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.

You’re All Alone/The Sinful Ones by Fritz Leiber

The Sinful Ones, Pocket Books, cover by Michael Whelan

What if the universe was one big machine, and human beings merely parts of it, unconsciously playing their roles, day in, day out? And what if, one day, you stepped out of the machine? This is the idea behind what Fritz Leiber called “the unluckiest, the most ill-starred and dogged by misfortune” of his novels, which he began, as You’re All Alone, in 1943.

The story starts with Carr Mackay, working in the General Employment office in Chicago, matching interviewees with likely jobs. One day, he notices a frightened-looking young woman sit down in the waiting area, followed shortly by an impressive-looking blonde (“If ever there was a woman who gave the impression of simply using people, of using the world, this was she.”). The blonde stands in front of the young woman, staring at her, but the young woman does her best to pretend she can’t see her. Eventually, the young woman walks over and sits the other side of Carr’s desk, but when he starts to talk to her, she at first ignores him. When she realises he is actually talking to her, she’s at first even more frightened, saying to him, “Don’t you know what you are?” Refusing to explain, she leaves, but, as she’s on the way out, the blonde comes over and slaps her in the face, so loud that everyone in the office would surely have heard. But nobody reacts, and the girl simply leaves the office as though nothing has happened.

What’s happened, though, is that Carr has just had the first hint that he’s “awakened” — that he’s stepped out of the big machine. Both the blonde (Miss Hackman) and the frightened young woman (Jane Gregg) are awakened, and because they’ve left their usual places in the machine, nobody else can see them — unawakened people continue to react to where the person would have been if they’d kept playing their part — which is why Jane is surprised when Carr speaks to her, and also why she pretended not to see the blonde, or react when she slapped her. Miss Hackman is part of a small gang of individuals who go around taking advantage of their awakened state, having cruel fun with the helpless unawakened, and occasionally, even more cruelly, forcing awake a chosen victim to really get down to some torture and domination. But the awakened gang are also scared of other awakened people, who might spoil their fun, so they have to be sure who’s awakened and who’s not. Hence Miss Hackman’s testing of Jane by slapping her in the face — an unawakened person wouldn’t react, so Jane does her best not to. It’s her only way to stay safe.

Universal Publishers and Distributors’s version, two great new books under one cover

Leiber’s idea was perfect for the sort of high-concept playful fantasy published by Unknown magazine — which was the only market he thought would take it. So, when he wrote the first four chapters and sent them to Unknown’s editor, John Campbell, hoping for an okay to continue, he was crushed to find that, because of wartime paper shortages, the magazine was to cease publication. With no other possible market, he put the unfinished novel aside. He took it up again at the end of World War II, having heard of a firm that — uniquely, for the time — were interested in publishing fantasy fiction in hardcover. But, after a couple of failures, the publisher gave up on the idea, so Leiber just had his agent (fellow author Frederick Pohl) hawk the book around, and went through the usual business of collecting rejections. Pohl suggested Leiber try it with Fantastic Adventures magazine, who accepted it, provided he cut the 75,000 word novel to 40,000. Instead of cutting it, though, Leiber took the bold step of going back to his initial four chapters and rewriting the story from there, as he would have, had Unknown been interested in taking it, back in 1943. The result was published as a novella, You’re All Alone, in July 1950. But the novel-length version was still being sent around, and that, too, found a publisher. It was bought by Universal Publishers and Distributors, who retitled it (The Sinful Ones), spiced up the love scenes, added lurid chapter titles (like “The Shimmering Garment”, “Bleached Prostitute”, and “Gigolo’s Home” — Gigolo, in the book, is a cat) and issued it twinned with a novel about a female bullfighter, called Blood, Bulls, and Passion.

Things got more complicated still when, in the 1970s, Leiber was approached by Ace Books, who wanted to reprint You’re All Alone. Leiber felt he ought to get the permission of his Sinful Ones publisher, and found he could buy the rights back. So he did, and You’re All Alone was published, along with a couple of other stories, to make it a reasonable length book, in 1972. Then Pocket Books got interested in reprinting The Sinful Ones, so Leiber, finding the previous publisher’s spicy bits pretty dated, went through the book and rewrote them. The Sinful Ones came out in this version in 1980, meaning there were now two versions of the same-but-differently-written Leiber story on the market.

So, knowing this and wanting to read it, what did I do? I read them both.

Fantastic Adventures, July 1950, art by Robert Gibson Jones. The dog becomes a black cheetah in The Sinful Ones.

Of the two, I preferred the shorter version, You’re All Alone. I can’t help feeling Leiber was a bit freer when writing for a pulp magazine than for hardcover publication. The novella has more linguistic playfulness and flights of fancy, of the sort I associate with Leiber’s better writing, including a dream in which Carr sees himself as a puppet freeing itself from its strings, and a brief daydream in which he thinks of himself and Jane as a prince and princess escaping the clutches of an evil archduke — neither being essential to the plot, but certainly giving it some imaginative spice. Oddly, for a shorter version, You’re All Alone actually contains more information about the characters and their backgrounds and world, perhaps because Leiber felt that, with fewer words available, he ought to be more direct. And so it’s made pretty clear early on exactly what sort of nastiness Miss Hackman and company are up to, and how it is, basically, sexually motivated. (The luridly named Sinful Ones, on the other hand, despite having “spicier” scenes — of which the main one felt pretty much shoehorned in, to me — doesn’t make it as clear what the gang is doing and why.) Also, one key character gets to tell his story in You’re All Alone, but is left a mystery in The Sinful Ones, to the latter novel’s detriment. Overall, The Sinful Ones (which I read first) feels a bit more poetic, having more passages about Carr’s horror at the idea of the universe being just one giant machine, but the plot lacks pace, and the poetry doesn’t quite make up for the lack of plot. The Sinful Ones adds a mysterious character at the end, Old Jules, who hints at a change taking place in the world, so perhaps Leiber was hoping he’d be asked to write a sequel, but, read as it is, I preferred You’re All Alone.

Leiber’s novel could be seen as addressing the same sort of ideas as the likes of Camus and Sartre, in their early works written around the same time. When Carr thinks of what he now knows about the universe and feels a “formless dread that kept surging through you until you almost wanted to retch”, he could be talking about Sartre’s term for existential dread, “nausea”, particularly as this dread is associated with the idea of the universe being “a place of mystification and death, with no more feeling than a sausage grinder for the life oozing through it”, and Carr’s fellow humans as being little more than automatons:

“Couldn’t robots perform the much over-rated ‘business of living’ just as well?”

At other times, it feels like the sort of cosmicism Lovecraft (with whom Leiber corresponded, briefly) wrote about:

The universe was a machine. The people in it, save for a very few, were mindless mechanisms, clockwork things of flesh and bone. So long as you made the proper clockwork motions, they seemed to react intelligently. But when you stopped, they went on just the same.”

And I’m sure that lover/hater of dark cities Lovecraft would have responded well to Leiber’s description of Carr’s Chicago as a “Dead city in a dead universe”:

“Teeming Chicago was a city of the dead, the mindless, the inanimate, in which you were more alone than in the most desolate wilderness.”

Which also reminds me a bit of Eliot’s “Unreal city” of post-war London in The Waste Land, with its “I had not thought death had undone so many”.

But Leiber’s take on the idea is, ultimately, very un-Lovecraftian. Lovecraft, for instance, surely couldn’t have let the “big machine” idea go without at least some dark hints as to what sort of inhuman entity was behind it all, and for what dark purposes human beings were employed as its parts. Leiber has one brief passage in which Carr wonders about the philosophical implications:

“Have machines infected men, turning them into things like themselves? Or has man’s belief in a completely materialistic universe made it just that? Or… has the world always been this way — just a meaningless mechanical toy?”

But mostly he’s dealing with another aspect of the idea, and a far more human one. Jane, at one point, sums up both her and Carr’s experience when she says:

“Other people weren’t alive, really alive, like you were. You were all alone.”

You’re All Alone, Ace Books, cover art by Victoria Poyser. Here we see the black cheetah from The Sinful Ones, even though it’s a hound in You’re All Alone

“Awakening” isn’t about becoming aware of the true nature of the universe, but looking around at one’s fellow human beings and realising there’s a uncrossable gulf between you and them. They might as well be dead to you, or be unfeeling robots. So what do you do? Retreat back into the machine and pretend to go along, eking out your life in fear of discovery while always being alone? Or do what Miss Hackman’s gang do, abandon human feeling altogether and get your kicks in as cruel a way as possible, while you can? (Or even what Carr’s “unawakened” girlfriend, Marcia, does, who likes to “agonize” her men — i.e., play power games with them.) Carr finally finds his answer in Jane, a person who’s had the same experience as him, and so who lives in the same emotional world as him. Leiber’s answer — not a solution to the universe-as-machine, but a way to stay human and live through it — is love. As he says in one of the little teaser passages he adds at the start of the chapters of the novella version:

“Love doesn’t make the world go round, but it sure puts a spark of life in the big engine.”

Leiber used the same basic idea of the world as a machine in much shorter form in the story “The Big Engine”, which was published in Galaxy magazine in February 1962, and which can be read at Project Gutenberg. (And he seems to have incorporated that story, in part, into The Sinful Ones, as Old Jules’s speech near the end of the book, which perhaps means Leiber did more than just a few edits to the book before its republication.)

In all, a book with a complex publishing history and several finished versions. Not Leiber’s best, but an interesting read all the same. (And an early version of the same sort of idea behind 1999’s — coincidentally, the number of words in this blog post — The Matrix.) There are reviews of The Sinful Ones and You’re All Alone at the Lankhmar Fritz Leiber site.