This is a tale of tragedy, this tale of Melniboné, the Dragon Isle. This is a tale of monstrous emotions and high ambitions. This is a tale of sorceries and treacheries and worthy ideals, of agonies and fearful pleasures, of bitter love and sweet hatred. This is the tale of Elric of Melniboné. Much of it Elric himself was to remember only in his nightmares.
I have my father to thank for introducing me, as a teenager, to Elric of Melniboné. I would almost certainly never have thought about reading these books otherwise and probably wouldn’t have even heard of them, as I’ve never had a lot of interest in reading fantasy, especially of the ‘swords and sorcery’ type. Michael Moorcock’s Elric books (and to a lesser extent, his Corum series) are among the small number of fantasy novels I’ve actually read and enjoyed. I hadn’t thought about them for years but when I was tidying my shelves one day a couple of weeks ago I came across my old copies (or rather, my dad’s old copies, some of which I’ve pictured above) and decided it might be fun to re-read them.
I only meant to re-read the first one but couldn’t resist reading most of the series again. This is not such an impressive feat as it sounds – there are six core books in the series, if you don’t count the sequels published later, and most of them are less than 200 pages long. Because they are so short (and some of them are collections of short stories rather than full-length novels) the pace is quick – there’s always something happening and the plot moves forward with every page. There seems to be some debate over the correct reading order for the series but as a general guide, Elric of Melniboné should be read first, followed by The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, The Weird of the White Wolf, The Sleeping Sorceress, The Bane of the Black Sword and finally, Stormbringer. Some of the individual stories in these books are also collected together in different orders in other volumes such as The Stealer of Souls.
The series follows the story of Elric of Melniboné, the four hundred and twenty-eighth Emperor to sit upon the Ruby Throne. Melniboné, or the Dragon Isle, is an island nation of sorcerers who once ruled the world but have seen their power gradually diminished as their human neighbours from the Young Kingdoms grow stronger and the gods of Law and Chaos battle for supremacy over the world. Some of the Melniboneans, including Elric’s ambitious cousin Yrykoon, believe Elric is not strong enough to rule as Emperor and to restore Melniboné to its former glory – because Elric is an albino, born with a deficiency of the blood which forces him to rely on magic potions to maintain his strength and prevent him from becoming weak and lethargic. When Yrykoon attempts to kill him and take both the throne and Elric’s lover, Cymoril, for himself, Elric enters into a bargain with Arioch, the Lord of Chaos. Arioch will come to his assistance whenever possible, but in return Elric will be bound to the enchanted black sword, Stormbringer, which steals the souls of its victims and often seems to have a mind of its own.
Although Elric is the character around whom the whole series revolves, his actions are not always very heroic and in fact, he is much more of an anti-hero than a hero. He is not evil, but not ‘good’ either and it is often unclear whether he is fighting on the side of Chaos or of Law. I think the reason I found Elric so appealing when I was younger was because, not having read a lot of adult fiction at that time, I’d rarely encountered a fictional character with so much darkness and complexity and who didn’t always do what the reader wanted or expected him to do. From what I’ve read, Moorcock was trying to create an antithesis to other more traditional fantasy heroes such as Conan the Barbarian and so, rather than succeeding through physical power, Elric is brooding and melancholy, relying on sorcery rather than strength. Other characters come and go throughout the series – enemies such as Jagreen Lern, the Theocrat of Pan Tang, and the sorcerer, Theleb K’aarna, and friends including Rackhir the Red Archer, Dyvim Slorm, the Dragon Master, and my favourite, Moonglum of Elwher.
I’ll admit that you probably couldn’t describe these books as great literature, but they are not badly written and are very entertaining – and for such short books, the level of world building is very impressive. Moorcock’s style is not overly descriptive, but he manages to paint vivid images in only a few words: gold-plated battle-barges negotiating the rocks and grottos of the Melnibonean sea-maze; the underwater kingdom of Straasha and his water elementals; the dragons slumbering in their caves below the Dreaming City of Imrryr. Reading these books again, as an adult, I found that the quality of the writing seems to vary quite a lot from book to book, possibly because their chronological order is not the same as the order in which they were written and published. Elric of Melniboné and Stormbringer, in my opinion deserve to be considered classics of the fantasy genre, but some of the stories in between are much less satisfying.
The Elric series is part of a much larger cycle of books known as The Eternal Champion, the idea being that Elric is just one incarnation of a hero who has existed in many different times and on different planes. There are other books and series featuring other incarnations of the Eternal Champion and at times their stories cross or intersect – for example, in the second Elric book, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, Elric briefly meets three of his other selves, Corum, Erekose and Hawkmoon. I have read a few of the books featuring these other characters, but the only ones I enjoyed were the Corum books – a more straightforward fantasy series than Elric, but with a less interesting protagonist.
If I’ve convinced anyone to give Michael Moorcock a try (and I know these are entirely different from the books I usually write about on this blog) Elric of Melniboné, in my opinion, is the best place to start!