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 talks about The Skrayling Tree, published last year in the UK as Destiny’s Brother. Because the Gollancz editions are meant to be definitive, we’ll use that title.
Back when I first started reading Michael Moorcock, I was living in San Antonio, TX. I was profoundly surprised to learn that Moorcock had a home not at all far away, near the town of Bastrop in the Hill Country. (Today he divides his time between that home, London, and Paris.) At the time, it seemed strange to me that someone I thought of as a particularly British writer should have relocated to the heart of Texas. Years later, I experienced a similar surprise and dislocation when I picked up Destiny’s Brother—which, when originally published as The Skrayling Tree, was subtitled “The Albino in America.” Because if there’s one thing I never expected from Moorcock, it was that one of his books would make me regret having largely skipped American literature and never read any Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
This three-pronged tale, narrated in turn by Oona von Bek, Elric, and Ulric von Bek, begins with the von Beks in Nova Scotia in the early 1950s, where they are taking a holiday from their humanitarian work with the UN. After they discover a strange abandoned house in which they glimpse a young albino man who could be Ulric’s brother—or perhaps a younger version of himself—Ulric is kidnapped by a party of Kakatanawa Indians.
Oona sets off in pursuit across the Multiverse, and in some distant past/other—“impossible,” she calls it—America, where there are ziggurat cities and intelligent mammoths who serve as mounts, she allies herself with the Indian warrior Ayanawatta. If you didn’t skip AmLit the way I did, you might know him better as Hiawatha; he reveals to Oona that his own dream-questing took him to the future in which Longfellow would eventually write his epic poem (“mangl[ing] half a dozen languages in the process and [getting] all the names wrong,” as Oona von Bek notes apologetically). She also meets the young brave White Crow, an albino like herself, who seeks the treasures of the Kakatawana—including a black lance and a war-shield with an eight-pointed star on it.
Meanwhile, back in his own world and somewhere around the middle of the events of Stormbringer, Elric is bound to the mast of his enemy Jagreen Lern’s flagship; in this state of extremity, he enters a thousand-year dream quest to reclaim his sword—a quest which transports him into the Middle Ages of the von Beks’ world, where he allies himself with a Viking called Gunnar the Doomed on a journey across the ocean to a new land where savages called skraylings live, and where the Norse have previously attempted settlements. And Ulric is brought to Sepiriz, the mysterious seer who also last appeared in Stormbringer, who sends Ulric off on a quest of his own that dovetails with Elric’s, and which will reunite him with his wife in a way that will be a shock to both of them.
Over at the wiki on Multiverse.org, they’ve done a good job of explaining the links between this book and the Elric comics and the story of White Crow in particular, and I won’t go reinventing the wheel here; check out their solid explication if you’re curious. Like Daughter of Dreams, Destiny’s Brother is another puzzle-box of quests within dreams within visions, in which Elric’s tale contains that of the von Beks, and vice versa.
Nevertheless, I find Destiny’s Brother to be less satisfying than Daughter of Dreams, and the retreading and reframing of characters and stories that appear elsewhere probably has something to do with it. Considered as part of a trilogy, it does exhibit a certain amount of middle-child syndrome, feeling very much like a stopping point on the way to something bigger. The villains Gaynor and Klosterheim are back in new guises—and ridiculously so, in Klosterheim’s case, as the variances of scale between different zones of the multiverse result in him appearing no larger than a ten-year-old boy.
Overall, Moorcock’s attempt to weave the mythology of the multiverse with that of America seems surprisingly successful, though your mileage may vary on this point. One is often wary of the possibility for misguided cultural appropriation, but arguably Longfellow got there first and did a worse job of it. Oona engages her native allies and enemies on their own terms and resists romanticizing them too much; Ayanawatta’s nobility and charisma is undeniable, but it’s in keeping with his historical and literary antecedents. Indeed, it’s actually fairly refreshing to see such a long-established fantasy mythos break out of the usual European/faux-European mold and actively engage with another culture, and more explicitly and straightforwardly than in the Making of a Sorcerer comic.
Still, there is much that feels repetitive at this point. Ulric and Oona’s even reprise of one of Elric’s particularly grievous mistakes, although the ultimate consequences are quite different, and perhaps have less of an impact as a result. Unlike Daughter of Dreams, where additional context of the mythology of the multiverse and Elric’s own story enriched the experience, here it just makes you feel like you’re going over all too familiar ground, admittedly in a somewhat more interesting setting.
Next: Here it comes—the last book in the Elric saga, The White Wolf’s Son. Can you believe we’re almost done?
- First US hardcover publication: as The White Wolf’s Son, Warner, February 2003.
- First UK publication: as Destiny’s Brother, Gollancz, March 2013.