Michael Moorcock – Elric of Melniboné: The Elric Saga, Vol. 1 (review)

Comprising:

  • Elric of Melniboné (1972)
  • The Fortress of the Pearl (1989)
  • The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976)
  • The Weird of the White Wolf (1977)

7.5/10  – A rather exhaustive, rambly review:

Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories are recognised as an essential work of the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, alongside Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Frits Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series. But Elric is actually in opposition to sword-and-sorcery in its older, classical sense; it is written as a negative image of Howard’s Conan. Moorcock was engaged in an act of radical subversion and produced a series that was, at the time, something unique. Something new and inspirational. By now, it seems old and quaint and very much like many other fantasy series that were written since, which have actually been inspired by Moorcock. 

Consider Elric. He is a complex character, and often weak. A sickly albino who needs sorcery to stand upright. He rules the old kingdom of Melniboné, which is an ancient kingdom of arrogant Elvish shitheads; a kingdom of merciless sorcerer kings who are used to enslave people and perform bloody rituals. Elric is different. As a sickly child he read a lot instead of playing with weapons. He feels compassion. He believes that power does not equate to ruthless displays of violence. He could conquer all the human lands as a violent dictator but chooses not to, and the rest of his court looks down on him for that. We also learn that Elric has a doom hanging over him. He will slay his beloved and be the cause of the downfall of Melniboné, but let’s be honest, who will miss that pit of vipers? This is the opposite of the glorification of power and masculinity that is Conan, and the opposite of Tolkien’s noble elves. 

But Moorcock’s saga is more than just anti-Conan. One reason why it has been so influential is because Moorcock’s fantasy dimensions aren’t simply about struggles of good versus evil; they exist on another existential plane of morality. Elric feels guilt, and recognises that feeling as new and alien to the world. His universe is changing and that includes the new emotion of guilt and that will be part of Melniboné’s downfall. And why is it changing? Because of the eternal struggle between Law and Chaos, and Elric is a conduit for maintaining the balance between these forces in his world. This was a new, fresh concept, different from the old struggle of good versus evil, and has since been used also in Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber and Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and let’s not forget Moorcock’s Multiverse idea, which also finds its reflections in Zelazny’s and Erikson’s work, as if we could draw a straight line of inspiration and development from Moorcock through these other series.

(As an aside, Steven Erikson even has a homage to Elric walking around in his Malazan series, under the name of Anomander Rake. Rake even has a magical sword that drinks the souls of those it slays, just like Elric’s sword Stormbringer. Erikson says that he never read Moorcock’s series, but the co-creator of the Malazan world, Ian C. Esslemont, has. And where the Malazan series has warrens as other dimensions, the Elric Saga has planes. The first plane Elric visits is a shadow plane. And I suspect that there is influence from table-top roleplaying games. Elric is constantly imbibing potions and his adventures probably had influence on the development of roleplaying games, and Erikson’s Malazan series started out as a roleplaying game before he wrote it down. And, what about the Valyrians in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire? Is the Doom of Valyria and its dragon riders not similar to the doom of Melniboné, the Dragon Isle? Elric, with his white hair and red eyes, the Valyrians, with their white hair and violet eyes?)

The internal chronology and publication history of the Elric stories are exceedingly confusing, so much so that this Volume 1 has a 20 page reader’s guide at the end that only serves to confuse even more. Anyway, most of the original Elric material was written in the 1960s as a series of novellas that were later stitched together to make novels. And this first novel of the volume, Elric of Melniboné (1972), is not one of those. It was written afterwards as a prequel to those novellas and so is placed first in internal chronology. I hope you are still with me. Forget everything I just said and just read these Elric Saga volumes in order and it will be ok. Professionals have thought long and hard on this, I’m sure.

Elric of Melniboné (1972) introduces Elric while he is still emperor on the Ruby Throne and finds his sword Stormbringer. For those who like to see some actual fantasy in their fantasy, the Elric books are satisfyingly stuffed with gods, high gods, elementals, other planes of existence, time travel, demons, sorcerers and dragons. Moorcock’s writing style is easy to read but also a bit formal and expository. It reads as older, straightforward sword-and-sorcery with simple, episodic storytelling, but every time I fear that the story gets too simple or superficial, Moorcock surprises me. The scenes always serve more than one purpose and that is a sign of more complex storytelling. Action scenes are never just about the action itself, but also about Elric’s self-exploration, about the betrayals around him and about the slow downfall of his race. It reads more like a New-Wave ode to old pulp adventure stories than actual pulp itself. It takes up all the surface features of that subgenre while being just a little bit more complex. Moreover, it is a bit tongue-in-cheek about the old styles that it affects. Moorcock plays with anticipation by giving his chapters old-fashioned descriptive titles, and he handles some tropes with a little bit of irony. 

Elric is a compelling character. He’s introspective, quickly affected by moods, and being the only one of his race with a conscience he is trying to discover what that in fact means. He’s trying to pin down a philosophy for himself. It’s more important to him than the future of the Melniboneans. He’s also a doomed hero, not really an anti-hero but one doomed to suffer and leave destruction in his wake, which presses on his soul. He exists in a tension between making the right choices and doing what he does to survive. David Bowie would have been great casting for an adaptation. Elric’s “quest” is to understand mercy and to explore whether Melnibone can become a force for good in the world. I know of no other epic fantasy hero who sets out into the world to explore such ends. 

At the same time, he needs a therapist. Elric is awfully quick to consign himself to death. I had to laugh; in the first book Elric slips and falls into a swamp up to his waist. And his immediate reaction is: “Leave me brother. I am dying. You have to give up on me my friend.” It’s only waist deep for Christ sake. Book two opens with Elric lying exhausted on a bed and his inner monologue comes down to “I’m so tired, I guess I’ll just die now. Won’t be long before it happens.” Book three opens with the end of a high-speed chase and Elric decides to go to sleep, concluding that “This is the end for me, I guess. I don’t care if they find me. I’m gonna lay down. Better to be killed in my sleep.” He’s so depressed.

The Fortress of the Pearl (1989) was written 17 years later in 1989 and therefore sticks out like a sore thumb in this collection. I don’t mean that as criticism but there is a difference in style between this one and the other novels. Moorcock’s writing is more polished, more philosophical, Elric’s inner thoughts are worked out in more detail and in general the novel takes more time to tell its story. This is all for the better as it adds substance to Elric’s character, which we then take with us as we dive into the higher pace of the next two novels.

The main quest of The Fortress of the Pearl could be inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy as Elric travels through layers of dream realms. More accurately would be a comparison with James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen, as Elric confronts his lost loves and dreams. Dream-quests always suffer from the fact that anything seems to be possible and the journeys have no bearing on the outside world of the story. I am not a fan of them. But a positive effect is that we get an even deeper understanding of Elric’s personality. At his side is Oone, an intelligent and competent woman who is a good partner for Elric and as a female character she’s stronger than you would usually encounter in the sword and sorcery genre.

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976). The book with the best title, and the best book in the collection as well. This is where Moorcock dives deeply into his Multiverse idea and as a book it is quite unique in the fantasy genre. Moorcock uses the trappings of sword and sorcery but knots something wholly new out of it. 

Elric embarks on three journeys; one towards the future, which is dreamlike and Elric learns about his role as Eternal Champion; one towards the present, which is fairytale-like and one towards the past, which is an adventurous travelogue in which Elric learns about the past of his own people. On the first journey he joins three other heroes, Corum, Hawkmoon and Erekose, all from other universes and also from other series by Moorcock. They are all aspects of the Eternal Champion, including Elric.

On the face of it, these are just three simple short stories stitched together, but we get glimpses of the larger narrative of the Eternal Champion and of the Melniboneans. That is what I like about Moorcock’s series: it is not just one short story after another, but there is a world being built up that is far greater even than the Elric series itself, and Moorcock keeps adding parts about Elric’s past and about his moral journey. Every time that I fear that I’m reading just another random sword and sorcery story, Moorcock makes it a little bit more interesting than I expected.

The Weird of the White Wolf (1977). The whole tale of jealousy, love, hate and vengeance comes to a tragic end. Dragons and fireballs aplenty, in case you were missing them. For Elric, it is not the end, but a time of violent and tragic transformation. This book is again made up of three short stories stitched together, and the dramatic climax happens in the first, so that the rest of the book feels like an extended epilogue. The structure of the novel therefore feels a bit off, and the second and third short stories lack some originality. 

Final Thoughts

Moorcock’s writing is competent throughout, but a bit bland. The stories move episodically from action point to action point, making for predictable tension arcs, and are communicated through language that is adequate but never truly beautiful. All this kept me from feeling totally engrossed in the stories and characters, and sometimes made me feel that the stories were only going through the motions. Elric is interesting as a concept but not always interesting to read about, as there is a lot of repetition in the text about his state of mind. What I appreciate is that there is an overarching narrative and a form of continuity spanning over all the novels, but it is sketchily worked out with sudden jumps from location to location and holes in the timeline.

I can’t rate these books higher than a 7.5 out of ten for these reasons, although I’d like to up the rating because Moorcock has tons of interesting ideas. The conceptual framework around these stories is fascinating and changed the genre, but the writing and storytelling lacked flair. And then to think that these stories are already so famous and influential just in the way they are written now. Imagine what a true classic this would have been, had Moorcock’s writing been just a little less bland and messy. We can thank the strength of his ideas for doing the heavy lifting for this series. 

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9 Responses to Michael Moorcock – Elric of Melniboné: The Elric Saga, Vol. 1 (review)

  1. piotrek says:

    Moorcock does not get enough attention, for someone that influential. I often disagree with him, but his “Wizardry & Wild Romance” is an important manifesto… he’s a very smart writer, very self-aware, but I have to agree his writing and storytelling are not as good as his ideas. Maybe that’s why I’ve only read bits and pieces, despite having most of his main books on my shelves… thanks for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Piotrek! I have actually read very little of Moorcock’s writings, and I want to remedy that in the coming year. I haven’t read his essays either, but I know that he has some influential ones. There is a second Elric volume still waiting for me, and I am interested in The Dancers at the End of Time, and maybe Corum and Hawkmoon. We’ll see.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bookstooge says:

    Personally, I would read his Elric stuff in publication order. So Elric Saga Vol 1 would only contain the 3 stories first written. Then Vol 2 contains the next 3 stories and then volume 3+ contain whatever noxious crap Moorcock decided to cook up after the fact.

    I’m a big fan of the original 6 novellas about Elric. From his birth to his death. Everything else Moorcock wrote after the fact doesn’t fit and while it might have made diehard fans happy, for purists like me, they are to be avoided at all costs.

    Moorcock is also pretty blatant about trying to destroy Tolkien’s idea of Good and Evil in fantasy with his weak ass duological Law & Chaos. I’ve read enough of Moorcock to know that I like his early stuff but his later stuff not at all.

    Good luck on your own journey. The Eternal Warrior has many aspects…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Bookstooge! Yes, I’m also interested in only the original, old Elric stuff and I have no interest in the newest material. I won’t buy the third volume, but the second one ends with Stormbringer and I heard that that makes for a conclusion of his story. The Fortress of the Pearl was not a bad addition in this volume, by the way.

      The law and chaos thing, Moorcock can’t help but display the lords of chaos as destructive demons, so unconsciously he is still making a value judgment about good versus evil. Chaos is just another stand in for evil, at least in these first books.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. bormgans says:

    Is this the go to Moorcock? Never read him…

    Liked by 1 person

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