Welcome back to the Elric Reread, in which I revisit one of my all-time favorite fantasy series: Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga. You can find all the posts in the series here. Today’s post discusses The Revenge of the Rose, published in 1991.
As with The Fortress of the Pearl, this is where reading the novels according to Elric’s own chronology gets a bit strange, because The Revenge of the Rose is a radically different book from the ones on either side of it in the series. In his introduction to the 2010 volume Swords and Roses, Moorcock writes that he was driven by a need to feel “as ambitious about that book as I had felt in 1961 when I began the series and was one of the very few producing this kind of fantasy.” To this end, he sends Elric on a quest across the Multiverse in search of a rosewood box that contains the soul of his father, Sadric.
Along the way Elric will meet several other travelers of the Multiverse. He will encounter a family of clairvoyants, a nation of villages borne on gigantic wooden platforms that never cease in their eternal journey across their world, a viscous ocean that can only be navigated with the help of a monstrous toad, a forest of crystal trees, a trio of mysterious sisters, and a ship warped beyond recognition by Chaos. But the most daring thing Moorcock does here is to introduce a surprising storytelling element: comedy.
Not that the other Elric stories overall are entirely without humor; it’s just that the humor tends to be of the dry, ironic, and dark variety. There are jokes and lightness in The Revenge of the Rose, largely thanks to Elric’s new companion, the poet Ernest Wheldrake. And to be honest, it’s a breath of fresh air after the fist-shaking misery that ended The Sleeping Sorceress. Elric’s central quest is a powerful metaphor for a troubled father-son relationship: after finding the rosewood box, he must release his father’s soul to the afterlife, or else suffer that soul to be merged with his own forever in mutual hatred. But for all that, he is actually a livelier, funnier, and more vigorous character here—it is startling to realize that his new nemesis Prince Gaynor the Damned speaks the truth when he accuses Elric of having an “insistent relish of life.” Gaynor, once a defender of the Balance and now a servant of Chaos, is both a warning of what Elric could become and an exaggerated version of the self-pitying, despairing figure we saw in the last book—Gaynor desires nothing but death, and wields a magical “leechsword” that feeds off the enchanted likes of Elric’s own Stormbringer. He is also the object of the title character’s revenge, having brought about the destruction of the Rose’s world and the annihilation of her people.
The Rose is the last survivor of a race of sorceresses sworn against all forms of tyranny; an accomplished swordswoman and powerful magician, she is as striking and formidable as Oone the Dreamthief from The Fortress of the Pearl. Remarkably, her relationship with Elric is that rare thing in fiction: a friendship between a man and a woman into which romance does not enter. There are, alas, large parts of the story where she’s not present, but not to worry; she proves to be too good a character for Moorcock to abandon and will appear again in other stories. Elric’s primary sidekick is the poet Wheldrake, late of Elizabethan Putney, and one of Moorcock’s premiere comic creations. Wheldrake is a “little cockscomb” of a man: short, red-haired, birdlike, wearing a coat that he can’t button because of all the books he has crammed in his pockets. He’s inspired by Algernon Swinburne, a Victorian poet much admired by Moorcock, and his name is derived from a pseudonym that Swinburne used to write bad reviews of his own work. Wheldrake spins a poem at the drop of a hat and his capacious memory contains a verse for every occasion, invariably one of his own. He leads what another famous time traveler would call a “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” existence; the Rose is familiar with poems he hasn’t written yet, and he has already written verse based on stories of Elric’s as yet unfinished life. There’s an advantage in this temporal peculiarity: his poetry is at once a chronicle and an oracle of Elric’s adventures with the Rose, and more than once a fragment of his verse clarifies another twist in their quest.
The Revenge of the Rose is a longer work than the other Elric novels, and the adventure does tend to meander a bit as Elric drifts from world to world, sometime voluntarily and sometimes much less so. Moorcock’s writing is sharper, more elegant—the raw edges of the prose in “The Dreaming City” are long since polished, but the energy and inventiveness is still there, as is the cosmic scale and pervasive sense of destiny that characterizes all of the Elric saga. That Moorcock is a clever comic writer is well known in particular to readers of the Dancers at the End of Time series, and it’s fun to see him deploying those skills in an Elric book. Well, for me it is, at any rate. When published, The Revenge of the Rose was somewhat controversial amongst Moorcock’s fans; some disliked his departure from the established formula of the books, and others thought it was the best Elric book in years.
More than any of the other Elric stories—even moreso than Sailor on the Seas of Fate or “Three Heroes With a Single Aim” in The Sleeping Sorceress—knowledge of the rest of the Moorcock Multiverse is helpful, though not entirely necessary. There is a certain enrichment in knowing, for example, that Wheldrake has his origins in Albion, the alternate Elizabethan England of Gloriana, Or the Unfulfill’d Queen, and that his verse is quoted by characters in the Dancers at the End of Time series. Prince Gaynor appeared in the Corum novels, and will go on to become a plague upon multiple heroes and heroines of the Multiverse in future novels; there is also a trio of sisters who make even more explicit the links between Elric’s own race and the Vadagh people of whom Corum is a prince. The Rose herself will appear in many guises as well, as we’ll see when we get to the Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse comics.
Had I read The Revenge of the Rose back in 1991 when it was first published (I no longer recall why I didn’t; I may have been on a college-bound seventeen-year-old’s pretentiously fussy kick of giving up all that sword and sorcery stuff), I suspect I wouldn’t have liked it nearly as much as I did when I finally did read it for the first time, when Del Rey reissued it in 2010. It has far more in common with the Moonbeam Roads trilogy than with the original stories, and it ends on an uplifting note that is downright strange in an Elric story. It’s an Elric tale for a reader who has had enough of antiheroic despair, and perhaps that’s why, as Moorcock has observed, readers often like it much more after a reread later in life.
Next: we return to the Young Kingdoms for a last showdown with Theleb Ka’arna, and Elric meets his last great lady-love.
- UK Hardcover, Grafton, Aug 1991, Cover by Robert Gould
- US Hardcover, Oct 1991, Cover by Robert Gould
- Included in Swords and Roses, Vol. 6 of the Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Del Rey, 2010
- Gollancz edition to be published in January 2014.