Michael Moorcock, The Dreamthief's Daughter (Aspect, 2001)
Michael Moorcock, The Skrayling Tree (Aspect, 2003)
Michael Moorcock, The White Wolf's Son (Aspect , 2005)
In any list of "most important" in modern speculative fiction, there has to be a space near the top for Michael Moorcock. The scope of his influence is debated, but no one denies that a key factor was his tenure as the editor of the British magazine New Worlds, where he brought such British New Wave writers as J. G. Ballard and Brian W. Aldiss into public view. I happen to think that equally important was his creation of Elric of Melniboné and the other avatars of the Eternal Champion. He gave fantasy the anti-hero, although I can't really credit him with originating the idea. He himself cites Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories and C. L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry as the kind of thing he was reaching for as an antidote to J. R. R. Tolkien (whose Lord of the Rings was being published as Moorcock's Elric was taking shape) and what he characterized as the simple-mindedness of Robert E. Howard. And yet, to call the Eternal Champion simply an "anti-hero" doesn't really do him justice. If anything, he is as much a tragic hero as an anti-hero, a sometimes uneasy combination that really provides the motive force in Moorcock's stories.
Moorcock's grand cycle is one of the most staggering accomplishments in fantasy literature. The omnibus editions of the collected Eternal Champion novels and novellas published by White Wolf in the late 1990s comprise fifteen substantial volumes and cover the adventures of Elric, Erekosë, Corum, Ulric von Bek, Dorian Hawkmoon, John Kane, Oswald Bastable, and others whose names are lost to me in the mists of time. (I started reading these stories a long, long time ago. I might add that these are not his only novels -- just the Eternal Champion cycles.) Elric, the first, is as good an archetype as any of the others for this multifaceted character, for in Moorcock's multiverse, they are all one: the Eternal Champion, who is not always bound by time and place and whose existence is to fight the good fight, quite often for reasons he doesn't understand. Where Moorcock differs from so many other writers, most notably Tolkien and his host of imitators, is that his heroes are not always very noble, and some of them are not really very nice people at all, although Moorcock claims he didn't really conceive of Elric as an anti-hero. He was reacting to what he saw as the faults in Tolkien and Howard. Elric was the last Emperor of Melniboné and was responsible for the destruction of his kingdom. He lives in an uneasy symbiosis with the sword Stormbringer, which has its own kind of sentience and a distinct hunger for blood and souls. He is also given to thinking about his existence and what it means, supposing it has any meaning at all. For those who appreciate what I've seen referred to as "postmodern" fantasy, this is where it started.
This installment of the Eternal Champion, The Albino Underground, is, to say the least, complex. I've spent two days trying to boil down the plots to some sort of comprehensible précis, and finally decided that, aside from the impracticality, the events themselves are not the important part. Suffice it to say, they are complex and the cast alone is staggering. Working on the side of the Cosmic Balance are Elric and Ulric von Bek, who are linked and who are sometimes the same entity. Ulric's wife, Oona, is the daughter of Elric and Oone the Dreamthief, whose meeting was related in The Fortress of the Pearl (1989). Oona is joined in her part of the quest by a highly educated and articulate Red man named Ayanawatta, whom we know as Hiawatha, and a mysterious albino youth known as the White crow. Oswald Bastable makes appearances in all three novels. Ulric and Oona's granddaughter, Oonagh Beck, meets Bastable and Elric (in his guise as Monsieur Zodiac) and is aided by Renyard the fox, who dresses as a seventeenth-century dandy. They are opposed by Gaynor the Damned, a Knight of the Balance gone bad, who merely wants to be sure the multiverse doesn't outlive him, and his mysterious and repellent sometime-ally, sometime-henchman, sometime-adversary Johannes Klosterheim, who may be a defrocked priest, and their various allies. There are also assorted gods, elementals, Lords of Law and Chaos, and various indigenous tribes.
Let me add that no one in this set of stories is really bound by strictures of time and place, although some move more easily among the facets of the multiverse than others.
Moorcock is really a weaver of tales, and this series is a prime example. Strands come together, not only the parts of this episode, but of the entire grand cycle. Various avatars of the Eternal Champion meet: Elric and Ulric are bound, and indeed, even blend to become the same entity on several occasions. Elric actually appears in several guises. White Crow, who accompanies Oona on her journey and fights beside Elric and Ulric at the end of The Skrayling Tree, is none other than a younger Elric on an early dream quest, as the mature Elric is on what may be his last. Oona remembers, or dreams of being Irian of Garathorm, fighting against the destruction of her world. Dorian Hawkmoon appears briefly, and by reference, in The Dreamthief 's Daughter. There is a brief reference to a "Fra. Cornelius," whom we may guess is Jerry Cornelius, another of Moorcock's heroes from another cycle. There is even a doppelganger for Elric's companion Moonglum in the guise of an itinerant priest; Moonglum himself is an avatar of the archetypal Companion. Gaynor appears as the Viking Gunnar the Doomed. It seems that only Klosterheim customarily remains himself.
These stories exist in frames. In part, of course, this is due to the first-person narratives. The stories are told by Ulric, Oona, Elric, and Oonagh, and, through the agency of a narrator who is never identified (except that it is undoubtedlyÊMoorcock himself), by Una Persson, who, it appears, is most likely Oona. A wider frame is used for Elric's appearances: he is on a thousand-year dream quest, searching for Stormbringer as he hangs crucified on the ship of Jagreen Lerm, a human warlord who is engaged in the destruction of Melniboné. They are books in which events are narrated within larger narratives, and viewpoints shift from character to character, reflecting the mutability of the multiverse itself. Moorcock is really, in many respects, working in the mode of the nineteenth-century novel, which a number of writers of contemporary fantasy have tried with mixed results, although seldom positive.
Moorcock is also either terrifically erudite, or he fakes it really, really well, and that's another facet of his weaving: not only the strands of his own histories, but strands of the histories, legends and mythologies of our own reality are embedded in the stories. The Pukawatchi, for example, a tribe of diminutive indigenes who play a key role in The Skrayling Tree, are something I've run across before. They first called to mind Pukwudji, the trickster spirit in Charles de Lint's Moonheart, although he is rather more sympathetic and much more of a trickster, and they may even have a relationship to Louise Erdrich's Potchikoo, who she portrays as a mortal but who shares more than a few characteristics with the archetypal Amerindian Trickster. They also, in their facility for mining and shaping metal and their history of living underground, echo the Nibelung of Germanic myth. The Arthurian cycles find an echo in the understated but central role played by the Grail, which is one of the things that Gaynor wants to destroy, and which is somehow linked to the Black Sword, of which Elric and Ulric both possess avatars. The Grail itself appears sometimes as a chalice, sometimes as the Runestaff, and sometimes in other guises throughout the Eternal Champion cycles. Moorcock provides a richness of detail that is awe-inspiring, some real, some invented, but all woven together seamlessly.
Moorcock moves with astonishing ease among times and places, relating now a story that takes place in Germany during the rise of Hitler, now an episode in the North America of perhaps a thousand years ago, moving again to a place that never happened (at least so far as we know), and he manages to take the reader along with him. It strikes me that this is something that happens rarely: that an author, particularly in the mode of speculative fiction, explores to the full the possibilities inherent in his control of his universe. Moorcock's larger universe, the multiverse, contains a potentially infinite number of realities, and he takes full advantage of it.
Coming up with a final summation of this particular trilogy is not easy, if, indeed, it is possible at all. For those who are looking for a fast-paced adventure story, look elsewhere. They're fairly talky books, in the best sense -- think of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens rather than some contemporary romance or fantasy overladen with irrelevant detail. If you are someone who can appreciate and enjoy the workings of one of the major novelists of our time (certainly in the area of fantasy, and quite arguably beyond it), they are rich and more than a little absorbing.
[Robert M. Tilendis]