The Elric Saga - the 60th anniversary of an influential fantasy saga

Posted by Sevhina on Fri, 10/21/2022 - 19:13

Elric of Melniboné, along with the sword Stormbringer, is the most influential of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champions. The first Elric story, The Dreaming City, was published in 1961 and created the trope of the fantasy anti-hero with a burdened soul. These tales of his adventures as he wanders the world in a futile quest for spiritual peace have influenced countless works in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. That description fits superheroes like The Hulk, and while I'm not sure Elric influenced the comics, there is a definite resemblance in the television series of the 1980's. The multiverse concept pioneered here is seen in the works of authors like Brandon Sanderson and the place that brings spiritual and mental peace, Tanelorn in this multiverse, is echoed in Guy Gavriel Kay's references to Fionavar. The conflict between Lords of Chaos and Order was the basis for Louise Cooper's The Time Master series. References to the series and Stormbringer appear throughout popular culture including music, comics, and even lines in television series such as Game of Thrones. "But are the books actually good?" My answer: It's complicated.

*Disclaimer: I read most of these books over 30 years ago, which is a statement about the impression they made, but also a warning that even with Wikipedia's help there may be things I get wrong. 

As with modern anti-heroes Elric has an origin story which is told in Elric of Melniboné (1972). Elric is the last Emperor of Melniboné, a cruel and hedonistic race of sorcerers that claimed the Lords of Chaos as their patrons. Elric is an albino who's body is so weak he requires a mixture of herbal substances just to function, so he spends most of his time studying in the library and practicing his sorcery. He is also in love with his sister and plans to marry her, which like the Egyptian Pharaohs, is not unheard of in the Melnibonéan royal family. All of this makes Elric more thoughtful and philosophical than others of his court and he questions the assumption of Melnibonéan superiority to the Younger Kingdoms developing amongst the humans. Alas, his cousin uses Elric's weakness and philosophical differences as justification to seize his throne and forcibly marry his sister. In his desire for vengeance, and to save his beloved sister, Elric turns to his family's ancient patrons, the Lords of Chaos for the strength to fight his cousin. The Lord who answers suggests that he acquire the fabled sword Stormbringer which can augment the strength of his body. I have a vague recollection that the Lord of Chaos might have mentioned there would be a cost...

Stormbringer is one of the most well known magic swords in the fantasy genre. For those who have played D&D or AD&D, it is easily recognizable as the basis for intelligent magical weapons in that game. I remember once finding a magical sword and thinking "uh oh" when it spoke to me. At which point, as a player, you're praying it has an alignment that matches your character. In D&D terms Stormbringer is a highly intelligent magical artifact, with the Wis score to match, chaotic/evil alignment, and the ability to drain the souls of its victims to give its wielder greater strength. If Elric had played such games, and wasn't consumed by his desire for vengeance, he too would have been thinking "uh oh". For exact stats, consult the AD&D Deities & Demigods section on Melnibonéan Mythos. Finding a copy might be difficult since there was a conflict between TSR and the company that Moorcock preferred using, so it was never reprinted. (Yes, I have a copy, the literal boy next door gave the first edition AD&D books to my brother who only ever dabbled in gaming.) Again, references to a black two handed sword with glowing red runes crops up occasionally in popular culture. Even I'm guilty of painting one of my Warhammer model swords black and the raised runes on the blade red.

Elric, equipped with his ridiculously powerful chaotic evil soul-sucking sword, easily kills his cousin and brings down his own court. At which point he discovers the terrible price of wielding Stormbringer: at the end of every adventure it uses Elric to take the soul of someone he cares about. Hence, the terrible mental scarring Elric now carries as he wanders the Young Kingdoms. Imagine tales of a hero in the mythic sense, not necessarily good or evil, told around campfires. The Elric Saga books are kind of like that, since order of publication has little to do with chronological order, and many of them are written in the old serial format where they are essentially a story arc across short stories. Once you know the origin story it doesn't matter what order they are read. In some stories he is a mercenary and some depict him defeating a horrible monster. There are also other heroes from his world that appear and reappear as his companions, many of whom are also seeking the mythical Tanelorn, a city that is an ideal of peace physically, mentally, and spiritually. If I recall, Elric actually does find it at one point but chooses to leave. He has always known, and dreaded, that his eventual fate is to be just another victim of Stormbringer.

At the time of publication, the idea of a "multiverse", with series taking place with different characters on different connected worlds, was a new concept. In Moorcock's writing, that connection was the Eternal Champion, a soul that existed across multiple worlds and times that was an agent of change that brought balance between the forces of Order and Chaos. All but one of these incarnations is unaware of what they are although they occasionally have dreams about their other lives. Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976) has Elric traveling with other incarnations of the Eternal Champion. As the first Elric book I came across, it was a bad introduction to the series. Even after reading Elric of Melniboné I wasn't quite sure what was going on. Although Elric's status as an agent of Chaos in his world is obvious, there is little other crossover with the Eternal Champion concept as a whole. 

Are they all good books? Some are definitely better than others, as much of the saga was written in the 1960's and the origin story didn't come out until 1972. The last and "final" book in the series published in 1991 so the writing style evolves over time. In an interview, Moorcock once said the inspiration for Elric was to write the anti-Tolkein fantasy and in many ways he succeeded in doing that. The stories are short, the main character is an anti-hero as are some of his companions, magic is generally chaotic, and the named magical weapon is quite evil. Tolkein's novels were much longer than most books of the genre when Moorcock started the Elric Saga but don't discount the worldbuilding and depth of the lore they contain. Writers like Moorcock somehow managed to squeeze all of their ideas in tiny packages, where writers of the 1990's often needed a thousand pages. Sure, there are fewer scenes and less overall detail, but the island city of Melniboné is just as easy to picture as Jordan's Tar Valon. In a way, it's easier to picture because the writing focuses on only a few details and the "feel" of the place allows the reader's mind to fill in the rest. Books like these also rarely reiterate details which appeals to readers who easily note and remember things, while frustrating those who prefer reminders of who, what, and why. On the plus side, there are very few characters or place names that carry over into other books, so there's not much to needs remembering and it matters little if you forget. Over the thirty years across which the books were written, styles changed and The Fortress of the Pearl and Revenge of the Rose, which were published last, are the easiest reads of the group. They are also actual novels rather than short story groups.

I didn't love these books but I definitely liked them as they were so different from anything else I read at the time. I think much of their success, even over Moorcock's other series, comes from Stormbringer. The sword is so iconic and such a character in the story that there are more Easter Egg references in pop culture to Stormbringer than Elric himself. I can't think of another named weapon that was such a large part of a story. It's not even my favorite among Moorcock's books, but it's still my all time favorite magic sword. I think some of his other Eternal Champion storylines are in more interesting worlds, and slightly better written, but the sword is unrivaled.

Moorcock has done so much more than Elric. He had already won awards for his first couple of literary works in England before publishing the first Elric story, and although he said he was done with Elric in 1991, he continued to write critically acclaimed works in other genres under pseudonyms. He is also a musician which explains the songs about Elric, Stormbringer, and other Eternal Champions for which he wrote the Lyrics. Probably the best known are three songs he collaborated on with Blue Oyster Cult: Black Blade and Veteran of the Psychic Wars about Stormbringer and Elric respectively, and then The Great Sun Jester about another Eternal Champion. His work on a sci-fi fantasy genre magazine in England is credited with bringing about the cyber-punk genre, although his use of the magazine and stories to express his controversial political opinions did cause some issues. He has also worked on graphic novels, video games, and many role-playing games. A studio did once optioned the rights for a TV series based on Elric, but it died when Moorcock backed out citing their deviations from his original story. There is still hope for a current project to produce a series based upon the Runestaff series about another Eternal Champion. Since it was my favorite of Moorcock's works I'd like to see it happen. (Imagine if the British Empire was crossed with the Nazi's from Indiana Jones where they had conquered all of Europe in the Victorian Era.) 

The Elric Saga has been republished in many forms over the years and Moorcock continued to revise their names and some content over the years. The easiest way to sort out the series is the Wikipedia page on Elric of Melniboné, which sorts the books out in chronological order and details which shorter stories are included in each. The mass market publishing from the 1970's through 1991 included eight "books". Although he swore he was done with Elric in 1991, Moorcock decided to write one more book in honor of the 60th Anniversary of publishing the short story, The Dreaming City, which was the nickname of Melniboné in the lore. That book, The Citadel of Forgotten Myths, is due out in Dec 2022. There are Audiobooks covering most of the saga available in three volumes plus the forthcoming  book in December. The audio stories appear to be presented in chronological order and Samuel Roukin's narration is highly rated for all of them. Audible also has the graphic novel versions of the Corum series about another Eternal Champion. I admit to finding the idea of an audio version of a graphic novel a bit ironic.