Review: Elric: The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (Moorcock)

Elric, rebel sorcerer and albino outcast, would-be emperor and reluctant servant of Chaos, continues his wayward journey across his strange world, trying to learn new virtues and ideas of justice before he returns home to take his rightful place on the Ruby Throne of Melnibone. While fleeing from enemies, he climbs aboard a foreign ship full of unusual men, including three warriors who are mystically bound to him, claiming to all be the same Eternal Champion, but from different times and places. The ship is captained by a blind man through a perpetual fog across different planes of existence, until they arrive where Fate requires them to be.

So…that’s a pretty interesting setup. What follows are several semi-connected tales of exploration, adventure, friendship, and betrayal that largely define Elric as a…tragic hero? anti-hero? anti-villain? It’s complicated.

Here is a quick overview of the plot(s). Beware, for spoilers abound! (or skip to the end for my overall thoughts and impressions)

The stories

Story 1. Elric and the other Eternal Champions (Erekose, Corum, and Hawkmoon) join forces to explore an alien island full of ruined cities where two bizarre wizards are preparing to unmake the universe. Elric and friends prevail, and then separate to follow their various fates. Elric chooses to go back on the fog-shrouded ship in the hopes of finding his way back to his own world.

Story 2. Elric leaves the ship to explore a new island alone (while the ship sails off to join a battle at the end of time, I think?). On the island, Elric befriends a sailor from his own world, and together they manage to salvage a derelict ship and escape the island. On their voyage, they are drawn into a conflict with a vicious prince of Melnibone from centuries ago who escaped into the Limbo-realms to pursue his lost lover and escape his eternal hunter. Elric manipulates the situation so that the hunter kills the prince, and Elric himself is able to return to his “real” world.

Story 3. Elric and friends sail to a lost continent where they find the ruins of a civilization that gave birth to the people of Melnibone. Here, Elric succumbs to his need to serve Chaos and ends up killing most of his own companions in order to secure his own escape.

Story 4. Elric leads an entire armada of mercenaries against his homeland of Melnibone, no longer believing that his country is worth ruling or even allowing to exist. He tries to rescue his lover Cymoril, but fails and kills her by accident, which shatters any remaining illusions he has about his own virtue or destiny. He then lets his reavers destroy the Dreaming City. However, the soldiers pursue them out to sea and slaughter everyone who served Elric, except those on Elric’s own ship.

Story 5. Elric allows a sculptor to make a likeness of his face from dragon ivory, while he meditates on the fact that he is the last living relic of horrible people with a horrible legacy, already fading into legend within his own lifetime.

Story 6. A year after the fall of Melnibone, Elric joins a woman on a quest to find the Dead Gods’ Book, which contains the knowledge of the beings that came before Law and Chaos. He is hoping to learn some ultimate truth that will give his life hope and meaning. He does not find it.

Story 7. A queen asks Elric to investigate a magic castle that has appeared in her country and is devouring her people. Elric discovers it is the castle of a Trickster deity who has managed to offend both Law and Chaos and is now hiding in the real world. Once again, Elric must call upon Chaos in order to save the world.

Overall thoughts

The Elric presented in these stories is a tormented protagonist. He comes from a cruel and decadent culture, which occasionally informs his character, yet he personally wants to pursue truth and justice, to build a better world. But he himself has no example of what such a world would actually look like, so he is constantly drawn back into violence and cruelty.

It doesn’t help that he is physically bound to Stormbringer, a magic sword that craves death and destruction, or that he is spiritually bound to Arioch, a Lord of Chaos.

He was raised by awfulness, and he is surrounded by awfulness, but there is a spark inside him that reaches out for something better. So while I find it fairly hard to “like” Elric, I do find him and his journey very compelling and I’m very much looking forward to the next books in the series.

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