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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Moorcock’

The first of Moorcock’s Elric stories was published in 1961. Like many series of that era, it was not planned to be such. The stories were simply popular enough that editors asked for more, and Moorcock obliged. So the series unfolded as a sequence of novellas and novelettes in various genre magazines. These were stitched together into six novels and published in 1976-1977 by DAW Books. The books are Elric of Melnibone, Sailor on the Seas of Fate, The Weird of the White Wolf, The Sleeping Sorceress (a.k.a. The Vanishing Tower), Bane of the Black Sword, and Stormbringer.

Moorcock had started writing these stories in his twenties, a stage of life when young people often begin to confront deep questions like the meaning of life, whether the world is basically evil or basically good, and how (or indeed, whether) a well-intentioned person can navigate life’s challenges when it seems that all men are only out for themselves. The result of his meditation is a strong and unique statement that, even decades later, I don’t want to spoil.

Regardless of the shortcomings, some of which I mentioned in my last post, Moorcock’s doomed hero left an indelible mark on the genre. Some of the now-familiar themes Moorcock gave us include: intelligent, malevolent swords; sorcery as a grueling and visceral process; travel through dimensions and time; Law and Chaos as two competing pantheons who strive against each other for control of the universe. Echoes of Moorcock’s dark vision can still be heard in corners as diverse as George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, various incarnations of Dungeons and Dragons, and the anime series Full Metal Alchemist; Moorcock’s hero is likely the person Edward Elric is named after.

If you are a venturesome reader, someone who can tolerate a very different approach or appreciates the writing styles of a bygone era, give Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga a try. You won’t be disappointed.

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This summer I’ve been revisiting some of the books I read when I was in high school. Works that blew me away and made an indelible mark on the whole genre. And the first of these is Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga. These are the ultimate swords-and-sorcery novels, where a massively flawed hero strides a stunning (and sometimes bizarre) mythic landscape, battling both demons and humans who have given in to their baser natures.

The title character, Elric of Melnibone, is emperor of a mighty empire, founded on sorcery and the creed of seeking pleasure at any cost. (And preferably with others paying that cost.) He’s an albino, afflicted with weaknesses that leave him exhausted after modest physical effort unless he takes special drugs. Later editions have attempted to recast these as herbal remedies, but the edition I’ve been reading refers to them quite openly as drugs.

Elric is a misfit as emperor, not only because of his physical differences but because of his thoughtful nature. Most Melniboneans expect their emperor to rule with hideous cruelty; Elric actually studies tomes about how to rule with honor and compassion. Not surprisingly, one of his kinfolk decides he would make a better emperor — and the series takes flight from there.

Speaking of flight, dragons are part of the Melnibonean life and heritage. They were present on the island when the first Melniboneans arrived, 10,000 years before the saga’s opening. These mighty flyers had venom that caused everything it touched to burn. Yet the Melniboneans had entered into a pact with Arioch, Duke of Hell. In time they domesticated the dragons and used them as steeds to conquer the surrounding lands. In the first volume, Elric of Melnibone, one of Elric’s best friends is a dragon keeper. Flying on dragons is referred by as a popular pastime. Dragons are used in warfare, although they must rest in between battles. Also the crown Elric wears is in the shape of a black dragon, and his robes and armor at various times are decorated with dragon motifs.

It’s probably been 30 years since I first read these books. What surprises me, after so long, is how many things Moorcock does that writers today are told we should never, ever do. He opens the books with scenery. He talks directly to the audience. He tells instead of showing and uses really long sentences. Here’s the opening paragraph from the second novel, Sailor on the Seas of Fate:

“It was as if the man stood in a vast cavern whose walls and roof were comprised of gloomy, unstable colors which would occasionally break and admit rays of light from the moon. That these walls were mere clouds massed above mountains and ocean was hard to believe, for all that the moonlight pierced them, stained them, and revealed the black and turbulent sea washing the shore on which the man now stood.”

— See addendum below —

Wow, that’s a lot of words! In addition, racial and gender equality were not vital concerns. There are black characters, but mostly they’re brigands, and the few female characters are there only as bait or to be rescued. I say this not to chastise the writer — nobody in that era was worried about social justice — but because it seems jarring if you don’t expect it.

There’s a lot more to say about Elric… next time.

— Addendum —
As a comparison, here’s the opening paragraph from Jim Butcher’s Changes, a Harry Dresden novel published in 2010: “I answered the phone, and Susan Rodrigues said, ‘They’ve taken our daughter.'”

Totally different approach, isn’t it?

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