Elric and Michael Moorcock

I've recently become addicted to the Elric novels of Michael Moorcock. For the uninitiated, Elric was created as a reaction against the kind of Conan-the-Barbarian/Lord-of-the-Rings style fantasy that still dominates sword-and-sorcery novels today. He is the anti-Conan; a frail, albino sorcerer from the decadent kingdom of Melneboné, addicted to drugs to stay alive and to the demon black sword Stormbringer, which both fills him with strength and compels him to kill so that it might eat the souls of his victims. Adjectives frequently used to describe him include "cursed," "tortured" and most of all "doomed." He is totally emo. Elric was most popular in the 1970's, when Blue Oyster Cult wrote a song about him ("Black Blade") and Dave Sim parodied him in the comic book Cerebus as "Elrod of Melvinbone." Yet, with new additions of the books coming out, the prospect of a movie and Moorcock now writing new Elric adventures, the albino seems to be having a resurgence of attention.

I once heard true fantasy described as the process of taking a character's psychological state and embodying it in reality. Perhaps no writer illustrates this as effectively as Moorcock. Rather than bastardized versions of European monsters, Elric's adversaries are more often than not dream-monsters, creatures which crawl bodily from the id, and from realms which reflect his every desire and fear. Indeed dream-like may be the best way to describe Elric's adventures (at least, the handful of books I've read so far). In Sailor on the Seas of Fate, for example, haunted and hunted Elric travels to a realm that is the ghost of an idealized city, where the shadows of ruins take the shape of the buildings as they were when whole. There he battles two sorcerers in the form of houses, invading them like a disease invades a body. Afterward even Elric can't tell if the event was a dream or not, after finding himself stranded in another dimension where scavengers stranded from all over space and time wander under a blue sun.

In The Fortress of the Pearl, Elric travels directly into the world of dreams, which in Moorcock's construction is something like a cross between the Jungian collective unconscious and simply another dimension in his "multiverse". (One of Moorcock's conceits is that all of his books take place in different connected universes and parallel realities, and he frequently has characters or organizations from one book appear in another.) Elric travels through seven levels of dreams, escorted by a "dreamtheif" (a group from another Moorcock series who literally steals people's dreams and sells them at a market), much as Dante was lead through the seven levels of Heaven and nine circles of Hell. Each level has its own peculiar character, for instance one is the "Land of Old Desires", where all your "forgotten yearnings" return to you and "bring a sense of simplicity and peace." Another is the "Land of Lost Beliefs," where they encounter a beautiful city,

And now Elric looked closer at the walls, which were like jade, and he saw dark shapes within the walls and he saw that the dark shapes were figures of men, women and children. He gasped as he stepped forward to peer at them, observing living faces, eyes which were undying, lips frozen in expressions of terror, of anguish, of misery. There were like so many flies in amber.

"That's the unchanging past, Prince Elric," said Gone [the Dreamthief]. "That's the fate of those who seek to reclaim their lost beliefs without first experiencing the search for new ones. This city has another name. Dreamthieves call it the City of Inventive Cowardice. You would not understand the twists of logic which brought so many to this pass! Which made them force those they loved to share their fate. Would you stay with them, Price Elric, and nurse your lost beliefs?"

The parallel to the circle of Hell in The Inferno where people are frozen eternally in ice is obvious, yet where Dante puts traitors there Moorcock uses it as a psychological metaphor.

Not the greatest of stylists (though still better than Philip K. Dick), and maybe too prolific for his own good, Moorcock still is a writer who perhaps has not gotten the attention he deserves, especially in mainstream circles. One suspects this has rankled Moorcock himself, since he abandoned speculative fiction in the eighties and wrote a number of literary fiction novels (including the seminal Mother London), only recently returning to the genre where he made his name. Yet it is his sf novels that give him his continued following, and, I believe, where his best (and yes, most addictive) work lies.

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Melniboné.

Melniboné.