Elric of Melnibone is often introduced and discussed in contrast to Conan the Cimmerian, so I will bow to that most noble tradition now. Robert E. Howard‘s Conan is an American fantasy hero of great strength and courage, powerful mirth and brooding, who wanders the world in search of adventure and fortune, critical of decadent civilizations, slaughtering monsters and attracting women wherever he goes. Michael Moorcock‘s Elric is a British fantasy hero of weak constitution, dependent on magic and drugs to survive, an albino emperor reluctant to wield power or punish his enemies, a conflicted philosopher trying to invent morality while serving the Lords of Chaos, and always pining for his betrothed lover Cymoril.
So… they’re different.
The Elric stories are fantastic in all the same ways as other pulp fantasies, including Conan. We’re taken to an alien-yet-familiar world of warriors and wizards and demons, and watch as our hero runs a seemingly endless gauntlet of highly imaginative villains, allies, traps, and monsters. I find myself rationing the chapters as I read because I’m all-too-aware that I’m getting to experience these classic stories for the first time, and the first time will never come again no matter how often I read them.
The collection I have presents the stories in chronological order, as they occur in Elric’s lifetime, but Moorcock wrote them in a vastly different order, and I’ve heard that reading them in the order they were actually written reveals other aspects of the author’s evolution. But I’m content to follow Elric’s adventures in the order he has them.
One odd thing about this first volume is that it includes the script for a graphic novel, so there are “chapters” that read as dialog prompts and notes to the artist about the scene or action. Which I did not love. But it was fine.
These stories show Elric’s early days as emperor of the island nation of Melnibone, where he is constantly tormented by his cousin Yyrkoon, a more “traditional” fellow who wants to slaughter his enemies and revel in his own greatness. Time and again, Yyrkoon tries to kill Elric, to overthrow him, kill him again, banish him, steal away Cymoril, kill him some more, and finally to seize the Black Swords with which to destroy him. Naturally, Elric manages to defeat him at every turn, but with great suffering and cost, including alliance with the Chaos Lord Arioch (essentially a prince of hell).
In one sequence, Elric relives events from the ancient past through a drug-induced dream state wherein he is supposed to learn about the history of his people and thus become a better ruler, but each time Yyrkoon also enters the dreamscape and tries to kill him as some historical rival. In another sequence, Elric negotiates with gods and demons in order to cross the world and rescue Cymoril. His constant friend during this period is the royal dragon master, Dyvim Tvar, who seems like one of the only sane people in Melnibone but has the difficult task of commanding a brood of dragons that are only useful for a few hours of flying and fighting before they have to sleep for several weeks or months (which is a weirdly clever mechanic to avoid having all your problems solved by huge flying war-machines).
Throughout the book (and I believe throughout the series), Elric has deep philosophical discussions with his companions about justice, history, power, and human nature.
And how does this period end? Elric gains the soul-devouring sword Stormbringer, and allows Yyrkoon to live freely in Melnibone while Elric himself sets forth to travel the world and learn its wisdom so he can one day return and rule with justice and equality for all. It’s odd… and yet compelling. Elric emerges from an amoral society, a culture without a compass for good and evil, but only for Law and Chaos, and he alone appears to be compelled to discover morality and share it with his people. Odd, but compelling.
I enjoy these stories in the same way I enjoy Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. The world feels old and complicated and real, the people are complex and represent complex cultures and philosophies, and the world is dangerous, a place where people can and will die, and not always heroically. It’s excellent.
And I assume I will be liberally stealing ideas for characters, monsters, and general weirdness from the series before too long.