I’ve been putting this off for a while now, but I figured it’s finally time to enjoy some writing about whiny albino dudes with evil sword demon things. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, let’s discuss Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné.
Elric is one of Moorcock’s many Eternal Champions – and that idea actually merits its own post. For now, it’s an exploitation of things like archetypes and the hero monomyth: across the multiverse, in every dimension, there is a Champion, different in character from every other as every universe is different in character. They exist to, in some way or another, keep the balance between the forces of chaos and law, which are decidedly divorced from ideas of good and evil (something Gygax later borrowed from Moorcock in his DnD system). Elric is from a world in which his people, the Melnibonéans, have conquered much of the world and use their magic, capital, navy, and fucking dragon air force to dictate to the rest. But for the past few centuries they have entered a decadent period – except with fewer flamboyant poets and more ennui crushing the life out of the entire kingdom. Elric was the king, and his albinism makes him somehow so weak he cannot live without drugs. He goes on a quest out into the “Young Kingdoms” (read: human lands) and learns his people are, well, decadent and pretty much assholes. They torture people for fun, don’t pay attention to anything around them for years at a time as they go on drug-fueled vision quests, so on, so forth.
Meanwhile! Yes, very much meanwhile – Elric’s cousin usurps the throne and tries to force his sister to marry him. Elric was, naturally, in love with Yrkoon’s sister. He comes back at the head of an army after Yrkoon repels his individual foray back into the kingdom. They completely destroy Elric’s people, including his love, whom Elric himself kills using his enormous demon blade, Stormbringer – you know, the one Blue Oyster Cult wrote about.
That’s actually all in the first novel. Then the series goes insane, with Elric wandering the earth, sometimes hopping from universe to universe, dealing with wizards, priestesses, soldiers, and the like, as the very last of his race and one of the few people capable of powerful magic – he fights wizards, but none of them can call directly on elementals and chaos lords as he can. So what the hell is going on in this series?
Well, first, it’s a direct inversion of Howard’s Conan. Conan was big, strapping, clever but not intellectual, and passionate. Elric is small and weak, highly intelligent, and whimsical, subject to passions sometimes but not at others. The stories generally end in the same way, but Elric’s response is deeply different, making the story itself different as well. In that way it works to prove the idea that it’s the character, not the action, that matters.
Elric is also a Byronic hero. You’ll remember Byron, I hope. Elric divorces himself, several times, from everything that makes sense of the world around him. He is lost to the chaos surrounding him in a way that his cohorts, and even his gods, the chaos lords themselves, are not. He has no real connection to anything but his sword, which easily stands in for Manfred’s magic. It is the tool that allows him his freedom but costs him his human connections. Without spoiling much of anything, Stormbringer makes it a habit to try and kill everyone Elric knows, particularly the ones he likes or loves, pretty much just because it’s a dick. So like Manfred Elric is forced to accept a life of near isolation – though he is never entirely isolated, given that he’s got a lot more ground to cover than Manfred ever did.
Elric also never quite manages to sever himself from the spiritual world as Manfred did. They both have control over elemental spirits, but Elric also has to beg favors of his patron duke of Hell, Arioch, all the damn time. He wants to be independent and loose from all restrictions and responsibilities, but that never happens. He wanders around, trying to find something that will let him get rid of his sword, which is the only thing that keeps him alive – in the absence of those life-saving drugs, the sword can pass him vitality if it’s killed recently – but never manages it, often because either his luck is complete shit or he’s got a bad case of Too Damn Noble. That is, of course, what makes him a good character to follow around like the books do.
Moorcock wrote a lot of other Eternal Champions, and they’re all pretty good in one way or another. But Elric is probably the most popular, and so far in my reading the most compelling, precisely because of this sense that he’s a Byronic hero trying to break the shackles surrounding him, even though those things are actually what connects him to life and love and humanity. He is Manfred before the poem starts, though he can never reach Manfred’s level of independence.
What does that mean for a fantasy novel, or the history of the genre? Well, first, Elric appeared in the 60s (I guess I should start saying 1960s now that we’re into the second decade of this century, shouldn’t I?), when fantasy was getting a little stultified. Between Howard and Leiber everyone saw a formula that worked and kept at it. I have a handful of collections, put together by Lin Carter, of that old 40s-50s fantasy, and they’re all good but pretty much the same thing over and over. Moorcock reminded people that fantasy heroes didn’t have to be enormous Conan-knockoffs, and hilariously he did that through his own Conan-knockoff.
Within the Elric stories themselves, Elric’s status creates a constant tension. He doesn’t really give a shit about anything when each novel opens, since his homeland, love, family, and people are all gone. But loyalty is important to him – likely because he is the arch-betrayer of his people – and that gets him into one situation after another in which he loses more people and is set up for the next problem. Formulaic, but who cares? It’s actually an excellent example of how formula is both good and sometimes necessary in fiction – because Elric is an example of a neurotic, of sorts, who has no access to anything that would change him. He’s stuck in a rut and will be until he makes a conscious decision to change, which he does at the climax of his story – which didn’t mark the end of Elric novels, actually. Since he was basically a picaresque character, Moorcock came back to him decades later and just wrote stories from before the ending.
Yeah, big spoiler there, everything ends poorly for Elric. That’s pretty much there in the beginning.