Despite all the television I watched, I did manage to read some books over the last month or so. Well, that’s not quite true. I re-read a bunch of books. Sometimes you just want some comfort food, not the healthy stuff.
My love of reading began with fantasy novels: The Chronicles of Narnia. Unsurprisingly, I moved to The Lord of the Rings after that, but then things took a strange turn: I discovered a thick paperback book called The Swords Trilogy by Michael Moorcock. The cover had a barbarian-looking figure on the front with the tagline, It is the time of the conjunction of the Million Spheres, and all things are possible. I opened it to the first page and fell completely inside. I don’t know that I’ve actually come out again.
As a born completist, I devoured everything I could of Moorcock’s work, including the incomprehensible Jerry Cornelius novels and the less-exciting Bastable books. After my recent illness I decided to give Moorcock’s Eternal Champion novels another read, now that I’m no longer young and fancy myself some kind of a writer. In the Going Home Again posts I’ll start with the Elric series, move to Hawkmoon, and end with Corum. When I first read them decades ago, I’d done Corum first, then Elric, then Hawkmoon. I still own all of my Michael Moorcock paperbacks, despite two cross-country moves. Some of them are over 35 years old.
Reams have been written about how subversive and anti-establishment the Elric stories were when they first came out in the early 1960’s. Moorcock created the character as a kind of Conan in reverse: while Robert E. Howard’s Conan was a huge, muscled warrior who steals riches, kills sorcerers, and seeks to claim a kingdom for himself, Elric was a weak albino who uses drugs to stay alive, invokes horrifying sorceries, and throws away a kingdom. In many respects the Elric stories serve as a metaphor for drug addiction: Elric’s dreadful sword Stormbringer keeps him strong, but it eats the souls of whoever it cuts and eventually kills everyone he ever loved, including Elric himself. Heavy stuff.
- Book 1: Elric of Melnibone – This novel begins in dreamlike fashion, which is fitting because it takes place in a place called Imrryr, The Dreaming City. The first chapter is told in present tense, which adds to the ephemeral quality of the narrative. Elric, the emperor of the evil, decadent Melnibonean Empire, is the first ruler of his inhuman people to experience such things as conscience, which puts him at odds with both his subjects and, more importantly, his malevolent cousin Yyrkoon, who schemes to overthrow him and take Melnibone’s Ruby Throne for himself. It’s an exciting beginning to the series: Elric meets a sea deity of sorts; travels to a dark plane of existence where he meets the hero Rackhir, a former warrior-priest; and defeats his cousin with the help of the black sword Stormbringer. Then he does something completely incomprehensible: he abdicates his throne, sets the evil Yyrkoon on it as regent, and heads off to see the world, figuring he’d find himself and pick up his empire when he returns. The rest of the series could only move forward because Elric makes such a bizarre, foolish decision.
- Book 2: The Sailor on the Seas of Fate – Probably the most fun book of the saga. Elric is marooned on a desert island and gets picked up by a ship sent specifically for him. On board the ship are other incarnations of the Eternal Champion: Corum, Erekose, and Hawkmoon, among many others. They go on a quest to repair the multiverse, so to speak, and Elric learns a bit about his destiny. From there, he meets Smiorgan Baldhead, a kind of pirate leader who becomes his friend, and with him, goes to acquire riches in the jungle. It’s got all the stuff you’d want in a fantasy novel, plus some trippy, bizarre bits you won’t find anywhere else.
- Book 3: The Weird of the White Wolf – The first half of the saga comes to an end with this novel. Elric is now declared an enemy of Melnibone by his cousin Yyrkoon, who is naturally unsatisfied being merely a regent. So Elric goes to raid his former kingdom with a fleet of ships and rescue his lover Cymoril, Yyrkoon’s sister. Things don’t go as planned, despite Yyrkoon’s deserved end. Cymoril dies on the point of Stormbringer and Elric betrays everyone, including Smiorgan Baldhead. Melnibone is destroyed, her people scattered to the four winds. From there, he meets Moonglum, who becomes his friend throughout the remainder of the series, and clashes with the sorcerer Theleb K’aarna, who becomes a long-time enemy.
- Book 4: The Vanishing Tower – Much of this book is taken up with Elric’s feud with Theleb K’aarna, who seeks to kill Elric out of spite and jealousy. Here, Elric’s always on the defensive. He travels to Tanelorn, a kind of holy city where weary heroes can find peace, only to learn that the city is in danger from Theleb’s horrible sorceries. Elric ends up meeting Corum and Erekose again in the Vanishing Tower, and saves Tanelorn, even though he knows he’ll never find the peace the city promises.
- Book 5: The Bane of the Black Sword – This book’s a bit more scattered, but it sets things up for the end of the world. Elric has his final battle with Theleb K’aarna, reconciles with his Melnibonean people (who have taken up employment as mercenaries), and tries to settle down with his wife, a girl named Zarozinia. Then he must take up arms to save his new hometown, which will be overrun by a gigantic, terrible mercenary army led by an imprisoned sorcerer. We learn more about the forces of Chaos and how they plan to destroy the world. The best part of the book is the last story, which tells of Rackhir the Red Archer’s quest to save Tanelorn once again.
- Book 6: Stormbringer – Here, everything comes to a close. Elric, who used to worship the Lords of Chaos, switches sides to fight on the side of Law. A new evil sorcerer rises as Elric’s opposite number: Jagreen Lern. It would’ve been better for Elric not to have killed Theleb K’aarna in the previous book so we could conclude the feud in this book; Theleb K’aarna and Jagreen Lern are pretty much the same person. Elric’s world is doomed. It can’t be saved. But if he defeats the forces of Chaos for the side of Law, the new world that will be created can be good and just. By the end of the book Elric has killed all of his friends and family, and is in turn slain by Stormbringer, who laughs and says, “Farewell, friend. I was a thousand times more evil than thou!”
I know there are a number of other Elric novels, and I’ve read some of them: The Fortress of the Pearl, The Revenge of the Rose, The Dreamthief’s Daughter, etc. But I couldn’t get into them. Once the hero dies in the story, it’s not as much fun to read his prequels and such, especially those written long after the original tales. I did enjoy Elric at the End of Time, though, and the Michael Whelan cover illustration is, as all of his work tends to be, awesome.
I don’t know if my son will ever become the avid reader that I was, but if he does, I’ll steer him toward the Elric saga when he’s ready. It’s fun, angst-ridden fantasy that broke all the rules and set the stage for the many hundreds of books from hundreds of authors that came after.