Michael Moorcock – Stormbringer: The Elric Saga, Vol. 2 (Review)

Comprising:

  • The Vanishing Tower (1971)
  • The Revenge of the Rose (1991)
  • The Bane of the Black Sword (1977)
  • Stormbringer (1965)

Some general remarks first

For a fuller introduction of Moorcock’s Elric stories, I’d like to refer you to my review of the first volume: Elric of Melnibone, the Elric Saga, Vol. 1. Much of what I said there also goes for this volume. Moorcock’s writing is competent, but a bit bland and sometimes feels rushed. The stories move episodically from action point to action point, making for predictable tension arcs, and are communicated through language that is barely adequate and never beautiful. Elric as a character 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. On the positive side, for those who like to see some actual fantasy in their fantasy, the Elric books are satisfyingly stuffed with gods, elementals, other planes of existence, time travel, demons, sorcerers and dragons. So if you just want to read some fun sword and sorcery, I’d say just dive in.

The thing about Elric is that despite all their shortcomings, these stories can be addictive. They’re quick fast hits if like Winnie-the-Pooh you need a little something something at 11 ‘o clock or you’ll start shaking. Seeing Elric create havoc with that creepy, moaning sword of his is just satisfying. And him dealing with gods, demons and sorcerers is appealing if you like that kind of garish fantasy. Even if all of these stories are variants on the same themes.

The Vanishing Tower (1971) (originally published as The Sleeping Sorceress)

Elric had acquired a friend in the previous volume: a fellow named Moonglum. Moonglum is Elric’s companion traveller and bears the brunt of Elric’s depression and his disdain for practicalities. Their interactions bring some pleasant banter to the otherwise relentlessly moody adventures of Elric himself. Fairly quickly in the story, Moonglum observes that Elric’s new quest – the defeat of some pesky sorcerer – is just Elric running away from his proper destiny and therefore rather useless. We don’t know yet in certain terms what that destiny is, but it’s never good to run from yourself so this will probably all end in tears. Poor loyal Moonglum will stay with him, though.

The stories are all rather trite and repetitive, I’m afraid. This novel pretty much continues Elric’s story as it had been, with Elric bemoaning his lot and his sword Stormbringer drinking souls. They all follow a similar format. He is attacked, calls on his patron Arioch, defeats sorcerers and wins a queen’s love, which he declines because he hates himself. The one thing that really saves these stories from becoming a slog is the super high pace. Every time Elric learns of a new quest he has to undertake on the other side of the world, I expect that quest to span the book, but then 8 pages later it is all said and done and we move on to the next thing.

The most exciting part of this novel happens at the very end: Elric again teams up with two other incarnations of himself from other planes of existence: Corum and Erekose. And I heard that the same adventure that they have here can be read in Moorcock’s Corum novels but from Corum’s perspective. They combine forces to defeat a sorcerer with the most brilliant name of Voilodion Ghagnasdiak. There is a passing resemblance to Roger Zelazny’s Amber series in that the heroes seek the eternal city of Tanelorn which exists on all planes. 

The Revenge of the Rose (1991)

And again we jump 20 years ahead to an Elric tale written by a much older Michael Moorcock. This book stands out because Moorcock’s style had changed significantly. His writing is more polished, more philosophical and expansive and the novel takes more time to tell its story. I found this pleasant at first; it was easier to immerse myself, and emotionally more resonant. Moorcock got a better eye for structure, for setups and payoffs of emotional journeys. Later on, the writing got tedious.

There are more reasons why this book is an odd one out. Elric is transported to another realm, where he meets an English poet (first hint that our world is part of Elric’s multiverse) and a woman called The Rose, and the rest of the story is more about The Rose’s quest than about Elric himself. They also fall in with Gypsies who display all the typical Gypsy stereotypes in the story, except for the fact that they live in villages on giant wheels. That all this left many Elric fans scratching their heads is no wonder. The Gypsy storyline morphs into a chewed-out metaphor about exploitation and progress.

The story lacked interesting hooks for me, and combined with the wordy prose, that initial feeling of immersion and emotional resonance quickly evaporated and the novel turned into a slog. Moorcock is bludgeoning me to death with word vomit and poetry. And not in a good way. The English poet Wheldrake, who takes the role of Moonglum as Elric’s companion, becomes tedious after a while. Those older stories may have slapdash prose, but they are a lot more fun, and they are about Elric himself instead of some side characters.

The Bane of the Black Sword (1977)

This little book feels like the calm before the storm in which things seem to go well for Elric for a change – before his doom comes to him in the final novel. Elric finally defeats that pesky sorcerer from The Vanishing Tower and he even ends up married. The shadow of the sword Stormbringer always looms over everything though. The book offers a couple of short adventures, which are more of what we have seen before: sword and sorcery tales in which Elric depends on his sword and sometimes a conjured demon to win the day.

Stormbringer (1965)

Elric’s final novel in internal chronology is actually one of the first ones Moorcock ever wrote. And that shouldn’t be surprising, because the ending of Elric’s journey is part of the important reasons why Moorcock wrote the series in the first place. Remember that Moorcock wanted to write something subversive, against the grain of other popular fantasy traditions. In his essay Epic Pooh (1978) he explains how Tolkien’s approach to fairy tales embraced an escapism from death, a consolation against death, and Moorcock says that great epics used to dignify death but wouldn’t provide escapism from it. The way Elric’s journey ends, how his Doom catches up with him, reflects Moorcock’s movement towards older epics’ treatment of death and away from what Tolkien wanted.

Stormbringer is the longest and maybe best of all the Elric novels, and brings the whole series to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. At the start of the novel, Elric battles against his own doom; he pits his own will, his volition, against what other powers have decided for him. Part of that inescapable fate is that evil has to be fought with a thing of evil. Moorcock turns Elric’s sword Stormbringer into an object not so different from the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. The Fate of the world rests upon it. Elric has to align his own will with the sword’s destiny. And although the novel has the scope of the Lord of the Rings with a world-spanning conquest of evil, because of the high pacing of these stories the plot is more like a running battle against a world-conquest in fast-forward.

This novel has a very strange structure. Some immortal guy named Sepiriz shows up and literally tells Elric what to do. Go here, go there, kill the Duke of Hell, now get the magical shield… and Elric just does it, and after every achievement Sepiriz gives some more exposition and says the next thing to do. I have a feeling that Moorcock simply didn’t know how to write a novel-spanning plot. Still, this novel was worth a read and is an essential work of fantasy from that decade.

Final remarks

I vastly preferred the Elric material from the 1960s over the later novels from the 80s and 90s. The early writing is messy, unrefined, probably pumped out at a frantic pace, but it has the energy of inspiration in it. With the ending of Stormbringer it presents a complete vision of Elric’s saga. The novels The Fortress of the Pearl (1989) and The Revenge of the Rose (1991) felt more refined when starting them, but quickly became tedious as Moorcock became too introspective for me. I won’t be reading the trilogy that Moorcock added in the early 2000s, but I am interested in reading more of his work from the 60s and 70s. 

The writing never rose above the level of haphazard, in-the-moment plot developments and slapdash worldbuilding. Whenever Elric is in trouble, Moorcock simply invents a supernatural ally whom Elric happens to remember to help him out. Every problem in the story gets an immediate solution where Moorcock just invents something out of the blue without properly setting things up beforehand. In the end, Elric himself and his moaning sword are the object of interest and the rest is just a cauldron full random fantasy fluff about magic and gods and ancient races that swirls around him, and forces Elric into adventures. These final novels did not change my opinion that this series is terribly flawed but if you feel like reading some stuff about dragons and gods and magic, they can be addicting.

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7 Responses to Michael Moorcock – Stormbringer: The Elric Saga, Vol. 2 (Review)

  1. Pingback: Michael Moorcock – Elric of Melniboné: The Elric Saga, Vol. 1 (review) | A Sky of Books and Movies

  2. piotrek says:

    I have tremendous respect for Moorcock, I value his essays (“Wizardry and Wild Romance”) – even if ultimately I choose Tolkien over him. But I don’t enjoy his works all that much… I hated “Gloriana”, even if it featured powerful XVII-cent. Poland (it mattered back then). Elric I valued for its mood but only read a few short stories. The rest is still waiting on my bookshelves…

    But, I just read graphic novel adaptations by Blondel. The best, art-wise, very graphic, and somehow getting the essence out of the stories, I believe. Moorcock is a match for European-style comics, not the ones publishers from corporate America produce 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can totally see Elric working as a comic book adaptation. I’ve seen them standing around in bookstores, but I haven’t looked at them yet. I really prefer reading the original novels over a comic book adaptation.

      The essence of Elric is its mood, I think. The larger world and plot feels a bit random and the stories are repetitive. There’s no need to read all of them.

      I will read some more of his sword and sorcery and write reviews of it, in 2023. I’ll try Corum, and the Dancers at the End of Time and Behold the Man.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. peatlong says:

    This is the first I’ve seen Elric compared with Winnie the Pooh and I’m here for it.

    I also agree a lot of it feels rushed and repetitive – I think he wrote some of these in a weekend or so – but sometimes the atmosphere really lifts them. Think you might enjoy Corum more though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope to read Corum some time next year. Corum has even more the reputation of being written in a weekend but I’ve also heard positive things about it in relation to the Elric stories so I will just try them out.

      Like

  4. Pingback: Not The Friday Five: The Boring Title Edition – Peat Long's Blog

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