Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Sailor on the Seas of Elric

So, I've been reading those Elric books of Michael Moorcock. It's taken me a while for one reason or another, but so far I've read Elric of Melniboné, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, and The Weird of the White Wolf. I have Part II of the Elric Saga on my bookshelf, so we'll see how it goes.

I didn't realize before I started them that the latter two works were short story collections rather than fix-ups or novels. Which is fine; I think sword and sorcery works best in a short format, actually. There's just not enough continuity or coherence to warrant calling the Elric Saga a saga. I mean, I've read a good many Icelandic sagas – Egils saga, Njals saga, Laxdæla saga, Vatnsdœla saga, etc. – and they're anything but episodic. I suppose I'm being nitpicky, since the term just used as a marketing label. They call anything a saga if it's long enough.

The opening of Elric of Melniboné is what really got me hooked, I think.
It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is bone-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody…
and so on. Worthy of the finest fantasists of yore. The throne carved of a single ruby took me back to The Worm Ouroboros, which I suppose must have been an influence. (Side note: I always thought these precious-objects-carved-from-single-stones were just fantastic nonsense, until I visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science last weekend, and saw an entire chair carved from a single piece of jasper, and whole goblets carved from quartz and amethyst.) The Dreaming City, Imrryr, and its deadly harbor labyrinth and fleet of floating ziggurats were exactly to my taste, evoking an unspeakably ancient, alien, wicked power. The hokey magical stuff not so much. But that's just me.

Elric himself… Well, let me first say that all the characters are quite flat, more or less defined by their physical features. Nothing necessarily wrong with that – it isn't as though we're expecting (or wanting) Dostoevsky here – but their actions are artificial and almost absurd. And as for absurdity, Elric himself takes the cake. Yes, he's angsty and moody and disdainful, but he's as capricious as a schoolgirl, too.
capricious - (adj.) determined by chance or impulse or whim rather than by necessity or reason. [Webster's 1913 Dictionary]
This about sums up his public policy in Elric: "My wicked cousin Yyrkoon is ambitious and envious. I'll cynically provoke him into trying to take the throne. Then I'll defeat him. Then I'll set him on the throne and go on vacation. Somehow this will end up saving the nation." What? What kind of sense is that? And then afterward he decides he's going to destroy the nation and slay his cousin? Wouldn't it have been easier to have done that at the end of Elric? And his cunning plan to save his ensorcelled betrothed from the city he's about to destroy is to sneak into said city on the eve of the surprise attack, basically announce to everyone that he's there, and arrange to have an unaided old man take his betrothed to a certain tower when the attack begins. To no one's surprise, this doesn't work out very well. After which he goes around the world, sitting in taverns and staring moodily into his beer, cursing his unhappy fate.

I liked the set-up of an unthinkably ancient, antehuman civilization in the midst of the upstart New Kingdoms, and I would have enjoyed a more rational and drawn-out account of Imrryr's downfall, rather than seeing it used as mere angst fodder. The independent short pieces I found more enjoyable, because there Elric's moodiness and irritating egotism are just givens from which the story proceeds. My favorite, I think, is the first part of Sailor, which involves a pair of weird, giant biomechanical aliens from another dimension. In general, this learnéd and moody albino who relies on the strength that flows to him from his soul-stealing sword is a nice counterpoint to the beefy ebullience of Conan and his clones, fond though I am of them.

Now, perhaps this is neither here nor there, but the Law – Chaos continuum has never appealed to my mind. This isn't a criticism of Moorcock particularly. Certainly he didn't originate the paradigm. Or did he? Who did? I don't know. Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) is certainly an early example. But the first Elric story came out then as well.

Anyway, it's a nice metric for role-playing games, but philosophically it doesn't make much sense to me. How can there be a tug-of-war between two such extremes? Law is the exception; chaos is the default. Entropy is easy; order is hard. As Chesterton puts it: "It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands." Order contains all that is romantic and exciting and beautiful in this world; chaos is flat and tepid and gray. Those who think they prefer chaos are really just drawn by the dramatic first stages of its advance, when order is still mostly present. It's the persisting order that lends it drama and glamor. Let them wait until things even out and heat death sets in and nothing happens ever again forever and ever. Bo-ring!

Well, to conclude, I must confess that I set out to read these books with a less than open disposition, knowing what Mr. Moorcock thinks of the works I hold dearest. I will put it this way: if there were to occur a deathmatch with Túrin Turambar in one corner and Elric of Melniboné in the other, I think the Dragon-helm would win with an arm tied behind his back, and probably be pretty decent about it, to boot. But then, perhaps it's just a matter of taste.

I will continue to read them, though, and see what happens. A greater compliment than that I cannot give any author.

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