Among my many ambitions, one is to be a historian of this genre; to be able to give my fellow wanderers a sense of how this love of ours evolved, to shed light on what came before that might still be enjoyed or influence what lies ahead. It is partly with that thought in mind I give you this review of Elric of Melniboné.
Elric has been an influence on my conceptions of fantasy long before I ever read a book containing him due to his influence on fantasy gaming. I think the influence of his character and story must have influenced a good deal of what I’ve read too. Slender, cynical, sustained by magics, he was a direct subversion of the likes of Conan, Brak, and Fahfrd; tragic and romantic in the Byronic mode, he was a callback to the warrior heroes of old Europe such as Cuchulainn, Sigurd, and Kullervo, whose nature was their greatness and their doom. It’s not hard to see the reason why Moorcock’s Elric stories are often referred to as proto-grimdark. The word proto is important, as witnessed by a twitter exchange I had with JonBob at Parsecs & Parchments on the subject:
Not that either of us reached set in stone conclusions, I think. At least, JonBob still seemed to be mulling his thoughts over in his review here and so am I. This isn’t, incidentally, the first Elric book I’ve read, for I picked up Stormbringer second hand ages back and read that, thus starting the series at its ending. Yes, I am a monster.
So too, perhaps, is Elric.
Or perhaps, more accurately, Elric is someone trying very hard not to be one.
Moorcock portrays a monstrous world. Elric’s people, the Melnibonéans, are instinctively amoral, respecting only power and will. They gravitate to cruelty like a cat on cocaine. Elric alone among them seems to possess some sense of morality beyond loyalty and love, and he struggles with those feelings. The rest of the world is little better; worship of the demonic Lords of Chaos and war is common. Moorcock does not dwell on these things but references them often, little lines and paragraphs here and there to spark our imagination and create an atmosphere.
Imagination and atmosphere are the keys to this book. It is short and fast-paced, and full of action and adventure. It does not dwell on emotions, or offer lengthy pieces of worldbuilding. There are emotions, and there is worldbuilding, but it is given in shortform, in hints and seeds. For those who gel with Moorcock’s writing, those hints and seeds will open up the door to a deep and terrifying world, a place of weird and wild adventure. For those who don’t, it will be unsatisfactory.
For those of us caught somewhere in the middle, Elric of Melniboné is something of a curate’s egg. There are moments that are supremely gripping, ideas that I’d love to see brought to the screen in some way. There are moments that are deeply boring, or not all they could be. I would add that Moorcock gave the best of his powers to his world and hero here; the plot is fairly straight-forwards, and the prose straight-forwards with touches of lurid purple. The chase after Elric’s treacherous cousin Yrkoon did little to entertain me. The final confrontation was good, but I didn’t love it. The build up as Elric traverses a demonic realm is fantastic though. Elric’s dealings with the powers of Chaos and the Elements are wonderfully done. Moorcock gets more right here than wrong for my money.
Which is why I’d recommend this book. It can be a little work at times, but at it’s best, it’s air of brooding alien savagery and sense of a man trying his best vs an almost actively malevolent world make for superior entertainment. Proto-Grimdark? As a would be historian, yes, but let it stand on its own merits rather than force it into the straitjacket of our expectations. This is a piece of Sword & Sorcery that both loved and mocked the genre, casting the weird sorcerer with his demons as the hero rather than the villain, a piece of Heroic Fantasy in which it’s nigh impossible to be a hero. This is Elric of Melniboné, one man’s quest against brutal evils both within and without, with little but destruction and malice to call on.
And it’s a very solid read.