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 mostly discusses the novella “Elric at the End of Time,” originally published in 1981.
Outside of what we’ve treated as the core novels of the Elric saga, Michael Moorcock has also written a number of short stories and novellas about Elric. “The Last Enchantment,” written in 1962, was originally intended as the final Elric story, but was put aside in favor of the stories that eventually made up Stormbringer and wasn’t published until 1978. “A Portrait in Ivory” was written in 2007 for the Logorrhea anthology, inspired by the word “insouciant.” 2008 saw the publication of “Black Petals” in Weird Tales, and it was followed in 2010 by a sequel, “Red Pearls,” in the Swords and Dark Magic anthology.
The latter three stories are particularly good sword and sorcery stories, combining the vitality of the original Elric tales from the 1960s with a greater refinement of craft. But my personal favorite piece of Elric short fiction is the novella “Elric at the End of Time.” It was originally intended for publication with illustrations by Rodney Matthews—you can see these masterpieces of late-1970s SF art on his web site—but the publisher folded, and it finally saw print in the Elsewhere anthology in 1981.
“Elric at the End of Time” is a crossover occasioned, as Moorcock wrote in 1984, by a remark of M. John Harrison, “that the people who inhabit my End of Time stories might, from Elric’s perspective, seem to be the very Lords of Chaos themselves.” These characters, who first appeared in the Dancers at the End of Time trilogy published in the early-to-mid 1970s, are the last inhabitants of an Earth lingering before the final collapse of the universe, decadent immortals with enormous power at their disposal. They are largely benign, if rather amoral, have very peculiar ideas about the far distant eras of Earth’s history, and they while away the days making over the world into works of art and amusing follies for their own pleasure.
Pitching Elric into this milieu turns out to be a delightful recipe for comedy, as well as a knowing satire of the more extravagant melodramatic excesses of the Elric stories. When Elric arrives at the End of Time—having accidentally ejected himself from his native plane during a sorcerous battle—he does, indeed, naturally assume that he has ended up in the realm of Chaos. He has the misfortune of landing in the middle of a vast sculptural installation by Werther de Goethe, the Last Romantic: a giant skull in which a desert and a snowscape represent “Man’s Foolish Yearnings [...] His Greed, his Need for the Impossible, the Heat of his Passions, the Coldness which must Finally Overtake him.” (The capitals are all Werther’s, which should give you an idea of how he operates.)
The disordered scenery and the shapeshifting tendencies of Werther’s friends the Duke of Queens, Gaf the Horse in Tears (who shows his appreciation for Elric’s exotic looks by transforming himself into Elric’s doppelgänger), Mistress Christia, the Everlasting Concubine, do absolutely nothing to allay Elric’s conviction that he’s stranded in the realm of Chaos, and their well-intentioned efforts to cheer him up with a nice violent adventure—in which Christia is kidnapped by pirates, or perhaps parrots or Pierrots—only calm him for a little while. In the meantime, the temporal adventuress Una Persson desperately works to return Elric to his native time-stream, or else, as her friend Lord Jagged says, “We might just as well give ourselves up to the biggest chronoquake the universe has ever experienced.”
My deep affection for this story has a lot to do with my fondness for the End of Time stories in general, with Moorcock’s vivid imagining of that sybaritic society and the prose inflected with late Victorian aestheticism and comedy. It’s also fun to see Moorcock send up his own creations with genuine affection; the juxtaposition of Werther de Goethe’s innocent Sturm und Drang and Elric’s own heartfelt anguish is irresistible.
[...] with a huge sigh the albino seated himself at the far end of the car and rested his head on his fist. “Well? What is your pleasure, my lords and ladies of Hell?”
“It is your pleasure we are anxious to achieve,” Werther told him. “Is there anything at all we can do? Some environment we can manufacture? What are you used to?”
“Used to? I am used to the crack of leathery dragon wings in the sweet, sharp air of the early dawn. I am used to the sound of red battle, the drumming of hooves on bloody earth, the screams of the dying, the yells of the victorious. I am used to warring against demons and monsters, sorcerers and ghouls. I have sailed on magic ships and fought hand to hand with reptilian savages. I have encountered the Jade Man himself. I have fought side by side with the elementals, who are my allies. I have battled black evil...”
“Well,” said Werther, “that’s something to go on, at any rate. I’m sure we can...” [...] Werther flung a black velvet arm about the stiff shoulders of his new friend. “It is evident that our destinies are one. Lord Elric is as grief-haunted as myself!”
“How can you know what it is to be haunted by grief...?” murmured the albino. His face was half-buried in Werther’s generous sleeve.
One could read Werther as being not unlike an adolescent reader charmed by and determined to take on all the angst they’ve read about but have never actually experienced; his reaction to Elric could be a sort of meta-commentary on readers who take Elric’s adventures just a little too seriously. Yet there’s no authorial contempt in either direction, more a sort of bemused fondness. The peculiar naiveté of Werther and his kind neatly lampshades the more overwrought aspects of the Elric saga, and yet Elric’s actual dilemma is no less serious by his own lights for all that.
Eventually Una and Lord Jagged are able to lay the trans-temporal shenanigans to rest by a little deception on Jagged’s part: by impersonating Elric’s demon patron Arioch, Jagged convinces him to take the necessary steps to return to his native time and place. Moorcock just might overplay his hand a little with regard to Harrison’s original observation, but it’s amusing nevertheless:
“Certainly not. Jagged was the one. Your disguise was wonderful, Jagged. How did you manage to imitate that character so thoroughly? It convinced Elric. He really thought you were whatever it was—a Chaos Duke?”
Jagged waved a modest hand.
“I mean,” said Una, “it’s almost as if you were this fellow ‘Arioch’ ...”
But Lord Jagged only puffed on his pipe and smiled a secret and superior smile.
Moorcock really did mean “Elric at the End of Time” to be the last of the Elric tales, but obviously that was not to be the case. Instead it marks a transition point from the early works and some of the more regrettable stories of the 1970s, leading to the old-fashioned adventure The Fortress of the Pearl and the multiverse-hopping The Revenge of the Rose.
Having already covered these, we’ll hop on ahead next to Moorcock’s comics work, Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse and Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer. Both of these works set a context for the stories “A Portrait in Ivory,” “Black Petals,” and “Red Pearls.” These stories invoke the Phoorn, the race of dragons that Elric commanded in Elric of Melnibone, The Revenge of the Rose, and Stormbringer; they’re intertwined with the people of Melniboné and Elric himself in some surprising ways. And we’ll also learn more about the “silverskins”—Elric, it turns out, is not the first albino of his people or the multiverse, nor the last. Things are about to get a little surreal, so hang on tight.