Jul 12 2013 1:00pm

The Elric Reread: Elric of Melniboné

Elric of MelniboneIt is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone, resting on each arm of a seat which has been carved from a single, massive ruby.

With this striking description , we’re introduced to Elric VIII, four hundred and twenty-eighth Sorcerer Emperor of Melniboné, the only son of Sadric the Eighty-Sixth. Once Melniboné ruled the entirety of the known world, but as the human race and the Young Kingdoms have grown stronger, it has now dwindled; its borders have withdrawn to the Dragon Isles that were the centre of the empire, and its exquisitely refined, cruel, inhuman people have fallen into decadence, lost in sensual pleasures and dreaming. From the moment we join Elric as he watches his court dance—serenaded by a choir of slaves who have been mutilated so that each one may only produce one single, perfect note—we can be certain that Melniboné’s days are numbered.

Elric is a reluctant ruler; physically frail from birth—of “deficient blood,” as some would have it—he is able to function only with the help of an assortment of sorcerous drugs. He’s much happier with a life of the mind, and is an accomplished scholar and sorcerer without peer. Furthermore, unlike the vast majority of his subjects, Elric is afflicted with a conscience: “...his reading has also taught him to question the uses to which power is put, to question his own motives, to question whether his own power should be used at all, in any cause. His reading has led him to this ‘morality’, which, still, he barely understands.”

In opposition to him stands his villainous cousin Yyrkoon, brother of Elric’s beloved Cymoril. He is deeply ambitious, cruel in the old-fashioned ways of Melniboné, and desirous of the throne for himself. He attempts to murder Elric in the heat of a sea-battle; when Elric’s life is saved by supernatural forces, Yyrkoon kidnaps Cymoril and flees from Melniboné. In desperation, Elric invokes the ancient Chaos Lord Arioch, to whom he swears service in exchange for aid in finding Cymoril—a bargain that will haunt Elric ever after. Thus assisted, Elric gives chase to Yyrkoon, a pursuit that eventually leads him Stormbringer, the demonic, red-runed, soul-sucking sword that will quite literally be the bane of his existence. After defeating Yyrkoon—but, in his mercy, choosing not to kill him—Elric returns to Melniboné, only to leave the throne in his cousin’s hands so that he can journey out into the world, to learn what he can of the ways of the Young Kingdoms so that he might return to Melniboné and help his people thrive once again.

What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, as we will eventually learn, but we’ll get there in good time.

Elric’s first appearance was in the story “The Dreaming City,” published in Science Fantasy in 1961. The novel Elric of Melniboné, which was Elric’s main origin story until the comic book miniseries Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer (more on that when we get there in a few months), didn’t appear until 1972. The curious effect of Elric of Melniboné being written and published so long after the original stories is that in some ways, it’s a more polished book than what you’ll eventually find yourself reading in subsequent volumes, with an increased elegance to the prose.

The influence of Mervyn Peake is writ large here, perhaps more so than any other Elric story—in part because we have some leisure time with Elric and his court before the action starts. There’s an echo of Peake in the name of Elric’s aged servant, Tanglebones, and in that of the chief torturer, Dr Jest; that echo is also present in the sense of a realm long past its glorious heyday, attached to ancient rituals for their own sake and nothing more. The Dreaming City of Imrryr is a place of casual cruelty—the scene where Dr Jest slowly and daintily dismembers a group of human spies is positively stomach-turning—and of ancient beauties that scarcely seem to register on its decadent inhabitants. Though neither he nor his subjects fully understand why, Elric simply doesn’t fit in this world, not physically, not intellectually, and not morally.

This sense of attenuation and melancholy is part of what makes Elric’s story more than a standard sword-and-sorcery tale—as is the refined sense of irony and the mordant, even bizarre humor. A magical mirror that wipes the memories of those that look on it vomits thousands of years’ worth of memories when smashed, driving everyone in the vicinity to insanity. A horrible mutant beast, in its death throes, cries out a name that might be its own—“Frank,” which would be out of place and meaningless but for a character of the same name in Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels.

In particular, it’s hard not to be amused by the specific quest that eventually brings Elric to Stormbringer. Elric is informed by Arioch that he must pass through the Shade Gate into a shadowy and miserable alternate world where he will seek “the Tunnel Under the Marsh which leads to the Pulsing Cavern.” Once there, Elric and his newfound friend Rackhir the Red Archer must squeeze through an aperture in a creepily flesh-like tunnel to access “a cavern whose round wall quivered to a steady pulsing,” where Stormbringer and its sister-sword Mournblade hang suspended without any support. Somehow Moorcock plays this unbelievably Freudian sequence perfectly straight; it probably helps that the characters don’t wink at the audience for so much as an instant.

For all the inventiveness, there are still some old-fashioned SFF tropes hanging around here. The evil Yyrkoon has “dark features…handsome and saturnine.” Cymoril, though not without spirit and magical talent—she defies her brother, and she also arranges for fair weather for an outing for Elric and herself—is a textbook damsel in distress, largely to be acted upon and to provide Elric with motivation. Elric himself—despite his peculiar Melnibonéan morals, his willingness to ally himself with demons, and the extraordinary cost in lives exerted by his quest to find Cymoril and punish Yyrkoon—is not nearly the ruthless anti-hero that he will grow into as his story progresses; he may be a dark sort of hero, but at this point in his career, he is still youthful and lighthearted enough to be almost conventional. As he and Rackhir disembark in the port of Menii, Elric laughs and declares that “I shall be a new man when I return to Melniboné.” And indeed he shall, but not in the way that he hopes.

Publication Notes:

  • Original UK Hardcover, Hutchinson, 191pp., ISBN: 0-09-112100-6, 4 Sept 1972 
  • Original US Mass Market Paperback, DAW, ISBN: 0-87997-734-5, Oct 1976, Cover by Michael Whelan
  • Included in The Sleeping Sorceress, Vol. 3 of The Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Del Rey, 2008.
  • Included in Elric of Melniboné and Other Stories, Gollancz, 2013.

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She used to annoy her friends in high school by doing dramatic readings of the opening passages of this novel. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.

Tim Eagon
1. Tim_Eagon
I love this book; IMO, of the 6-book Ace series, it's second only to Stormbringer. The chapter where Elric calls upon Arioch for the first time is so vivid and horrifying.
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
This is a great book. Lovely, dark and inventive. The somewhat frail somewhat bookish figure of Elric was a great contrast to me when opposed to the Conan stories (I like those also).
Stormbringer--the power and the ultimate horror that comes from seemingly necessary choices.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
Oh you know, I forgot this was going on! Tim & I are going to do Elric in our Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons series! Awesome.
Kristoff Bergenholm
4. Magentawolf
Blood and Souls! Blood and Souls for my Lord Arioch!
Petar Belic
5. Petar Belic
The Eternal Champion milieu does not get enough love. It's an amazing series for a sorts of reasons. The Elric saga is probably not my favourite of the series, but it's certianly vivid and dripping with atmosphere. The final book (Stormbringer?) takes no prisoners and is absolutely wonderful. I must read it again soon.
Bill Stusser
6. billiam
So, the first thing that jumped out at me while rereading this book is that it is written in the present tense. I can't remember the last time I read a fantasy book that wasn't written in past tense. I found it odd at first to be honest. And then with chapter two the story suddenly changes to past tense. Weird.

Another thing that I noticed is that all these books are really short compared to modern fantasy. Of the original six books, only Stormbringer comes in at over 200 pages. All of them put together are about the same as one book by GRRM, Erikson, Sanderson, or Jordan.

A lot of good stuff in here and so different than just about anything else out there. Obviously a huge influence on Steven Erikson. And how cool is the ship which sails over land and water? And that mirror? And the pulsing cavern?

Chaos lords, elementals, demons, dragons, and the coolest sword ever! What more could you ask for?
Petar Belic
7. Dr. Thanatos
@4 Magentawolf,

Milk and Cookies! Milk and Cookies for my Lord Arioch!

After all, he was young once too...
Petar Belic
8. RobertX
One of the great fantasy book series. I love the Elric saga.
Scott Silver
9. hihosilver28
I enjoyed this book, but the other ones got WAAAAY too outlandish for my tastes. Which was unfortunate, because I really enjoyed Elric as a character and of course Stormbringer.
Brian R
10. Mayhem
I'm afraid Michael Moorcock is all about the take the weirdness up to 11 on the dial.

Every main character starts out relatively normal - for their settings - and then the batshit insane starts pouring in.
Even the solidly rational Von Bek family gets pretty unusual in the far future.
Petar Belic
11. AriochRIP
Kudos on the very well done summation, Karin. Moorcock has been my favorite writer for almost 30 years now and I've read the Elric saga countless times. Someone mentioned the relatively short length of these books compared to modern fantasy novels. I'm not a huge fan of "doorstopper" novels, so I count this as a huge plus. I recently reread LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness and I was again impressed by how "epic" that book is despite being about a third of the length of the average modern fantasy novel. I think other fantasy writers could learn a thing or two from people like Moorcock and LeGuin in this regard.

In my opinion, the initial series of six Elric books pretty much gets progressively better with each book, which is also pretty unusual for any series.

Moorcock is the man.
Petar Belic
12. bblite
Anyone know some place where I could acquire and read a copy of this book? Digital or hardcover, for less than $15 or so?
Petar Belic
13. Sue Moro
I read this series a very long time ago, and I really loved it! I'd like to reread it some time, but it's next to impossible to find the series anywhere. The bind-ups that were released do not seem to be in the right order, and the individual books I've only found online used and they are priced higher than when they were new.
14. hoopmanjh
@bblite -- The easiest way to get it is probably to pick up the new Del Rey volume (well, "new" = 2008) The Sleeping Sorceress, available electronically or in trade paperback. Otherwise I'd expect that used paperbacks of the actual Elric of Melnibone are pretty common on the ground.

I really hope that Gollancz Eternal Champion reissue comes to this side of the Atlantic; if not, it's probably time to (temporarily) change my Kindle's country of registration.
Petar Belic
15. chrisharris
As an artist, I have always tried to depict Elric as I see him in my mind, to no avail. No one has. I've tried many times, over many years, but haven't captured the tortured soul I see in my imagination. I'll not stop trying, tho, and perhaps one day, I'll get it.
John Dodds
16. jakk1954
Ah, blast from the past. I was addicted to these books as a youth, after finding "The Stealer of Souls" in a Woolworth bargain bin. Michael Moorcock is on record as saying an author hadn't really made it until their books hit the second hand shelves. He's my hero, too, for favourably blurbing one of my short stories, "Dr. North's Wound". I understood there was to be an Elric film at some stage - if it ever appears one has to hope it's not the disaster the Jerry Cornelius film, "The Final Programme" was. I agree with Arioch about the epic feel, but short length of the books - Moorcock knew how to create a vivid, complex world without taking 1,000 pages to do so, and packed every page with drama and great writing.
Tim Wisner
17. tlwiz
Elric is certainly way up there on my list of classics.

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