Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock
Elric of Melniboné is one of those fantasy giants that shook the genre. He’s probably not so well-known as Conan or Gandalf, but he’s nonetheless in the same country club of figures often cited as seminal to sword and sorcery — for good reason. The argument could definitely be made that Elric was the basis for most of the brooding, troubled heroes that have become so popular of late. Think of all those angsty sorcerers and tragically doomed warriors wandering across unforgiving worlds. Some — perhaps most — of them would not exist in their current form without Elric. Even those readers out there who are just about now awkwardly wondering whether they’re supposed to have heard of this guy and what it means that they haven’t would probably recognize some of the art or music associated with Moorcock’s work. So yes, Elric is and has been quite the relevant fellow in this genre, but… how’s the writing? Well… it’s good. And weird. Frequently it’s both at once.
Elric’s world was, at the time of Moorcock’s writing, a kind of antithesis of the usual fantasy tropes authors were kicking around. Elric rules the kingdom of Melinboné, an ancient empire of magically powerful and long-lived superhumans now diminishing with the rise of the Young Kingdoms (i.e. human beings) to power and prominence. There the similarities to the Tolkienian elves end, however, as Melniboné appears as a kind of anti-Rivendell in which the inhabitants are callous, cruel, and egomaniacal, aligned for millennia to a powerful Chaos demon. Elric himself, their emperor, is something like an anti-Conan: a physically frail and sickly albino sorcerer who relies on herbal medication to survive. This persistent weakness throughout his life, however, has perhaps engendered in Elric a compassion and decency not only absent in but actively scorned by his people. Elric is probably best known for his time as an adventurer, but we get little of Elric the doomed, damned wanderer in this, an origin story.
Elric of Melniboné is not the first Elric story that Moorcock wrote, but it is the first in the series’s internal chronology. Perhaps for this reason, while Moorcock clearly makes effort to forge the novel into a decent introduction to Elric for new readers, there’s a confidence in his description of his protagonist that the reader is going to take what he says at face value without a lot of explanation or justification. This is very much a novel by an author who’s fairly certain that he’s got an audience, which allows him to relax a little and take some liberties. That can be both good and bad. The style of Elric is quite engaging, and the character comes alive from the first page, but on the other hand Moorcock’s apparent fearlessness sometimes manifests in some rather odd or even silly moments that another author might have been a bit too cautious to include. A good example is a fight scene in which Elric and his cousin Yrkoon are fighting and feel compelled to bellow forth the oh-so-melodramatic names of their swords. “Stormbringer!” cries Elric. “Mournblade!” roars back his adversary. It’s hard to tell whether to giggle or gasp.
Actually, most of the novel (and indeed the series) walks that knife’s edge between “dramatic” and “over-the-top”. Even in its less assured moments, Moorcock’s prose tends toward the richly bombastic. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, per se (particularly as Moorcock is a good enough author that he rarely lets it get too ridiculously out of hand), but it does make for an interesting and by modern standards rather abnormal reading experience. The language used is gorgeously lush and resonant, and the imagery is made to match. This is a story that is in every way an epic, larger than life and rather proud of the fact. It can look a touch overwrought. That said, Moorcock generally has the eloquence to back up the bluster, and once I’d acclimated to the prose I found myself actually savoring the style. I realize some of what I’ve said may have readers marking this down as a ridiculously windy book full of thees and wherefores, but I actually encourage you to see the prose as an overall mark in the novel’s favor. You will not read much fantasy that sounds like this, and by the time the end of the series comes, you may be quite glad that Moorcock chose an epic style to match his events.
Now for the plot. Well, a major criticism that has been leveled at the ELRIC SAGA (in fact, probably the major criticism) is that the plot seems rather perfunctory, a kind of paste to hold together Moorcock’s events. That’s probably rather fair, but happily there’s not a lot of poor plotting in this first novel in the series. In fact, it all clips along fairly easily until Elric’s final decision, which may raise a few eyebrows but is explainable enough given the context. I won’t claim that the plot is anything special — in fact, I’ll go so far as to say it does feel just a little lazy — but it’s not particularly troublesome here and, when left by itself, the novel feels quite adequate as an adventure story.
To sum up: the ELRIC series has dramatic, at times slightly clunky prose by modern standards (in fact, despite Moorcock’s infamous distaste for Tolkien’s work, The Lord of the Ringsis probably the most prominent example I can give of similar style) but overall it works. The plot is nothing particularly twisting or special, but it gets the job done. The imagery is good, the characterization great, and the presentation assured. A win for Moorcock in the first round, but with the looming caveat that one of the most controversial (read: weirdest) of the Elric stories is upcoming next in Sailor on the Seas of Fate.