Michael Moorcock, The Stealer of Souls

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The book, and the man himself behind it.

Though I hadn’t read the Elric stories in this anthology the first time around–I read the old DAW versions, in order of the internal chronology–I continue this new pattern of rereading stuff. I like it. A good book read at a different point reveals something different.

I don’t know why, fix or six years ago, I decided to read Elric, but it was at the time the first work in the genre that, once started, I actually finished. For whatever reason, likely a piercing nostalgia for my childhood adventures in Dungeons & Dragons, I took Elric up. I’d tried to read Robert Jordan many years earlier when someone I worked with at a bookstore told me how genuinely well-written it was. I was not impressed. Maybe I’d read it differently, but the language seemed artificially archaic and I detected no moral subtlety. I made it through 50 pages at most.

Likely, one of the things that drew me not only into but through the entire Elric series, excepting Moorcock’s more recent novels, was what immediately impressed me again this time around. Moorcock, it bears repeating, came up in a literary world of monthly magazines and fanzines. He had to engage his reader from the start unlike something drafted with the intent to occupy a minimum of three volumes. I have read, as a glance at this “blog” indicates, plenty more since in the genre, but with the possible and for me likely exception of Fritz Leiber, for straight-up page-turnability, Moorcock has no peer.

Likely, as well, I initially chose Moorcock and Elric particularly because of his reputation as a critic of Tolkein. Rereading the work, it’s impressive how, working with the concision pulp literature demands of its authors, Moorcock provides an exceptionally clear and systemic philosophical framework for the narrative. Tolkein’s son–good for him–has milked his father’s background sketches for decades now, and while some point to the volumes Tolkein wrote with no expectation of publication to sketch the backstory to The Lord of the Rings as a virtue, it strikes me as more akin to the shut-in who works, in his dingy apartment, all week preparing volumes for the one evening he will act as Dungeon Master at the Wednesday evening D & D game at the local game shop, volumes the bulk of which will never get pulled out of his backpack but which will be lovingly filed in one of the stacks on his bedroom floor. Moorcock, very much the contrary, drew up a clear sketch, thought about it to see if it worked, and then, knowing it did, got down to the business of writing something he actually wanted to see published.

One thing to note about this particular anthology is that it apparently follows the date of publication rather than the internal chronology I’d first encountered. Stormbringer, in which Elric dies, was, I now know, written quite early, with intervening stories later. The upshot is that while I expected I’d read the first portion of Elric’s story, I got the first bit and then the last. The other volumes in this series I gather fill in the rest. This is fine, but to fact is that I would rather have kept the internal chronology. Bear this in mind if you investigate the work.

As an aside, while Alan Moore‘s introductory essay displays all of the pomposity that mars his own work, I read it and felt that I’d wished he’d become a literary critic rather than a comic book writer. He fully understands both Moorcock’s literary and his social significance, and communicates both objectively and entirely clearly. Moorcock’s essay which follows Moore shows a man less impressed with his own erudition and at the same time clearly more genuinely erudite. Moorcock comes off as someone aware of his talents but much more interested in the work itself than what the work indicates about his own value as a person, an enthusiast in the best sense of the term.

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Michael Moorcock, The Jewel in the Skull

English fantasy and science fiction writer Mic...
A smart cookie with good politics.

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.

Fritz Leiber, Swords and Deviltry

I tell myself that I like to read what I call “crap fantasy,” but it’s not actually the case.  I like good fantasy or, given the confines of the genre, great fantasy.  I’ve tried reading crap fantasy–one of the Forgotten Realms novels, because I’d played D&D in that setting before–and couldn’t get past the third chapter.  I need a relatively high grade of crap to keep my attention.

I had also played D&D–this in college in what was the best group I’d ever played with (we’d start at noon with a case of Newcastle)–in a Lankhmar setting, based on Fritz Leiber‘s stories.  The Dungeon Master raved about Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, and a few years later I started reading Leiber, but for some reason he didn’t, at that point in my life, take to me, or vice versa.  If memory serves, I had picked up one of the books in the middle of the series.  At minimum it wasn’t Swords and Deviltry, the first, and a good beginning.  Maybe it’s that I started at the start, or that I’m at a point in my life where I’m more open to escapist reading, but I loved the book.

I will, before noting what struck me about Leiber, say that I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings, mainly because when I pick up The Fellowship of the Ring in a bookstore or library and flip through it, I can’t get past the dainty, tra-la-la prose Tolkein insisted on using.  I say this because I’ve seen the films, and one thing I gather is that Tolkein created a number of very strong characters for his fiction, which is more than I can say for most of the fantasy I’ve read, which centers on usually one complex character with a series of arche- or stereotypes surrounding him, because it’s basically always a male central character.

Leiber, apparently in collaboration with his friend, Harry Otto Fischer, came up with two compelling characters and an even more compelling relationship between the two, and that strikes me as the basic reason these stories work in a way that genuine crap fantasy doesn’t.  It should be said that Swords and Deviltry contains three stories, the first two about Fafhrd and then the Gray Mouser respectively, before they met each other.  Most of the book is about either Fafhrd or the Gray Mouser, with the third story, the justifiably-famous “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” about their meeting and the formation of their relationship.

All of the stories are good, but without question “Ill Met in Lankhmar” is the masterpiece.  Leiber has a lightness to his writing that, so diametrically opposed to Tolkein’s leaden prose, is refreshing, and much of this comes from the characters.  The two are quick to drink and impulsive, which makes for lightness.  The trick, though, is that Leiber can use these characteristics to bring the plot to totally devastating consequences, completely convincingly.  He’s an excellent writer.

A last note: Mouser begins his career as an apprentice Wizard, Mouse.  His transformation into the Gray Mouser is well-done–and it seems to me that showing (as opposed to telling) the transformation of a character is one of the more difficult things a writer can do–but though he showed himself capable with magic, he drops it completely in favor of swordplay, noting in a later story that magic was powerful but dangerous, or something like that, but with no further comment.  Fantasy as a genre contains magic, but it’s dangerous it seems for a writer because it can easily function as a deus ex machina, relieving the writer of the need to think one’s way out of a literary problem.  That said, and only having finished the second of the series now, I want Mouser to use a little magic sometimes, precisely because Leiber’s approach to it is that it has a cost.  Witness my notes on Octavia Butler for more on why precisely this is so important.