Review of Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock

“Sword & Sorcery” fiction was one of the first fantastical genres I stumbled upon as a teenage reader. Mr Cahoon, my high school mentor, tried to steer me away from it but my friends urged me to try it out.  And after years of purely religious reading it seemed vibrant and exciting. Despite the problematic elements of many of the stories I was enthralled by the adventure and the theme of liberation that echoed through them.

I approached the first Elric book with this frame of mind and was surprised at what I found. Some of the usual elements were there: brooding male hero, magic sword, fantastical other world, etc. But Elric spent much more time brooding and pondering his conscience than fighting. There was palace intrigue, pirates, gods, and magic, but many of these elements were strange in their execution, While I could identify typical aspects of Sword & Sorcery,  there was more going on in the stories.

Instead of a lusty, virile hero, Elric was sickly and withdrawn. He was only kept alive by magic potions and herbs. He wasn’t concerned about plunder or power; he ruminated on questions of right and wrong.  Elric was morally conflicted, wrestling with cultural mores that he found flawed but were deeply embedded within his own mind; he could watch torture and know it was wrong but also be unconcerned about it. This conflict heightened his sense of alienation and ennui, for which he could find no remedy. He sought to insulate himself from what bothered him morally by embracing a practice of relativism more concerned with equivocation than with moral balance. His was not a “can’t we all just get along?” perspective, but a process of defending himself against the effects of the arrogance and cruelty around him.

It took some time, of course, for me to see this. I felt drawn to the stories but I could not articulate why. The mix of reversed tropes and recognizable elements were not easy to reconcile, and each time I re-read a story I found some clarity, but also more ideas to chew on. Moorcock played with conventions and reproduced them; he undermined ideas about propriety even as he embraced notions of imperial decline and decadence.

Robert E. Howard’s work was visceral; Tolkien’s was lofty. C. L. Moore presented a Lovecraftian take with her Jirel of Joiry stories. But I did not ponder or analyze them to the degree I did an Elric story. From the beginning of Elric of Melniboné through the rarefied saga Moorcock creates contrasts that highlight the ambivalence or complexity of an issue or situation. Elric’s reflexive approach to governing contrasts with his cousin Yyrkoon’s brutally simplistic ideas about tradition and power. His reticence to rule like a “typical” Emperor infuriates his cousin and disconcerts the Melnibonean elite.  His desire for personal freedom pushes against obligation and responsibility.  He dislikes non-Melniboneans while desiring to see the world outside his eroding empire. When he is finally able to leave his island because of the sustaining power of the sword Stormbringer, he exudes unfiltered happiness and confidence that travel will renew him. But this blinds him to the approach of tragedy for himself and his people.

The primary lesson of Elric of Melniboné  seems to be that everything has a cost, but perhaps not a simple transactional one. Elric’s acquisition of Stormbringer is the key to freedom, but that freedom will mark the start of his eventual downfall.  He revels in war-lust while fighting pirates, but as a result ends up in a compromised position that nearly kills him. That sets up the acquisition of Stormbringer, but also sets up the eventual tragedy. Whether your thinking is nuanced or simple, there will be a price. There is always a price.

Categories: Book Reviews

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