Tolkien Gestures Book 9: Elric of Melnibone

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre. This week, finally some really, really high fantasy. And dark, at least by what it claims on the back of the book.


(i can’t find a copy of the actual image of my editions cover. which is odd…)

So to start with this is a world that owes more to Howard than Tolkien – savage, anarchic and violent, with gods, dragons and sorcerers littering the landscape with wild abandon. There is some grand conflict between order and chaos, alternate planes, dreamrealms and pretty much everything else chucked into the bargain as well. no mistaking the genre I’m in here then. The twist is of course the eponymous Elric of Melnibone; hereditary emperor of your standard fantasy “Evil Empire”, Melnibone, except that Elric is unlike his ancestors, and wishes to reform his land under better principles in order to save it. For a given value of “better”. and “save”, for that matter.

Its quite a clever conceit but it feels slightly premature in some ways; either I’ve somehow missed a lot important fantasy of the list or there is just a lot of generic pulp swords’n’sorcery in the 30s and 40s that is now mostly forgotten. Or Moorcock is slightly ahead of his time, which is also possible. Regardless it’s a nice idea and an early sign of a genre starting to play with it’s own conventions. I hope so anyway, but it may just be Moorcock being the genre magpie that he is.

The first book deals mostly with this concept and the scheming opposition that Elric faces from his more classically Melnibonian cousin. Whilst obstinately a hero, Elric of course ends up heavily compromised, recovering and wielding the soul-eating Runesword Stormbringer. It’s deliciously morally complex and rather fun, and Moorcock writes along giddily, clearly enjoying all the gothic melodrama and overblown angst as much as the daft fantasyness of it all. Its very biased towards the short-story format as well, which in every genre suits punchy, character-sketch writing.

I mentioned Howard earlier because Conan feels like a direct ancestor here, except i enjoyd it more, and the sense of a continuous story happening and a real direction that was lacking from Conan’s more aimlessly roving hack and slashery. and of course there is a direction in the long run; Elrics return to Melnibone, re-betrayal, and destruction of the Dreaming City, which at least in the volume I have is glossed over a bit in exchange for a big fight with boats and other boats and magic and dragons, which is all very well but emotionally anticlimatic. He does get to accidental kill his lover with Stormbringer though, which works well, although the only surprise was how long it took to happen. But not for her, thinking about it.

The only other quirk of the volume I had was that a story I rather liked, travelling to a strange dreamrealm, made a big deal about Elric being separated from Stormbringer although at the point it is in the volume he’s not had it for long. A bit of research reveals that the story is published quite a bit later, and I guess separating the two would have more novelty value, but regardless its a nice story anyway, if slightly lacking in angst-ridden soul sucking.

Overall, Elric reads like high-quality pulp fiction, pacey, fun and with enough real darkness and intelligence to mark it out. It’s also totally unashamed Fantasy,  which didn’t put me off at all. I suspect if I’d read more Moorcock all the Eternal Champion references would make more sense to me; but i would guess that that is a reading project all to itself!

Next Up: Steven King, of all people, with The Dark Tower: Gunslinger.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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