Elric of Melnibone, written by Michael Moorcock, is arguably one of the most recognizable characters in 20th century fantasty literature. He’s also a fascinating antihero. The Stealer Of Souls, (****) the first volume of his adventures (in their modern Del Rey publication, anyway) collects the first two Elric cycles ever published. Ironically, these are the last adventures of Elric if you were to group them by internal chronology, but I think that they work as a good introduction to the character regardless.* For a while, these were all the Elric stories that existed before Moorcock went back and filled in a lot of the backstory with other adventures.
In Moorcock’s canon of work, the cosmology goes something like this: There are two forces at work in the multiverse–Order (or Law) and Chaos. These two forces are always at war, and neither must ever win out completely. If the world is tipped toof far towards Law, the result is stagnation. If the world is tipped too far towards Chaos, the result is madness. Thus, Fate empowers the Eternal Champion (different incarnations of the same character in various realms of the multiverse–I’m told Moorcock recently penned a Doctor Who novel in which he implied the Doctor may be yet another face of the Eternal Champion) to protect the Cosmic Balance. Elric is one incarnation of this Champion.
In Elric’s world, the empire of Melnibone ruled the world for over ten millenia, its rulers cruelly subjugating the human inhabitants of the “younger kingdoms” as slaves and subjects through military might, dark sorcery and their mastery of the dragons. The Melniboneans are an older race than humanity, resembling the elves of other fantasy in many respects. They are cruel and arrogant by nature, traditionally alligned with the forces of Chaos and its lords. Over the course of recent generations Melnibone’s influence in the world has waned and their civilization faded, until of their vast empire and many cities only the Dragon Isle and the dreaming city of Imrryr remains. Elric is by rights the 428th Emperor of Melnibone, but as the story opens his throne has been usurped by his cousin Yrkoon, prompting Elric to seek vengeance on his cousin and the entire Dreaming City.
Elric is himself an albino, physically weak and dependent on outside sources for his strength. Sometimes he is able to make do with drugs distilled from certain herbs he knows how to work with. Sometimes he is able to strengthen himself through sorcery, draw power or assistance from gods or demons he can summon. But for most of the stories in this volume Elric draws the core of the strength he needs to survive and function from his sentient sorcerous sword, Stormbringer. Stormbringer is a powerful weapon, forged of Chaos. It has a mind of its own in battle, and absorbs the souls of anyone slain on its blade and feeds that power to its wielder. It is an evil weapon, and despite Elric’s reliance on it he hates it for its continuous thirst for the blood of those closest to him.
The stories that make up this volume begin with Elric seeking his revenge on his traitorous cousin and their nation, trace him through his next several adventures in the younger kingdoms, and then chronicles the climactic battle between Chaos and Law for the fate of the world–a battle Elric is fated to play the major role in. I don’t want to say too much here for fear of spoilers.
The Elric stories have their origin in the pulps of the fifties and sixties. As a result, the prose is very……I’m not sure “lurid” is quite the right word, but I can’t find a better one. The tone is very moody, even gloomy, as Elric deals with the consequences of his actions and ponders philosophical questions about his fate and place in the world. Especially towards the end as Chaos overtakes the world the stories grow exceedingly grim as kingdom after kingdom, friend after friend, all fall before the growing threat of Chaos.
Content: This is fantasy in the vein, content-wise, of Conan the Barbarian. Thematically and as a character Elric is really the opposite of Conan, but nevertheless the comparison stands in this narrow category.
Violence: PG-13/R. Lots of violence, some instances more horrifying than others. Many die in battle, others in single combat, and a number of Elric’s friends die accidentally on the blade of his own sword, their souls sucked out by his black blade to feed his own abilities. There is some Necromancy, some torture, and discussion of the forces of Chaos warping men into monsters of grotesque description. As its a book, the impact of this depends greatly on your own imagination.
Language: PG at worst, I think. I don’t recall much at all…..certainly nothing you wouldn’t hear on primetime television today.
Sex: PG-13. There’s a fair amount of sexual content, but its not too explicit.
*Over the years I’ve gone back and forth on the issue of the proper chronological order to read series in–either publication order or internal chronology. I’ve settled, at least for now, on reading things in the order they were published the first time through, then in future read-throughs going by internal chronology. In the case of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the first book chronologically, The Magician’s Nephew, is not nearly as strong a book if you haven’t read the first published entry, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. In the Star Wars films, Darth Vader’s initial scene in A New Hope doesn’t have quite the menace it had in 1977 if you have already seen the much-maligned prequel films released in the last decade and a half.