I’d been meaning to re-read some Elric for a little while, but a sort of readerly paralysis set in whenever I contemplated actually doing it. Not only were there the standard long-running-series-with-a-messy-publication-history questions of where to start and what order to read the stories in (I went for publication order, as I like to see how the writer develops, rather than the character), but there was the equally important question of where I could pause for breath, because I didn’t want to be reading back-to-back Elric for however long it took me to get through the saga. I don’t think my sanity could stand it.
In the end, I found I could divide the stories up, roughly, into three phases. First, there was the initial run in Science Fantasy magazine, from “The Dreaming City” in June 1961 to “Dead Lord’s Passing” in April 1964. That made for nine stories, collected in The Stealer of Souls (1963) and Stormbringer (1965), that took Elric from his definitive first adventure, where he leads a bunch of sea-reavers in the sacking of his home city of Imrryr, to his (chronologically) last adventure, with the destruction of himself and his entire world. Phase two was made up of the later 60s and 70s stories and novels that went back and filled in gaps in the saga, from the ones anthologised in US sword & sorcery paperbacks such as The Fantastic Swordsmen (1967), and the Flashing Swords (1973) series, through to Elric at the End of Time (1981). Then, in what is increasingly looking like an arbitrary division based around the ones I read early on versus the ones I still haven’t, phase three consists of what I still think of as the “new Elric novels”, beginning with The Fortress of the Pearl (1989), and on till whenever Moorcock finally, definitely, stops writing new Elric stories.
The series began when Ted Carnell asked the then-early-twenties Moorcock to write something in the vein of Conan for his UK Science Fantasy magazine. Moorcock was already interested in what he’d suggested calling “Epic fantasy” (a name he put forward in the Conan fanzine Amra, in May 1961) — to which Fritz Leiber countered with the winning formula, “sword-and-sorcery”.
Elric was conceived as a sort of antithesis to Conan. (In his introduction to the 2008 Del Rey collection, Elric: The Stealer of Souls, Moorcock said of these stories that they were “probably the first ‘interventions’ into the fantasy canon”, i.e., the first conscious attempts to deliberately play against genre conventions.) Where Conan was strong, Elric was weak. Where Conan lopped the heads off sorcerers, Elric was a sorcerer. Most of all, where Conan was a noble savage, and the embodiment of Robert E Howard’s beliefs in the vitality of the barbarian over the decadence of civilisation, Elric was a savage noble, decadent to the core. In my Mewsings on Conan, I put forward the idea that heroes like Howard’s are created to solve a problem: how to thrive in the worlds their creators made for them (and to answer the problems of the era the creator was living in). I thought of Conan as a sort of barbaric hit-back at Freud’s idea that, to live in modern times, people had to repress their savage id-born impulses and live in a state of constant, socialised repression. Conan (and Howard) had different ideas. The question, then, is what sort of a hero is Elric? What sort of a problem was he designed to solve, if any?
The first thing to say, though, is that it’s not really a case of Conan being strong, Elric being weak. Elric is physically weak, yes, but he has sorcery — and he has Stormbringer. Stormbringer is the essence of what makes Elric who he is. In his early writing on the character, Moorcock several times says that Stormbringer is a symbol of the physical and mental crutches we rely on, but that seems an inadequate explanation for something so rich in dark meaning. At times, Stormbringer seems like a drug metaphor (Elric’s dependence on it), at others a metaphor for the atom bomb (at one point it’s called “one of the mightiest weapons”). But basically, what it comes down to is pure, naked power. (As I keep saying on this blog, fantasy so often comes down to the theme of power.) Without Stormbringer, Elric is weak, but we’re all weak, really, so in this Elric is just a slightly exaggerated everyman. With Stormbringer, Elric becomes a crazed demon, suddenly able to give in freely to feelings of pitiless vengeance, inhuman cruelty, and the utter selfishness of not just profiting from others’ deaths, but feeding off their souls. Whatever his ideals when he’s not wielding the runeblade, Elric is a monster when he takes it up — to the point of, all too often, becoming so battle-drunk he only stops when he finds he’s skewered one of his allies, if not his closest friend or the woman he loves. Is this a picture of all human beings when they get too much power?
Between-times, Elric is a troubled soul, “a doom-driven adventurer who bore a crooning runeblade that he loathed.” As he confesses to Shaarilla of the Dancing Mist, one of many hapless characters who come asking for his help:
“I should admit that I scream in my sleep sometimes and am often tortured by incommunicable self-loathing.”
Elric, a Melnibonéan, is heir to “ten thousand years of a cruel, brilliant and malicious culture”, and though Moorcock tells us that Melnibonéans aren’t strictly human, Elric is still an everyman. Melniboné’s history of slavery, cruelty, and exotic perversity is just a fantasy exaggeration of our own. (We just didn’t have the dragons, sorcery, and demon-gods to take it that far, but if we had…)
Elric’s melancholic, bitter brooding could be taken, then, as only a slight exaggeration of what (to the young Moorcock, anyway) is the human condition:
“To him, life was chaotic, chance-dominated, unpredictable. It was a trick, an illusion of the mind, to be able to see a pattern to it.”
“I am the eternal skeptic—never sure that my actions are my own, never certain that an ultimate entity is not guiding me.”
“Look at me, Zarozinia—it is Elric, poor white chosen plaything of the Gods of Time—Elric of Melniboné who causes his own gradual and terrible destruction.”
(Despite Moorcock being quite vocal in his dislike of both Tolkien and Lovecraft, I was constantly reminded, throughout this re-read, of both. Pointy-eared, ultra-refined and ancient-cultured Elric, in being the last representative of a fading people, is just like Tolkien’s elves who are departing Middle Earth now their time is over. And something about Elric’s finicky, occasionally self-righteous, occasionally self-humbling, gloomy character is a little like Lovecraft’s — aside from Elric’s love of women, of course.)
The Elric stories (in this first phase, anyway), are pretty formulaic. Someone comes to Elric asking for help. He warns them not to get involved with him. They insist, and Elric finds something in it for himself, anyway. Then, the adventure underway, the air of creeping doom begins. Usually, at some point, Elric finds himself without his sword, reduced to a helpless weakling. Then he gets his sword back and the rebound launches him into ultra-violence mode, where he shears through metal, flesh, bone and brains, quite often invoking Arioch or some other demon-lord of Chaos for even greater depths of mayhem. Then, when the dust settles, the irony sets in. Whatever it was that was wanted turns out to be worthless, and the price paid for it in human lives too heavy for such a mocking return. Elric bemoans his condition, and the story ends.
Another thing to say about the stories is they have almost no narrative logic. They certainly have very little suspense or dramatic tension. Even when Elric is swordless and helpless in his enemy’s hands, those enemies can always be relied on to fail to deal with him properly — in one case (“The Stealer of Souls”) just letting him go after making him promise not to kill them. When Moorcock introduces a major series character — Moonglum, say, or Zarozinia — Elric just bumps into them, helps them out of a small scrape, then they join him for the rest of the series. There’s no attempt to merge their introduction into the main thrust of the story they’re in, or give them the sort of motive they’d really need to join forces with such a locus of doom. As the series progresses, Moorcock seems to get impatient with the need to move his characters around the world he’s created for them, and brings on magical horses who can just gallop anywhere — over sea, land, chaos, anything. (And, as I said about J K Rowling when opening my Harry Potter re-read, there’s no sense that Moorcock has worked out his “rules” for magic. The only rule for magic in the Elric stories is: the bigger, the weirder, the darker, the nastier, the stranger, the better.) Once the battle with chaos is really underway, Elric’s world increasingly turns into this roiling mass of chaotic stuff spewing out weird enemies for Elric to fight — which, in a sense, is what his world was all along.
What the stories do have, though, is an incredible capacity to deliver startling images, characters, creatures, entities, scenes, even entire worlds. The lack of narrative logic just doesn’t matter, because there’s always another weird, darkly poetic, or doom-ishly symbolic scene to witness. I was surprised to find out, first of all, how many characters, scenes, monsters and demons I remembered vividly (Meerclar of the Cats, Count Smiorgan Baldhead) who, on this re-read, proved to be there only briefly, or, in the case of what I thought were series characters, only for one story (as with Theleb K’aarna and Queen Yishana, though she has a brief return appearance).
Moorcock has this incredibly archetypal imagination — something underlined by how his characters prove to be, in the long run, avatars of archetypal forms such as the Eternal Champion, or the City of Tanelorn, which (if I remember rightly) has some sort of presence in every one of Moorcock’s multiversal worlds.
And this may be part of what made the Elric stories so successful. They make no sense, but they’re full of weird wonders. They’re so psychedelic, and arrived just in time for the countercultural 60s to kick off.
So what is the hero, Elric, doing, what problem is he solving? I don’t think, in the end, he’s like Conan in that sense. Elric doesn’t solve any problems, not by offering a viable counter-idea, anyway. He’s there to represent a state of mind, to bemoan his existential condition, to question the gods — to question if there are gods — to question fate — to question if there is a fate — and then to unleash insane levels of chaotic violence to wipe everything clean, as some ultimate expression of dissatisfaction with the whole setup. Only, with no sense that this is the end, merely a pause before it all starts again.
In a 1963 article, Moorcock called the Elric stories “sword-and-philosophy” tales, rather than sword-and-sorcery, but is this true? Yes, Moorcock presents us with what seems like an advance on the traditional good-versus-evil idea, with his eternal conflict between Law and Chaos — though he adds other forces, like the Balance, Fate, and Nature, too, which seem to be able to override Law and Chaos, or at least meet them with equal power. But in a sense the terms used don’t matter. What there is is conflict, raging above our human heads, and of its true nature, we cannot know:
“Who can know why the Cosmic Balance exists, why Fate exists and the Lords of the Higher Worlds? Why there must always be a champion to fight such battles? There seems to be an infinity of space and time and possibilities. There may be an infinite number of beings, one above the other, who see the final purpose, though, in infinity, there can be no final purpose. Perhaps all is cyclic and this same event will occur again and again until the universe is run down and fades away as the world we knew has faded. Meaning, Elric? Do not seek that, for madness lies in such a course.”
Is Elric, then, a sort of Sisyphus, wiping out the whole confusing, doom-laden, mocking malarky — ending the conflict through the overriding power of his Black Blade — only to find it coming back, time and time again? Moorcock says he’d been reading the French existentialists around the time of writing the Elric stories, and to Camus’s idea that we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy, Moorcock might be saying, “Yeah, but just wait till you put a demonic runeblade in his hands, you’ll find out how happy he is.”
Elric, I think, isn’t (like Conan) the embodiment of a solution to the world’s problems. He’s more a protest against them. He’s an existential Everyman, and his lack of a viable worldview, his eternal search for ever-elusive peace (in Tanelorn, in the arms of Zarozinia, or in a sardonic acceptance of his doomed-laden fate) in a roiling world of turmoil, conflict, and uncertainty, is part of the picture. His only “solution” is to lash out at it all and silence the turmoil (only ever temporarily) with one screeching slash of a soul-sucking demon sword:
“The gods experiment, the Cosmic Balance guides the destiny of the Earth, men struggle and credit the gods with knowing why they struggle—but do the gods know?”
No, Elric, they don’t. But keep on slashing, all the same.