andyjohnson.xyz

#26 How to Read Michael Moorcock's Elric Saga: Part II

October 24, 2020 Andy Johnson Episode 26
andyjohnson.xyz
#26 How to Read Michael Moorcock's Elric Saga: Part II
Show Notes Transcript

My overview of Michael Moorcock’s epic Elric saga continues, and concludes, with this second part. The guide covers the eight main novels in the sequence in their internal chronological order; to catch up with the first four novels, be sure to read or listen to part I.

Following those first four books, Elric has made enemies in what remains of his Melnibonéan people, and in the powerful sorcerer Theleb Ka’arna. More positively, he has made a stout ally in the form of Moonglum of Elwher. He has won great victories, and done terrible things, all with the demonic sword Stormbringer at his side.

All of these events are factors in the stories which follow in books 5 to 8. Here, the chronology and provenance of the series becomes a bit more complicated. The four books were published out of sequence, during three decades. Confusingly, the book published first is actually the lastin the main sequence. Hopefully, this concluding part of the guide will clear up the probable misunderstandings - rest assured that these are fine books, and a wild ride in the Multiverse.

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/andyjohnson)

My overview of Michael Moorcock’s epic Elric saga continues, and concludes, with this second part. The guide covers the eight main novels in the sequence in their internal chronological order; to catch up with the first four novels, be sure to read or listen to part I.

Following those first four books, Elric has made enemies in what remains of his Melnibonéan people, and in the powerful sorcerer Theleb Ka’arna. More positively, he has made a stout ally in the form of Moonglum of Elwher. He has won great victories, and done terrible things, all with the demonic sword Stormbringer at his side.

All of these events are factors in the stories which follow in books 5 to 8. Here, the chronology and provenance of the series becomes a bit more complicated. The four books were published out of sequence, during three decades. Confusingly, the book published first is actually the last in the main sequence. Hopefully, this concluding part of the guide will clear up the probable misunderstandings - rest assured that these are fine books, and a wild ride in the Multiverse.

Book 5: The Sleeping Sorceress (1977)

The fifth book of the series is most commonly known as The Sleeping Sorceress, although DAW Books renamed it The Vanishing Tower when they published it in 1977, for reasons best known to themselves. The Gollancz reprint uses the first and original title.

While they were never published separately, the book consists of three novellas. In “The Torment of the Last Lord”, Elric battles again with Theleb Ka’arna, this time while allied with Empress Myshella. In the second story, “To Snare a Pale Prince”, Elric returns to Nadsokor, the “City of Beggars”, which was last mentioned (but not seen) in Book 2, The Fortress of the Pearl. There, Elric and Moonglum must escape a trap set for them by Ka’arna and the repulsive King Urish.

The final novella in this volume is the only one not concerned with Theleb Ka’arna. “Three Heroes With a Single Aim” is another crossover with a specific book from elsewhere in the Eternal Champion series, specifically The King of Swords (1971). In that novel, the same events are relayed from the perspective of Corum Jhaelen Irsei, another incarnation of the Eternal Champion. In the story, these heroes join up with Erekosë to defeat the magnificently named sorcerer Voiloidion Ghagnasdiak.

Book 6: The Revenge of the Rose (1991)

Of all the books in the main Elric series, The Revenge of the Rose was written last, in 1991 - however, it appears sixth in the internal chronology. As you might expect, this novel is fairly similar in style to The Fortress of the Pearl, which was written shortly beforehand. There is a heavy philosophical and metaphysical dimension to the plot, and Elric and his companions find themselves switching dimensions on a dizzyingly frequent basis. Notably, the Pale Emperor’s usual companion Moonglum is completely absent from the novel.

Elric finds himself on an unusual quest even by his standards - attempting to recover a rosewood box which contains the tortured soul of his long-dead father, Sadric. His mission coincides to some extent with that of a woman known only as “The Rose”, a red-haired wandering swordswoman who is easily one of the very best female characters in the whole series. The pair are further joined by Ernest Wheldrake, a poet transported from a version of England - and from Moorcock’s 1978 novel Gloriana. Both the Rose and Wheldrake are extremely amiable presences in the story, and a fine foil for Elric’s relative moodiness.

Moorcock had written many Eternal Champion books by 1991, and consequently The Revenge of the Rose is rich with subtle connections to other stories. As with The Fortress of the Pearl before it, its radical change of style can be quite jarring when reading the series in their internal chronology, but its sheer oddness and likeable characters make for a winning combination.

Book 7: The Bane of the Black Sword (1977)

Once Elric and Moonglum join up again, the stage is set for another collection of some of the first stories to be written. The four tales which make up The Bane of the Black Sword were all originally published in 1962, and as a result feature the fast-paced, energetic style Moorcock favoured in this youthful period. With these stories, the stage is gradually being set for the conclusion to the Elric saga, even if its true significance would only be filled in by the books written subsequently.

In “The Stealer of Souls”, Elric and Moonglum plot to rob a group of merchants in the wealthy city of Bakshaan. However, the plan changes when Elric learns he has an opportunity for a final confrontation with his recurring nemesis Theleb Ka’arna. In the process, Elric briefly resumes his relationship with Yishana of Jharkor, who last appeared back in Book 3, The Weird of the White Wolf
 
Next comes “Kings in Darkness”. Here, Elric and Moonglum face the adherents of a dark prophecy involving the living dead in the small, mysterious Kingdom of Org. The main purpose of the story, however, is to introduce the beautiful Zarozinia, whom Elric rescues and subsequently marries. Their matrimonial bliss proves unsurprisingly short-lived, however, when the story “The Flame Bringers” begins. Elric is forced to leave home, take up Stormbringer once more, and stop Terarn the Flame Bringer and his barbarian horde from taking over the world. This is undoubtedly one of the most conventional Elric stories, but certainly still entertaining.
 
Finally, the book ends with something much more unusual - the final story, “To Rescue Tanelorn…” Crucially, Elric doesn’t appear at all and in fact is only mentioned briefly once. Instead, the main character is Rackhir the Red Archer. Previously encountered by Elric in Book 1, Rackhir is seen dwelling in the eternal city of Tanelorn, a major feature of Moorcock’s multiverse. Together with an old sage, Lamsar, Rackhir has to defend the city from the latest in a long line of attempts by the forces of Chaos to destroy it. This story moves at a breakneck pace as Rackhir tries to gather what he needs to deflect the attack, but suffers from the relatively bland nature of its lead character - the presence of Elric is missed.

Book 8: Stormbringer (1965)

Exciting as they are, many of Elric’s stories up until this point have been relatively modest in their stakes. Elric has pursued his own objectives, while a larger conflict has been hinted at only occasionally. With Stormbringer, this conflict finally comes into focus. Almost from the beginning of this novel, the forces of Chaos are on the march and threaten to bring the whole of Elric’s world under their warped control. Soon, the nations of the Young Kingdoms align themselves with either Law or Chaos, and an apocalyptic conflict begins - war on a far larger scale than anything seen in the series previously.

Like many of the previous books, Stormbringer compiles four novellas. Here, though, the stories are far more strongly integrated and the book has the feel of a cohesive and epic novel. It’s an explosive end to the series, with world-changing events seemingly every few pages. No longer wondering about his place in the universe, here Elric is almost fanatically driven. Taking command of the armies aligned with Law, the Pale Emperor throws absolutely everything he has at his attempt to frustrate the efforts of the Chaos lords and their agent on Earth, the evil sorcerer Jagreen Lern.

As the war progresses, battles take place on land, at sea, and in the air. Nations are destroyed or bent to the will or chaos, and Elric and his dwindling band of allies have to call upon every power they can. Stormbringer is a surprisingly nihilistic novel for 1965, and for the cursed Elric there can be no victory as such - the dubious reward he fights for is the chance to fulfil his destiny. In Moorcock’s fiction, that’s often a gloomy prospect. However, this climactic book is still uplifting and inspiring, in its own way. It also benefits from reading later books in the Eternal Champion cycle, which refer back to its events and set them within an even wider cosmic context.

With Stormbringer, the saga of Elric of Melniboné comes to an end. By its conclusion, the series has seen Elric explore all the major locations of the Young Kingdoms, and travel to a number of other realms in the multiverse. The White Wolf has met and fought alongside his own alter-egos, other incarnations of the Eternal Champion, and has matched wits with entities as fearsome as the Chaos Lords themselves. Remarkably, Moorcock created all of these memorable adventures within the scope of eight concise, accessible books - it’s only their confusing chronology that complicates the Elric tale.
 
While this introduction to the Elric saga has included all of those eight books, there is an argument to be made for skipping - or at least putting to one side - the two later books. The Fortress of the Pearl and The Revenge of the Rose are both good novels which expand in satisfying ways on the Elric mythos. Read in internal chronological order, though, they can feel very jarring due to their radical differences in style compared with the other books. Readers new to Elric may want to consider reading the classic six novels released in the US by DAW Books and in the UK by Grafton. Then, the later books may be a more comfortable read.
 
In either case, there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had in exploring the Young Kingdoms and beyond with Elric of Melniboné and Michael Moorcock. These books are classics of fantasy, and a huge influence on many more recent works in the genre. In these cases, it always pays to go back to the source - in this case, to the ultimate fantasy antihero that is Elric.