Joe Mallozzi’s online book club is reading Moorcock’s The Stealer of Souls this month (there’s already been some discussion here; Moorcock himself will appear as guest today, Wed. 6/10/09). So I thought I’d say a few words about the book… but which book is it, anyway?
That’s not a rhetorical question. Geeky details beyond the jump, cobbled together from various copyright pages, the wise words of Mr. Wikipedia, and other stuff I read somewhere once or heard someone say.
To put it mildly: Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories have a very complicated publication history and an intricate interior chronology. The first nine stories appeared in the British magazine Science Fantasy in the early 1960s. These were gathered into two volumes: a collection, The Stealer of Souls (1963), and an episodic novel (or “fix up”, as everyone else seems to call them), Stormbringer (1965). Since that novel ended with Elric murdered by his own demonic sword, most people would have figured that was the end of the series. But, in the early 70s, Moorcock started filling in the backstory of the White Wolf with what (still) seems to be the earliest story in Elric’s career, Elric of Melniboné (a truncated version earlier appeared as The Dreaming City), later adding an Eternal Champion crossover novel (The Sailor on the Seas of Fate) and The Sleeping Sorceress (a.k.a. The Vanishing Tower, a collection with more crossover material), and reshuffling the first Elric collection with stories written later to produce the two DAW volumes The Weird of the White Wolf and The Bane of the Black Sword.
Moorcock wasn’t done with Elric yet, but it started to seem as if he was. The 1980s novelette “Elric at the End of Time” sent him into the world of the “Dancers at the End of Time” and doesn’t show him at his best. It reminds me of the stories by Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison (“A Toy for Juliette” and “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”) where Jack the Ripper is brought into a decadent world of the far future. Only Elric plays a somewhat tamer version of Jack.
But Elric would return in a more heroic vein roughly a decade later in the novels Fortress of the Pearl and The Revenge of the Rose. In more recent years there has also been a sequel trilogy (a section of which may be familiar to long-time readers of this magazine), a couple of graphic novels, apart from the graphic and sonic adaptations and a long-simmering series of (so far fruitless) movie deals.
So. Where does one start in a saga so complex, so retconned and rethought and interwoven through the Moorcockian multiverse?
With the original stories–if you can find them. My first exposure to the Elric series was in the DAW editions of the 1970s, which were clearly intended to be authoritative, each tale carefully placed in sequence according to Elric’s biography. But I can’t say that they really worked for me. It was like a patchwork quilt where each one of the patches was alive but trying to crawl in a different direction. The books presented themselves as continuous narratives, but they didn’t feel as if they really were. The parts were greater than the whole.
What I wanted then is the book that Del Rey recently published as The Stealer of Souls: not to be confused with the 1960s volume (which it will be), this is a collection of all nine of the original Elric stories.
There is some interesting supplementary material, too: introductions by Alan Moore and Moorcock himself; an adventure of an earlier Moorcock hero, Sojan; a section of black-and-white art from the magazine appearances of Elric; some letters and leftovers; and the whole scattered with beautiful interior illustrations by John Picacio, who everyone reading this will have heard of if this is a just world. (If not, there is Google or, if you must, Bing.) They add to the book, without a doubt, but the main event is the original Elric series itself.
Logic and reason would suggest that if “The Dreaming City” (the first story in the present volume) appears in volume three of the authorized 1970s Elric–which is now chronologically volume four of Elric’s adventures–readers should not begin here. But logic and reason are not reliable guides in Elric’s corner of the multiverse. And anyway: readers in 1961 did begin here: in medias res with Elric’s damnation already in progress. Moorcock would later detail the backstory, but (though interesting in its own right) that isn’t necessary to follow the vivid, blood-splashed events of the sack of Immryr, and Elric’s loss of everything that matters to him. Here’s Elric: from the moment you meet him, it’s all over.
And here’s the opener of the second Elric story, “While the Gods Laugh”: “One night, as Elric sat moodily drinking alone in a tavern, a wingless woman of Myyrrhn came gliding out of the storm and rested her lithe body against him.” This is ingenious in lots of ways, some of which are hard to see because the imagery has become so commonplace. (The story begins in a tavern, but do not expect a Dwarf, an Elf and a Cleric-Muffinmaker to appear.) How else could doomed Elric drink but “moodily”? And the brilliantly placed adjective “wingless” suggests a context where women, at least some women, are not wingless. That’s worldmaking with stunning economy.
“While the Gods Laugh” also features the first appearance of Elric’s sidekick Moonglum. Once Elric meets Moonglum and they start adventuring around the Young Kingdoms, the stories hit their classic register: each one is obviously part of something bigger, but each story is also off by itself somehow: stubbornly an episode, never an epic.
Moorcock’s great talent, like Elric’s, is evocation. The same way Elric can summon Arioch at crucial moments to lay plot-problem waste with a chaotic deus ex machina, Moorcock can summon from some nether consciousness the precise, ghostly phrasing that brings a strange chaotic world alive: “the still blue city of Tanelorn”, “She did not welcome the morning”, “Ten terrible men drove their yellow chariots down the black mountain”–I’m snatching these at random from pages in Moorcock. Arioch leers out at you from the details.
His epic cosmology (with the balance of Law and Chaos and the Eternal Champion and all that) has drawn a lot of attention, and I’m not knocking it. It’s been tremendously influential. But for me the triumph of his heroic fantasy is in these evocative details, sparks flying off from a white-hot typewriter and burning into the imagination.
Not all the Elric stories are created equal, and in particular the crossover tales don’t usually win me over. But each of the original tales is in its own way a classic. The Del Rey editions should supplant the old DAW volumes as the definitive version of Elric, an epic that was smashed and fractured into fascinating fragments from the moment it broke into print.