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.
Michael Moorcock’s sword and sorcery adventure stories are patchy territory. As we’ve already seen, the core Elric novellas – the ones he wrote first, before he started on the prequel mill – are awesome, but the unnecessary later embellishments of the saga get increasingly tiresome. The Erekosë stuff starts out well but Moorcock seemed to lose interest in the character of Erekosë, and the less said about the self-indulgent self-referentiality of The Dragon In the Sword the better. The Michael Kane of Mars stories are silly fun in tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs with a conscious attempt to avoid the worst excesses to avoid ERB’s bigotry, and are properly entertaining if you don’t expect high art out of them. The Hawkmoon material is godawful tripe written solely for the money.
And so we get to Corum, whose novels were likewise written in a matter of days for the sake of cash (specifically, if Moorcock is to be believed, the books took about a week each, and the first trilogy was knocked off due to imminent childbirth and its attendant impact on family finances). However, there are points in the Corum series where hints of a more flavourful and interesting approach than the Hawkmoon dross peek through. As Moorcock explains it, some of the ideas he plays with in the series came to him during a long, dull holiday in Cornwall, where the weather was so bad going outside was a bad move and the only reading material to hand was a Cornish-English dictionary with the English-Cornish dictionary missing. For want of anything more stimulating to do, Moorcock set about reconstructing the English-Cornish section himself, and in doing so found himself sufficiently taken with the language that he decided to draw on it and Cornish folklore in constructing this series.
The Corum books come in two trilogies. The first set, published in a rapid-fire burst in 1971, comprise the so-called Swords trilogy because they set Corum against a pantheon of gods called the Sword Rulers; in the second trilogy from 1973-1974, sometimes referred to as The Chronicles of Corum, our man goes to the future of his world to fight the terrifying Fhoi Myore. Both have been regularly anthologised, the former sometimes under the titles of Corum, The Swords of Corum, Corum: The Coming of Chaos and The Prince In the Scarlet Robe and the latter sometimes under the title of The Chronicles of Corum or The Prince With the Silver Hand; in fact, like the Elric and Hawkmoon books, they’re some of Moorcock’s more regularly in-print material, with the Swords trilogy being honoured with a spot in the Fantasy Masterworks series (confusingly, early editions of this one had the title of The Chronicles of Corum, which is usually used for omnibus collections of the second series, but I’ve seen other versions of the cover art which use the more conventional title of The Prince In the Scarlet Robe). But are they really deserving of this continued acclaim and regular reprints?
In short, no.
Destroy All Monsters: The Swords Trilogy
The Knight of the Swords
The first book of the series introduces us to Corum’s world as a land of caprice and whimsy, in which Corum’s Vadhagh ancestors (think elves) and their ancient Nhadragh rivals (think more elves) fought an epic war in ages long past, which exhausted their rivalry and decimated their numbers. Both peoples have retired to their respective domains to while away their excessive lifespans in abstract intellectual pursuits, ignoring the rise of the Mabden – what we would call humanity – who are regarded by the elder races as being mere beasts, since humans can only perceive in one plane whilst the Vadhagh and Nhadragh can see five simultaneously.
Or at least, they could; of late, Corum and his family have found that their perception of the four planes beyond their native one has become increasingly blurry. Corum’s father, Prince Khlonskey, sends Corum riding forth from his ancestral home of Castle Erorn to visit the other Vadhagh castles and see how they are faring, and Corum discovers that each has been sacked by Mabden raiders – the Mabden having organised themselves into a cohesive society whilst the Vadhagh were otherwise occupied. Returning to Castle Erorn to warn his family, he arrives just in time to find the Mabden poking at his relatives’ corpses in the burning wreckage of the castle; captured by the Mabden after he rides against them in his rage, he is brutally tortured by Earl Glandyth-a-Krae, cruel leader of the raiding party, and his left hand and right eye are removed.
After supernatural intervention saves him from the Mabden clutches, Corum finds himself at the island fortress of Moidel’s Mount, ruled by the Margravine Rhalina, a noblewoman of the kinder and gentler Mabden kingdom of Lywm-an-Esh. Rhalina falls in love with the stranger, and Corum finds himself reciprocating despite all the reasons he has to despise the Mabden. When Glandyth and his forces besiege Moidel’s Mount, Rhalina finds herself obliged to seek occult aid, and as a result of this bargain falls into the clutches of the self-made sorcerer-god Shool. To win her back from Shool, Corum must steal the Heart of Arioch, the Knight of the Swords, the ruler of the Five Planes, creator of the Mabden and the architect of the Vadhagh and Nhadraghs’ doom. And to aid him in this quest, Shool provides Corum with the Eye of Rhynn and the Hand of Kwll, artifacts of ancient dead gods that give Corum powers beyond those of mortal men.
All this is awesome; the opening movements of the Corum saga take the Celtic and Cornish influences Moorcock was inspired by and weave them into a compellingly original take on the whole humans-vs-faeries strand of fantasy literature, Moorcock adapting the various myths he was drawing on for his own purposes without feeling too tightly bound by their precedent to try and put his own spin on things. At the start of the story Corum is far from being a Merry Gentry sort who is essentially no different from any of the human characters despite having been lived in an utterly alien culture until comparatively recently. Corum has an outlook which differs sharply from that of human beings, which is illustrated perhaps best in Corum’s brief conversation with some Mabden villagers who just want the spooky elf to leave so the Earl won’t kill them for fraternisation. Corum starts out as a typical Vadhagh – patient, lethargic, and given to abstraction – before he learns of hatred, violence, and cruelty through observing the Mabden, indulges in them himself in his bid for revenge, becomes a victim of him when captured, and then at the hands of Rhalina learns to love. By the end of that progression, he’s learned the full breadth of human experience, and thus thinks and acts more like a Mabden than a Vadhagh in many respects.
This is a fairly involved process of character development, one on which you could base a whole series on. In fact, it unfolds in the first half or so of this book, and Corum’s personality barely changes or develops for the rest of the series from that point. Corum rapidly transforms from being a strange and original and new sort of protagonist in Moorcock’s work to being yet another hero with a personality almost indistinguishable from that of Hawkmoon, Michael Kane, Erekosë, or Elric as he appeared in the later additions to the series, and were it not for the regular mention of Corum being a Vadhagh it’d be easy to forget that he isn’t human.
Arguably, of course, this is the point: after all, cosmologically all those dudes are the same character. This does not wash with me for several reasons, said reasons including Jerry Cornelius, Karl Glogauer, Ryan from The Black Corridor and several others. All of those different aspects of the Eternal Champion possess distinct personality traits which, whilst they do overlap, nonetheless mark them as distinct characters from each other; Cornelius is mercurial and dandified, Glogauer is neurotic and guilt-ridden, Ryan is cowardly and self-justifying, and you’d never confuse one for the other.
The difference, of course, is that Moorcock gave a fuck about those guys, whereas Corum – like Hawkmoon – is a creature spawned for purely mercenary ends, who was called “Borem of Puerile” in Moorcock’s original outline for the series. The Corum we get for the second half of the novel and for the latter two books in this trilogy is nothing more than the standard Moorcockian sword and sorcery hero in another guise, and the great shame of this novel is that this watered-down and uninspiring protagonist displaces the genuinely interesting Corum of the first part of the novel. To get counterfactual for a moment (because this is my article and I can if I want to), had Corum’s character development been played out over the whole trilogy things might have been much more interesting, especially since then Corum’s adaptation to human society would parallel human society’s liberation from the gods; Corum’s purging of the supernatural from the world would be accompanied by a purging of the otherworldly from his own personality, reinventing himself so that he could be a part of the world he was liberating, which would chime nicely with the themes Moorcock plays with across the series.
As for the actual plot this time around, it starts out well but runs into trouble when it turns out Moorcock can only think of two ways for any particular crisis to be resolved in the long run: either Corum summons supernatural aid with the Eye of Rhynn, or the Hand of Kwll acts of its own accord to do the thing the reader has been yelling out for Corum to do for several paragraphs. Such interventions are interesting the first time they happen, but of course once the reader learns what the Hand and Eye can do the magic is lost and tension becomes that much more difficult to establish; across this book and the next one, Corum will regularly get in a scrape, I’ll yell at him “Use the Hand/Eye, idiot!”, he’ll invariably do it and I’ll roll my eyes and try to suppress the urge to throw the book across the room. (In The King of the Swords Moorcock nerfs the Hand and Eye because I think by that point even he realised they were getting tiresome.)
In addition, Chaos Gods just aren’t interesting opponents to come up against. Possibly the manifestation of Arioch in this novel – as with his colleagues in the next two – is meant to tie in with some fiend of Celtic myth I’m unaware of. The problem is that for the most part he behaves just like a Chaos God in any other Moorcock sword and sorcery book – in other words, as a capricious maniac who lives in a bizarre realm in which anything and everything is possible to him and his abilities are constrained only by his whims. If his behaviour does tie in to the Cornish myths the trilogy in theory draws from, it’s solely cosplaying on his part as opposed to him really possessing the attributes of said figures. As it is, like the rest of the Chaos Gods this time around, Arioch just feels bland and unsatisfying; since the point of the Chaos Gods is that they don’t really acknowledge any constraints and show no consistency in their behaviour from appearance to appearance across Moorcock’s novels, they end up being faceless ciphers.
There are some parts of the novel where things perk up – I particularly liked the almost Vancian exchange Corum has with Shool when he signs up to do Shool’s dirty work – but not quite enough to justify the page count. On the whole, the second half of the book becomes a repetitive chore to read through, and loses the fabulous atmosphere the first half had. It’s a shame, because it’s a squandering of what was a really strong opening act.
Multiverse bollocks: Arioch is, of course, Elric’s patron god. The Hand of Kwll’s habit of spontaneously murdering people seems intended as a Stormbringer parallel, to the extent that Corum reacts to the killings the same way Elric reacts when Stormbringer kills someone of its own accord despite the fact that the circumstances are actually very different (Stormbringer likes going after Elric’s friends and loved ones whilst the Hand exclusively murders people who are about to kill or betray Corum).
The Queen of the Swords
So, Shool and Arioch are dead – or banished from the Fifteen Planes, which is functionally the same thing – and Lord Arkyn, a God of Law, has regained control of the five planes formerly dominated by Arioch. Rhalina and Corum’s blissful life at Moidel’s Mount is interrupted by the arrival of Jhary-a-Conel,
yet another Jerry Cornelius iteration the self-proclaimed Companion to Champions, an incarnation of the Eternal Sidekick who recalls his other incarnations – a circumstance which you would expect would eventually lead him to despise the Champion given all the shit that said Companions go through, but apparently not. Anyway, Jhary shares with Corum a rumour that King Lyr-a-Brode, ruler of Kalenwyr and Glandyth’s liege-lord, is massing a large army for some unknown purpose.
A little scouting by Whiskers, Jhary’s winged cat, reveals the full extent of Lyr’s plans – having run out of Vadhagh to slay and Nhadragh to enslave, Lyr intends to mount a full invasion of Lywm-an-Esh, with the aid of summoned help from his patron gods, the Dog and the Bear, as well as Chaos forces sent by Xiombarg, Queen of the Swords and ruler of the five planes beyond Arioch’s. Realising that they cannot hope to hold Moidel’s Mount against such a force, Corum and Rhalina don their battle gear and, accompanied by Jhary, hasten to bring word to King Onald of Lywm-an-Esh at his capital city of Halwyg-an-Vake. Once the message is delivered, they receive a summons from the Temple of Law, where Lord Arkyn has manifested to provide some much-needed advice: if Corum, Jhary and Rhalina venture into the five planes ruled by Xiombarg, they might be able to locate the famed City In the Pyramid, a mysterious bubble of sanity in those Chaos-ruled realms which has held out against Xiombarg despite all odds and must surely have some technological or magical means of countering her forces.
The Queen of the Swords is notable to me in that it is the first of Moorcock’s fantasy novels to be based heavily around the characters travelling between various planes of the Multiverse and indulging in extended metaphysical waffling about the structure and nature of the Multiverse as a result of that. (In fact, the good guys win in this one simply because Xiombarg makes an illegal move from one plane of the Multiverse to another, permitting Arkyn to rules lawyer her to death.) This represents the first time in around five years that Moorcock would give serious, concerted attention to this subject. Granted, Elric does go on a brief excursion to another universe in Stormbringer, but if you confine yourself to the original run of novellas this is a rare and notable event; cross-planar adventures would only become routine for Elric in later additions to the series such as The Fortress of the Pearl and The Revenge of the Rose, and other stories written after the inception of the Corum sequence. Likewise, the Hawkmoon stories confined themselves to a single plane but for The Chronicles of Castle Brass, which was written well after The King of the Swords had been completed, and Erekosë didn’t transition planes multiple times within the same story until The Dragon In the Sword. Whilst the Jerry Cornelius stories did have an inherent theme of Jerry and others tripping from universe to universe like crazy, the actual process of travel between planes tended to occur off-stage but for a brief segment in A Cure For Cancer, and those Cornelius stories written prior to The English Assassin tended to focus on one universe at a time.
No, to find any preceding Moorcock novels in which universe-jumping occurs multiple times over the course of the story until it becomes a matter of course you have to go all the way back to The Rituals of Infinity, and before that to The Blood-Red Game. But back then Moorcock’s conception of what the Multiverse was about there’s much simpler (“it’s like, there’s a universe, and there’s also more universes”); by this point, he’d more fully developed the ideas of Law and Chaos and the Cosmic Balance, and found that he actually had a lot to say about them.
Hence, The Queen of the Swords, the prototype of a whole subset of Moorcock’s work which includes The Fortress of the Pearl, The Revenge of the Rose, The Dragon In the Sword, The Quest For Tanelorn, and still more books besides, in which one incarnation of the Eternal Champion or another – precisely which really makes no difference – goes on a phantasmagoric trip through the planes whilst various characters waffle about metaphysics and Moorcock occasionally slips in some really heavy-handed allegory. In that respect it’s a lot like the second half of The Knight of the Swords, except now Jhary is here to crank the tedious chattering up to eleven.
As you may have gathered, I’m not a fan of this side of Moorcock’s writing. Part of it is that somehow seeing multiple different planes of the Multiverse in the same story has a way of making Moorcock’s cosmology feel smaller, not larger. When his novels are based around one particular world – like the Elric novellas, like the Michael Kane adventures, like the first two Erekose novels, like the first Hawkmoon series – he is usually able to create a pretty exciting and evocative backdrop for the adventures at hand, but when the plane-hopping gets underway his worldbuilding efforts are naturally divided between the different planes, to the point where the otherplanar realms start feeling – as they do here – as though they were nothing but featureless plains with a small number of plot points arranged upon them.
Now, those who’ve read a lot of my reviews know that I am no fan of worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake in novels, but I think in these cases Moorcock could afford to do a lot more. For starters, it just looks bad when Moorcock (via Jhary or some other mouthpiece) hypes up the breathtaking scale and immensity and complexity of the Multiverse when it actually feels awfully threadbare and sparse. In addition, the social, political, and philosophical ideas Moorcock is interested in exploring don’t react well to simplicity. In a novel like The Ice Schooner or The Winds of Limbo, Moorcock creates nuanced future societies in which he can fully express, explore and criticise his sociological ideas. In stories such as Behold the Man or The Black Corridor Moorcock gives himself a multifaceted and thoroughly believable protagonist to play with in order to explore the psychological implications of his ideas on individuals. In novels like Stormbringer or A Cure For Cancer Moorcock manages to sustain the apocalyptic tone because he’s tearing apart settings we have a well-developed understanding of – either through reading the prior Elric novellas in the case of Stormbringer, or because we are being shown a distorted funhouse mirror reflection of our own world as in A Cure For Cancer.
Moorcock’s writing works best when he allows himself to use a setting which supports interesting characterisation, intriguing and unusual societies, or over-the-top heavy metal apocalyptic mayhem. (Preferably, all three are involved, but this is almost never the case.) In the sword and sorcery multiplanar travelogues that the Swords is a prototype for Moorcock has a distressing habit of denying himself as many of these advantages as possible. The protagonist is often an Elric-lite stock character, with all of the whining and none of the grit (or, if the protagonist is Elric, the grit will be removed). If anything resembling a society is encountered then usually it will be so thinly described that it feels like a cardboard cutout intended only as a vehicle for an allegory. (Literally the case for the middle-class caravans of The Revenge of the Rose!) Though often Chaos will be depicted as sweeping through the planes in a totally unprecedented wave of destruction, it doesn’t really feel like anything is at stake because nothing on the multiple planes of the story feels as real as any of the societies and cultures developed in sagas which stick mostly to one dimension, so far from amping up the stakes it feels as though the Chaos Gods have gone from devastating cities to kicking over sandcastles.
What remains consists of empty philisophising and allegories so simplistic as to be completely inapplicable outside of thought experiments and mummer’s plays. In this case, Corum, Rhalina and Jhary stomp through the planes from encounter to encounter, Jhary gabbling on and on ad nauseum about metaphysical matters (and unlike Moonglum from the Elric stories, who his personality is a cheap imitation of, Jhary stays firmly on the “irritating” side of the comic relief character irritating/funny divide), Corum invariably solving any serious problem they encounter through the use of the by now well-known and predictable properties of the Hand and Eye, and Rhalina…
Well, there’s another issue. Whatever points Moorcock earns by having Rhalina ride out in armour at the head of her household troops when the gang set off to save Lywm-an-Esh he immediately loses by failing to find anything for her to do except be slightly more terrified of shit that happens than the men are. Not that she is alone in being mostly useless; Jhary does little except talk whilst Corum is often reduced to acting as a delivery system for the Hand and the Eye, since he certainly doesn’t accomplish very much without resorting to them. (I tell a lie, the party don’t use them to defeat a sinister lake creature they encounter – they beat it by default because they got lucky and the lake creature is impossibly stupid.) The overall impression is that Moorcock has sent three people along to do a one-hero job, and he simply never convinces me that the presence of Jhary or Rhalina (or the dispossessed king who they meet up with partway along the journey) is really required.
Come to think of it, you’ve got an ensemble cast of whom only one is actually important, insufficient action to justify the page count, and a villain who is ultimately defeated by rules lawyering. It’s like Moorcock’s answer to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Multiverse bollocks: Jhary’s babbling is a constant stream of these, including some direct and unambiguous callbacks to the Elric saga. The final battle sees the first appearance of Prince Gaynor the Damned, who would become a recurring villain in Moorcock’s later tales (he’s the big bad in The Revenge of the Rose, for example). I can’t think why Moorcock thinks he was so worth revisiting because his appearance here isn’t exactly breathtakingly exciting.
The King of the Swords
After the defeat of King Lyr our heroes once again retire to a peaceful existence; with Moidel’s Mount wrecked by the rampaging hordes, Corum, Rhalina and Jhary busy themselves with restoring Castle Erorn to its former glory with the aid of the Vadhagh inhabitants of the City In the Pyramid. However, the trio realise that all is not well in the land when a curious miasma settles over the realm, provoking fear, paranoia, suspicion and anger in people’s minds and turning friends, families, and lovers against one another.
A little investigation by Whiskers soon uncovers the truth: Earl Glandyth survived the destruction of Lyr’s armies and, with the aid of enslaved Nhadragh sorcerers, is acting as Chaos’ willing agent, plotting a diabolical revenge on behalf of both himself and his dark masters. The curse on the land is undeniably the work of Chaos, and with rioting and mindless violence becoming increasingly commonplace the situation is dire. Turning to Arkyn for aid once again, the embattled God of Law implores the party to seek eternal Tanelorn, where they will find the means to end the conflict, and off they go in a flying plane-hopping ship acquired from the City In the Pyramid. They are sent off-course sooner rather than later, and whilst Rhalina falls into the clutches of Mabelode, King of the Swords and ruler of the five planes beyond Xiombarg’s, Jhary and Corum find themselves in a Cornwall not entirely unlike that of our own world back in medieval times, and must find a way to escape, reach Tanelorn, eliminate Mabelode and end the threat of Chaos once and for all.
This plot is, when you get right down to it, a carbon copy of the plot of The Queen of the Swords. Corum, Rhalina and Jhary are in a castle and it becomes clear to them that something is afoot in the land. Whiskers does some spying and finds that forces aligned with Chaos, which include the nefarious Glandyth, are up to no good. The odds look overwhelming and the trio turn to Lord Arkyn for help. Arkyn reveals that they must venture into planes they have never explored before, in which Chaos has even more power than in the planes they have previously explored, in order to locate a city which might hold the means of defeating the Chaos God responsible for all this nonsense. Eventually the party reach the city and a deus ex machina ending causes the downfall of the God in question. I think it should be clear to everyone by now how Moorcock managed to write these things in the space of days – all it took was heavy doses of self-plagiarisation.
And once again, as in the preceding book, much of The King of the Swords degenerates into ham-fisted and empty philosophising – particularly when it comes to the tale’s conclusion. In all fairness, some of the themes Moorcock hits on pique my interest; for instance the point about how Chaos only needs one willing agent to exercise its power in a plane is a nice feature but otherwise the metaphysical points raised here are impossibly tedious. And even then the one-willing-agent theme is raised once in one of Jhary’s babblings and then never developed, in a textbook example of telling in preference to showing. As for the concluding points about humanity outgrowing the need for gods bla blah, it is a point Moorcock had already explored to exhaustion and with greater skill and insight in numerous other stories at this point so seeing it reeled out again at the conclusion simply inspires tutting and eye-rolling.
But not as much as the tedious amount of crossover material in this volume, of which there is a ton. First off, when the party’s flying interplanar ship is caught in Limbo they are confronted with gargantuan visions of the climactic battles from Stormbringer and The Runestaff, which gives Moorcock a golden opportunity to pad out the book by paraphrasing his old prose. Later, and even more irritatingly, there is the Elric/Corum/Erekose meetup which was narrated from Elric’s point of view in The Vanishing Tower (AKA The Sleeping Sorceress). Sadly, this episode is just as daft and irritating this time around as it was in that context, if not more so; the vanishing tower escapade is the last deed of substance Corum gets to do before he reaches Tanelorn and the deus ex machina take over, so parachuting two more protagonists right at the climax only cheapens Corum as a main character. This was meant to be the end of his series, his great moment of heroism, his last epic stand in the spotlight, just as the sequences from other series the party saw in Limbo were. Instead, he ends up the junior partner to a host of bloody guest stars.
Of course, it could be worse. Rhalina, who at least got to wear armour and carry a weapon last time, gets abducted fairly early on and is only rescued towards the end of the novel. Pretty much the only character who comes out on top this novel is Jhary, whose infuriating “I know more than everyone else but I refuse to explain anything so I can be cool and mysterious” schtick reaches the height of its obnoxiousness. I’m tempted to accuse Moorcock of being more interested in Jhary than Corum, which is a fatal flaw when attempting to write a novel about Corum.
Even the story’s one good and enjoyable bit raises further problems. This is the part where Corum and Jhary are stranded in a pseudohistorical medieval Cornwall, a Cornwall inhabited by a certain folk hero who happens to be another incarnation of Corum (AKA one of the characters from folklore that Moorcock cribbed from to create Corum). This places seems richer and more interesting and real than Corum’s world, and not simply because it cleaves more clsoely to the real world and draws more from real history; Moorcock’s writing perks up, wipes the sleep out of its eyes and actually gets vivid and exciting during this section. And therein lies the problem with it: I’m more interested in this world and its inhabitants than I have ever been by Corum’s, and it seems Moorcock is more interested too, so why the hell didn’t he write about this place instead of retreading the same old swords and sorcery codswallop? The answer, of course, is that that would have required effort and research and to do the project justice he might have to spend more than a few days on it.
And there, of course, is the fatal flaw of the Swords trilogy. Just because you can write a novel in a week does not mean the results are worth reading. The Michael Kane stories were fun, but part of that was because they were written in homage to (and following the blueprint of) Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose work Moorcock was a major fanboy of and therefore had studied carefully and gained an intimate understanding of. Here, as in Hawkmoon, Moorcock is following no precedent bar his own fancy, and didn’t particularly care whether the results were any good so long as they sold well. The results are appalling.
Multiverse bollocks: This book drowns in the stuff, as mentioned above.
Oh Yeah, This Was Supposed to Be All Celtic and Shit Wasn’t It?: The Chronicles of Corum
The Bull and the Spear
Things perk up a lot with the next book in the series, which mostly takes place in a single world and works hard to create a particular icebound and doomy atmosphere informed by a range of Celticy sort of legends of the type which in theory inspired the first trilogy but in practice were drowned out by the multiverse stuff.
So, after the end of The King of the Swords, things seemed peachy. Sure, Corum had lost the Eye of Rhynn and the Hand of Kwll, but he’s got a stylish eyepatch to cover up his vacant socket and he’s built himself a perfectly good silver prosthetic hand. There’s no gods in the land to make trouble and the Mabden are living at peace with themselves and the surviving Vadhagh and Nhadragh. Corum and Rhalina live happily ever after – or rather, Rhalina does. Then she dies of old age and Corum – who, being an elf, doesn’t age that quickly – is sad and lonely. As well as his grief for Rhalina, Corum finds himself alienated from the Mabden, who have started creeping towards worshipping him as a god. Brooding in Castle Erorn, Corum spends seven years in isolation before he begins to hear mysterious voices calling for him in his sleep. Corum begins to fear for his sanity, but his mind is put at ease by Jhary-a-Conel, who comes visiting for the first time since the end of The King of the Swords. Jhary explains that the voices belong to Mabden from the far future – from, in fact, the leaders of a clan who worship Corum as their patron demigod, and who are in such dire peril that they have been driven to try and summon him to their aid. Corum decides to go to them, since there really is nothing for him to do in his own time, and heads off on his own to heed their call from across the centuries. The people in question call themselves the Tuha-na-Cremm Croich, who take him to their fastness at Caer Mahlod to explain the situation to him.
Corum learns from the clan leader, King Mannach, that the lands of the Mabden were invaded some years ago by the seven Fhoi Myore – horrifying giants who use strange magic to wage war against all that is not under their sway. The High King, the Archdruid Amergin, has been captured by them, and eternal winter spreads across the land, and the Cold Folk who serve the Fhoi Myore are accompanied by monsters such as the fearsome Hounds of Kerenos. The people need Corum’s help because, as a Vadhagh, he is related to the mysterious Sidhi who supposedly provided aid against the Fhoi Myore in older times, and therefore might be able to make use of the sacred treasures that they left behind. Alas, most of those treasures have been lost over time, but it is said that one of them, the spear Bryionak, is to be found on the mysterious island of Hy-Breasail, where its maker, the dwarf Goffanon, is said to dwell. As well as being a powerful weapon in its own right, the spear is said to provide the means to command the legendary Black Bull of Crinanass, which could prove to be a vital ally against the Fhoi Myore.
At its heart, then, the novel is essentially a fetch quest, but it’s spiced up to no end by Moorcock’s extensive drawing on and reimagining of various traditions of Celtic mythology – kind of the way the first trilogy was meant to work, only Moorcock does it better this time. Not that Moorcock necessarily shies away from throwing in references to the multiverse here and there, but he uses them a bit more cleverly for this book. Aside from Jhary’s brief cameo at the start of the novel and a cozy chat Corum has with Goffanon, Corum spends most of the novel being the person present who knows the nature of the multiverse the best, which is an interesting about-face when usually Moorcock’s protagonists are perpetually confused by the multiverse. It’s also a neat way to provide Corum with a storehouse of esoteric knowledge beyond the ken of mortal men, which is precisely what he ought to have as the Tuha-na-Cremm Croich’s adopted deity. He still doesn’t have that much in the way of a personality, but as a slightly self-aware Eternal Champion he manages to be a bit less hopelessly clueless than Elric or Hawkmoon and a bit less oh-god-the-burden-of-my-memories than Erekosë, and the fact that he cuts past the “oh my god what the fuck is happening” stage so quickly and is all “Oh, I get it, on with the job then” is refreshing.
The worldbuilding is better too; with the action more or less entirely taking place on a single plane, meanwhile, Moorcock is able to craft a world which actually feels like a rich and interesting place as opposed to a temporary cardboard backdrop which will be forgotten about as soon as Corum hits the next plane, which is a great improvement over the Swords trilogy. In addition to this, Moorcock provides some genuinely compelling villains in the form of the Fhoi Myore. The idea of them as creatures from Limbo who find existence itself painful and are trying to recreate the entropic nothingness of their home is compelling, as is the depiction of them as twisted, diseased, dying gods who barely understand what is happening to them and are lashing out from instinct. Prince Gaynor the Damned appears again, having been banished to Limbo by Corum in the original trilogy, and this time around he’s actually a compelling foil for Corum – as a self-aware Eternal Villain, just as Erekosë is a self-aware Eternal Champion, it makes perfect sense that Gaynor would ally himself with the Fhoi Myore in the hope that in their bringing of death to the entire plane they’ll incidentally provide him with the final death he craves as part of the bargain.
The depiction of the Mabden is fun this time around, mainly because Moorcock uses the opportunity to describe how a society might put his utopian ideals into effect. Gender equality is described as being the norm and for once in a Moorcock sword and sorcery novel this actually seems to be the case – Medhbh, the king’s daughter that Corum falls for, is a warrior and unlike many of Moorcock’s warrior woman love interests actually gets to lead troops into battle. On the religion side of things, Moorcock presents a religion which seems designed to satisfy people’s desire for ritual and moral guidance without buying into superstition: the Mabden are depicted as practising a sort of self-aware ancestor worship where they have a fairly clear-sighted view of the fact that most of the legends surrounding their ancestors are metaphors. (The whole “summoning Corum from the past” bit suggests that some level of superstition still holds but hey, they were desperate and it turned out to work after all.)
On the whole, in fact, I’d say that The Bull and the Spear is the most interesting and flavourful of Moorcock’s sword and sorcery material since the novel-length version of The Eternal Champion, and certainly stands head and shoulders above the earlier Corum books and the entire Hawkmoon series. Unfortunately, The Oak and the Ram doesn’t quite measure up to it.
Multiverse bollocks: Corum’s experience of being called by voices to a different plane or time mirrors that of John Daker in The Eternal Champion, and there’s a bit where Corum finds the whole “defend humanity and exterminate its enemies” mission briefing to be vaguely familiar in a worrying sort of way, which is probably an allusion to how well John Daker did that job in said novel. (Indeed, you could read this entire series as a process of atonement for fucking up that particular job.) Similarly, Corum living in isolation after losing his wife recalls Hawkmoon’s experience at the start of The Champion of Garathorm, though Corum bears up rather better than Hawkmoon did.
The whole eternal winter thing is, of course, a regular motif Moorcock uses to indicate worlds in which entropy has run rampant, and this is underlined by Corum having dreams that are meant to recall The Ice Schooner and Phoenix In Obsidian. Whilst (as far as I can tell) almost all of the attributes of the Fhoi Myore are mythological references, the existence of a female one who devours men might be a twisted version of Miss Brunner’s habits from The Final Programme – particularly considering Brunner’s increasing association with entropy and winter over the course of the Cornelius stories.
The Oak and the Ram
Following the sacrifice of the Black Bull, the lands of the Tuha-na-Cremm Croich enjoy springtime for the first time since the Fhoi Myore invasion; however, Corum and Medhbh only get a couple of months’ peace before the time for adventure swings round again. King Fiachadh, ruler of the Tuha-na-Manannan and ally of King Mannach (and apparently played by Brian Blessed), comes visiting with his retinue; Fiachadh has been trying to convince the other kings of the Mabden to band together and proactively take the war to the Fhoi Myore, following the hard-won victory at the end of the previous book which proved that they can be killed. Mannach is more than up for it, but is dismayed to learn that none of the other kings are – they fear so much for their people that they think only of the welfare of their own lands and not of the common good.
The best way to unite the kings is to get the High King to support Fiachadh’s proposal – but the High King is trapped in Caer Llud, capital of the Fhoi Myore, and has been enchanted to believe he is a sheep. Corum proposes a mission to go in and rescue the High King, and Fiachadh just happens to possess something which will help do the trick – an invisibility cloak, formerly belonging to the Sidhi Arianrhod, useless in Mabden hands but more than capable of helping Corum evade capture. Corum heads out to mount the rescue, and quickly meets up again with Jhary-a-Conel, who’s just about made it to this plane after a quick visit to the Hawkmoon series so as to perform his cameo in The Champion of Garathorm. The pair soon find that they have to deal not just with Prince Gaynor and the Fhoi Myore, but also the machinations of the wizard Calatin, who thanks to some of Corum’s actions in the previous book now exerts a balefui influence over Goffanon.
Though there are points where the philosophical discussions between Corum and the other characters and the somewhat more prominent multiverse references threaten to capsize The Oak and the Ram, once the story gets underway it just about manages to retain my interest. What’s notable is the way Moorcock picks up and plays with loose ends from the previous novel and lays the groundwork for the next book; there’s a far greater level of interconnectedness between the books in this trilogy and, say, those in the Swords Trilogy or the Hawkmoon books. Whereas those series give the impression that Moorcock had at most a very rough idea of where the series was going to end up but otherwise tackled each book as a more or less discrete lump, the second Corum trilogy was clearly planned out in much more detail from the start, lending it a cohesiveness unparalleled outside any of the Moorcock series I’ve outlined so far beyond the core Elric novellas and the Jerry Cornelius quartet – and Elric is cohesive more or less by accident whilst cohesiveness only arises from the Cornelius novels because they’re book-length Rorschach tests that readers impose their own interpretations on. In short, Moorcock finally stops flying by the seat of his pants and actually starts planning things out more than he had in any previous stage in his career at around this point. (I suspect the process of writing the comparatively highbrow and meticulously planned Dancers At the End of Time trilogy was a catalyst here).
Having planted early hints of doom for Corum in the previous book, the events surrounding Calatin and Goffanon this time around really help to bring these into focus, creating an inescapable atmosphere of dread; it is heavily implied (and the next book will show this to be true) that the chain of events leading to Corum’s destruction have already been set in motion by his own hand, and Moorcock makes you eager to see how that pans out.
Spoiler: it pans out disappointingly. And to tell the truth, on the whole The Oak and the Ram doesn’t quite hit the high standards of The Bull and the Spear. Between the fluffing up of the page count with extensive references to other Moorcock novels and the extended philosophical conversations, it doesn’t flow as well as the previous book, and whilst it is compulsively readable stuff which makes you eager for the next one, I have to wonder how much of that is thanks to the inertia built up in The Bull.
Multiverse bollocks: Jhary is, of course, a walking bundle of these; as mentioned, once he shows up he regales Corum with the anecdote about his visit to Hawkmoon’s universe in The Champion of Garathorm. When Fiachadh hands over the invisibility cloak he pointedly asks Corum if he is a traitor, an incident which is never referred to again and presumably involves Fiachadh having fuzzy past life memories of the events of The Eternal Champion. Jhary gets pissed off and accuses the gods of unoriginality when Corum mentions that he has a magic horn, and in doing so directly references the climax of Stormbringer in which the Horn of Fate has a prominent role. (Personally, I find it funnier to substitute “the author” for “the gods” whenever Jhary has one of these rants.)
The Sword and the Stallion
With the High King rescued and a giant Sidhi ally obtained in the form of Ilbrec, things couldn’t be going better for the Mabden, and when they amass for the final push against the Fhoi Myore they are in high spirits. Corum, however, is not so sure. As well as the omens of doom that have been plaguing him ever since he arrived in this time, his relationship with Medhbh seems to be cooling off in a big way, and on top of that Ilbrec and Goffanon seem to believe that there may be some secret source of help the Mabden could turn to – but they aren’t saying anything, due to Goffanon’s qualms about the matter. Things come to a head when Artek of Clonghar and his pirate band arrive to join the Mabden forces. They claim to have visited a curious island of bizarre nightmares and torments, wherein they encountered – amongst other things – a violent and evil Vadhagh who resembles Corum so closely that when they first show up they almost draw swords on Corum because they’re convinced he’s the same guy.
When this information comes out, Ilbrec and Goffanon finally reveal what they know of this place: that it is the mysterious island of Ynys Scaith, hostile to Mabden and Sidhi alike on a metaphysical level, home to strangers from an entirely alien plane of existence who were stranded in this world long ago. These strangers might just be willing to help the fight against the Fhoi Myore if they could be convinced that doing so would aid their efforts to return to their home plane – and the magic Collar of Power that the Mabden hope to win back from the Fhoi Myore at Caer Llud may have the power to do that. Corum, intrigued both by the doppelganger who may be related to the premonitions of destruction he has been having and by the possibility of bringing the Mabden still more asisstance confers with the Archdruid on the matter; when Amergin reveals that his precognitive powers suggest a poor end to the Mabden cause if they do not have additional help against the Fhoi Myore, Corum decides to go and seek out the folk of Ynys Scaith, despite Medhbh’s objections.
The Sword and the Stallion suffers from two flaws. The first is that for a large chunk of the novel, Ilbrec and Corum’s visit to Ynys Scaith, the distinctive atmosphere of this trilogy is abandoned in favour of Multiversal references. In particular, the masters of Ynys Scaith are called the Malibann and are led by the Emperor Sactric, whose name can only be a reference to Sadric – and it will be recalled that in the Elric series, Elric’s father is the last of a long line of Sadrics to rule over Melniboné. Between these coincidences of names, their sorcerous ways, and their immense cruelty, it seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Malibann are either alternate universe Melnibonéans or are actually directly connected to Elric’s Melnibonéans in some way. As with the expeditions into Chaos territory in the Swords trilogy, the journey into Ynys Scaith degenerates into “wooo, anything can happen at any time because it’s ChaAaAaAaOoOoOoOos” territory, which is much less interesting than the more thoughtful and subtle use of magic in the rest of the sequel trilogy.
The second problem is a consequence of the first: because so much page count is expended on the Ynys Scaith expedition, the actual final battle against the Fhoi Myore and the revelation of Corum’s dire fate at the end of the book are horribly, horribly rushed, and in some cases has enormous plot holes. For instance, the Mabden turn against Corum when, whilst he was at Ynys Scaith, an individual looking exactly like him turned up fighting on the Fhoi Myore side. Of course, it’s Corum’s evil twin, but he has to go through this tedious trial in order to prove his innocence by sitting on a magic horse anyway.
The problem with this is that thanks to the testimony of the pirates, the Mabden already know that Corum has an evil twin. They also have a way of distinguishing Corum from his evil twin: the twin has Corum’s scarlet robe, which he gave away to Calatin in the first book, and dresses in it. So it would really be trivially easy for the Mabden to work out what was going on – once they noticed that the Corum fighting them possesses a scarlet robe which is no longer in their Corum’s possession, they’d have a pretty clear sign of what the score is. And if they didn’t work out the point about the robe, they would still be much more inclined to give Corum the benefit of the doubt than Moorcock presents them as being because, again, they’ve been made aware there’s an evil twin of Corum running around. I mean, props to Calatin, making a clone of Corum to turn the Mabden against their hero is a good plan, but the plan only works if the Mabden don’t realise there’s an evil twin out there; once evil twins come into the equation, you can’t really jump to conclusions about anyone’s guilt or innocence any more.
And once that particular time-waster is done with, there’s barely any page count left to deal with the climactic battle and Corum’s last confrontations with the Fhoi Myore, Gaynor and his fate, all of which are extremely rushed and confused. The Fhoi Myore are disposed of because Sactric can basically do anything because he’s a super wizard, and their return to Limbo is about as satisfying as the miserable deus ex machina endings of The Queen of the Swords or The King of the Swords. Corum never even gets to have a climactic fight with Gaynor at all – they have a few desultory encounters in which Gaynor inevitably fucks off, and whilst there’s fun to be had with the idea of Corum being the only person Gaynor fears because he’s the only one who has gazed on Gaynor’s true face and is the one who sent him to Limbo the first time, the entire action of the trilogy leads the reader to expect that sooner or later Corum and Gaynor will have a final climactic fight and whilst it’s certainly original and novel of Moorcock to turn around and cheat us of that, it’s also spectacularly annoying.
As for Corum’s fate, considering the lengths Moorcock went to in order to provide foreshadowing for it in the previous two novels, the whole thing is wrapped up so ridiculously quickly that it cannot help but be anticlimactic. Essentially, after the defeat of the Fhoi Myore the mysterious Dagdagh shows up and lures Corum to Castle Erorn, where Gaynor is all “yo, the Dagdagh says we can go to a special happy place where we don’t have to be the Eternal Champion and the Eternal Asshole any more, wanna come?” and Corum says “thanks but fuck you, I’m staying here with Medhbh” and Medhbh is like “LOL DON’T THINK SO” and brains him and the Dagdagh is like “FUCK YEAH KILL ALL GODS AND HEROES WOO” and plays death metal riffs on the harp that grows out of his bellybutton.
I mean, this isn’t completely unprecedented or out of left field. Medhbh has been alienated from Corum for much of the novel and behaves in an odd, secretive way which suggests that she has her own agenda going on. The idea that gods and heroes must be exterminated so that humanity can flourish has been implicit in the entire Corum series, and in that light it makes sense that since Corum was viewed as a demigod by many of the Mabden and was increasingly beginning to display a supernatural view of the world (which Jhary in particular seems to find worrisome), that if he’d been allowed to stick around he’d have ended up holding the Mabden back simply by being an immortal universally-respected leader, and so he had to be eliminated like all the other gods.
However, the actual execution of this falls down hard. In particular, the plot twist of Medhbh playing a key role in Corum’s destruction could have been handled much better. In principle, I like the idea of one of the Eternal Champion’s love interests turning on him and getting the better of him; it’d be an important step in elevating from love interests who exist solely so that the Champion has someone to provide kisses and hugs between adventures and into characters in their own right with their own ideals and goals and motivations. Had Medhbh decided that Corum needed to go of her own volition, because she realised his presence over successive generations would eventually overshadow her entire culture, that’d be really cool.
But as it is, it turns out she was persuaded of the necessity of all this and guided in her betrayal of Corum by the Dagdagh – and since we haven’t heard the Dagdagh offer any compellingly persuasive arguments as to why Corum needs to leave, we’re left with the impression that Medhbh is a credulous rube who did what the Dagdagh said based on the sort of flimsy non-reasoning which is offered in the final confrontation. Plus she goes from being a support character for Corum who exists to help him do shit to being a support character for the Dagdagh who exists to help him do shit without even travelling through an “independent woman who has her own ideas about what needs to be done” phase in the middle of the gear shift. Plus, on top of that, you have the implication that the only reason Corum’s relationship with Medhbh went pear-shaped was because of some sort of baleful external influence being exerted on Medhbh and not, you know, because Medhbh wanted out or something.
The other issue I have with this conclusion is that it’s almost entirely divorced from the rest of the action; sure, Corum believes his evil twin has something to do with the prophecies of his destruction, but that turns out to be a red herring, so the events surrounding his demise and the events surrounding the final defeat of the Fhoi Myore are almost completely divorced from each other aside from Gaynor happening to be there. The final battle happens, people go home, some time passes, and then we’re told this shit goes down just so we don’t go away with the idea that this is a happy ending. And, of course, keeping the end of the Fhoi Myore saga and the end of Corum’s tale so rigidly separate like this means that both plotlines end up even more starved for pages; the end of the Fhoi Myore is rushed to leave space for the end of Corum, and the end of Corum is kept brief because there isn’t much space left over after the end of the Fhoi Myore. Had Moorcock found some way to link up these two plot strands he could at least have made sure the end of the series didn’t feel like he was galloping towards the finishing line like a NaNoWriMo author within a thousand words of the target.
Multiverse bollocks: There’s a bit where Sactric slips his soul inside Jhary’s cat Whiskers which is meant to be a reference to the use of a cat as a soul-receptacle in the Elric novella The Flame Bringers (AKA The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams.) We know this is the case because Moorcock cannot resist using Jhary to draw our attention to the connection rather than letting it stand by itself.
Corum’s doom has echoes of Elric’s fate at the end of Stormbringer, particularly considering the role played in the tragedy by Corum’s sword Traitor, which is forged at the start of this book and named partway through and is blatantly a Stormbringer analogue which was shoehorned into the story for the sake of it.
Plus there’s the whole Malibann deal.
The Picky Buyer’s Guide
The Swords Trilogy is just shit. I’m sorry, but it really is. It’s dull, formulaic, full of waffly philosophical discussions designed to convey points which could have been conveyed through action instead and involves Jhary-a-Conel being about as infuriating as he ever gets in the Eternal Champion stuff. Plus the Chaos Gods, as presented there, just aren’t interesting opponents – since by definition they can do more or less anything according to their whims, provided they are within their cosmic sphere of influence, Moorcock is obliged to provide regular deus ex machina in order to save his characters (literally, in the case of the last two books in the trilogy, in which the Chaos Gods in question are killed by other gods popping up out of nowhere and bopping them on the nose).
The Chronicles of Corum is a trickier prospect to judge. Jhary is in it much less, and to the extent he is in it, he isn’t very irritating. Aside from The Oak and the Ram there isn’t a lot of page count devoted to waffling. For the most part, things stay on one plane and whilst the stories still tend to be resolved by deus ex machina, that’s because the plot of each book revolves around Corum adventuring to retrieve said deus ex machina so at least they don’t burst out of nowhere. None of the Fhoi Myore die of rules lawyering like Xiombarg did in The Queen of the Swords. For the most part, the Chronicles are certainly better than the Swords trilogy.
I just can’t recommend any of it, not even The Bull and the Spear. You know how I praised the way there was a greater level of cohesiveness between the individual volumes of the sequel trilogy? Well, that’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is nice that Moorcock showed a bit more planning and forethought with this one than with the Swords trilogy or the Hawkmoon novels. On the other hand, the extent of the interconnection between the different volumes of the Chronicles is that reading one of them in isolation from the others feels unsatisfying – they’re much more like a single long novel (and indeed in the edition I read they barely break 380 pages) and so recommending only one book from them feels like recommending only the first hundred pages of a novel – and in general, if I can only recommend the first hundred pages of a book, that’s kind of a failing. In this case, only The Bull and the Spear is really something I can say I enjoyed all the way through. Even then, I can’t say it’s on the level of the Elric material, or even the better parts of the Michael Kane trilogy.
Recommended reading list stays as it was at the end of the previous article. It’s not as though there’s any great shortage of fantasy writers drawing on various sources of Celtic myth for their work, and Moorcock’s attempt here is just far too inconsistent to pass.