A little while ago, Fearless Leader John O’Neill posted here about Tor reprints of Michael Moorcock’s first four Dorian Hawkmoon books being remaindered (you can still get them at Amazon). It had been years since I’d read that original Hawkmoon series, and I’d never read the second series of three books that followed, despite having them sitting on my bookshelves. So in the wake of John’s post, I thought it was well worth taking another look at Hawkmoon’s adventures. I vaguely remembered enjoying the first series; would it hold up?
That first series, The History of the Runestaff, dates from the late sixties. The Jewel in the Skull was published in 1967, The Mad God’s Amulet (originally published as Sorcerer’s Amulet) and The Sword of the Dawn both came out in 1968, and The Runestaff (originally The Secret of the Runestaff) was published in 1969. A few years later, Moorcock wrote another three books following the adventures of Dorian Hawkmoon, Duke of Köln, The Chronicles of Castle Brass; these books tied Hawkmoon more closely to Moorcock’s mythos of the multiverse and the Eternal Champion — concepts tying together all Moorcock’s fiction writing. 1973’s Count Brass and The Champion of Garathorm were followed in 1975 by The Quest For Tanelorn, presenting a possible ending for the overall saga of the Champion.
In a post at Tor.com, Moorcock recalled writing the first series:
My old method of writing fantasy novels was to go to bed for a few days, getting up only to take the kids to school and pick them up, while the book germinated, making a few notes, then I’d jump out of bed and start, writing around 15-20,000 words a day (I was a superfast typist) for three days, rarely for more than normal working hours — say 9 to 6 — get my friend Jim Cawthorn to read the manuscript for any errors of typing or spelling etc. then send it straight to the editor unread by me. I have still to read more than a few pages of the Hawkmoon books.
He’s also said that
It took me three days to write the Hawkmoon books. I used to say that I COULD do the job in two days, but it needed a third day for that extra polish… I used to spend a few days in bed thinking over the story, get up to write it, then go back to bed for another day or so. It was to do with best use of energy.
I doubt if I would have written them had it not been for the fact that I’d burned out on doing comics for Fleetway and wanted fiction which was owned by me rather than owned outright by the publisher. Economically I could earn in three days what those books made me ($1000 a book) from Lancer so I gave myself three days to do them in.
That’s a lot of prose in very little time. And that kind of ceaseless first-draft writing is almost inevitably not going to be elaborate, polished work. Reading the books, it seems as though Moorcock made up for that by freeing his imagination and following where it led — not in terms of plot or structure, but in terms of incidental detail, and of the colour of the decaying world through which Hawkmoon adventures. It also seems as though, in using the kind of intense schedule of early pulp writers, Moorcock rediscovered the virtues of good pulp writing: fast, direct, driving adventure, plot-oriented but lean, moving you relentlessly through the story.
To give an idea of what I mean about the pace of the book: at the same time as I re-read the Hawkmoon books, I was (and am) reading Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. Now, that book has its own structure and its own reasons for its pace; but the fact remains that after a hundred and fifty pages, I’d been introduced to a set of characters, and followed the main character’s autobiography through his youth as part of a troupe of actors, up to a point where he was a beggar in a vast city. After a hundred and fifty pages of Hawkmoon, I was starting the second volume. The first book had included two mass combats, journeys from England to the south of France and then from France to Persia, an extended sequence in a far-future post-apocalyptic London, and assorted politics, foreshadowing, and acts of mysterious technology. It wastes no time.
The books are set thousands of years in the future, after the Tragic Millennium that ended our civilisation, and after the world has built itself back up with a new complement of legends and miracles. And villains: the brutal Dark Empire of Granbretan is expanding from its island home across Europe. In the Kamarg, the marshes in the south of France, the heroic Count Brass prepares to resist them. There, he’s joined by Dorian Hawkmoon, Duke of Köln — but Hawkmoon, captured by Granbretan, has had a sinister black jewel implanted in his skull that, if activated by the Empire’s scientists, will destroy his brain. Hawkmoon and Count Brass must work together to halt the Empire’s advance, save the Kamarg, and destroy the power of the black gem.
From this starting-point, the story gets bigger and bigger. Hawkmoon crosses continents and worlds, finding strange artifacts, and fighting his arch-enemy Baron Meliadus of Kroiden. And when Meliadus swears a mighty oath to destroy Hawkmoon, he brings another factor into play: for he swears by the Runestaff, a strange item of great power, which begins to take a hand in the unfolding pattern of events. Hawkmoon meets, and is repeatedly saved by, a servant of the Runestaff called the Warrior in Jet and Gold. It all culminates in a final battle to decide the fate of Europe and of the world.
The second series, The Chronicles of Castle Brass, then goes in a slightly different direction. These three books bring Hawkmoon firmly into the story-cycle of the Eternal Champion: a hero who manifests in different ways in different worlds, under different names. Most of Moorcock’s adventure heroes are aspects of the Champion — Corum and Elric being two of the most famous. Hawkmoon here becomes deeply involved in this saga, crossing dimensions, meeting other aspects of the Champion, and finally bringing one cycle of the multiverse to a close.
As a whole, this series is far more intricately-plotted than the first four books, but feels paradoxically less cohesive; the Eternal Champion superstructure feels like a weird graft onto Hawkmoon’s world. Exposition proliferates. Hawkmoon himself becomes less and less a driver for action, and at the climax is reduced to standing around as various intelligent godlike magical items explain who they are. As a character, Hawkmoon himself was always underdeveloped; but the first four books set him in a fascinating background. The second series removes him from that background, and replaces it with the Eternal Champion mythos — explained mostly through too-copious backstory.
I think much of what makes The History of the Runestaff work is the inventiveness of Hawkmoon’s world. It’s part post-apocalypse, part dying earth. Warriors ride scarlet flamingos into battle wielding swords and flame-lances. There are giants in the mountains, and pirates, and philosopher-wizards. Because Hawkmoon spends much of the four books in motion, travelling from place to place, the quality of invention is constant, overcoming the flat prose. Here, for example, is a description of Baron Meliadus in his home:
In his hall tower of obsidian, overlooking the bloodred River Tayme where barges of bronze and ebony carried cargo from the coast, Baron Meliadus paced his cluttered study with its tapestries of time-faded browns, blacks, and blues, its oraries [sic] of precious metals and gemstones, its globes and astrolabes of beaten iron and brass and silver, its furniture of dark, polished wood, and its carpets of deep pile the colors of leaves in autumn.
Around him, on all the walls, on every shelf, in every angle, were his clocks. All were in perfect synchronization, and all struck on the quarter, half, and full hour, many with musical effects. They were of various shapes and sizes, in cases of metal, wood, or certain other, less recognizable substances. They were ornately carved, to the extent, sometimes, that it was virtually impossible to tell the time from them. They had been collected from many parts of Europe and the near East, the spoils of a score of conquered provinces. They were what Baron Meliadus loved most among his many possessions. Not only this study, but every room in the great tower, was full of clocks. There was a huge four-faced clock in bronze, onyx, gold, silver, and platinum at the very top of the tower, and when its great bells were struck by life-size figures of naked girls holding hammers, all Londra echoed with the din. the clocks rivaled in variety those of Meliadus’s brother-in-law Taragrom, Master of the Palace of Time, whom Meliadus loathed with a deep attachment as rival for his strange sister’s perverse and whimful affections.
By contrast,Hawkmoon himself is flat, even uninteresting. He hates the Empire for destroying his home; he wants to save his life; he falls in love with Count Brass’s daughter — all these motivations are simple, easily understood, and somehow uninvolving. There’s nothing distinctive about Hawkmoon as an individual. He’s at his most intriguing when he’s first introduced, a shell of a hero, captured after his first rebellion against the Empire was crushed. He’s suffering from severe depression; nothing matters to him. He’s in the grip of ennui, to the point that life is utterly without meaning. His emergence from this state is the most interesting aspect of his character, but it’s too quick, too easy, and there’s no hint that his depression might recur. Hawkmoon simply settles into his heroic role, and that’s that.
In fact the greatest danger to all the characters in the books seems to come from ennui. A fear of ennui is said to drive the monstrous barons of the Empire in their depredations. Ennui tempts Hawkmoon to abandon his principled resistance to the Empire. I don’t know if it’s irony or a knowing commentary; Moorcock’s stated that he wrote these and his other fantasy books essentially to provide escapism, so it’s appropriate that boredom becomes the main enemy.
Certainly there’s not much to the books beyond escapism. You can see a kind of vestigial symbolism in some of the imagery, I suppose. There are satirical in-jokes; ancient gods of the Empire are named after contemporary British politicians. And in the late 60s, in the context of the UK, it may have been challenging to have a German hero fighting an evil British Empire. But the flatness of the book undermines even that fairly simple anti-nationalist slant: because the characters are so simple, their nationalities become shorthand tags that help to define their characters. Hawkmoon’s ally D’Averc is a French dandy. One of the barons of Granbretan is a brutal Russian nihilist. None of this is overdetermined, but it undercuts the anti-nationalist idea of a good guy fighting an evil Britain.
That’s compounded by the fact that characterisation’s so minimal in the books. Reading them, I couldn’t help but feel that all of Hawkmoon’s potential interiority had been displaced onto the environment around him. So I wasn’t surprised to find the following comment from Moorcock:
Landscapes tend to reflect what’s going on in their [the characters’] heads. As I said about Jerry Cornelius, who was more consciously like this, he has no ‘inner life’ because all his inner life is on the outside. It’s a form of pathetic fallacy, I suppose, deliberately used and borrowed from the Brontes, from the Gothic and from Surrealism — when the character is in turmoil an incredible storm blows up. When confused, the landscape itself begins to warp and change. What we call the ‘inner landscape’ is turned inside out.
This is actually a strong approach to building an adventure story. It makes the challenges and decisions facing the hero concrete — physical obstacles that have to be overcome with skill and bravery. I just think that Moorcock overdid it; he left Hawkmoon nothing inside himself, to the point where after about the two-thirds point of the first book, it becomes the story of a cardboard cut-out fighting his way through a series of fascinating lands and thrilling challenges. It’s not bad, given how quickly it moves. But neither is it particularly resonant; among Moorcock’s other heroes, Elric and Corum are similarly flat, maybe, but both have specific tragedies and specific internal stresses that give them a level of individual identity that Hawkmoon lacks.
Lacking that sense of character, the plot becomes a machine, moving from set-piece to set-piece. It does it economically, and the set-pieces are all highly distinct, but they feel almost irrelevant — Hawkmoon himself seems to want to just get on with his main story, rather than wander around collecting plot coupons. That could have been a strong character point (resenting the schemes of the godlike entities manipulating him); unfortunately, since there’s no real way for him to avoid being railroaded from point to point, it merely points up the unlikeliness of the plot. Luckily for Hawkmoon, the Emperor of Granbretan wants him alive. Luckily, the Warrior in Jet and Gold is around to serve as a deus ex machina at crucial points.
Oddly, this doesn’t much detract from the feel of the books. There’s a zest to their melodrama. You know Hawkmoon’s going to be stuck wandering from fight to fight, from frying-pan to fire and back, and what matters is not how he feels about it or even how those incidents tie together, but the sensory detail of those incidents and the speed with which they follow one another. The flaws of the books actually serve them: the reader’s not distracted by questions or second thoughts. You read and are entertained. Sometimes you’re struck by a nice passage or a particularly impressive set of villains. If the Castle Brass series runs into problems because it slows down too often for too much exposition, and too bluntly insists on the irrelevance of Hawkmoon as an individual character (showing him as a facet of the Eternal Champion, even replacing him with another facet of the Champion for half a book), then The History of the Runestaff gets the balance just right.
Moorcock winks and nods to the conventions of adventure fiction all the way through, as characters insist that all the unlikely events, all the baroque coincidences, come about due to the complex plots of the Runestaff. In fact, there seems no obvious reason why the Runsestaff causes things to happen one way and not another — except that it creates a better story by doing it in this manner. Which is to say that Moorcock tells a wild inventive tale by relying on the conventions of adventure fiction.
As it happens, another book I’m reading at the moment is Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination, in which I found this passage: “You notice that popular literature, the kind of stories that are read for relaxation, is always very highly conventionalized. If you pick up a detective story, you may not know until the last page who done it, but you always know before you start reading exactly the kind of thing that’s going to happen. … [P.G.] Wodehouse is a popular writer, and the fact that he is a popular writer has a lot to do with his use of stock plots. Of course he doesn’t take his own plots seriously; he makes fun of them by the way he uses them; but so did Plautus and Terence.” So does Moorcock.
Leave aside the question of how accurate Frye’s assessment of popular fiction is (and I think one could well argue that another aspect of popular literature is the way in which it revises the conventions it uses). He’s perfectly describing Moorcock’s methods and aims in the Hawkmoon books here. It’s perhaps not a surprise that Moorcock’s mentioned being a fan of Wodehouse’s; there is a sense in which the best of the Hawkmoon books are structurally reminiscent of a Wodehouse comedy — much unlikely running-around, building through a plot with its own logic to a memorable climax. Moorcock doesn’t have Wodehouse’s ear for prose, especially in books written over a weekend. But the Hawkmoon books live on the stagy energy of the plots, and the unexpected imagery through which the story’s told. They’re not terribly ambitious, but what ambitions they have, they fulfill.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.