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 discusses The Bane of the Black Sword.
As we advance further in Elric’s own timeline toward his doom, we now step back in the writing of the stories to the early 1960s. The four stories in The Bane of the Black Sword were originally published shortly after “The Dreaming City” and “While the Gods Laugh,” which you’ll recall from The Weird of the White Wolf, and they are much more of a piece with those early Moorcock works than with The Revenge of the Rose.
Once again, we run into the odd experience that results from reading these books out of the order in which they were written; the Elric loathed by Gaynor the Damned for his “insistent relish of life” in Revenge doesn’t quite square with the one here who, on being urged away from a dangerous adventure, replies with all the nihilism of youth: “Danger? It can bring only death.” He is, again, very much absorbed in his own personal suffering, and the Elric:Stormbringer::Addict:Drugs analogy is quite plainly spelled out in these tales. Much is made of how he would be like “a spineless sea-thing” without it, but for the sake of his new bride, Zarozinia of Karlaak, he gives up Stormbringer for the methadone treatment of various peculiar herbs that he finds in the forest where he first meets her. He even casts the blade away from him at the end of a fierce battle—but when he returns home victorious, he will learn that that the sword returned “of its own volition … screaming” to the armoury of his home.
About Zarozinia. She’s one of my top three favorite Elric heroines, after Oone the Dreamthief and the Rose. She is quite young—no more than seventeen—and she’s spirited and brave; when their camp is ambushed, she saves Elric and Moonglum by taking charge of the horses and enabling their escape. Afterward, when Elric attempts a (very ill-considered) plan to get back the treasure that was stolen from them in the ambush, she steps up to dance in an attempt to distract their enemies and tries to save Elric by kicking a cup of drugged wine out of his hands as she dances. She’s an interesting contrast to the other woman who appears in this volume: Queen Yishana of Jharkor, last seen being abandoned by Elric at the end of “The Singing Citadel” in The Weird of the White Wolf. Yishana—older, langourous, sensual, and, like Elric’s nemesis Theleb Ka’arna, a bit of an old-fashioned Orientalist caricature—is ostensibly a woman who wields more power than the senator’s daughter from Karlaak, but much of her energy seems to be expended on dallying with men and pursuing Elric. If there’s one thing she and Zarozinia do have in common, it’s that they’re erotically drawn toward Elric like filings to a magnet.
Which seems to be the case for a lot of the women who cross Elric’s path, as we’ve seen with Shaarilla, Myshella, and even Oone. But for the reader, Elric’s sex-appeal is, like his ferocious moodiness and self-pity, something that wears thin when one has lived a little. For a young male reader, there is wish-fulfillment in being attractive to women despite—because of?—staggering gloominess, self-absorption, and fixation on a sword (symbolic of whatever addiction or compulsion you please), and for a young female reader, there is the appeal of the bad boy of whom your parents most certainly wouldn’t approve. Approached later in life, there’s something just a bit ridiculous, or at least immature, about it all; the swashbuckling friendship between Elric and the Rose is considerably more palatable, which perhaps is part of why The Revenge of the Rose is one of those books that grows on people over time.
The stories themselves? In his essay “The Secret Life of Elric of Melnibone,” Moorcock describes “The Stealer of Souls” (a mere two years later!) as “a cynical attempt and a rather vulgar attempt to make the series popular.” It’s certainly the most shamelessly pulpy of the lot it brings to a close Elric’s pursuit of the villainous Theleb Ka’arna, and also reconciles him with the last surviving Melnibonéans, now an army of mercenaries led by Elric’s old friend Dyvim Tvar. “Kings in Darkness” introduces Zarozinia; she and Elric fall into one another’s arms almost instantly while poor Moonglum “polishe[s] away at his curved sword with wry jealousy.” “The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams,” originally published as “The Flame Bringers,” sees Elric happily married and settled in Karlaak, from whence he must reluctantly take up Stormbringer again and ride against the warlord Terarn Gashtek “and his slant-eyed battle-mongers.” (Do feel free to wince at that phrase; I certainly did.) The fourth story, “To Rescue Tanelorn,” is an adventure of Elric’s friend Rackhir the Red Archer, who must embark on a quest across five different worlds—including realms of Law and Chaos—to save the peaceful city of Tanelorn. Rackhir, who is neither as well-developed nor as charismatic as Elric, can only just carry a story on his own, but it’s an interesting tale insofar as it parallels other metatemporal adventures, such as those of The Fortress of the Pearl and The Revenge of the Rose.
There is a sense in The Bane of the Black Sword of the calm before the ultimate storm; for all the adventuring and warfare in this book, Elric is actually in a peaceful place. He is a married man now, with a wife and a new home that he loves—but there remains the presence of the soul-sucking demon sword that he cannot truly give up, particularly not in his moments of greatest need. Elric’s idyll can’t last—the sword won’t let it, but moreover, his destiny will not either.
Up next: Elric’s doom is upon him. And upon his entire world as well. The time has finally come for Stormbringer, one of the most nihilistic fantasy novels ever written.
The Bane of the Black Swordincludes the following four stories:
- “The Stealer of Souls” , originally published in Science Fantasy #51, February 1962. Included in Stealer of Souls, Neville Spearman Ltd., 1963. Included in Stealer of Souls, vol. 1 of The Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Del Rey, 2008
- “Kings in Darkness”, originally published in Science Fantasy #54, August 1962. Included in Stealer of Souls, Neville Spearman Ltd., 1963. Included in Stealer of Souls, vol. 1 of The Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Del Rey, 2008
- “The Flame Bringers”, originally published in Science Fantasy #55, October 1962. Included in Stealer of Souls, Neville Spearman Ltd., 1963. Included as “The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams” in Stealer of Souls, vol. 1 of The Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Del Rey, 2008
- “To Rescue Tanelorn”, originally published in Science Fantasy #56, December 1962. Included in To Rescue Tanelorn, vol. 2 of The Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Del Rey, 2008
The Bane of the Black Sword was published as a single volume in the US and the UK:
- UK Mass Market Paperback, Grafton, 10 May 1984, Cover by Michael Whelan
- US Mass Market Paperback, DAW, 16 Aug 1977, Cover by Michael Whelan
- These stories will probably be included in the Gollancz collection Stormbringer!, due March 2014.