I’ve been writing, on and off, about my favourite short stories, both here and on my previous blog, Tales From the Computerbank. Now I’ve decided, for no better reason than because I can, to put down a few words about my favourite writers beginning with Michael Moorcock.
For anyone who is even remotely interested in the history and development of modern fantasy, Michael Moorcock is a towering figure – creator of Elric, Hawkmoon, Corum, Jerry Cornelius, Erekose (to name but a few) and writer of an outstanding body of speculative fiction. As an editor he was at the forefront of the New Wave of the 1960’s and his time in charge of the seminal magazine New Worlds changed the face of speculative fiction forever – practically dragging it by the scruff of the neck from its (self-imposed?) ghettos and into a more literary and often experimental light.
But it is perhaps as a writer of fantasy – in particular that subgenre known as Sword and Sorcery – that his greatest legacy lies and his stories and novels about the doomed Prince Elric of Melnibone (first begun in the early sixties) have had an impact upon the field rivalled only by the granddaddy of s&s, Robert E. Howard.
In many ways Elric was a reaction to Howard, or rather to the legions of Howard imitators who sprang up following his death and, in many ways, sullied the reputation and standing of Howard’s most famous creation Conan of Cimmeria.
A typical Howard/Conan clone was generally more brawn than brain – a lioncloth clad barbarian whose main preoccupations in life were drinking, fighting, wenching and more fighting. And although characters like Clifford Ball’s Duar the Accursed, John Jakes Brak the Barbarian and Norvell Page’s Prester John (or Wan Tengri, if you prefer) are not without their charms and can be extremely entertaining reads, they stand so closely in Howard’s shadow that their main contribution to the genre was not to advance it but to keep it in a state of ‘circling the wagons’ in a literary sense.
Of course there were writers like Fritz Leiber with his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis and C.L Moore’s Jirel of Joiry who sought to break the mould somewhat, but it wasn’t until Elric appeared in The Dreaming City (1961) that a real change came across sword and sorcery.
Unlike Conan, Elric was a weakling not a mighty warrior, he was a Prince who lost a throne, rather than a barbarian who seized one, a sorcerer allied to dark gods, dependent upon drugs and his hellish rune sword, Stormbringer, to maintain his strength. In short, as others have written elsewhere upon the topic, he was exactly the sort of character who, in Conan’s world, would have been the villain rather than the hero.
Not that Elric was a hero in the usual sense – often self-serving, moody and introspective, cruel on occasion, as likely to do a bad deed as a good one – and (and this is one of the cornerstones of the character) not even human since the people of Melnibone belonged to an older and different race than mankind.
The original stories and novels beginning with The Dreaming City and ending with Stormbringer (1965) charted a dark path through The Young Kingdoms and ultimately ended with the demise both of Elric and the Young Kingdoms themselves. Later novels added to and expanded the saga but, always, there was the knowledge that for all his struggles, Elric and all those around him were ultimately doomed. That, if nothing else, separates the Elric saga from the morass of fantasy fiction where a good sword (enchanted or otherwise) and a stout heart are enough to win the day.
The theme of the doomed (or damned) hero runs through much of Moorcock’s work. Prince Corum Jhaelen Irsei, the protagonist of a later sword and sorcery series, ultimately finds tragedy even in triumph, Ulric Von Bek in The Warhound and the World’s Pain (1981) is literally a servant of the Devil, Erekose/ John Daker in The Eternal Champion (1970) is fated to destroy mankind itself, Karl Glogauer in Behold the Man (1969) is forced into a fatal imitation of Christ.
This is not to say that Moorcock is an overtly pessimistic writer. Works such as The Dancers at the End of Time fairly brim with joyful wit and fantastic imagery, the Jerry Cornelius stories (beginning with The Final Programme in 1969) are a masterclass in psychedelia, colourful and wild, mixing elements of the Commedia del’arte with King’s Road dandyism.
A writer of endless energy and invention, Moorcock can pack more into a short novel (the vast majority of his early works run at about 150 pages) than most writers can manage in an entire overblown trilogy. More than that, even in the works that were written at speed with one eye on the commercial market, he continued to bring an overtly literary style to his novels and short stories, a particularly rare thing in sword and sorcery even today, where simple, straightforward ‘story-telling’ is often more valued than experimentation or even well written prose.
I first read The Dreaming City at about the age of 16, which was probably the best time to discover Elric since all the angst and turmoil of the character spoke directly to the teenage me (and I was hardly alone in that). Over the years I have read a great deal of his work (in particular coming back to the Elric and Corum stories time and time again) and hope to read a great deal more.
In a short piece like this, there is hardly space to list the complete works of Michael Moorcock, since his oeuvre runs from sword and sorcery to science fiction to historical fantasy to mainstream novels, thrillers, comics, music and everything else in between. But suffice it to say that his influence continues to be felt in modern fantasy and his legacy has shaped much of modern science fiction. If you’ve never read him you should do so now, your mind, your sense of wonder and your sense of fun will thank you for it.