Friday, April 24, 2009

Duke Elric (Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Vol. 4)

If you didn't know any better, you might glance at the cover of one of Michael Moorcock's "Elric" books and dismiss it as some ridiculously derivative sword-and-sorcery story. The only problem with that assessment is that Moorcock (a Nebula Grand Master and one of the godfathers of SF) was the guy who literally *coined the term* "sword-and-sorcery"--and it's the many books and cultural references that followed that are derivative of the ur-anti-hero and proto-goth Elric, the brooding albino emperor of Melbinoné and wielder of the soul-devouring sword Stormbringer.

A classic Michael Whelan cover.

Along with writers like Fritz Leiber and L. Sprague de Camp, Moorock defined the genre, continuing in the '60s, '70s, and beyond what Robert E. Howard had started way back in the '30s with his Conan the Barbarian stories.

The latest Elric collection just came out in paperback last month, and it includes the 1976 novella The Sailor on the Seas of Fate--which Michael Chabon calls a "minor masterpiece" in his enthusiastic foreword. Chabon praises the novella for "packing" in...

...such diverting fare as speculation on ontology and determinism, gory subterranean duels with giant killer baboons, literary criticism (the murmuring soul-vampiric sword Stormbringer offers what is essentially a running commentary on the equivocal nature of heroic swordsmen in fiction), buildings that are really alien beings, and ruminations on the self-similar or endlessly reflective interrelationship of hero, writer, and reader...

Duke Elric has a bunch of other stuff going on, too, including some cool classic art, the script for an Elric graphic novel, a story from the Metatemporal Detective, and a 1963 article in which Moorcock describes how he basically gets high from reading 18th and 19th century Gothic novels. You can read a preview here:

Or, of course, you can't go wrong doing what I did in high school and picking up Elric's story from the beginning. Michael Chabon has apparently been a fan since he was 14, and he sums up the appeal at that time perfectly:

"... I found profound comfort in feeling that I shared in the nature of lost and wandering Elric, isolate but still hungering for connection, herocially curious, apparently weak but capable of surprising power, unready and unwilling to sit on the moldering throne of his father's but having nothing certain to offer in its stead."


Kristopher said...

I remember picking up the first six Elric books at a used bookstore long ago, then locking myself in my room for a week and devouring them one after another.

Haven't really kept up with Elric or Moorcock since then. I'll have to give Duke Elric a try and see if it holds up.

Paul Hughes said...

Flip through the copyright info (on page 9 of the widget preview) to see where the different stories come from. There's not much new material--and the Metatemporal Detectives story is only tangentially related to Elric. The Sailors novella, though, is absolutely worth it if you haven't read it, and the newer comic script is also a solid, complete story (with the added bonus of giving you a peek into Moorcock's commentary to the artists, and just the logistics of assembling a comic).

Sam said...

Excellent suggestion! Especially the one about starting at the beginning. Don't shortchange yourself -- read every drop of the original Elric saga.

I also recommend the Corum and Hawkmoon sagas and, if you're willing to have your mind blown, The Dancers at the End of Time.

Kraxpelax said...
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