It 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known world, but as the human race and the Young Kingdoms have grown stronger, it has now dwindled; its borders have withdrawn to the Dragon Isles that were the centre of the empire, and its exquisitely refined, cruel, inhuman people have fallen into decadence, lost in sensual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.
- 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.