Elric: The Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock

Art by Jack Gaughan

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.

Amra, May 1961, cover by Roy Krenkel

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?

Art by Michael Whelan

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.)

Elric as he first appeared on the cover of Science Fantasy, June 1961. Art by Brian Lewis. (From Andrew Darlington’s blog.)

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.

James Cawthorn’s cover to the first HB of Stormbringer

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.

Art by Jack Gaughan

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.”

Moorcock, happy as Elric… NOT! (Image from The Stormbringer Fandom Page.)

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.

Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter

Penguin 1988 cover by James Marsh

A few Mewsings ago, I reviewed H M Hoover’s Morrow books, in the first of which a pair of children living in a semi-barbarous, post-apocalyptic society escape to the more technologically advanced society of Morrow. In Angela Carter’s (not YA) Heroes and Villains (1969), the opposite happens. Carter’s heroine Marianne (a young woman rather than a child) leaves her home community, a fenced-in remnant of the pre-“blast” civilisation dwelling in the buildings that survived this particular future’s apocalypse — mostly farmers and soldiers with the added “intellectual luxury of a few Professors who corresponded by the trading convoys” — for the wastelands, in the company of a barbarian man, Jewel. Whereas Hoover’s Tia and Rabbit leave because of their telepathic abilities and outsider status, Marianne goes because she’s bored with the possibilities offered to her by her society. She’s always been drawn to the barbarians — by their freedom, their vivacity, their bright colours. In Carter’s post-apocalyptic future, it’s the technological society that’s the most repressive (the soldiers are “developing an autonomous power of their own”, and look set to take over once the last few Professors die out). The barbarians can afford to be more free — in part because they live by raiding the farmers every so often — but are nevertheless beset by disease, physical ailments, and, crucially for Marianne, superstition. Hoover’s Tia left “the Base” because they thought she was a witch; arriving at Jewel’s people’s latest home, Marianne finds herself believed to be a witch, too, and doesn’t even have Tia’s witchy telepathic abilities to make up for it.

Carter, though, is less interested in the differences between the two types of communities, as to the dichotomy Marianne is caught by throughout the book, two poles she can’t escape because she carries them within herself, and often finds difficult to tell apart: desire and need.

Beardsleyesque Graham Percy cover

Jewel takes Marianne to his people, currently living in a large, semi-ruined house beyond the swamps and forests that surround her former home. There, she meets Mrs Green, the tribe’s matriarch, herself an escapee from the world of the Professors. Mrs Green is motherly, and treats everyone as though they were just big children, which, in a sense, they are. But these barbarians also have a dark father-figure in the shape of Doctor Donnelly, a former Professor who, “bored” and “ambitious”, went out into the world and, Kurtz-like, turned himself into a shaman and holy man for this tribe, frightening, guiding, and controlling them with his fits, his visions, and his stuffed snake. He feels like a character that’s appeared in the other Carter novels I’ve read (though quite some time ago), the puppeteer/shop-owner of The Magic Toyshop and the titular doctor from The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann. Unpredictable, entirely self-serving, helping Marianne one moment, plotting to poison her the next, Donnelly is undoubtedly the book’s liveliest character, also its most dangerous. He instructs and warns Marianne through a series of slogans daubed above his door, most of which are nonsense, but one of which is:

“OUR NEEDS BEAR NO RELATION TO OUR DESIRES”

Pocket Books PB, cover by Gene Szafran

Marianne is obviously drawn to Jewel, but not quite enough to want to stay with him. When she attempts to escape (after Jewel’s brothers threaten to rape her) Jewel tracks her down and rapes her himself. She’s then brought back to the house and told she’s going to marry Jewel, even though his people are all convinced Marianne is a witch and ought to be burned. (Motherly Mrs Green’s sympathies are all with her boy, Jewel, who she felt had no choice but to do what he did.) Marianne and Jewel spend the rest of the novel alternately hating and needing one another, hurting and healing one another, breaking up and coming together, giving in to each other one moment, struggling and fighting the next. For most of its second half, Heroes and Villains is like being forced to witness the often verging-on-violence tussles of a quarrelsome couple who can’t live together but can’t live apart either. Morrowian telepathy might help, but I can’t help feeling, in Carter’s world, it would only make things worse, as the real battle is within each character, with their own human nature. Carter’s post-blast future is not, like The Death of Grass or Day of the Triffids, an exploration of how easily civilisation might give way to barbarism; it’s more about how the world changes when you grow up and leave the (here) boring world of childhood for the dangerous and never-satisfying world of adulthood, and meet with only frustration, pain, and more boredom:

“Boredom and exhaustion conspired to erode her formerly complacent idea of herself. She could find no logic to account for her presence nor for that of the people around her nor any familiar, sequential logic at all in this shifting world; for that consciousness of reason in which her own had ripened was now withering away and she might soon be prepared to accept, since it was coherent, whatever malign structure of the world with which the shaman who rode the donkey should one day choose to present her.”

And at the heart of it, that constant inner struggle between desire and need:

“Night came; that confusion between need and desire against which she had been warned consumed her. If it was only that she desired him, then it became a simple situation which she could perfectly resolve while continuing to despise him. But if he was necessary to her, that constituted a wholly other situation which raised a constellation of miserable possibilities each one indicating that, willy nilly, she would be changed.”

It’s evident Marianne will never decide one way or the other. She and Jewel sometimes fit each other’s desires, sometimes fit each other’s needs, but rarely for long or at the same time. It’s all rather despairing (“There’s nowhere to go, dear,” said the Doctor. “If there was, I would have found it.”) — and not because this is a post-apocalyptic, ruined version of our world, but because it’s an emotional picture of the world as it can be now, if you’re caught between incompatible desires and needs, and perhaps trapped in a marriage you sometimes want and sometimes hate. The post-apocalyptic wasteland just exists to add that note of hardly-necessary hopelessness to an already hopeless domestic situation. As Mrs Green says:

“It’d be hell with your Dr Donnelly running everything, real hell, no respect for the old or nothing. Only tortures, mutilations and displays of magic.”

I can’t help feeling, though, that Dr Donnelly is running the world in Heroes and Villains, or at least his approach is the only one that works. He’s given up all attempt at being rational and consistent, and has embraced a sort of wilful madness. As a child, Marianne lived in a world of carefully-protected reason; bored with that (and after the death of her father) she left it, to find that nothing would ever be the same again:

“When I was a little girl, we played at heroes and villains but now I don’t know which is which any more… Because nobody can teach me which is which or who is who because my father is dead.”

So, the comparison with H M Hoover’s Children of Morrow is less about the two authors’ ideas on technological as opposed to barbaric societies, and more about differing complexities in their characters’ inner worlds, the simplicity (or not) of their needs and desires, the difference, perhaps, between childhood’s easy answers and adulthood’s impossible questions.

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

It’s the 1920s and the Mayor of New Orleans, sitting in his office with a good-time girl on his lap, is interrupted by a phone call:

“Harry, you’d better get down here quick. What was once dormant is now a Creeping Thing.”

The “Creeping Thing” is no Lovecraftian entity but a phenomenon called Jes Grew. Arriving at a church that has rapidly been converted into an infirmary, the Mayor learns what’s been happening:

“We got reports from down here that people were doing “stupid sensual things”, were in a state of “uncontrollable frenzy”, were wiggling like fish, doing something called the “Eagle Rock” and the “Sassy Bump”; were cutting a mean “Mooche” and “lusting after relevance.””

Jes Grew — whose name comes from a quote from James Weldon Johnson, “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, “jes’ grew”” — is an outbreak of dancing and having a good time, a “psychic epidemic”, a “mighty influence” that “knows no class no race no consciousness”:

“For some, it’s a disease, a plague, but in fact it is an anti-plague.”

Those who see it as “a disease, a plague” are what are known in the novel as Atonists, and they are the ones who are in power in 1920s America. Self-appointed guardians of Western Culture, they are only interested in the dominance and preservation of their monoculture. Jes Grew represents everything that monoculture isn’t:

“…the ancient Vodun aesthetic: pantheistic, becoming, 1 which bountifully permits 1000s of spirits, as many as the imagination can hold.”

In short:

“Individuality. It couldn’t be herded, rounded-up…”

First published in 1972, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is a gleeful mix of conspiracy theories, gangster movies, Voodoo magic, and metaphorical history, very much of the same feel as Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s later Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), which quotes Reed’s book on its title page. Both are clearly products of the 1960’s revolutions in political thinking, consciousness expansion and narrative technique, but whereas Shea and Wilson’s book is (as far as I remember) much more purely a fantasy, Reed’s is grounded in a very real moment of cultural emancipation, the flourishing of African American culture, particularly jazz and blues, between World War I and the Great Depression. (The latter engineered, in Mumbo Jumbo, by the Atonist secret society the Wallflower Order, in a final attempt to kill the free-for-all self-expression of Jes Grew.)

There’s very little on-screen (on-page?) dancing, though, as the narrative focuses on the conflict between Atonist secret societies (the Wallflower Order and, inevitably, the Knights Templar) who want to kill Jes Grew, and those few among the African American communities who realise what’s going on and take steps to try to ensure Jes Grew’s success. Among the latter are Papa LaBas, a “noonday HooDoo, fugitive-hermit, obeah-man, botanist, animal impersonator, 2-headed man, You-Name-It”, and his former colleague Berbalang, who now heads the “Mu’tafikah”, a group dedicated to liberating cultural artefacts from museums and centres of “Art Detention”, returning them to their originating cultures.

Central to the conflict is “the Text”, located in New York, which Jes Grew needs in order to survive, and perhaps transform itself into something of even greater power:

“If it could not find its Text then it would be mistaken for entertainment.”

This “Text” is an anthology of ancient writings that relate the dance crazes of Jes Grew to fertility rites first enacted in Ancient Egypt by Osiris, and opposed by the first Atonist, Set. (Something that ties the novel up with Jessie Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance, which I reviewed not too long ago. Though, in Mumbo Jumbo, the Grail, conjuring associations of “Teutonic Knights” and the Western Christian monoculture, is made to feel more like an Atonist symbol of control than, as Weston would have it, a link to those same fertility rituals.)

The great thing about Reed’s novel is that it’s such a lively, fun read. It doesn’t just defend and celebrate the idea of self-expression and cultural freedom, it enacts it. The storytelling is jazzy in feel, full of swift changes, improvisations, riffs on an idea, and quick-fire allusions — but always tight and alive, never dull or repetitive. Speech gets no quotes, the word “one” is always rendered “1”, there are occasional photographs and illustrations, real figures from history turn up to mix with the fictional, there’s a lecture on Western history, there’s an extract from a fake epic poem, and the novel begins before its own copyright page.

There’s something about this form of narrative that clearly emerges from countercultures — Grant Morrison’s end-of-millennium comic The Invisibles is a similar “all conspiracy theories are true, all magic works” world — which attempts to destabilise monocultural ideas at the same time it destabilises readers’ minds. Mumbo Jumbo, though, never feels like it’s being intentionally post-modern and never feels like a difficult read; its experimentalism comes across as a genuine emanation of its belief in freedom of expression, something coming from the same source as the culture it celebrates — the playful, soulful, dazzling improvisations of jazz, all riding upon the despair and longing of blues.

I first heard about Mumbo Jumbo from a review last year in The Guardian, when the book was reissued in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic.