends up encountering a dragon, which takes him home to Melniboné and a confrontation with the ghost of his deceased father, Sadric. Sadric explains that he has cheated Arioch and Mashabak – the two rival Chaos Lords who both have claims on his soul – by hiding it in a rosewood box, which he gave to a trusted servant of his who was incompetent enough to get jumped by pirates and robbed of all his possessions. Although Sadric has been able to lie low in a ruined city of Melniboné’s ancient past for some years, Arioch and Mashabak are on his scent and it’s only a matter of time before they catch him. Elric has to go on an adventure through myriad different realms of the multiverse in search of the soul – or else Sadric will be forced to hide from the Chaos Lords by fusing his soul with Elric’s, a process which will not end well for Elric. (Incidentally, Elric has an encounter with Sadric’s ghost in Stormbringer… in which this meeting isn’t mentioned, and in which Sadric betrays absolutely no knowledge of what Elric has been up to. Sigh.)

Along the way, Elric finds himself encountering various individuals who also meander throughout the multiverse pursuing their own agendas, which soon converge with his own. There’s the villainous Prince Gaynor the Damned, a former bad guy copy-pasted over from the Corum books servant of the Balance cursed to serve his pitiless Chaos masters forever after his terrible betrayal! There’s the Rose, a mysterious swordswoman pursuing a terrible revenge! There’s the Phatt family, clairvoyants all, whose mystical skills make them a wanted commodity throughout the cosmos!

And then there’s Wheldrake. Who kind of embodies the novel’s problems.

Ernest Wheldrake is an English poet who’s found himself unstuck in time and wandering around the multiverse. He is also, quite clearly, meant to be Algernon Charles Swinburne (or at least a multiversal clone of his). Swinburne was a Victorian poet, now extremely out of fashion, who used “Ernest Wheldrake” as a pseudonym for writing critical reviews of his own work. To be honest, I’ve never studied the man. But Moorcock clearly has, and is clearly taken with him, because he has his fictional Wheldrake regularly compose poetry which I can only assume is Moorcock’s approximation of Swinburne’s style. (It’s terrible.) Not only has he selected Wheldrake-Swinburne to play a prominent role in the novel, but he has also – and he freely admits this – selected Wheldrake-Swinburne to be his mouthpiece in the story to a certain extent. The basic conceit of the novel is that each of the different realms that Elric and Wheldrake enter seems to obliquely play with ideas which Wheldrake (Swinburne? Moorcock?) wrote about, and thus Wheldrake is an author thrashing around blindly in stories he himself has written, consumed by his own work.

That is a more appropriate metaphor than Moorcock perhaps intended. Rarely, if ever, have I seen Moorcock flail around more aimlessly and pointlessly than in this novel. There is another commonality linking the three realms, aside from the fact that they are drawn from Wheldrake’s fiction, and that is that they are all stupid: either stupid in conception, or stupid in execution, but consistently stupid.

Let us take the Gypsy Nation of the first part of the book, Concerning the Fate of Empires. Moorcock’s Gypsy Nation is a nomadic empire that dominates the world it inhabits and moves on a constant tour along a road which circumnavigates the globe. So vast is this nation that its caravans are, in fact, entire villages and towns in which the middle and upper classes gad about. But woe betide the poor, the working class, or any of the ruling classes who should fall on financial hardship – for they are destined to toil at the marching boards until they die, and any attempt to escape this fate is met with brutal and lethal violence! The privileged occupants of the towns do not give much thought to the marching boards, and do not even acknowledge attempts by the suppressed masses to flee them. And they react with fury and anger to any suggestion that it might be best for all concerned if the towns stopped moving – for to cease moving is to seek an end to progress itself!

So far, so heavy-handed: we have a fairly obvious metaphor with a zesty Marxist flavour about class conflict and the illusion of progress. Let’s set aside the fact that Moorcock lifts the “town that is eternally mobile for the sake of some vaguely-formed idea of progress” idea from Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World and address the even worse problem with this segment of the book: to wit, that after he carefully sets up this metaphor in such a heavy-handed manner that no reader could possibly fail to grasp what he’s getting at, he then devotes page after tedious page to having Elric, Wheldrake, the Rose and the Phatts sitting around talking and talking and talking and talking about the metaphor and picking it apart atom by atom.

It’s almost though Moorcock believes that most fantasy readers are grotesquely stunted, child-like imbeciles who are incapable of processing even the simplest of metaphors and need every little point explained to them in minute detail if they are to have a hope of understanding what he is saying. So strong is the impression that Moorcock is treating his readers as though they are idiots it’s actually hard not to feel personally insulted by the book. The extended discussion of ideas already perfectly adequately communicated through symbolism is so intrusive that it felt as though Moorcock himself came to my house whilst I was reading the novel, sat next to me watching me read, and then took the book out of my hands after every couple of pages and gave me a five minute lecture on what I had just read in order to make absolutely sure I understood, before handing me the book back and saying “There, you may continue reading now – but think this time.”

This condescending, patronising delivery ruins what was a heavy-handed but still kind of fun image, and left a sufficiently bad taste in my mouth that I could take no pleasure at all from the ironic and apocalyptic end of the Gypsy Nation. Sadly, the excessive and grating overexplanation of every aspect of the story continues throughout the book. Take, for example, the second portion, Esbern Snare; The Northern Werewolf, which centres around two major scenes. The first involves the titular werewolf reciting his story in a monologue which is long enough to completely disrupt the flow of the novel but not quite long enough to be a really in-depth and satisfying rendition of the legend. The second involves a confrontation with Arioch in a desert by a bizarre and metaphorical prison-clock – yes, the metaphor is explained in onerous detail, but the other bad thing about that scene is the way the conversation between Arioch and the other characters drags on forever. What should be a tense stand-off crammed with tension and the sense that shit could kick off at any moment degenerates into two sides spouting monologues at each other in order to illuminate Moorcock’s metaphors; this is true of more or less every dramatic confrontation in the book. (Well, dramatic in the sense that the confrontations seem intended to be dramatic, rather than dramatic in the sense of them actually being dramatic.)

The book drones on and on in this fashion. Back in his heyday Moorcock would have blitzed through this material in 120 pages, perhaps even less. But he’s a big name now, and that means editors are going to give him room to sprawl – especially if he’s delivering them a delicious new Elric novel, since such things are bound to sell like crazy. Not only does Moorcock allow his prose to sprawl and burst its banks, not only does he lose all sense of pacing he has, but at points he randomly breaks out in italics or the present tense for no readily identifiable reason. I mean, possibly it’s an attempt to mimic Swinburne’s poetry in prose (a combination which yields neither good poetry nor good prose), or maybe it’s to point out where the Rose is subtly influencing events or something, but whatever Moorcock is attempting to achieve with this simply fails – it’s not interesting or experimental, it’s just confusing and irritating.

Adding insult to injury is that, once you look past the fact that Moorcock has lost all discipline or self-control he had as a writer and is just messing about, the climax of the story in A Rose Redeemed; A Rose Revived is actually extremely conventional by Moorcock’s standards. There’s a big confrontation, the good guys win, and Moorcock spends a great deal of time creating even more elaborate and not especially interesting or important backstory links between his different sword and sorcery series. In this particular case, Elric’s encounter with the three sisters that he, Gaynor, and the Rose have been on the trail of ultimately reveals that the Melnibonéans are the descendants of the Vadhagh, the people who are basically elves in the Corum stories, who themselves are descended from the Eldren, the people who are basically elves in the Erekosë novels.

This is the sort of minor background detail that geeks love but, when you think about it, isn’t actually important: it doesn’t really change our interpretation of the Elric or Corum or Erekosë stories at all, because it was already pretty clear that the Eternal Champion is regularly associated with or part of a race of elf-like creatures, and as far as multi-novel multi-series overarching metaplots for the multiverse go the migrations of the elves just never quite seems as important as the action of the individual novels. And there’s no way you’re going to cotton on to this particular aspect of the conclusion unless you have read epic amounts of Moorcock already, so really this big revelation is only going to make sense to obsessive Moorcock fans. This goes beyond simply preaching to the choir: it’s preaching to the choir in a language only the choir understands, on a subject which only the choir could possibly be interested in.

Amongst the other stupidities inflicted on the reader in this part of the book is Gaynor descending into third-rate pantomine villain territory as far as his dialogue is concerned, Arioch forgiving Elric for spitting in the face of Chaos yet again, Elric becoming utterly disgusted with his patron god and yet still praying to him in the next story in the chronological sequence, and the Rose supposedly turning out to have manipulated the entire sequence of events but not actually being shown to be responsible for anything. (This last point also came up with respect to Oone the Dreamthief in The Fortress of the Pearl, but it was more forgivable then because dreams, dude, dreams.)

But the most laughable part has to be the big ritual performs in concert with the three sisters. Lasting for over six page of excruciating prose which reminded me uncomfortably of the most hippy-trippy parts of Radix, it summons three magic swords that seem to be distant cousins of Stormbringer, which the sisters intend to use alongside Elric when they ride forth against Chaos. Hilariously, they’re colour-coded to the mode of dress of the wielder, so whilst Elric uses Stormbringer since he wears black on the outside (because black is how he feels on the inside), Princess Tayaratuka gets the gold sword because she wears gold, the blue-garbed Princess Mishiguya gets the blue sword, and the white-garbed Princess Shanug’a gets the white sword. Perhaps this is a generational thing, but the scene made me think that Moorcock had slipped into writing Mighty Morphin’ Melnibonéan Rangers or something along those lines, which combined with the massive anticlimax after the lengthly and tedious ritual just made me collapse into giggles.

I said in the Fortress of the Pearl review that I didn’t really understand why Elric was present in that novel at all. In this case, I do understand why he is present, but I don’t understand why he is the main character. The events of this story have no effect on the overall direction of the Elric saga and don’t really shed any light on any parts of the story where there was a clear gap beforehand. The only reason it makes sense for Elric to gad about with Wheldrake rather than Corum or Hawkmoon or one of the Von Beks is that Elric is Moorcock’s most famous creation, and since Wheldrake is meant to be Moorcock lost in his own creations as well as Swinburne lost in his own creations it’d make sense to have the most famous creation present. But whilst that does justify Elric’s presence, it doesn’t justify making Elric the main character. Doing so implies that The Revenge of the Rose has more significance to Elric’s story than it actually does. Since Moorcock is clearly more interested in Wheldrake than Elric at this point, I’d suggest that the story might have been improved had Wheldrake been the main character and Elric was in a supporting role, with little or no worry given to where the story slots into the Elric saga as a whole. But then I suppose pitching the story as yet another Elric novel plays better with editors and fans alike.

The only redeeming feature of this spectacular waste of time is the lovestruck giant toad that Gaynor uses as a navigator. Truly a creature deserving of a story all of its own.

Multiverse bollocks: Wheldrake has appeared in many Moorcock novels before and after this (in particular, he was a fairly prominent character in Gloriana), the three sisters are relatives of Corum’s and Prince Gaynor was an adversary of his, and there’s allusions to the Erekosë books too for good measure.

The Bane of the Black Sword

Now we’re back to the good stuff. The three Elric novellas in The Bane of the Black Sword are all from the original run, and whilst they’re not flawless, like the first two novellas in The Weird of the White Wolf they have an energy and power to them which the later additions to the series never quite manage to equal.

The Stealer of Souls is notable for being the only novella from the original run in which Theleb K’aarna appears. It opens with Elric idly negotiating an assassination contract with certain merchantile interests in the city of Bakshaan, who would consider it good for competition and free trade it if the master trader Nikorn of Ilmar were eliminated. Elric, at first, has no intent of going through with this – he and Moonglum are planning to scam the merchants out of their money – but his plans change when it is revealed that Theleb K’aarna has taken up a position as Nikorn’s personal magus. On learning about this, Elric changes his plans: he’s going to launch a raid on Nikorn’s desert fortress, take out Theleb, and get the merchants’ reward money on top of that. But to do that, he needs troops – so he decides to try and recruit the aid of Dyvin Tvar, the Dragon Master of Melniboné, who following the destruction of Imrryr has become the leader of a mercenary band of fellow Melnibonéan outcasts. But will Elric be able to command the loyalty of his oldest friends, or will the whole “you destroyed our civilisation” thing get in the way?

As well as being the first story in order of writing (and last one chronologically) to feature Theleb K’aarna, it’s also the first story in order of writing to include Yishana, whose portrayal this time around – such as it is – is marginally better than that in The Singing Citadel, but only marginally. Yes, she is still kind of manipulative. (“She reflected lazily that a woman could not but help take advantage of any man who put himself so fully into her power.”) But we don’t see many incidents in this story where she uses sexual jealously to manipulate Theleb or Elric. On the other hand, that’s because she’s much less of a presence in the story than she was in The Singing Citadel; the only significant thing she does is betray Theleb offscreen in return for Elric agreeing to resume their relationship for a bit (but not for sufficiently long for it to intrude into the next story).

The interesting thing about the depiction of Yishana is what the story doesn’t depict – Elric and Yishana’s original relationship. If you read The Stealer of Souls in isolation, then you’re free to imagine for yourself the circumstances of Elric and Yishana’s previous tryst, and the way it’s written you’d probably assume it lasted for at least a moderately long time – weeks, months maybe, probably not years, but that’s enough time for a major attachment to form. Conversely, if you read The Singing Citadel before you get around to it, you’ll be aware that their original encounter barely lasted a day, so the fact that Yishana has fallen head over heels for the guy when all of her other casual sexual encounters have just been casual sexual encounters tends to stand out. It takes common, everyday wish fulfilment (Elric was such a great lover that Yishana still misses him) and racks it up to utterly crass and boorish wish fulfillment (Elric was such a great lover that Yishana became obsessed with him on the basis of one spur-of-the-moment roll in the hay). Taking The Stealer of Souls in isolation Yishana’s presence represents a plot complication due to her ambiguous loyalties; taking it as in the context of the entire saga, her presence is basically there to illustrate how amazingly awesome Elric is.

Another character whose depiction this time around suffers if you’ve read beyond the original novellas is Elric himself. In this story he plots to defraud the merchants of Bakshaan, pursues bloody and violent vengeance against Theleb K’aarna, and idly speculates about the possibility of joining forces with Dyvim Tvar and carving out a mighty empire for himself. For the nihilist he’s become by the end of While the Gods Laugh that’s all fine, but none of these are really the sort of thing that the protagonist of The Revenge of the Rose would really do, especially when said progatonist spends a good chunk of that book wittering away with the other characters about the folly of empire. Heck, it barely makes sense for the Elric of The Vanishing Tower, who’s more into glooming around contemplating suicide than gadding around burning with absolute hatred for the world and all its puny inhabitants.

Still, even for a story which makes vastly less sense if read as a part of the saga as a whole, The Stealer of Souls is a lot of fun. There’s summonings of dire entities, Stormbringer kills someone Elric didn’t mean to, there’s violence and mayhem and bloodshed and all that good stuff. That said, it’s probably the weakest of the original novellas as a whole.

Things improve with Kings In Darkness, written in collaboration with James Cawthorn. Finding themselves on the outskirts of the feared Forest of Troos, Moonglum and Elric encounter Zarozinia, daughter of a nobleman of Karlaak who was travelling with some family members when their party was attacked by brutes from Org, a sinister kingdom somewhere inside Troos. Elric and Moonglum decide to travel with her back to Karlaak, and in transit Elric and Zarozina fall in love. A second attack from the Orgish brutes robs Elric and Moonglum of the treasures they stole in a caper in Nadosokor, and Elric decides that since he, Moonglum and Zarozinia all have reason to take vengeance on Org, they might as well go visit its King, Gurtheran, and try and scam him out of some treasure in return. Though Moonglum has his doubts, Zarozinia is keen on the plan, and the trio set about their confidence trick – but soon enough, the plan has backfired on them, and both Elric and Zarozinia are in danger of being sacrificed to the sinister King under the Hill – the undead former ruler of the Doomed Folk who, in their folly, had laid waste to half the Earth and created the perilous Forest of Troos in their wake aeons ago.

Zarozinia is a notable character since she is Elric’s final love interest. In the novellas prior to this, he had precisely one per story – Cymoril, Shaarilla, and Yishana. I’d almost suggest that this was simply due to editorial policy in the pulp magazines Moorcock was writing for, except the trend continues into the later stories – there’s Oone in The Fortress of the Pearl, the Rose in The Revenge of the Rose, and Myshella in The Vanishing Tower.

The thing is, between Cymoril, Shaarilla, Yishana, Oone, the Rose, Myshella and Zarozinia, Elric ends up sleeping with almost every female character of sufficient significance to warrant a name he ever encounters. The only exceptions are the female members of Phatt family in The Revenge of the Rose (Ma Phatt isn’t exactly Elric’s type, and Wheldrake is intent on wooing Charion Phatt and Elric is too much of a good buddy to cockblock him) and Varadia in The Fortress of the Pearl (because he’s a perilous kinslayer with the taint of Chaos about him, not a pedophile). Oh, and the three princesses in The Revenge of the Rose, but they are hardly in it.

Either Moorcock thinks women can’t resist depressed, gloomy, needy guys who can’t get over their ex, which in my experience just isn’t the case, or he’s consciously or unconsciously bought into the idea that women in sword and sorcery stories there exist to be love interests for male protagonists. Whilst unlike some sword and sorcery authors Moorcock does occasionally allow women to do more than that, in the Elric series at least women are usually not allowed to be important to the story and not be attracted to Elric.

In particular, Zarozinia in the closing stages of the Elric saga has a similar job to Cymoril in Elric of Melniboné: she’s there to get in trouble in order to motivate Elric to go out and do shit, and she’s there to be all supportive and “complete him” and all that crap. This is made explicit in Kings In Darkness. Whilst their whirlwind romance at the start of the story can be kind of jarring, I can forgive that to the extent that the short story format isn’t really ideal for depicting romances that develop slowly. What gets to me is that at the end of the story, Elric discovers that he doesn’t need Stormbringer to give him strength because his love for Zarozinia suffices in a crisis, and for her sake he decides to put the Black Blade into storage and try relying on potent drugs from Troos for providing vitality on a day-to-day basis. On the one hand, having the person you love be the thing that inspires you to put aside self-destructive habits makes perfect sense. On the other hand, the way Moorcock delivers it make it sound as though Zarozinia’s big contribution to the story is being supportive. This is consistent throughout the stories she appears in; she doesn’t really have any sort of agenda of her own aside from being with Elric and inspiring him to do stuff, and in Stormbringer she very literally gives him all that she can possibly give in order to help him go forth and be awesome. She isn’t a character, she’s a motivation.

So, Kings In Darkness isn’t going to win any prizes for the depth of its romantic subplot or its contribution to diversity in fantasy fiction. It is, however, remarkably successful at establishing an oppressive, gloomy atmosphere of dread. Although comparatively little time is spent in Org in terms of page count, Moorcock is able to evoke an all-encompassing sense of doom and decay, embodied in the squabbling royal family of King Gutheran, his son Prince Hurd (who makes no secret of his contempt for his father), and Gutheran’s brother Veerkad, who was king until Gutheran deposed him – and instead of killing him, put out his eyes and made him the court bard to add insult to injury. The story succeeds wonderfully at doing the whole grimdark thing without making it tiresome or resorting to cheap shots.

In The Flame Bringers – retitled The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams in most post-1993 appearances for no good reason, since no such caravan appears in the story – we see the domestic bliss Elric enjoys with Zarozinia in Karlaak disrupted by the arrival of Moonglum, who seeking further adventure headed home to the Unknown East after the events of Kings In Darkness. Moonglum brings a dire warning: most of the East has fallen to the armies of Genghis Khan analogue Terarn Gashtek, called the Flame Bringer, who is now leading his forces westwards and will reach Karlaak before long. Whilst a messenger is dispatched to summon Dyvim Slorm, the son of Dyvim Tvar who now leads his father’s band of Melnibonéan mercenaries, Elric and Moonglum decide to infiltrate the Flame Bringer’s forces in order to neutralise one of his major advantages – his control over the Eastern sorcerer Drinij Bara, who serves the Flame Bringer unwillingly because Gashtek has kidnapped the cat in which Bara has hidden his soul.

Although the main story itself is a fairly standard “fantasy heroes fight the Golden Horde” scenario which has been a perennial favourite of fantasy authors, The Flame Bringers is important mainly because it showcases how Elric’s character has developed following Kings In Darkness, and as such is best viewed as a prelude to Stormbringer. The Flame Bringers is the first of the original novellas in which Elric is acting out of altruism; he’s not seeking to overthrow Yyrkoon and win back Cymoril, or seeking secret knowledge from the dawn of time, or trying to scam merchants or kings out of their gold, he’s fighting to protect Karlaak. Of course, he does have a personal interest in the fate of Karlaak, but that’s the other important point, which is that for the first time since Elric of Melniboné the White Wolf has stopped his wanderings and put down roots somewhere. If he were only acting out of raw self-interest, he’d take Zarozinia and her family and head off to safety, but he cares about the town now enough that he chooses to take up arms once again to tackle the threat.

Of course, taking up arms again means retrieving Stormbringer from the family vault, where it’s been gathering dust ever since Elric and Zarozinia were married, which is the other point: despite this softening of his character, Elric is still an addict, and retreats to his addiction whenever he feels threatened, more or less without even thinking about it. Elric says right at the start that taking up Stormbringer makes breaking his promise to Zarozinia, and whilst it might have been nice to show Zarozinia being even slightly put out about that it’s good to see Elric at least acknowledge that he’s doing wrong by her, and it is at least implied that she’s deeply unhappy about the whole thing. His attempt to ditch the blade at the end of the story comes to nothing, and so going into Stormbringer we establish two things: firstly, that Elric is attempting to reject his connection to Stormbringer, and secondly that for the first time in a very long while Elric actually has something to lose. This makes it all the more dramatic when Elric succumbs to his destiny and loses everything he has in the next book.

The thing is, this interpretation hinges on you sticking only to the original novels; otherwise ends up weaker in some places and just doesn’t work in others. Elric acts out of altruism in plenty of other parts of the expanded saga, such as in The Fortress of the Pearl or The Sleeping Sorceress, and there are several points when he starts putting down roots and then kind of stops again. In the context of the full saga as it currently stands, The Flame Bringers just isn’t as much of a watershed moment as it is if you just look to the original novellas.

The same is really true of The Bane of the Black Sword as a whole. Whilst not quite as good as The Dreaming City or While the Gods Laugh or Stormbringer, the stories in The Bane of the Black Sword are still a lot of fun and work best if you read them as the middle of the original sequence of novellas. If you read them as part of the extended series though, they both exacerbate and are undermined by problems that affect the saga as a whole.

Multiverse bollocks: Absolutely none! Excellent.

Stormbringer

The crowning achievement of the series is Stormbringer. Consisting of four novellas originally published between 1963 and 1964, Moorcock takes everything the first five novellas established and then burns it all to the ground. The rise of Jagreen Lern, the villainous Theocrat of Pan Tang, heralds the final all-out attempt by Chaos to overrun the Young Kingdoms entirely, heralding an era in which Chaos will rule absolutely. Meanwhile, ten ancient immortals of the forgotten land of Nihrain, who ruled over the world before even the Melnibonéans arose, awake from their ancient sleep to do the work of Fate. If either Law or Chaos gains absolutely control of a plane of the multiverse, utter stagnation is the result: therefore, wise Sepiriz and his comrades must ensure that following the destruction of the world of the Young Kingdoms, a new world is born – a world ruled, in the main, by Law, but with just enough Chaos in it to suit the needs of the Cosmic Balance. They can’t do it themselves, but they know the perfect candidate and the perfect tool for the job: Elric and Stormbringer!

The first novella in the sequence, Dead God’s Homecoming, kicks things off with Zarozinia being kidnapped by mysterious forces, which Elric infers are most likely connected to Jagreen Lern. Elric takes up Stormbringer heads to the camp of Queen Yishana, who is leading the forces of the free world in a bid to prevent Jagreen Lern conquering the western Young Kingdoms, and offers his services in the coming fight. After the battle is lost Elric and Dyvim Slorm encounter Sepiriz, who tells them that Zarozinia is in the hands of Darnizhaan, one of the Dead Gods who were banished into nothingness with the rise of Law and Chaos. Darnizhaan has returned from whatever afterlife the Dead Gods were dispatched to in order to prepare the resurrection of the rest of their race so that they can join with Chaos in conquering the world. Only warriors bearing Chaos blades from the dawn of time can fight Darnizhaan – so it’s a good thing Elric has Stormbringer, and Sepiriz has retrieved Mournblade for Dyvim to use!

Both Black Sword’s Brothers and Sad Giant’s Shield follow the structure established by Dead God’s Homecoming: Elric and pals attempt to face the forces of Chaos via military means and don’t manage to be much more than speed bumps, and simultaneously Elric quests to prepare himself for his role as the harbinger of the new world: in Black Sword’s Brothers he summons Stormbringer and Mournblade’s extradimensional family to assassinate the powerful group of Chaos Lords known as the Dukes of Hell (which include his own former patron, Arioch), and in Sad Giant’s Shield he retrieves the Chaos Shield, the only means by which he and his allies can enter the Chaos-held realms without being grotesquely warped by the taint of Chaos. By the final novella, Doomed Lord’s Passing, Elric, Moonglum and Dyvim are alone on the abandoned island of Melniboné, the only part of the world not entirely overwhelmed by Chaos, and Elric has one last quest to venture forth on – a journey to the world of the Charlemagne legends, where he must obtain the Horn of Fate from the grave of the famed Roland, another incarnation of the Eternal Champion – before he and his last friends venture forth to the final confrontation with Chaos, and Elric’s ultimate end.

Despite being another fix-up book, Stormbringer is far and away the best of the Elric novels, not least because of Moorcock’s expert conjuring of atmosphere. I can think of few fantasy novels which manages to combine such an opporessive sense of apocalyptic doom with so much pulse-pounding, blood-slick action. Moorcock is merciless about burning every city, salting every field, and killing off every major character one by one as the forces of Chaos surge across the landscape – and he has no qualms about forcing Elric (via Stormbringer) to take out those he cares for the most. Although Moorcock would eventually go back and start writing more and more Elric material after finishing Stormbringer, at the time writing a definitive end to his most successful series was an extraordinary brave move. Robert E. Howard never wrote a definitive end to the Conan stories, for example, and as a consequence concluding stories were a rarity in the sword and sorcery market at the time, which was based around a model of authors writing stories centring around their signature character or characters – kill the character, and you kill your cash cow.

But then again, the decision makes perfect sense. Throughout the first five novellas it’s pretty clear that Elric’s association with Stormbringer could only ever end in a violent tragedy, and Stormbringer cranks the violence and tragedy dials up to 11. And it was the right time in Moorcock’s career for him to try and produce a full-length novel. You can practically watch him growing as an author, as his portray of the different characters improves notably over the early novellas. Yishana turns out to be much more interesting as a tactician and a warrior than as yet another sword and sorcery femme fatale; she dies, but she at least gets to die sword in hand taking on a dozen enemies. Zarozinia actually ends up at odds with Elric over his refusal to allow her be with him whilst he’s making ready to go to battle and his relationship with Stormbringer overriding his relationship with her. Moonglum actually does shit of his own volition. Stormbringer spends the entire novel pranking Elric before its final betrayal of him at the very end. It’s the most balls-to-the-wall burn down the world heavy metal fantasy novel ever and I love it to bits.

Multiverse bollocks: Not really. Stormbringer is a source of a lot of the multiverse ideas, rather than borrowing them, so whilst a lot of the multiverse-heavy Moorcock material refers to events in it, it doesn’t refer to them very much since it preceded them. There’s a brief mention of the concept of the Eternal Champion and that’s it.

The Picky Buyer’s Guide

There’s no getting around it: the post-Stormbringer additions to the Elric series just aren’t up to scratch. The best one is probably Elric of Melniboné and even that feels kind of needless when considering the overall structure of the series; the desire to fill the gaps in the original stories is understandable but misguided, especially since the filling sometimes created a problem whilst the gaps were just, well, gaps. The original novellas begin with the destruction of Melniboné and end with the destruction of the world, and they describe a coherent emotional arc for the development of Elric’s character. The later additions don’t work because Moorcock identifies too much with Elric and as Moorcock gets older and mellower, Elric does too. Hence, in the early stories Elric is all wild and angry and punk rock, then later he’s just gloomy and a bit grumpy, and then in the latest stories he’s just a bit maudlin and philosophical. The problem is that the way the later stories are slotted in to the chronology his emotional state ends up meandering nonsensically over the course of the saga. Although that might be realistic, it’s not actually satisfying when it comes to constructing a narrative.

And yet, in the DAW editions and the Tale of the Eternal Champion omnibuses, the stories are presented in their internal chronological order; for a couple of decades or so Moorcock and his editors seemed to take the view that the stories should have been read like that, rather than being read in their order of writing. The recent Del Rey collections revert to an order closer to the order of writing, but even if you do read the stories in that order I still don’t think the post-Stormbringer material holds up. As the Eternal Teenager, Elric is someone you want to see retain his fire and fury right up to the very end, not someone you want to see all mellow and laid-back.

So, how to get all the delicious rage of the original novellas without all the stodgy over-healthy crap of the later stories? Well, there’s several purchasing strategies you can use. The easiest and most foolproof is to obtain the Fantasy Masterworks edition of the Elric saga – recently rereleased with a new cover, as you can see on the linked page – which simply includes the original novellas and nothing else in a single volume. Job done, go and read. Residents of the US might prefer to buy the first volume of Del Rey’s The Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, entitled simply Elric: the Stealer of Souls, which includes all the original novellas plus some bonus material – just be careful you are buying the Del Rey collection and not the White Wolf omnibus that is also called Elric: the Stealer of Souls, or any of the previous collections entitled simply The Stealer of Souls.

A slightly more complex two-book solution involves purchasing the original The Stealer of Souls collection – which was produced in various editions and is widely available second hand – and buying Stormbringer separately. If you take this route, be warned: some early editions of Stormbringer contracted the first two novellas into one, entitled The Coming of Chaos, and you don’t want that. Make sure the edition you are buying includes Dead God’s Homecoming and Black Sword’s Brothers as two separate parts; any post-1977 edition should suffice.

Either of these strategies, if applied carefully, should yield 400 or so pages of delicious sword and sorcery mayhem and bloodshed whose influence on the fantasy genre is felt to this day whilst evading the mounds of steaming crap that Moorcock has occasionally dumped on his legacy. Yes, I’m still angry about The Revenge of the Rose. Why do you ask?

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