Michael Moorcock and Epic Fantasy
ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY ON MICHAEL MOORCOCK
Conan was strong and Aragorn was noble, but Elric was a sickly albino who needed a cocktail of exotic drugs just to get out of bed, let alone cut his mighty swathe; or else a demonic sword that ate the souls of his victims – and friends - in order to keep him on his feet – a willing submission to the sort of thing that Aragorn so explicitly has no truck with, and that Conan has no need of.
Conan fights priests and evil gods and has very strong views about the decadence of civilization and the superiority of Cimmerian stock, and thus becomes king. Aragorn surfs on prophecy and innate noble bloodline and Does the Right Thing, and thus becomes king. Neither have much time for women, or for doubting the rightness of their worldview. Elric is born heir to an ancient, inhuman and frankly evil empire - exactly the sort of decadence that Conan stamped out without shedding a tear. Elric fights against his destiny every step of the way. Elric is motivated by a palette of love, alienation and friendship. Elric doubts. Of the three, Elric – the unhuman – is most presented as a real rounded human being.
Elric also kills everything he loves. He kills his betrothed, betrays his people, abandons his god and causes the death of many of his friends. His nemesis is not a dark lord nor a hedonistic priest-king, but his own sword, and he can’t get rid of it because it’s his crutch as well. He is an addict constantly disgusted at himself. Elric is the original and the ultimate Grimdark fantasy hero, decades ahead of current trends.
And then there’s Corum, another inhuman hero, who likes poetry and art and gets tortured for it, and ends up wearing pieces of god in a world in which his entire race are little more than a myth. There’s Hawkmoon’s blighted post-nuclear future, where he defends Europe from the predatory and perverse tide of British imperialism. And then Moorcock takes his creations and laughs at the straightjacket narratives of the previous generation, and he sends characters back and forth between worlds, and has his heroes – or aspects of his single hero – meet and bicker and ally. And that’s not even to touch on the bizarre Dying Earth phantasmagoria of the Dancers at the End of Time, or the surreal, Burroughs-esque adventures of Jerry Cornelius.
For the fantasy writer, there’s a lot of talk about living in Tolkien’s shadow. Moorcock (who famously didn’t rate Mr T) has an influence just as pervasive, and far more subversive. He shows us that high fantasy doesn’t have to preclude deep characterisation. The inner life and complex nature of his characters underpins a great deal of the grittier and more realistic heroes of later writers. The tropes of his Eternal Champion series have gone on to become fantasy stock-in-trade. His Law and Chaos are the egg from which Games Workshop hatched its cosmology, both in their own pseudo-Europe, and amongst the stars. Elric himself, somewhere between hero and anti-hero, is the exemplar of generations of renegade Dark Elves and brooding sorcerers – a reminder that heroes don’t always have to be clean-minded and clean-limbed.
Moorcock’s other writings tend to get more scholarly attention – the zeitgeist weirdness of Cornelius, the religious shocks of Behold the Man or the complex structure of Mother London. For a writer of epic fantasy, though, the DNA of Moorcock’s sword and sorcery novels – and never before were sword and sorcery so interdependent! – is spliced in everywhere, following all the myriad new paths he opened up in the genre. He is a kind of patron saint – or perhaps not a saint, more of a trickster figure, a god of chaos and broken chains, undermining the temples and defacing the statues of the old.