By 1989, I was well and truly immersed in all things Moorcock and Elric—and I was stunned to learn that there was a new Elric book. This being well before the advent of the Internet, I’m pretty sure that I only found out about it when the book showed up in stores. The ending of Stormbringer being what it is, the only obvious option for a new Elric book was something that fit amongst the existing tales, and fortunately there is sufficient space between the recorded adventures to add more. Thus The Fortress of the Pearl fits between Elric of Melniboné and The Sailor on the Seas of Fate.
We find Elric in the city of Quarzhasaat on the edge of the Sighing Desert, where he lies near death, having long since run out of the medications that sustain him. Following a series of misunderstandings (the scene in which Elric essentially smiles and nods his way through a conversation about a peculiar prophecy is a low-key masterpiece of ironic humor), he is blackmailed by the corrupt, oleaginous Lord Gho Fhaazi into seeking a treasure known as the Pearl at the Heart of the World. A prophecy claims that now is the time that the “path to the Pearl” will be opened, and Elric must succeed in this mission, or else die from a slow-acting poison administered to him by Lord Gho.
This quest takes him to a Bedouin-like nomad tribe known as the Bauradim, whose Holy Girl, Varadia, lies in a magical coma after a botched kidnapping attempt by sorcerers who believed she held some secret knowledge of the Pearl. To save her and to find the Pearl, Elric must enter into her dreams, assisting and assisted by Oone, a beautiful and enigmatic woman of the guild of dreamthieves—men and women who can enter the dreams of others and steal them for trade in the Dream Market. Together they must pass through the seven dream-lands: Sadanor, the Land of Dreams-in-Common; Marador, the Land of Old Desires; Paranor, the Land of Lost Beliefs; Celador, the Land of Forgotten Love; Imador, the Land of New Ambition; Falador, the Land of Madness—and the seventh, which has no name “save any name the inhabitants shall give it. But there, if anywhere, you will find the Fortress of the Pearl.”
And find it they do, though it isn’t at all what the small-minded Lord Gho imagined it might be. The Pearl at the Heart of the World is something like Umberto Eco’s Masonic secret—an empty secret that has power because it can be filled with anything; the Pearl was merely a concept that did not exist until the legends of Quarzhasaat created it in the minds of men. And Varadia has built the Fortress in her dreams to protect herself against the sorcerers who attempted to kidnap her. To wake her, Elric and Oone must claim the Pearl, releasing Varadia from her prison—and when it magically becomes manifest in the waking world, it becomes Elric’s instrument of punishment against Lord Gho.
Fortress is a strange book—as befits, perhaps, a story set largely in the world of dreams, which is shaped both by the dreaming Varadia and the memories, moods, and perceptions of Elric and Oone. Their quest tends to amble, as dreams do, and though they must fight any number of monsters, the real peril lies in Elric’s own psyche. Learned and powerful in magic though he is, in the dream-lands he is cut off from his usual sources of power—including, notably, Stormbringer and his patron demon Arioch—and he is all too vulnerable to the temptations presented in each land. In Marador he is nearly seduced by a dream of a peaceful, simple life; in Falador he almost succumbs to insanity. It’s an unusual time in Elric’s life, still early in his journeys; he has only lately left Melniboné, and he hasn’t become thoroughly embittered yet. And there is a certain lightness to him in the dream-lands that no doubt has a great deal to do with the absence of the hell-sword, which will become an addictive burden in the books ahead.
Elric is afflicted with enough sensitivity of spirit to be moved by Lord Gho’s threat to the life of a child who has befriended him, but there is clearly plenty of the ruthless blood of old Melniboné in him after all; he invokes this heritage to sit in judgment on the oligarchs of Quarzhasaat, who he condemns as “cruel, greedy, careless of others’ lives and wills… blind, thoughtless, provincial, and unimaginative… a government so careless of anything but its own gratification.” The revenge he wreaks on Lord Gho is astonishingly grotesque (yet fitting), and he has no mercy at all for the oligarchs and the sorcerers in their employ. He leaves the streets of the city awash with blood, and even if you think they had it coming—which they almost certainly did—it’s hard not to be horrified. “He killed without mercy, without distinction, without cruelty. He killed as a mad wolf kills. And as he killed, he laughed.”
Readers familiar with Moorcock will note that a number of his characteristic archetypes and concepts drift in and out. The dreamthief Alnac Kreb is a servant of neither Law nor Chaos, but of the Balance between the two—a Balance that will become increasingly important not only in Elric’s story, but in the rest of Moorcock’s work as well. Elric and Oone are guided through Sadanor by a jester-like figure called Jasper Colinadous and his flying cat, Whiskers, one of many Moorcock characters with a J.C. name and the role of hero’s sidekick.
The most notable difference between Fortress and Elric of Melniboné is the role of women in the story. In Moorcock’s work in general from the 1970s onward, you can see the impact of his education in feminism and his friendships with women like Andrea Dworkin in the increased agency of his female characters over time. Cymoril, as we’ve seen, is a fairly conventional damsel in distress; later we will meet Shaarilla, Myshella, Queen Yishana, and Zarozinia, who, while hardly shrinking violets, tend to exist to provide Elric with direction or motivation more often than they act as participants in his adventures.
Here, Varadia is an unusual sort of princess-in-the-tower—the tower is one of her own design, created as a desperate measure of self-protection. Oone the Dreamthief is neither a mere sidekick nor the remote initiator of the quest nor a prize at the end; only she has the skill and strength of will to guide Elric through the dream-realms. Equally, she needs him to confront the dangers that consume another dreamthief before her. (There’s a theory—to which I subscribe—that Oone is, in fact, Moorcock’s time-travelling heroine Una Persson in another disguise. More on this in the future.) Elric treats Oone as an equal and, though still devoted to Cymoril, he comes to care deeply for her—leading to a dalliance in the Land of Forgotten Love that will prove to have consequences in the waking world for Oone, Elric, and the Multiverse itself.
Up next: manifestations of the Eternal Champion, a legend of old Melniboné, and a painful object lesson in why it is dangerous to ally yourself with a man who carries a demonic sword.
UK Hardcover, Gollancz, 1 Jun 1989, Cover by Geoff Taylor
US Hardcover, Ace, Sep 1989
Included in Elric in the Dream Realms, vol. 5 of The Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Del Rey, 2009
UK Softcover, Gollancz, July 2013
Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She’s saving most of her comments about Una for the Moonbeam Roads trilogy and if/when she gets around to the Jerry Cornelius books. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.