Classic Review: Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock
Reading Time: about 2 hours
As I stated in my review of Nine Princes in Amber, the other major influence on my reading during my teen years was Moorcock’s Elric series. My library had the fourth and fifth books in the series: The Vanishing Tower, with a giant bug on the cover, and Bane of the Black Sword, with a cool-looking, giant lich on the cover. It was those great Michael Whelan covers that sucked me in. Both books functioned well as stand-alone stories, and both immediately captured my imagination. This was a time when I was standing in line to see The Empire Strikes Back, discovering Dungeons and Dragons, and playing my Intellivision game console. It was literally a time when the world felt open and unscripted to me, as if anything were possible, and my mind openly embraced the Elric novels. Not long after I read books four and five, I was able to track down the rest of the books and start from the beginning – and what a beginning it is.
Elric is the ruler of a nation called Melnibone, the Dragon Isle, in a place where we are not really sure of but is later revealed to be one of many planes of existence in the Multiverse (with Earth being one such plane). I might have been lost reading this book had I not read the latter books first, because those books included a map of Elric’s world. Elric himself is an albino, with pale white skin, red eyes, and less-than-average strength that requires drugs to sustain him and give him energy. Later plot details do not specifically state, but leave open the possibility, that Elric’s condition could possibly be the result of centuries of inbreeding – the Melnibone empire desires little contact with the outside world. There are whisperings, particularly from Elric’s cousin Yyrkoon, that his condition threatens to weaken the empire. Where emporers in the past would have executed such musings from a traitor, Elric dismisses such talk as insignificant. This is our first glimpse into what makes Elric different from his countrymen – that he is lenient and capable of forgiveness and mercy.
Another major character introduced early in the book is Cymoril, Elric’s cousin and Yyrkoon’s sister. When the book states that Elric plans to make Cymoril his emporess, you can understand where my inbreeding comment comes from. This early part of the book almost seems to be written in second person. Instead of text such as “Elric knew this and wished he could please his court as it strove to honor him”, instead you get a present tense rendition: “Elric knows this and wishes he could please his court as it strives to honor him”. It is somewhat strange to read a story written this way when you are used to first-person or third-person accounts. However, by chapter two the book reverts to a standard third-person format.
The plot revolves around pirate raiders seeking to plunder Melnibone and steal its treasures. At the same time, Yyrkoon plots against Elric because he desires the throne. When Yyrkoon’s plans are set in motion, Cymoril is put into a deep, sorcerous sleep, and Elric must go on a journey to obtain the means to wake her, and then confront Yyrkoon. It is here that Elric has his first encounter with Stormbringer, the famous soul-sucking sword, and he also meets Rackhir the Red Archer for the first time (Rackhir will appear in later books). We also start to get a feel for the vastness of the Multiverse and the creatures and powerful beings that inhabit it. The creation of the Multiverse and the Eternal Champion is truly Moorcock’s gift to fantasy – multiple worlds existing on different planes, sometimes mirroring one another, and often times intersecting with results that strain the fabric of existence itself. The Eternal Champion is one of those mirror-type elements: a hero saving the world, in various aspects, across those multiple worlds. Elric is a manifestation of the Eternal Champion concept, though that fact is not fully revealed until the next book in the series.
Moorcock’s writing is not without flaws. Most of the imagery required for the story the reader needs to imagine, as Moorcock provides enough to get the job done, but could have provided more. Also, the motivations of supporting characters could have been explained in more detail. I guess what I’m really saying is that I’d really like this book to be twice its size; 160 pages goes by far too fast and then the story’s over. This is something Moorcock corrected with later Elric novels like The Dreamthief’s Daughter.
In Elric of Melnibone you won’t find hundreds of pages of characters delivering monologue, spanking each other, engaging in lengthy introspection on their internal demons, or a description of every leaf color or market smell. What you will find is a fast-paced, action-laden adventure full of sword fights and sorcerous duels. This story embraces the “Sword & Sorcery” genre, whose modern roots were established by Robert E. Howard with creation of Conan, and who in turn derived it from Greek mythology and Tales of the Arabian Nights. The genre name was coined by Fritz Leiber in an exchange with Moorcock, who wanted a name to define the style. As the popularity of Lord of the Rings grew, by the late 80s and early 90s, Epic Fantasy had caused Sword & Sorcery to become a derogatory term. Many current authors of the “dark genre”, like Abercrombie, Lynch, and others owe some of their roots not only to Sword & Sorcery, but also the anti-hero, a character with flaws. Elric was the first character I read about with serious flaws: the weak strength, the subsistence on drugs, and a naivete that would come back to haunt him.
Personally, I feel that there is room for all these types of genres to co-exist, and I think reading only one type is self-limiting. I like taking a break between 1000+ page Epic Fantasy novels, and diving into a Sword & Sorcery book, which is typified by action sequences full of armed conflict and magic. It’s good to see releases like The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones bring back interest in the genre. Elric of Melnibone is highly recommended for fans of Sword and Sorcery, and also anyone looking for a brief respite from huge novels. I also encourage people to read this to see where the origins of current fantasy found its inspiration from.
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