In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.
Welcome to the thirteenth post in the series, Where Mordicai and Tim dig into Michael Moorcock’s Elric series.
Tim Callahan: Other than J. R. R. Tolkien, who we haven’t yet talked about—but, oh yes, we will—I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for the writers in this Gygaxian Appendix N project. I have read many of them for the first time doing this series of conversations, and most of the ones I had read before were authors I came to late in my reading career. Although I ran into Dungeons and Dragons at a young age, and my role-playing game interests led me to some fantasy fiction, it wasn’t this stuff. It was the “Endless Quest” series or the Prydain chronicles of Lloyd Alexander or the Narnia books or Frank Herbert’s Dune or whatever was on the shelf of the nearest Waldenbooks that had “Dragon” somewhere in the title.
The big exception was Michael Moorcock. I read The Swords Trilogy and The Chronicles of Corum early, and they made an impact. They exploded inside my mind in a way I have never forgotten, even if I can’t remember many of the story details from any particular chapter.
But I somehow missed the Elric books entirely. Elric is clearly the most famous of the Moorcock characters, right? The albino champion with the black sword? He’s a big deal in the world of fantasy fiction. But I never read a single page of an Elric story in my youth, even though the Corum books were some of the most imaginative and terrifyingly evocative fantasy books I’d ever read.
I didn’t pick up any of the Elric books until a few years ago, with the Del Ray chronological reprints, a series that provides the stories in the order they were published along with some Moorcock letters and non-fiction to provide context on the development of the world of Melniboné. I appreciate the comprehensiveness of that approach to the Elric texts, but I didn’t really feel like I tuned into Elric until halfway through the first reprint volume, when we get the four novellas of Stormbringer. That’s the stuff that was first published in America, from what I understand, and I can see why.
It’s classic Moorcock, in that imaginative and terrifyingly evocative way that I loved all those years ago when I first picked up The Swords Trilogy off a spinner rack in my hometown general store. Stormbringer begins with agents of chaos abducting Elric’s wife, and it takes off into the realm of mass warfare and conflicts with not-quite-dead-gods soon enough.
Moorcock aims for the mythic.
Mordicai Knode: Elric is definitely the most famous Moorcock character, yeah, and I think easily the one most “archetypal”—I mean, I talked about God of Blades as a good example, but you can just as easily cite a big name like Raistlin Majere—but that is part of the charm, isn’t it? The idea of the Eternal Champion, that Elric and Hawkmoon and Corum and whoever else are all just different manifestations of a pan-dimensional hero, appearing in every parallel world. That idea is both central to Moorcock’s fantasy work, but paradoxically totally beside the point; you don’t need to know that all of the icons of Moorcock are all different expressions of the same meta-textual being. Until he goes into other dimensions to deal with demon princes and the cities of the undying, at least.
So we’ve been starting these reads off with your confessions lately, so here is a confession of mine: I don’t really like Elric! I get that Elric sort of defined the reaction against Tolkien, and that the grim anti-hero trope was really crystallized for fantasy as a genre by Elric—but because of that he just reads so…juvenile to me. Like what is being done with the New 52 in comics, it just seems like the Grim n’ Gritty comics of the 80s and 90s. I know that Elric predates that, but I’m still unable to separate the concepts, in my head. Other, later works have retroactively tainted it. No, for my money the best Eternal Champion is Hawkmoon.
Of course, I say all of that, but I had a nation in my last role-playing campaign that I went so far as to name “Arioch,” which was a mash-up between a lot of pulp sources, from Moorcock to Burroughs. I sort of summed it up as “Flash Gordon in Carcosa, Miskatonic Lankhmar, John Carter of Melniboné.” So yeah, it isn’t like I don’t actually find it inspiring; I obviously do.
TC: Would you say that you don’t like Elric, as a character? Or is it that you don’t like the Elric books and stories?
Because as much as I love this era of Moorcock—though I never could appreciate the Jerry Cornelius tales in practice, no matter how great they sounded in theory—I wouldn’t say I actually like Elric himself. Whenever he says or does anything, I can’t help but hear Kenneth Branagh in my mind, talking about the “delicate and tender prince” of Norway. (I taught Hamlet for a dozen years in a row, so those kinds of things pop up from time to time, I’m afraid.) He’s not a great character. His sword is way more interesting than he is, which is never a good sign.
Then again, the black blade Stormbringer is cooler than many characters in fantasy literature, so I can’t fault Moorcock for that.
But as melancholy and impetuous and kind-of-inconsistent and not-all-that-substantial as Elric can be as a character, the stories he takes part in are brimming with crazy images and feats of imaginative power. When Moorcock has a fleet of ships on the horizon, it’s not just a fleet of ships, its 40,000 undead magic-imbued ships. When Elric finally rescues his beloved, it’s not a mere victim of kidnapping he finds, but rather his wife as a bloated demonic worm monster who throws herself on his sword so as not to live such a tortured existence. When Elric dies—well, he doesn’t really, as the struggle for Eternal Balance never ends.
It’s big stuff. Massive. Expansive. And that’s what I love most about it, even if it does center around an albino guy who makes every statement a blandly bold declaration and every question a cry against the mighty forces of the universe.
MK: I would say I don’t like Elric stories, but not liking Elric is part of that. He just needs like…one more dimension. You can’t just be brooding and periodically violent, you gotta have some kind of twist, or angle, or character. That said, again, I know I’m retroactively biased; at the time Elric came out, I’m sure that whole anti-hero thing was fresh, but growing up reading about Liefeldian comic book dudes really takes the wind out of those sails. Though I will say that I really, really like Branagh’s Hamlet; I was in high school when that movie came out and we used to go to the tiny little indie theater and watch Hamlet after school pretty regularly, like a half dozen times. And not for nothing, but Hamlet is a good name to bring up, as is Macbeth; Elric is pretty rife with that tragic Shakespearean pathos. Maybe just a little over rife.
You’re right to say that Stormbringer is cooler than Elric. Stormbringer is the real star, and the part that sticks with me as a reader. Heck, that sticks with me as a Dungeon Master. I’m not alone in that—the magic sword Blackrazor in the White Plume Mountain adventure is a clear homage—but it really is just a great template for a magic item. It even has a sibling sword, Mournblade, so you can give Stormbringer to your PCs and Mournblade to their most hated NPC rival. Perfect! And you know, is the solidified will of a demon prince. As I mentioned in my Planes of 5e pitch I think that pseudo-divine evil is some of the most well developed mythology in D&D, so that fits, too.
And sure it is big, but the size of Elric’s stories just make it seem sort of un-anchored to plausibility. It is just too epic, too consistently. Oh, more demon boats made from fingernails, crewed by the dead, and everyone has guns that shoot lightning…again. I guess that might be part of why I like Hawkmoon more: the worldbuilding is more precise, and the villains are more of a problem. Conquering entire continents isn’t nearly as impressive as conquering this continent, where the story is actually happening.
TC: I absolutely agree that Moorcock’s writing overall can be so big that it becomes, as you say, “un-anchored to plausibility.” It’s not just the Elric stories that end up that way, and though that vast imaginative scope is what draws me to Moorcock, it also repels me in the end. I can only take so much of it. I love the collection of stories that was published as Stormbringer, but that’s really all I need.
And I’m glad you mentioned White Plume Mountain, because it’s a classic D&D adventure and though it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the Elric mythos, specifically, the sword Blackrazor is clearly plucked from Moorcock’s works. Module writer Lawrence Schick even admitted that it was written as a kind of calling card to TSR to get hired as a game designer, and it worked, but he never would have included such an obvious Elric homage if he thought the module were going to see print as written. It’s pretty blatant.
Then again, the gang at TSR statted up Elric and his friends for the first printing of Deities and Demigods, so they didn’t hide their Moorcock affection from the public. Until legal matters forced them into retreat and Elric was removed from their official mythology almost immediately.
As a closing note, I think it’s worth looking at what Moorcock himself has said about his writing from the Elric era. In a letter from 1963, Moorcock wrote, “I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I’d rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas.”
I would too. And that’s what we get with Elric and Stormbringer: big ideas, maybe not so gracefully executed every time.
Note: For more on Moorcock and Elric, you can check out the Karin L. Kross’s ongoing Elric Reread here on Tor.com!