Companion to Heroes
RICHARD MORGAN ON MICHAEL MOORCOCK
The city was old, begrimed by time. A place of wind-worn stones and tumbled masonry, its towers tilting and its walls crumbling. Wild sheep cropped the grass that grew between cracked paving stones….and on a broad ledge halfway up an equally cracked cliff-face, leaned back in the sun of an unfeasibly hot Scottish summer, an eleven year old boy disappears enthralled into that world of ruins and magic, never really to emerge again.
My first encounter with the worlds of Michael Moorcock was a haphazard one - I didn’t notice it at the time, but I’d breached The High History of the Runestaff at the start of book two, The Mad God’s Amulet. The heroes were by then already in motion, the battles and eternal enmities already declared, the quests underway (and it occurs to me now, almost forty years later, that perhaps this has in some way driven my obsession with beginning my own narratives in media res). But for that eleven year old boy, it didn’t matter. I’d go back later that same holiday and acquire the first volume, The Jewel in the Skull, and devour that with the same avid hunger. For now, though, here were swordsmen and sorcery, haunted ancient cities and fallen civilisations, machine beasts and damsels in distress, all that good shit, all delivered at an unrepentantly breakneck pace current fantasy readers would blink at in disbelief - a hundred and fifty pages? that’s not a fantasy novel! that’s barely a prologue! I mean, you’re going to need, well, a LOT of these…..
Happily, there were a lot. Just as I’d backtracked to the first volume of the Hawkmoon narrative, so I spent the next few years working my way back from the Hawkmoon stories to Moorcock’s earlier sword-wielding creation Elric, then on through Corum, Erekose and what seemed, frankly, to be an unending supply of grim, self-absorbed young men, all gifted with a variety of sharp-edged weaponry and a handy capacity for violence that would invariably see them standing triumphant atop a mound of enemy corpses by the breathless end of the tale - though, fittingly, they often seemed no less brooding and melancholic for their triumph than they ever had. It was glorious stuff, this, and it rang in my head like the clang of broadswords meeting. It was perfect fodder for my mutinous adolescent psyche at the time.
Nearly forty years later, it sometimes still is.
But if Michael Moorcock’s output was prodigious and headlong - on his own admission, many of these novels were written in not much more time than it takes to read them - it was also stunningly varied. One broadsheet blurb of the time, repeated in the fly-leaf of each of the many, many slim paperback volumes I owned, called him “a restless experimenter”, and sometime round about the start of my teens, I had the proof of that rammed rather startlingly home when I ran out of grim Moorcock-minted swordsmen to read about and ended up instead with a copy of The Hollow Lands. Which begins with the protagonist and his mother shagging (actually, it begins post-coitally, but hey, I was thirteen, man!) and later on they have a picnic composed of, among other arcane things, aspirin in jelly and heroin. All very transgressive, and not a broadsword in sight! It was also, once you got past the initial shock factor, touching and, in parts, hilarious - probably the first time I’d ever come across a book in which the humour actually made you snigger out loud as you were reading.
The understanding - that the same author who had given me that long procession of grave and sombre swordsmen could also deliver this - was a revelation like no other. It opened doors in my head, it lit an enduring flame. That was it - I was in! A fully-paid-up fan of both Moorcock’s seemingly limitless oeuvre and the sparkling, anything’s-possible genre to which he belonged. I bought anything his name was on, and sought out anything his work offered signposting on to. I polished off the rest of The Dancers at the End of Time in short order, and then binged on H. G. Wells and tried (unsuccessfully - there was no internet back then!) to track down the exquisitely melancholic poetry of Ernest Dowson. I followed a dedicatory mention at the start of Elric of Melnibone to Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, which was also hard to find back then, but this time I succeeded and remain eternally grateful for the tip. I powered through the Oswald Bastable books, with their decades-ahead-of-their-time steampunk sensibility and overt political commentary, ridiculously pleased with myself each time I saw through the alternative-history disguises of various twentieth century political figures (and, of course, Mick Jagger). Later, I went looking for non-fiction on Nestor Makhno and anarchism in the Russian revolution. I got caught up on a second Corum trilogy I hadn’t realised existed, then ricocheted away into books about the Celtic mythology it referenced. I dipped into the Jerry Cornelius quartet - never really a fan; just not enough character or narrative coherence there to hold me - and noted with interest the various experimental techniques on coruscating display. I went back to where it all started with The Golden Barge, found a gloomy iconoclastic supra-political picaresque which signposted me directly onward to the work of Mervyn Peake. I chased down an ex-library copy of the elusive Gloriana and found more signposts to Peake, plus - in Captain Quire - the first example of a genuinely unpleasant anti-hero I’d ever come across. Then I went away and tried to read Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen (failed, though - tough gig, that one). I cheered when The War Hound and the World’s Pain showed up and rekindled the old Eternal Champion spirit, and from it I developed a sudden interest in the history of the Thirty Years War….
And so it went on.
Moorcock and I parted company in the early eighties - Byzantium Endures wasn’t for me, just too unremittingly distancing - but it was a cordial farewell. The man had, after all, helped launch my lifelong passion for SF and Fantasy with a resounding bang. He’d carried me through those questing adolescent years where you’re a kind of recalcitrant cultural sponge, desperately soaking up all and any available clues to what life’s about and who you might be, but at the same time standing off, mutinous, mistrustful and above all desperate not to appear desperate in your seeking. In that epic quest, Moorcock was the Warrior in Jet and Gold, showing up enigmatic and deadpan to hand me a plethora of pointers and notes for guidance, equipping me with a brightly variegated go-to for all sorts of cool and weird shit, giving my awakening political consciousness a couple of handy shoves, laying out the SF&F toolkit for my perusal, whispering in my ear all along that there were no real barriers or boundaries here, that with this shit you could pull off whatever you cared to, so long as your nerve held out and you dreamed big.
Been dreaming big ever since. Nerves a bit frayed, but holding up. Last word to the text:
Once more Kwll’s many-toned voice sounded in his skull before his senses were engulfed completely.
“Now you can make your own destiny.”