Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Blog Fantastic 020: Elric: the Stealer of Souls review

"Be wary of this devil-blade, Moonglum. It kills the foe -- but savours the blood of friends and kinfolk most." (p. 125)
It was a serendipitous occasion that I discovered the joys of used bookstores just a few months after I started to blog. I wanted to use my blog as a way for me to explore fantasy novels and authors, some that are considered classics of the genre and others that I’ve wanted to try for a while but simply hadn’t. The used bookstore became my go to place for finding old books, many of which are hidden gems and recognized classics of fantasy literature. It’s also a source for discovery and I admit that I’ve been mesmerized by a few old-style painted covers (not digital painting like the blurry images with no depths or definition that we often find on covers today). Michael Moorcock is one of those others I’ve wanted to explore for a long time. In fact, I’ve owned Elric: the Stealer of Souls for a few years and I had even attempted to read it when I got distracted by a big school project or exams and it eventually found its way to my parents’ house where I found it again a few months ago. My second attempt was much more successful (I finished reading it, for starters) but my deeper exploration of all things fantasy novels, I’m more apt to appreciate these stories now than I was five years ago.

The Elric stories were first published in Science Fantasy magazine in 1961. John Carnell, the magazine’s publisher, asked Moorcock to write him a sword and sorcery story in the vein of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. When Moorcock send Carnell just such a story, he replied that he didn’t want an actual Conan story, only something similar. Moorcock when back to his typewriter and the result was “The Dreaming City”, the first story of the Elric of Melniboné saga. For anyone who is familiar with the characters and stories of Conan and Elric is aware of just how little the two have in common. Nonetheless, Moorcock’s Elric become equally famous and influential to the genre as Conan. “The Dreaming City” along with eight other stories, are collected in this edition by Del Rey. These are the first Elric stories in publication order but some, particularly the last four stories originally published as the novel Stormbringer, comprised some of the last Elric stories chronologically. None of that really matters though because I think these stories work as well whether or not you’re familiar with the internal chronology of the series. Because they originated as short stories published in a magazine, they have a distinct sequential flavour to them and each story contains the main idea of who and what Elric is, both as a character and as a series.

The art by John Picacio is a delight. Some of the art, particularly of the demons and other
 agents of Chaos, was heavily textured and wasn't nearly as nice as his more simple
character work as seen above.

Elric of Melniboné is the last emperor of the grand Melnibonéan Empire which ruled the Earth for 10,000 years. An albino and a sorcerer, Elric is physically weak but he uses his skills as a sorcerer to summon demons, elementals and agents of Chaos to come to his aid when he needs them. He draws his physical strength from a black runesword named Stormbringer which eats the souls of his victims and transfers some of the energy to Elric. Much has been written about the relationship between Elric and Stormbringer and deservedly so. It’s one of, if not the most interesting elements of these stories. There is much that can be said about the vampiric nature of the sword itself or the drug addict-like behaviour Elric showcases in his use and dependency of Stormbringer. It’s fascinating and I really enjoy how Moorcock explore these ideas and themes in his stories. Stormbringer has continuously been a source of power for Elric but it’s also been the cause of many of the hardships he faced in his life. The black blade is as likely to kill a friend of a loved one as it is to kill a demon or foe.

The foundation of the series is based on the Elric-Stormbringer relationship. The early stories, more closely resemble the style and format of typical sword and sorcery stories of forties, fifties and sixties. Moorcock differentiates himself from his contemporaries by infusing his stories with dark and brooding questions about morality and the philosophies of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The other half of the stories collected here continue to develop and play with the themes of the earlier stories also develop the metaphysical cosmology, the fight between Law and Chaos and the ensuing effects on the world when Chaos begins to take over.

Picacio's version of Stormbringer.
I’m avoiding talking about the plot of the stories outright because I think it’s best to enjoy these stories first hand and also because the plotting isn’t what made Elric: the Stealer of Souls a memorable read for me. Though I have to admit I love the simplicity and the directness of the first story “The Dreaming City”.

It was kind of strange reading this book. In part it’s because it’s so different from the kind of fantasy novel I’m used to reading. The stories are odd and I like them for it but to read all of these stories in quick succession, I felt a little woozy. Everything is all gloom and doom and even Moonglum’s humour can’t counterbalance that. It’s a quick and dirty style of fantasy storytelling. It’s a little taxing to read so many Elric stories back to back. Part of me enjoyed The Ice Schooner more than Elric: The Stealer of Souls. In the former, Moorcock wanted to write a novel that had a simpler structure because he felt he was starting to pigeonhole himself as the writer of strange, unconventional, psychedelic and experimental novels. He worried that maybe he didn’t know how to write a traditionally structure story and I like The Ice Schooner’s simplicity. Its writing is also better than that found in these Elric stories, though not by much, are the work of a younger Moorcock. In one of the essays and letters, Moorcock admits that most of the early Elric stories were published in their first drafts. The regular serialized format didn’t allow time for rewrites. It’s unfortunate, but it shows. It’s ok because even when you consider the quality of the writing, the stories are still very interesting. It’s because Moorcock goes for the mythic. He has imagination in spades and he’s able to put really big ideas down on the page in a way that highlights just how crazy these ideas are.

I think it’s always interesting to read old fantasy stories, even if it’s not always a pleasant experience. It reminds me that back in the fifties, sixties and seventies fantasy wasn’t focused on world building. Novels of today focus more on the world building than anything else. Sometimes that works for a book but other time it doesn’t. It can be difficult for readers today (at least younger readers) to really get into a story that was written and published decades ago if only because they’re not use to that kind of world building. This collection has a little map of the world but, to be honest, I don’t think it’s entirely accurate. That shouldn’t really matter for the story but because I’m used to large and detailed maps, it matters to me as a reader. The little map is indicative of the kind of world building Moorcock employs with the early Elric stories. It’s fast and loose. It’s unpolished, doesn’t really establish “rules” and it’s mutable. Everything feels raw and that make sense considering the first draft origins of these stories. Characters, cultures and kingdom don’t have that much outright detail and it affects the realism of the world in which Elric lives. There are still plenty of details to be found in these stories but it’s not world building. Moorcock only gives you the details that matter to the events taking place in the story. He also provides quite a bit of details in how he describes the agents of Chaos that Elric battles against in the Stormbringer stories. It’s grandiose. The metaphysical is as developed as the physical and that only really starts in the second half of this collection. That’s only the beginning though as Moorcock would later tie-in most of his work into one large Multiverse (often cited as one of the firsts of its kind).

When it comes to the character himself, I think Elric is very interesting. He and his sword are fascinating. The only problem is that I don’t really like him. He’s far too melodramatic for my taste. He has the potential to do so much but instead, he wallows in his own self-pity. I realize that’s kind of the point. Elric is the antidote to traditional sword and sorcery stories as well as typical heroic fantasy. His stories have often been described as the fathers of anti-Tolkien stories. Elric isn’t physically strong. His albinism is described as the cause for his thin built and weakness of body. It’s only due to his chaos sorcery and runesword that he gains any strength. He’s not even all that heroic. On many occasions he’s thieving or on a quest for personal gain. In the very first story he knowingly causes the ruin of the last great city of the Melnibonéan Empire. It’s because he’s different that he’s interesting but after reading Elric: the Stealer of Souls its clear to me that he lacks substance. He’s defined by his sword and his personal desire for power but it’s not quite enough to make him engaging on his own. Elric’s stories works because of everything else that Moorcock adds to them in addition to Elric.

If you care about the history of fantasy publication or even just classic and influential stories or genre writers, you can’t pass on this book. At the very least, you can’t avoid reading Elric stories. They’re not good in their entirety but there is plenty to enjoy and different things will work better for different people, that’s to be expected, but there is so much good material crammed into these stories you’re guaranteed to find something of interest. The question is more how much Elric can you tolerate and will reading Elric convinces you to give Moorcock’s other (better?) characters and novels a chance. For the first question I’d say that for now, about one Del Rey trade paperback is enough for me. As for the second question, hell yes it will. I’ve got more Moorcock on my bookshelf that I plan to read. There is something about his writing that I find captivating and worthy of my attention. Because of these Elric stories, I know that even if other books by Moorcock aren’t good, they’ll at least have been worth my time.

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