I finished the Fritz Leiber book but still had not had my fill of fantasy escapism, so, walking the stacks of the sci-fi section of the library (where fantasy books are kept, not without practical reason) I came to Michael Moorcock, whose Elric books–all of the original stories, six books all told if I remember, though they have been differently anthologized since–I enjoyed immensely and who can be depended on to have some substance in his fantasy. It’s fantasy, but certainly with Elric not crap fantasy.
Moorcock, I could say, needs no introduction, but a couple of points need to be stressed, and probably I should say that this is the first book of his that’s not about Elric that I read, so I don’t write this as a Moorcock scholar, just as a reader. In any event, Moorcock conceived of Elric, and as I think of it it seems his larger project of the Multiverse, so-called, as a rebuttal to Tolkien, at least in part. Moorcock’s politics, and this is the second point worth stressing, are anarchist, which we in the anti-Soviet good old-fashioned revisionist Marxist camp can hang with, for sure–and if you’re in that camp and you can’t hang with anarchists, you need to get over yourself. Tolkien’s fantasy was the worst kind of Tory in its sensibility and, worse still, prose style. The Shire is the Village Green without Ray Davies‘ sense of humor (or sense of melody). The enemy is the modern industrial world, with some Saracens tossed in anachronistically, and the goal is to return the legitimate heir to the throne to his proper seat of monarchical authority.
To be sure, Tolkien’s politics continue to exercise an influence on fantasy as a genre, because what in Tolkien was plot became, in the genre, convention. Again, my first exposure to Moorcock was Elric, and I loved it. Elric was a bastard–temperamentally, not literally. He did things that were not cool to do to other people. That, plus he was a drug addict. Things got worse still when he got that sword who–yes, the sword was intelligent–ate people’s souls, which is a way worse thing to do than anything Elric would have come up with on his own. Less tongue in cheek, though, is that Elric starts the series firmly on the side of Chaos as opposed to Order. This last is the key to Moorcock’s critique of Tolkien: Chaos, not Evil, Order, not Go(o)d. Moorcock tossed out Christian morality and replaced it with Balance. Indeed, by the end of things Elric ends up doing work for Order as the forces of Chaos threaten to overwhelm the Balance.
So, Moorcock, in addition to writing stories that are fun to read–certainly a requirement of the genre–is dealing with serious philosophical, ethical in particular, thinking, and that he does so so seamlessly, that is, without ever having to draw the reader’s conscious attention to a philosophical discussion, is what makes him such a fantastic writer. He really is good, and is probably the writer, were I to try to convince a skeptic that fantasy books can be “literature,” that I’d point to first.
Having said all this, Hawkmoon is a much more straightforward character, at least so far (I’ve read the first two books of the series) than Elric. That’s not to say The Jewel in the Skull is not absolutely worth reading if you’re into the stuff. For one thing (and this is a response, not a review), it meets the fun to read requirement handily. That’s simple enough, but there is also critique to chew on here. I won’t rehearse the plot, but the setting is of interest. The book takes place in the distant, post-nuclear apocalyptic Europe. The continent is threatened by the nasty empire of Granbretan–Great Britain–with its capital, Londra. The English are the bad guys, and the hero, Hawkmoon, is a German who ends up defending southern France. While Britain had begun to dismantle its Empire when the book was written, it still maintained it to a great extent, and it’s significant that Moorcock, born in the first year of the Second World War–1939, not 1941–makes a Hun the good guy. We British, he says, are the barbaric ones.
I’d note that the plot takes Hawkmoon through Eastern Europe to Western Asia, and there’s none of Tokein’s orientalist nonsense. These are simply places with peoples and cultures in Moorcock, which is very refreshing to read in a white, British writer writing in the 1960’s, before Edward Said published his book and it became cool for white Leftists to reference it. Very good for Moorcock.