The Runestaff and the Empire’s End

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.

Say what you like about Michael Moorcock, but at least he’s honest about his motivations. Moorcock has always consistently said that the Hawkmoon novels – which consist of a four-book series, The History of the Runestaff, published between 1967 and 1969, and a sequel trilogy, The Chronicles of Castle Brass, published between 1973 and 1975 – were written for one purpose and one purpose alone: money. Whereas pre-Elric sword and sorcery efforts (Sojan the Swordsman being the most famous one) saw Moorcock learning his craft, the Elric stories saw him tackling and subverting the conventions of the genre, and the Kane of Old Mars tales were written partially for a quick buck and partially to pay tribute to a well-loved influence (Edgar Rice Burroughs), the Hawkmoon series was the first of Moorcock’s sword and sorcery sagas to be written purely to pay the bills.

Furthermore, Moorcock claims to have written each of the books in the space of three days – the point of the exercise was, after all, to raise money to live on whilst he spent his time on more serious projects, and so spending an extended amount of time on them would have rather defeated the purpose of the exercise. As a consequence of this a few inconsistencies have creeped in here and there, some of which have been dealt with in subsequent revisions of the novels in the 1990s omnibus publications, some of which remain unresolved.

As a consequence, they have a rather mixed reputation. Personally, I remember enjoying the History when reading it as a wide-eyed teenager but thought that the Chronicles relied too heavily on continuity established in other Eternal Champion novels. At the same time, I also liked the Dragonlance books when I was small so clearly as a teenager I didn’t know shit. Therefore I was quite looking forward to revisiting the books after a decade and a half or so for this review series, simply to see whether my former self’s taste would be exonerated or condemned by the process.

So, now that I’ve read the books and considered them for the review, I’ve come to the conclusion that my inner child needs to be sent to the naughty step for a while because the snot-nosed little brat has steered me wrong to a horrifying extent. The Hawkmoon series is quite possibly some of the most ridiculous garbage I’ve had to wade through in the process of this review series. My anger at the books for being so bad and at Moorcock for writing such garbage is eclipsed only by my disgust at myself for ever mistaking them for being a worthwhile read.

Oh, and they also involve a lot more rape than the Elric or Mars stories ever did so trigger warning for rape as a plot device lazily applied to make people look bad or to menace female protagonists.

Against a Green and Unpleasant Land: The History of the Runestaff

The Jewel In the Skull

The first part of the History introduces us to a vision of a future Europe that has entered a new Dark Age following the tunultuous events of the Tragic Millennium, which can reasonably be inferred to have involved a catastrophic nuclear war and a whole lot of strife following that. For as long as anyone can remember, Europe has been a war-torn patchwork of squabbling city-states and principalities, but in recent years the Dark Empire of Granbretan has been conquering more and more of the continent in the name of King Huon, its immortal ruler whose wizened form is kept alive by the fantastical super-science of the Throne Globe in which he resides.

One of the few remaining independent regions of Europe is the Kamarg, a small republic in the south of France whose ruler is the larger than life Count Brass (who I always imagine being played by Brian Blessed). The Count doesn’t exactly approve of the Dark Empire’s methods, but he reasons that most of the war and misery in Europe was the result of the balkanisation of the continent and that if the Empire proves to be the unifying force that ends that, so much the better. The Count’s policy of neutrality is sorely tested, however, when the Dark Empire sends Baron Meliadus of Kroiden on a diplomatic mission to the Kamarg. Infatuated with the Count’s daughter Yisselda, the Baron attempts to abduct her but is foiled by the Count.

His lust for Yisselda outweighed only by his desire for horrible, bloody vengeance, the Baron returns to Londra, capital of the Empire, to hatch a plot against the folk of the Kamarg. The chosen tool of his vengeance is Dorian Hawkmoon, the imprisoned Duke of the conquered province of Köln. Hawkmoon is ordered to go to Castle Brass, claim to have escaped the clutches of the Dark Empire, and once he is given shelter in the castle kidnap Yisselda so that she can be used as a hostage to ensure the Count’s co-operation. To make sure Hawkmoon follows the plan, the scientists of the Dark Empire implant the Black Jewel in his forehead – a sinister gemstone through which they can observe all that he sees, and which if they give it its full life will eat Hawkmoon’s brain.

Meliadus’ plan has two flaws. Firstly, the Count and his philosopher-poet advisor Bowgentle are wiser than he anticipated, and recognise the Black Jewel for what it is and are able to temporarily shut it down, giving Hawkmoon an opportunity to rout the Empire forces marching on the Kamarg and, after that, journey to far-off Persia to find the one sorcerer-scientist believed to be capable of shutting the Jewel’s power off for good. More metaphysically, the Baron swore his oath of vengeance on the Runestaff, a legendary artifact said to exert a mysterious influence on the destinies of certain individuals who come to its attention. Reputedly, those who swear such oaths either attain their wish or are destroyed by the Runestaff’s machinations; whatever the truth is, the Staff has heard the oath and has already started weaving the Baron, Hawkmoon, and the folk of the Kamarg into its plans…

Of the four volumes of the History, The Jewel In the Skull as the debut obviously has the most heavy lifting to do when it comes to worldbuilding and establishing the characters. To be honest, it does a better job with the former than the latter, mainly because the characters it has to work with are so flat and two-dimensional. Hawkmoon shows flickering signs of being interesting at first, because when we meet him he’s become completely emotionally withdrawn and passive, but then he gets better and he becomes a typically meatheaded sword and sorcery hero. The best-realised character in the book is Oladahn, the son of a human sorcerer and a giantess from the Bulgar mountains, though he’s interesting mainly because in terms of personality he’s a carbon copy of Moonglum from the Elric stories. He’s also not very consistently portrayed over the course of the History – after the initial encounter between him and Hawkmoon, in which he casts a Sleep spell on some dudes to establish that he totally knows magic, he’s never shown to cast a spell ever again.

The second best character is probably Queen Frawbra, ruler of the Persian city-state of Hamadan, who’s a no-nonsense warrior queen trying to put down her brother’s Empire-backed rebellion when Hawkmoon and Oladahn arrive there. She’s fun mainly because she’s a carbon copy of Queen Yishana as she appeared in Stormbringer without the unfortunate aspects of Queen Yishana’s appearance in The Singing Citadel. She’s also the only female character in the series whose depiction doesn’t fail horribly from beginning to end, but more of that later.

Like I said, the worldbuilding is genuinely more enjoyable here than the characterisation. Clearly not wanting to spend too much time cooking up an entirely new geography for Hawkmoon’s world, Moorcock’s decision to base the world on Earth in a post-apocalyptic future makes perfect sense; not only does it fit in nicely with the ideas about cycles of history that appear in his other fiction and the general worries about nuclear armageddon of the era, but it also allows Moorcock to create a world which is simultaneously alien and familiar. At the end of the day, since most fantasy cultures end up being vaguely based on real-world ones anyway, it’s only logical to base your fantasy world on a fuzzy version of real-world geography, since it at least avoids awkward questions arising about why France is sandwiched between China and Peru, and it means people instantaneously have some sort of vague idea of what the places are like. This approach is in fact the one used by Games Workshop when they designed the Warhammer fantasy world, and odds are the world of Hawkmoon had a certain influence on them when they were doing so. At the same time, the far future setting means that all human structures could have been blown up, rebuilt, and blown up again several times over the course of the Tragic Millennium, so the actual places and cultures involved can end up diverging wildly from their current states if Moorcock wishes to get crazy (or not do research).

It’s not just Europe that gets the familiar-but-different treatment; as well as going on an expedition to Persia there’s also whispered references in the novel to the magical far-off lands of Amarekh and Asiacommunista, which are rumoured to be the homes of godlike beings or the lair of the famed Runestaff. However, whilst the broad brushstrokes are interesting, Moorcock seems disinterested in developing many of the locations or cultures of this world in fine detail. The Kamarg, on whose behalf Hawkmoon is supposed to be fighting, is a place we learn precious little about save that it is home to bulls, horned horses, giant flamingos, and horrible marsh monsters spawned by the mad experiments of a tyrannical former Lord Guardian, and of these only the flamingos have any relevance to the plot of this book.

Where The Jewel In the Skull and the rest of this first series excels is in the depiction of the Dark Empire. With its decadent and hedonistic culture in which the rulers satisfy their violent and sadistic urges by torturing and humiliating the folk of captured territories and the constant bickering between powerful warlords the place embodies the worst of Chaos. At the same time, several features of the Empire suggest the influence of Law, such as its drive to unite Europe and its intricate social order, which is based around various animal-themed mystery cults like Meliadus’ Order of the Wolf and King Huon’s Mantis Order. (Yes, there is an Order of the Ferret.) Social convention requires people to wear masks appropriate to their station and their animal club membership, to the point where going unmasked is as embarrassing as going naked. If the Runestaff is a symbol of the Cosmic Balance – that term, and indeed Law and Chaos, aren’t really used in the History but the reference to the Staff representing equilibrium strongly suggests that – then the Dark Empire surely represents an antithesis to the Balance, a disequilibrium where the worst of Law and Chaos drive the Empire to become more and more crazy. Bowgentle suggests at one point that if the Dark Empire goes unchecked they will become a cancer that will wreck the multiverse as a whole, which would seem to support the idea that the Empire represents a dysfunctional breakdown of the Law-Balance-Chaos cosmology.

Of all the Dark Empire’s quirks, it’s the masks which Moorcock has the most fun with, using them to indicate the institutional insanity of Granbretan. Almost all the masks in question are animal masks and almost all correspond to the wearer’s Order, and the different Orders have special internal languages so the Piggy Order members tend to grunt at each other, so the masks combined with that create the overall impression that the Granbretanians are making beasts of themselves. The major exception to the animal mask thing is Taragorm, the master of Londra’s ancient Palace of Time, whose mask is a large and entirely functional clock, and that’s just awesome. Equally awesome is the fun dichotomy of technologies that the Dark Empire has to hand – they go to war with traditional cavalry and infantry armed with “flame lances” (which are basically laser rifles), as well as air support from ornithopters. How cool is that?

The best aspect of the depiction of Granbretan, however, is the fact that it represents a stab to the heart of the national myth of Britain as habitual liberators of Europe, which was prevalent following World War II and is still extremely commonplace today. Granted, Hollywood movies have a way of casting British people as villains, but even in Star Wars where all the Imperial military officers speak with English accents they’re really stand-ins for Nazi Germany and the like. Deliberately inverting the national hubris in this way runs the risk of becoming “ooh, do you see”-ish, but Moorcock manages to avoid being too heavy-handed about it, partially because he also plays it for laughs – having the pantheon of the Granbretanians including gods based on Prime Ministers (Chirshil the Howling God and Aral Vilsn the Roaring God), Moorcock’s buddies (Bjrin Adass the Singing God and Jeajee Blad the Groaning God) and the Beatles (the legendary kings Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl and Rhunga) is just funny.

So much for characters and world, what about the story? Well, that’s where things get less interesting. Most of it unfolds along pretty basic adventure story lines; there’s battles, there’s journeys, there’s sieges, there’s sudden complications and unexpected aid. It’s the last category where the rot begins to set in, particularly when said aid comes in the form of the Warrior in Jet and Gold, a mysterious knight who serves the Runestaff and keeps insisting that Hawkmoon does but never bothers to explain things in simple terms – because if he did that Hawkmoon would be more likely to trust him, and therefore Moorcock wouldn’t be able to pad out the page count with sequences where Hawkmoon ponders whether he can trust the Warrior or tries to defy the will of the Runestaff and gets dicked over until he submits to it.

The Jewel In the Skull sees the debut of both the Warrior and Moorcock’s most infuriating habit relating to the character – using him as a deus ex machina to just show up and tell Hawkmoon what to do when the plot demands that Hawkmoon take a particular course of action which he has no reason to consider doing at that particular time. He only does it a bit this time around, but this sort of thing will get more and more frequent over the course of the History, and every time it happens it just shows how weak the plot is that Moorcock constantly has to send the Warrior in to get Hawkmoon out of a scrape, or to point him in the direction the story requires him to go, or (usually) both.

Other aspects of the plot are weakly executed, but could probably have come across better had Moorcock been bothered to spend any significant amount of time revising and refining the novel prior to publication – but, of course, that would miss the entire point of knocking the thing out in a matter of days to earn some cash so Moorcock could concentrate on the work he was actually interested in doing. For instance, there’s a bit where Bowgentle hypnotises Hawkmoon so that he can have a poke at the Black Jewel, and he manages to do it without the Dark Empire observers realising that something’s up by reciting a nonsense poem whose rhythms are supposedly mesmerising. An interesting idea, but in execution this requires the reader to sit through five or so pages of the most appalling doggerel I’ve ever seen. The battlefield duel between Hawkmoon and Baron Meliadus towards the end of the novel is probably the most exciting part of the story, but it results in a cop-out ending because Moorcock can’t really allow either hero or villain to die this early in the quartet.

In general, in fact, the plot and characterisation tends to be better in the early phases of the book. The opening chapters introduce some interesting ambiguities into the equation that Moorcock never really engages with later on – for example, Count Brass’s early encounter with a marsh gibberer, a horrid creature produced by the eldritch experiments of his predecessor as Guardian of the Kamarg, may seem like a typical “knight slays a monster to establish early on that he’s a badass” encounter, except for hints that marsh gibberer might have been committing suicide-by-knight. Similarly, Hawkmoon’s traumatised and emotionally withdrawn state at the beginning of the novel might leave him passive and zombie-like, but the conflict between the part of him which just wants to get the job done so he can get rid of this gemstone that threatens to eat his brain and the part of him which wants to do right by the Count and Yisselda and the others is fun, so once that part is resolved a major and interesting point of conflict is removed from the equation, and there isn’t much that comes in to take its place.

Multiverse bollocks: Almost none at this stage, beyond Oladahn and Frawbra having personalities cribbed from the Elric stories, and the Dark Empire’s decadence recalling that of Melniboné, and those sorts of recurring themes are more subtle and less irritating than the brash and blatant crossovers I usually highlight in these sections. There is more to come, however.

The Mad God’s Amulet

The second novel opens with Hawkmoon and Oladahn travelling back to the Kamarg after their Persian jaunt, only to encounter the forces of the Dark Empire at the mysterious city of Soryandum, a mysterious desert city whose occupants ascended to a higher plane through the use of their dimensional technology during the Tragic Millennium. Leading the Dark Empire expedition is Huillam D’Averc, an arrogant, pretentious, hypochondriac Frenchman who’s clearly the best character in the entire Hawkmoon series. Foiling D’Averc’s plans, Hawkmoon and Oladahn get away from the city with a gift from the people of Soryandum – a device which can be used to transfer a physical region from one dimension to another, which has obvious applications in the defence of the Kamarg against the Empire.

Sailing home, Hawkmoon and Oladahn’s ship encounters a shipwrecked (well, ornithopter-wrecked) D’Averc, who they fish out of the sea and take prisoner. The three of them soon end up unwilling allies when they come under attack from a pirate vessel belonging to the Cult of the Mad God – a ship crewed by drugged and brainwashed individuals who ravage shipping and capture slaves to take back to the Mad God’s stronghold off to the east around Muscovia somewhere. Hawkmoon, D’Averc, and Oladahn defeat the pirates and take over their ship, taking their treasure – amongst which Hawkmoon discovers a ring belonging to Yisselda. Realising that Yisselda may well have been kidnapped by the forces of the Mad God, Hawkmoon resolves to investigate the matter; when the Warrior in Jet and Gold appears, he confirms that Hawkmoon must confront the Mad God Stanikov and take from him the Red Amulet, a powerful artifact which rightfully belongs to Hawkmoon as primary servant of the Runestaff.

So far, so good. Except it’s here that Moorcock goes off on a massive sexism kick. You see, it turns out that the Mad God has been using the Red Amulet to brainwash women into becoming bloodthirsty, murderous berserkers, which he intends to use as shock troops. And it works! Hawkmoon, Oladahn and D’Averc find themselves unwilling to hurt the ladies when they swoop down and attack them, because they’re heroes and are consequently just that chivalrous. So they just toss nets over them and clonk them on the head to knock them out whilst they’re struggling helpless under the nets.

I’m sorry, but that’s just not on. Like I said in my Robin of Sherwood review, you can’t have your cake and eat it when it comes to warrior women; either you have them occasionally fight dudes, at which point you’ve got to accept that they’re going to get smacked around, injured, and occasionally killed by men, or you balk at that, at which point your warrior women don’t actually get to be warriors. Here Moorcock ends up with the worst of both worlds – he has his heroes puss out of fighting women to defend themselves (despite being perfectly willing to kill men on the battlefield), and not only are the women not capable of defeating our three heroes when they opt out of fighting back effectively, but they actually end up being caught with comparative ease. And then, when they’re on the ground, Moorcock has his “heroes” perform acts of violence on them anyway. Yeesh.

I guess the whole Red Amulet thing is Moorcock venting about the corruption of Soviet Communism into a system demanding conformity and suppressing dissidence even as it claimed to represent liberation from Imperialism and racism and sexism. (The Mad God rants about restoring the power and glory of the Stalnikov family – a name which suggests Stalin on the one hand and Strelnikov from Doctor Zhivago on the other.) However, the allegory here is both heavy-handed (Stalnikov resides in a cage of his own volition because the power he has usurped has become a prison to him – oooooh do you see?) and often just plain misses the mark. (I have no idea what the armies of women are meant to represent.)

It’s even worse when the Mad God reveals a brainwashed Yishana wearing what I surmise from the description to be a very very very spikey costume and big spikey talons on her hands because Chaos armour tends to be very spikey as we know from Games Workshop, at which point Hawkmoon has to duel her and somehow break the hold the Red Amulet has over her. At which point she bursts out in tears and divests herself of all that nasty clothing because she’d rather be naked and helpless than armed and spikey. For more or less the rest of the novel, Yisselda is in full on damsel in distress mode, the bulk of the remaining story being Hawkmoon, D’Averc and Oladahn on an escort quest. The three essentially have to defend her whilst they hike across country, and whilst she disguises herself as a Dark Empire trooper alongside them when they decide to infiltrate the Empire’s encampment, she finds wearing armour for a long period of time tiresome and eschews the carrying of weaponry.

Meanwhile, Baron Meliadus has transformed from the more nuanced villain of the first book to Sir Rapesalot, Baron of Rapey Town. He doesn’t appear very much this time around, but whilst his obsession with bloody revenge against Hawkmoon and the others is kind of awesome, his fixation on raping Yisselda tips the balance from “hissingly evil villain that you love to hate” to “absolute cartoon who goes on and on about rape because Moorcock doesn’t think we’d hate him enough if he were just a genocidal maniac”. Here’s a bit of a villain monologue from when Meliadus has captured Hawkmoon, Oladahn, and Yisselda which illustrates just how obsessed with rape and threatening people with rape Meliadus is.

“[…] we shall take a slight detour in order that you may witness the final destruction of the Kamarg. I have been there for a month, you know, and watched its men die daily, watched the towers fall, one by one. There are not many left. I have told them to hold off the last assault until I return. I thought you would like to see your homeland… raped.” He laughed, putting his grotesquely masked head on one side to look at them again. “Ah! Here are the chains.”

This is the beginning of a tendency in the rest of the series for Moorcock to fall back on rape as a handy way to indicate that people are evil, rather than any of the other atrocities which a rampaging army of conquest might perpetrate. Could the Hawkmoon series, considering that Moorcock is held in high esteem by many of today’s fantasy authors, be Patient Zero for the plague of rape-fixated grimdarkery sweeping the fantasy shelves today? It’s not impossible.

The best aspect of The Mad God’s Amulet is probably D’Averc, who as I said is my favourite character in the entire series, mainly because he takes the piss out of Hawkmoon (who tends to be a bit pompous) and is a bit more rogueish and Han Solo-y than Oladahn (who’s sometimes irritatingly happy-go-lucky, as Moorcock’s various Moonglum analogues tend to be). To use Dungeons & Dragons terms, since the characters spend most of the novel as an adventuring party, D’Averc is a neutrally-aligned character in a party of mostly good-aligned dorks, and that’s what makes him so amusing.

The characterisation of Hawkmoon, meanwhile, is wildly inconsistent this time around. Before and after this novel, Hawkmoon is a steely-eyed maniac who believes that the forces of Granbretan should be butchered to a man. Then he saves D’Averc because whilst he’s happy to kill people on the battlefield he balks at letting people drown. Then he lets D’Averc live when he realises who he is. Then he constantly believes that D’Averc is about to betray and kill him, so when D’Averc consistently doesn’t Hawkmoon ends up looking like a dick. I suppose that’s another reason why I like D’Averc so much – I have so little sympathy with this alleged hero that anyone who shows him up by actually being a decent bloke under the “dashing cad” persona D’Averc adopts is alright by me. But putting that aside, this whole thing means that Hawkmoon exists at a very specific level of genocidal – he hates Granbretanians enough to declare that he wants to kill every single one of them, but he doesn’t hate them enough to allow one who has personally caused him a heap of trouble to die.

Either way, this novel seems like a big chunk of filler, with the only major plot developments being the introduction of D’Averc and the shift of the Kamarg to another dimension at the end. Oh, and there’s the Red Amulet, but Hawkmoon doesn’t actually use that very much in the subsequent books; he leaves it at home for the entirety of The Sword of the Dawn and much of the next book, and on top of that the only effect it really seems to have is to make him fight better, and he’s already really good at fighting, so its effects are entirely outweighed by those of the Sword of the Dawn and the Runestaff and the Black Jewel. Once suspects Moorcock was planning on doing a trilogy but was told he could get more money if he could milk a fourth book out of the concept.

Multiverse bollocks: The fact that a multiverse exists is fairly clear from the Soryandum experience, but as far as actual crossovers go once again there’s few-to-none on show.

The Sword of the Dawn

The third novel begins with an impasse: the Kamarg has been transferred to a different dimension, and so whilst the Dark Empire is in no position to conquer it, Hawkmoon and his pals aren’t in much of a position to try and improve the situation back in their own world. Whilst Baron Meliadus is convinced that the Kamarg represents a continuing threat to the well-being of the Empire, his fellow warlords are far from convinced and King Huon is disinclined to indulge Meliadus’ paranoia, and so a stalemate has been reached.

Said stalemate is shattered by the arrival in the Kamarg of Elvereza Tozer, a disgraced playwright from Granbretan. Seeking to restore his good name at court, Tozer travelled to the horrifying mountainous wasteland of Yel (Wales) to learn the secrets of extradimensional travel from the mystical Mygan, and came away with some special rings that permitted travel through the dimension. Presenting his findings to Taragorm of the Palace of Time and Baron Kalan of Vitall, the snake-masked chief scientist of the Dark Empire, Tozer through sheer coincidence (or the manipulative powers of the Runestaff) hit upon the precise setting on the rings to bring him to the Kamarg.

Captured by Hawkmoon and deprived of his rings on the advice of the Warrior of Jet and Gold, Tozer himself seems harmless, but his demonstration of course has opened the eyes of the Dark Empire to the possibility that the Kamarg may have fled to another dimension and that Mygan may possess the means to access it. Thus, Hawkmoon and D’Averc don the rings and ride forth to first ascertain what the Dark Empire know and then travel to Yel to track down Mygan. In order to infiltrate the court, they hit upon the perfect plan: dress as luchadores and pretend to be ambassadors from Asiacommunista. Much to their discomfort and his, Baron Meliadus is given the task of looking after the ambassadors as busy-work by King Huon…

The first half or so of The Sword of the Dawn involves a lot of stuff going on in Londra and the court of King Huon, which makes the book a significantly more interesting read than The Mad God’s Amulet because it’s clearly the backstabbing politics of the Dark Empire which Moorcock is really interested in here, and he does a good job of making the reader interested in them too. I’d gladly read an entire series set solely amongst the rulers of the Dark Empire – provided, that is, that Moorcock did a better job of his portray of Flana. Flana is a heron-masked relative of King Huon – in fact, one of his few surviving blood relations – and thus enjoys a certain invincibility in court, bolstered by the fact that she is almost completely jaded and apolitical. She sleeps around a lot and barely notices when one of her husbands or another ends up getting killed on the battlefield or taken out by a rival; when the “Asiacommunistan ambassadors” come along she ends up quite interested in them simply because of the novelty value.

So far, this is all fairly disappointing but run-of-the-mill fantasy novel Madonna/whore stuff – Yisselda is all blushing and virginal and therefore she’s one of the good guys, Flana sleeps around so obviously she’s a decadent villain. This only gets worse when Flana drops in on the “ambassadors” unexpectedly to discover that they are Hawkmoon and D’Averc under their luchadore masks, which doesn’t actually dissuade her that much. Hawkmoon rejects her because he’s married, D’Averc is only too happy to oblige, and in the space of a night ends up making her fall in love with him to the point where she is willing to betray the Dark Empire (risking death as she does so) in order to help him and Hawkmoon escape Londra. Not only that, but the text specifically suggests that D’Averc is able to do this because he’s a gentle, caring lover rather than the rough sort Flana is used to. I’m sorry, I know D’Averc is awesome, but the idea that he’s able to give her a personal epiphany through the caring and considerate use of his penis, or that all of her previous sexual encounters were inherently unfulfilling and tawdry affairs that, by implication, don’t count as valid sexual experiences is just beyond risible.

Once the novel gets away from Londra it becomes significantly less interesting, Moorcock once again going through the adventure story motions as D’Averc and Hawkmoon end up trasported to the far-off land of Amarekh, where the Warrior in Jet and Gold tasks them with retrieving the Sword of the Dawn, which in Hawkmoon’s hands will permit him to summon the Legion of the Dawn, spectral warriors who serve the Runestaff. To retrieve it, of course, Hawkmoon has to wrest it from the hands of the riverboat pirates of Narleen, who revere it as a symbol of their ancestors. The best part of this segment is probably the Narleen parts, in which Hawkmoon and D’Averc help the heroic Pahl Bewchard fight against the pirate-barons who dominate the city, and the pirates have a mad temple to the Sword set up in which they drain their enemies of blood to give sustenance to it, but as fun as it is I can’t help but feel that the material would be better served in a stand-alone story starring Bewchard, especially since there’s no good reason for the Runestaff itself not to be able to summon the Legion – except then Moorcock wouldn’t be able to pad out the series with another novel as he does here.

Furthermore, the actual conclusion to the story is miserably limp – Moorcock has all the main good guys get captured and end up completely helpless, so he’s forced to have the Warrior in Jet and Gold parachute in once again to save the day. Also, until recent omnibus editions excised the relevant portions the second half of the novel shows up the fact that Moorcock was rattling these out without bothering to do a second draft – there’s a bit where D’Averc finds an old charge from an ancient high-tech gun from the Tragic Millennium, and he picks it up and declares that he has some way of using it without having access to one of the guns. He mentions it again later on in another context – but at no point does he actually make any use of it. You’d have thought it’d make a good ace up his sleeve for when the pirates have him and Hawkmoon and Bewchard captured and are about to sacrifice them to the Sword, but no, apparently Moorcock had to crowbar the Warrior into the plot yet again.

In short, The Sword of the Dawn starts off very promisingly but ends up displaying all the flaws of the series – sexism, shoddy plotting, and an excess of filler abound.

Multiverse bollocks: The whole “magic sword fed with blood to keep it potent” deal is so reminiscent of Stormbringer that the Sword of the Dawn might as well have had “I AM STORMBRINGER” inscribed on the blade.

The Runestaff

Having spent two novels bodding around collecting magic items whose powers could quite happily have been assigned to the Runestaff, Hawkmoon begins the next novel on a quest to retrieve the Runestaff himself. Or rather, he’s forced into it by the machinations of the Staff – at the end of The Sword of the Dawn he decided to try sailing back to Europe rather than heading to the city of Dnark to find the Staff like the Warrior in Jet and Gold told him to, but at the beginning of this one he ends up encountering some sea monsters and the mysterious Orland Fank of the Orkneys, supposedly the Warrior’s brother and another servant of the Runestaff, who between them convince Hawkmoon that it’s in his best interests to just shut up and obey the plot. At Dnark, Hawkmoon and D’Averc meet the mysterious spirit of the Runestaff, which manifests as a child called Jehemiah Cohnahlias, and must save the Staff from Shenegar Trott, who has been sent by King Huon to retrieve it. After doing so, Hawkmoon heads back with his pals to the Kamarg, loaded down with magical items like a high-level Dungeons & Dragons character, only to find that Taragorm of the Palace of Time has found the means of summoning the Kamarg back to their world, so he and the others set out on a desperate mission to take down the Empire with the power of the Red Amulet, the Sword of the Dawn, and the almighty Runestaff backing them up.

Whilst all this is going on, Baron Meliadus finds himself more and more convinced that King Huon’s leadership is leading the Dark Empire to ruin – as evidenced by the fact that King Huon doesn’t consider the Kamarg a threat, and thinks Meliadus is a big silly for thinking it is, and generally isn’t giving Meliadus everything he wants when he wants it. Thus, along with Kalan and Taragorm, Meliadus plots a coup d’etat against King Huon, sparking off a civil war which, of course, distracts the Dark Empire at precisely the moment the Kamarg returns to the world. (In case you were wondering, the Order of the Ferret sides with Meliadus because Taragorm is their leader.) This raises the question of precisely why the fuck Taragorm chose to recall the Kamarg to its home dimension, when he knew damn well that most of the Dark Empire troops on the continent would end up being recalled to Granbretan by one side or the other in the civil war and therefore all recalling the Kamarg would do would be to plop down a ready-made centre of resistance in the middle of an occupied continent at a time when the Empire’s ability to crush said rebellion is at an all-time low. This nigh-suicidal behaviour is never explained at any point.

However, Kamarg stuff aside, the civil war angle in the book is about as interesting as the History gets, seeing how it involves Dark Empire people squabbling with each other. Yet again, the novel comes alive when dealing with the internal politics of the Empire, suggesting once more that this is what Moorcock is really interested in. Indeed, once again the Kamarg posse gets the short end of the stick, with howling inconsistencies opening up in the plot and cheap, lazy writing demeaning the whole affair. As far as the latter goes, when Hawkmoon and pals ride out to scout out the land they come across a ravaged village, which has been put to the sword by the Dark Empire troops so that the people won’t be able to effectively resist them when they return from the civil war. Of course there’s a pitiful survivor in the ruins who lives just long enough to tell Hawkmoon and pals the sad, sad story of what happened. Of course this survivor is an attractive woman who was raped, had her throat inexpertly cut, and left for dead. Of course Moorcock drops in a setting detail that the Dark Empire soldiers rape and kill women on the battlefield as a matter of general policy. Ugh.

As for inconsistencies, we’re about to witness the worst one in the entire series – one which as far as I am aware hasn’t even been dealt with in the revisions. When Yisselda chooses to join the party riding forth to do battle with the Dark Empire, we are subject to this exchange:

“[…] am I not Count Brass’s daughter?”

“You are.”

“And cannot I ride as well as any of you?”

“You can.”

“And did I not fight in the bullring as a girl – and win honour there? And did I not train with the guardians of the Kamarg in the arts of the axe, the sword and the flame lance? Father?”

“It is true, she was proficient in all these arts,” Count Brass said soberly. “But proficiency is not all that is required of a warrior…”

“Am I not strong?”

“Aye – for a woman…” answered the Lord of Castle Brass. “Soft and as strong as silk, I believe a local poet said,” he glanced sardonically at Bowgentle, who blushed.

“Is it stamina, then, that I lack?” Yisselda asked, her eyes flashing with a mixture of defiance and humour.

“No – you have more than enough stamina,” Hawkmoon said.

“Courage? Do I lack courage?”

“There is none more courageous than you, my child,” Count Brass agreed.

“Then what quality do I lack that a warrior has?”

By itself, this isn’t such a terrible exchange. In the context of The Runestaff, there’s a bit of a problem with it. Namely, that the Yisselda who makes these bold statements is the Yisselda who was helpless when Baron Meliadus attempted to kidnap her and who was exhausted by having to wear armour for an extended period of time and didn’t carry a weapon when disguised as a Dark Empire trooper. In other words, she was a helpless noncombatant for the entire series right up to the point where it became useful for Moorcock’s purposes for her to become a warrior, at which point suddenly she remembered that she’d spent all those points on weapons training and took the bullfighter background quirk at character generation – character traits she has not made the slightest use of for the five hundred pages of the saga preceding this one. Of all the points supposedly made about Yisselda’s character in the above quote, only the bit about her being Count Brass’s daughter is actually established in the preceding three and a half books. For Moorcock to turn around and suddenly declare her Yisselda the Bull-Killer on a whim after she’s been in full damsel in distress mode for all this time is incredible.

I’m sorry, but when an author – even an author as adept at writing thrilling adventure stories as Moorcock is – cares so little for the supposed protagonists of their story that they’re willing to abandon whatever precedent they’ve set for the characters in order to serve the purposes of the plot then what you’re left with an unending saga of nonsense in which no fact established on page 1 is necessarily true by page 100, and will probably be utterly contradicted by page 500. It’s no wonder that the Dark Empire segments of the History are so much superior to the Kamarg parts and the bits with Hawkmoon travelling around and adventuring because they’re the only parts where Moorcock feels obliged to retain anything resembling consistency.

Well, not quite. There’s the small matter of Flana, who’s used as the rebellion’s figurehead because Baron Meliadus reckons he’ll be able to manipulate her once she is Queen. See, apparently ever since The Sword of the Dawn she’s been brooding about D’Averc and her night of passion with him, to the point where she’s gone from being a jaded hedonist who bods around the court enjoying life to a jaded romantic bodding about the court sighing after D’Averc, which just makes the whole “one gentle dicking undoes a lifetime of hard fucking” deal from the previous book even more ridiculous.

The end of the saga is ridiculously rushed and perfunctory. Moorcock blinds Meliadus so that his squire can briefly narrate the clash on the Silver Bridge linking the Granbretanian town of Deau-Vere to the French town of Karlye, a neat way to allow Moorcock to dodge out of having to write a full battle scene. Bowgentle, Oladahn, and Count Brass are killed off arbitrarily and suddenly. In a particularly cheap shot, Moorcock has D’Averc shot in the back by a palace guard just at the moment of his reunion with Flana, because the guard thought D’Averc was attacking her. These deaths are not the first cheap shots in The Runestaff; earlier on the Warrior in Jet and Gold is killed in the fight at Dnark, but this is essentially meaningless because with Orland Fank in the picture he can play exactly the same role as the Warrior, and indeed pretty much does. But the perfunctory and cheap deaths of two-thirds of the Kamarg-based cast at the end of the novel lose what emotional impact they may have had because Moorcock is clearly rushing towards the finish line at this point. Most likely the reader will be as well. The Runestaff isn’t a triumphant climax to the History so much as a blessed relief, the end of a long marathon which was never quite worth the effort.

Multiverse bollocks: The name “Jehemiah Cohnahlias” is, of course, reminiscent of Jerry Cornelius, though given that the character doesn’t look like Jerry, dress like Jerry, talk like Jerry or act like Jerry I think it’s just another instance of Moorcock resorting to some version of Jerry’s name when he can’t think up anything better to call a character.

Not So Much Eating Its Own Tail As Disappearing Up Its Own Arse: The Chronicles of Castle Brass

Count Brass

Five years after the conclusion of The Runestaff, Moorcock opens Count Brass with a somewhat overlong description of Hawkmoon and Yisselda’s happily-ever-after ending: they live peacefully in the Kamarg, they protect the citizenry and rule wisely, they bring up two adorable kids. This blissful existence is disrupted when rumours break out of a ghostly presence out in the marshes – specifically, the spirit of Count Brass, who supposedly is accusing Hawkmoon of murdering him at the Battle of Londra. Riding forth to investigate, Hawkmoon discovers not a ghost, but a quite alive Count Brass – one who seems decades younger than the one he knew. Furthermore, time-displaced versions of D’Averc, Oladahn and Bowgentle are also lurking out there.

Discussing the enigma, Hawkmoon and the others work out the truth: the four have been plucked out of history from moments when they were about to die and given the task of killing Hawkmoon by a mysterious third party, one who told them a one-sided version of the Battle of Londra which made it sound as though Hawkmoon had murdered them. Confronting their mysterious “benefactor”, they discover that he is none other than Baron Kalan of the Dark Empire – thought dead after the Battle of Londra, along with Taragorm. As it turns out, the pair of them are very much alive, and are meddling with time in order to restore the Dark Empire, populating its ruling class with versions of King Huon, Baron Meliadus and the rest plucked from other timelines and inspiring rebellion against the benign reign of Queen Flana by using Hawkmoon’s death as a propaganda piece.

Moorcock has gone on the record as saying that he considers this novel one of his weaker efforts, but in fact I think it’s the best of the Hawkmoon series. It’s comparatively self-contained, revisits some of the more interesting locales of the History and has a really interesting new locale in the form of Kalan and Taragorm’s cross-temporal headquarters, and the final plot twist is shocking in a genuinely interesting and emotionally engaging way rather than being a cheap shot. The main downside of it is that it depends so much on the reader having read and enjoyed The History of the Runestaff that it would lose most of its enjoyment if you hadn’t read the earlier series – but at the same time, whilst it’s a bit of fun, it’s not quite good enough to merit reading the History just so that you can enjoy Count Brass. And whilst the ending has a good twist, it’s also clearly a setup for the rest of the trilogy, which includes some of the worst bilge Moorcock has ever written.

In fact, the worst thing I have to say about Count Brass is that I don’t really have that much to say about it. It’s an utterly inoffensive adventure story which offers little to nothing for me to praise or criticise. It’s the fantasy novel equivalent of a glass of water and a dry cracker; it’ll just about do if nothing else is available, and certainly won’t turn your stomach, but you won’t get any great enjoyment out of the experience and the whole thing is rather forgettable.

Multiverse bollocks: Beyond the implied existence of parallel timelines, not very much. Watch out though, because the floodgates are about to be flung open.

The Champion of Garathorm

So, at the end of Count Brass Hawkmoon finds himself in a timeline in which Count Brass survived the Battle of Londra, but Yisselda didn’t – and thus Hawkmoon and Yisselda’s children were never born, and Hawkmoon has spent the last five years in a delusional state believing that the Count was dead and Yisselda was alive. Faced with this horrifying prospect, Hawkmoon as a complete emotional breakdown, becoming a pallid, acne-ridden, out of shape wargamer spending his days fiddling around with Warhammer miniatures replaying the Battle of Londra again and again and again, trying to find a configuration in which Yisselda, Count Brass, and all his other friends can survive it.

This bleak and lonely existence is disturbed by the arrival of Katinka Van Bak, a famed mercenary who has become someone important in the court of Ukrainia. Supposedly, there is a rag-tag band of bandits attacking Ukrainia, and she needs Hawkmoon’s help to stop them. Dusting off the cobwebs and getting some fresh air for once does Hawkmoon a world of good, and soon he’s riding off east with Katinka to lend his help. Along the way, they meet up with Jhary-a-Conel, the dandified Companion to Champions from the Corum novels – another reflection of Jerry Cornelius, although not a card-carrying Eternal Champion like Jerry and with a more irritating and obnoxious sense of humour than his. The encounter with Jhary is no coincidence – for Katinka is not, in fact, planning to get Hawkmoon to defend Ukrainia, but along with Jhary is press-ganging him into helping them defend the realm of Garathorm, which has been invaded by a horde of the servants of Chaos drawn from all different parts of the multiverse, answering to Arioch (of both the Elric and Corum series) and laying waste to the land.

The reason Jhary and Katinka are resorting to such measures is that the local incarnation of the Eternal Champion, Ilian of Garathorm, has had her soul imprisoned in the Black Jewel, which has been brought to Garathorm by Baron Kalan (who has ended up stranded here with the Chaos forces). However, Ilian’s lifeless form can be reanimated with Hawkmoon’s soul – and once he’s in place in her body, her identity and memories soon reassert themselves (after a moment when, like Erekosë, both Hawkmoon and Ilian recollect that they are all part of one endelessly reincarnating entity), allowing Ilian to strike out and once again face down Kalan, as well as the fearsome Ymryl, the leader of the Chaos forces who slew Ilian’s brother and constantly threatens her with rape oh for fuck’s sake Mike you were doing so well.

So, yes, once the tedious setup is over and done with Garathorm is essentially a very rare Moorcock novel to star a female incarnation of the Eternal Champion, and as far as I am aware the only red-blooded sword and sorcery one to do so. The other ones are Gloriana, which is dripping with rape issues, and (if you accept Una Persson as an incarnation of the Champion) a couple of the ancillary Cornelius novels, which evade skeeviness due to the fact that the Cornelius stories have something of the Rorscach test about them and so can be as skeevy as the reader wants them to be, but at least one of them is an in-depth exploration of female sexuality written by someone with only second-hand experience of the subject.

Against this background, it’s rather dismaying that Moorcock’s sole sword and sorcery novel with a female protagonist not only falls back on the worn-out cliche of having the villain fall in love with the heroine and act all creepy and rapey towards her, but also that Moorcock seemed to feel the need to qualify the presence of a female protagonist by animating her with a male protagonist’s soul. All that this accomplishes, aside from giving Hawkmoon-as-Ilian a chance to rescue Yisselda from Kalan’s clutches (Yisselda seems to have forgotten that she is a warrior again in this novel), is to create the need to dump pages of exposition on the reader once the Ilian phase of the book kicks off, exposition that could have been avoided had Moorcock simply written a standalone story about Ilian kicking ass and saving her kingdom whilst riding about on a chocobo. (Yes, Garathorm has chocobos, or at least birds people use as riding mounts of the sort which anyone of the Final Fantasy generation will instantly recognise as chocobos.)

In fact, many of the novel’s flaws (bar the distasteful rape-as-plot-device stuff) could have been overcome in this way, if you’ll forgive the counterfactuality. A story focused on Ilian throughout but featuring Kalan as one of the villains would have sufficed to show how the blowback from the Empire diehard’s time experiments has caused a cascade of effects across the multiverse, and since Hawkmoon has his kids restored to him by authorial fiat at the end of The Quest For Tanelorn anyway Yisselda could have quite happily been restored to him then. As it is, Champion is a decent Moorcock novella with a whole heap of exposition and needless Hawkmoon inclusion and pointless multiverse crossover guff weighing it down. The major enjoyment to be had from it is the enjoyment of noticing a familiar face or concept popping up here and there – in other words, the fantasy novel equivalent of trainspotting. A number 10 Chaos god went past today at 10:39 am. It was running 5 minutes late. It was pulling five carriages and was travelling from A Bad Idea for a Sequel Series to The Impossibly Shitty “End” of the Eternal Champion Sequence.

Multiverse bollocks: Oh god, where to begin. The Chaos forces include elfy sorts of people who are variously called Eldren, or Vadagh, or Melnibonéans – as featured in The Eternal Champion and the Corum and Elric series. Jhary cites a theory about the Chaos Gods which suggest that they reside at the End of Time and meddle with earlier portions of the timeline our of boredom, which seems a direct nod to The Dancers at the End of Time.

Katinka Van Bak is the first of the extended Von Bek family to be given a prominent position in Moorcock’s work, but on balance actually seems to be a middle-aged incarnation of Una Persson – considering her connection with Ukrainia and its unnamed ruler, which may echo Una’s recurring interest in the fate of Nestor Makhno, as well as a plot point relating to her assassination of Prinz Lobkowitz, an individual she kills regularly in the Cornelius stories. Oh, and she also isn’t very patient with Jhary’s foibles, which is consistent with Una’s usual disapproval of Jerry Cornelius’s flippancy.

Prinz Lobkowitz himself was first namedropped in The Warlord of the Air, and became a recurring character in the Jerry Cornelius stories from The English Assassin onwards. Jhary mentions having past experience with this sort of work when he discusses how he was able to accomplish the transfer of Hawkmoon’s mind into Ilian’s body – which suggests the sort of transmog escapades another important Moorcockian JC gets up to in A Cure for Cancer.

The Quest For Tanelorn

The Quest for Tanelorn is the worst Moorcock book I have ever read.

It is, quite simply, the antithesis of the novelist’s art. It abandons both the traditionalist adventure story mould from which the likes of Elric, Michael Kane, and the earlier Hawkmoon novels were cast, and simultaneously turns its back on the avant-garde nonlinear storytelling that Moorcock had spent the preceding decade developing. In its place, it commits many sins. It carries the air of a stream of consciousness story, but one in which the author engages in none of the creative freedoms with format or linearity that stream of consciousness writing proffers. It wallows in needless and excessive crossovers with other parts of the Eternal Champion series – most particularly the Erekosë stories, but also those of Elric and Corum – in the desperate hope that waving aspects of superior stories in front of the reader will make the present text more endearing, but all it does is besmirch the memory of those that have gone before it. (Yes, even The History of the Runestaff, which compared to this shite is more awesome than the original Elric novellas and the Jerry Cornelius quartet and Behold the Man combined.)

But worst of all, it indulges in the most ham-fisted and didactic allegory that it has ever been my displeasure to suffer through, an approach in which enjoyment is dispensed with in favour of a desperate effort by Moorcock to write something wholesome and improving, that would inspire the unimaginative reader of second-rate sword and sorcery to look beyond the comforting illusions issued forth by the genre’s lesser wordsmiths and to look to the improvement of themselves and of humanity as a whole, to go forth with their imagination liberated from the shackles of tawdry fantasy and set aside gods and heroes and superstitions as concepts for lesser men and small children – in short, to grow the fuck up and read something else.

And do you kniow what? The allegory works, although in a very specific way. Reading The Quest For Tanelorn might not make me want to stop reading sword and sorcery, but it does make me want to stop reading The Quest For Tanelorn. I would gladly read Das Kapital if it means I do not have to read more of The Quest For Tanelorn. I would read Borges, Nabokov, William Burroughs, and any other novellist Michael Moorcock points me towards if he will just take away The Quest For Tanelorn and put it somewhere I don’t have to see it. (A locale where the sun does not shine would be preferable.) If the alternative were having to read The Quest For Tanelorn, I would gladly read all the socialist and anarchist theory in the world. Or the complete works of Robert E. Howard. Or Fritz Leiber. Or Ursula Le Guin. Or any other book Michael Moorcock has written, no matter how messed up the sexual politics get. Or train timetables. Or your mum’s shopping list. Or the twelve-volume magnum opus of the world’s most prolific and least talented Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction author.

It’s really, really bad.

I should probably back up a bit here and explain why that is.

So, the novel opens shortly after the end of The Champion of Garathorm. The occupants of the Kamarg are as follows: Count Brass, check. Yisselda, check. Hawkmoon, check. Kids, Bowgentle, Oladahn and D’Averc: still unaccounted for. With really very little clue as to how to proceed, Yisselda and Hawkmoon decide to visit Londra on the off-chance that the scientists of the Not Dark Any More Empire might be able to help them out. Whilst riding on the Silver Bridge from Europe to Granbretan, Hawkmoon is suddenly and spontaneously bamfed to another dimension. Why has Hawkmoon been snatched away like this? Well, it’s the Conjunction of the Million Spheres, a time of great flux in the multiverse when the very rules of the great game of reality can be rewritten, which handily liberates Moorcock from being obliged to make anything that happens make the slightest bit of sense. (Don’t worry about Yisselda, by the way, she is never permitted to perform a single act of any relevance for the rest of the novel.)

Whilst Hawkmoon is befuddled by the sudden planar dislocation, a dark capering entity which calls itself Sword appears and it’s all spooky and mysterious and Hawkmoon is scared of it and doesn’t know why. The reader knows why, of course, because Sword is blatantly Stormbringer, and anyone who doesn’t pick up on that point very, very early on in the book really needs to go back and reread Stormbringer because it’s quite blatant. Actually, anyone who’s reading The Quest For Tanelorn should just put it down and read Stormbringer instead, it’s really much better. Anyway, with the mystery of Sword Moorcock really hits on the worst of all possible worlds, because if you’ve read Stormbringer and have a decent recollection of it then it isn’t really a mystery so much as a friustration, and if you haven’t read Stormbringer then the resolution of the enigma won’t make a blind bit of sense. In fact, if you haven’t read the core Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon and Erekosë stories then you’re completely fucked, there’s no way you’re going to recognise the references that weigh down the novel and you certainly aren’t going to understand the conclusion.

Sword gibbers and acts all weird and Hawkmoon falls in the water. Then Jhary-a-Conel shows up and helps him. Then they encounter a council of all the wise questgivers from the other books – there’s Sepiriz from Stormbringer, the Warrior In Jet and Gold, the Lady of the Chalice from Phoenix In Obsidian and a host of others. “What’s going on, guys?” asks Hawkmoon. They explain that it is the Conjunction of the Million Spheres. “OK, what do I do about that?” Hawkmoon asks. They explain that they don’t really know, but they guess he should probably try and find Tanelorn. Then Jhary disappears and Hawkmoon runs into the ship that sails the seas of fate. The sequence of events is more or less as perfunctory as I’ve described it; it’s like the characters are just traversing across a white featureless space reading their lines in a monotone and appearing and disappearing as Moorcock requires them, and granted this does create the impression of a universe in flux but it also rather neatly illustrates the point that if there’s nothing solid to hang your story on then it’s almost impossible for your readers to actually engage with it on a meaningful basis. For goodness’ sake, Naked Lunch has more semblance of sober and coherent reality than this dreck.

At this point you get the Agak and Gagak story which was copy-pasted into the following year’s The Sailor On the Seas of Fate, and which I covered in the Elric review. I had thought that this segment would have worked better in this, its original context, but it really doesn’t. In The Sailor On the Seas of Fate it’s one slightly random and whimsical adventure in a sequence of random and slightly whimsical adventures; here, it’s just eating up page count whilst Moorcock runs around behind the scenes setting up his awful allegory.

The concluding third of the novel is devoted to said allegory. Set in Tanelorn, which in the intervening years since the original Elric novellas had graduated from being just some town in the Young Kingdoms which happened to be devoted to the Cosmic Balance to being a trans-dimensional symbol of the highest aspirations of humanity, we are subjected to a symbolic drama in which Jehemiah Cohnahlias and Sword face off against each other, with Hawkmoon – and Erekosë, who’s been tagging along with Hawkmoon because he reckons he’ll find Ermizhad that way – being forced to make the key decisions in their conflict. Sword intends to kill off Law, Chaos, and the Cosmic Balance in one fell swoop, at which point only Sword will be left to rule over people (ooooh do you see because if you abandon traditional social structures but don’t have any ideological basis beyond might-makes-right you end up ruling by the sword), but through the intervention of Hawkmoon and Erekosë Sword ends up dying on top of that, leaving humanity free of the tyranny of Authority and thus able to find their own way in life without such juvenile things as gods and heroes and superstitions standing in their way.

This whole thing is narrated in such blunt and heavy-handed terms that the overall impression is of Moorcock grabbing the fantasy-reading audience members by their lapels and shaking them violently, screaming “Don’t you see? There’s more two life than swords and goblins, read Marx, read Kropotkin, read anything but don’t waste your life on these tawdry entertainments when there’s a whole world out there for you to enjoy!” The description provided at the start of the segment of Tanelorn is the absolute bare minimum sufficient to convey the allegorical points Moorcock wants to convey whilst at the same time entirely inadequate for the purpose of really establishing a sense of place, and this same brevity affects the rest of the sequence, with the overall impression being of a really bad medieval passion play staged for a village of forgetful idiots – people stroll on, shout “My name is X and I allegorically represent the concept of Y”, and then they do their thing and that’s it, done. Then the allegorical point of what they have just done is repeated several times in the conclusion just to make sure that the audience comprehends what has happened.

I don’t know at what point Moorcock decided that the fantasy audience consisted of such an assemblage of shallow, literal-minded dunces that he needed to take this approach – part of me wants to suggest “when he started going to SF/fantasy conventions” – but the feeling of being talked down to, as though Moorcock is reducing quite sophisticated ideas of his into the most simplistic, one-dimensional and reductive forms he can possibly get them in order to spoon-feed them to me as though I were a drooling infant is what infuriates me the most about The Quest. It’s like The Revenge of the Rose for remedial readers.

But do you want to see the very worst part of this whole psychodrama, the part which wanted me to reduce the novel into some sort of horrible paper-based porridge so that I could personally feed it straight back to Moorcock? It’s this part, where the blind Captain of the ship that sails the seas of Fate and his brother, the bright-eyed steersman that guides the ship, reveal their true identities.

Bowgentle alone, seemed a little reluctant. He looked thoughtfully at the statues and back at the towers of Tanelorn. “An interesting place. What created it, I wonder?”

“We created it,” said the Captain, “my brother and I.”

“You?” Bowgentle smiled. “I see.”

“And what is your name, sir?” Hawkmoon asked. “You and your brother, what are you called?”

“We have only one name,” said the Captain.

And the steersman said: “We are called Man.”

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

The conclusion of the allegory will please nobody. Hawkmoon gets his kids and all his old friends back more or less by default. Since The Quest was intended as a conclusion to the overall cycle, Moorcock also takes the opportunity to finish Erekosë’s saga off by having him show up, tag along and not do much, step into the allegory and transform into an archetypal figure whilst doing so (whilst Hawkmoon hangs back and retains his humanity), and then dies alongside all the various other abstract concepts he’s killed off. Ermizhad shows up and sobs over his corpse before turning into one of the statues. (Tanelorn is decorated with statues of all the incarnations of the Eternal Champion, the Eternal Consort, and the Eternal Consort, because they like their archetypes blatant and out in the open.) For anyone who had enjoyed The Eternal Champion and Phoenix In Obsidian and found themselves particularly invested in Erekosë’s story, this conclusion – in which he dies after playing a minor supporting role in someone else’s story – cannot possibly be satisfying.

Indeed Moorcock himself doesn’t seem to have been satisfied by it because The Dragon In the Sword ignores the events of The Quest more or less entirely and seems to lead to a mutually exclusive conclusion. And likewise, Moorcock doesn’t seem to have been thrilled by The Chronicles of Castle Brass as an end to the Eternal Champion saga, because he’s written two other endings since then – the Second Aether trilogy and the Oona von Bek trilogy. Personally, though, I think the idea of writing an ending to the Eternal Champion stories is absurd – not least because the concept of the Eternal Champion doesn’t really lend itself to having an end or a beginning, but also because no such ending can possibly encompass all the different directions Moorcock’s writing has taken. No matter how the ending is played, one subset or another of Moorcock’s work gets shafted. (I fail to see, for example, how The Quest for Tanelorn can be seen as the culmination of anything other than a bunch of sword and sorcery hokum – it doesn’t make sense as part of the same cosmos that Karl Glogauer or Jerry Cornelius inhabit.) I begin to suspect that Moorcock himself might consider the idea to be stupid but regularly uses it as a way to earn mad cash from fantasy fans willing to buy any old shit with his name on it.

If Moorcock had been a less legendary figure in fantasy; if his status as an author had been more minor; if, in short, Moorcock did not have a reputation good enough to absorb the blowback from the publication of such a toxic waste dump of bad ideas, then there is one important respect in which The Quest For Tanelorn could have succeeded in acting as an end to the Eternal Champion series and acted as the culmination of all of Moorcock’s works to date:

It might have killed his career.

Multiverse bollocks: Begins on page 1, concludes with “the end”.

The Picky Buyer’s Guide

The History of the Runestaff might have tickled my fancy as a teenager, but that just demonstrates how uncritical I was and how little I paid attention. Contradictory, nonsensical, and phoned-in, the series will please nobody. If you want offbeat sword and sorcery which challenges the preconceptions of the genre, then Elric does the job in a much more vibrant and groundbreaking way and – if you stick to the original novellas – is actually internally consistent. Likewise, if you just want a fun science fantasy adventure story then the Michael Kane of Mars stories are just plain better. With the History Moorcock can’t decide whether he’s doing one or the other and doesn’t particularly seem to care, with the consequence that he completely fails on both criteria.

Granted, Granbretan is a lot of fun. But at the end of the day, if the setting is what you’re interested in then you may as well just buy one of the various Hawkmoon RPG sourcebooks that have been published over the years. That’ll give you all the setting details you could want without having to slog through a hastily-written, inconsistent, poorly plotted and miserably sexist story such as the one presented in the History.

As for The Chronicles of Castle Brass: Stay. The. Fuck. Away. I’m telling you this for your own good.

Overall recommendations list remains as it was at the end of the Karl Glogauer review.

5 thoughts on “The Runestaff and the Empire’s End

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