Saturday, June 22, 2013

Rereads: Elric of Melnibone

When I was a youth, 99% of what I read was fantasy and science fiction. We didn't have the most money, so any such book that came into the house, I'd read over and over for years. In this occasional series, I take up some of those old and treasured titles and give them a read after fifteen or twenty years to see how I feel about them now.

Michael Moorcock is a British author, a bit of a strange fellow I gather, whose primary works are a great huge cluster of interconnected novels lumped together as The Eternal Champion series. The most famous set of them are the Elric novels, six books (later seven, and later even more,and now broken up into collections of stories, curiously) telling the story of an anti-hero, the non-human Emperor Elric who makes a bargain with an evil god in order to save the woman he loves that ends up costing him everything he ever cared about, and eventually his life. I read the original six book series so many times (in two volumes from the Science Fiction Book Club, if memory serves me right) probably eight or ten times, maybe more.

It's a slim little volume, clocking in at 180 pages (and all the rest roughly the same) which is why it came in omnibus editions at the time. The language is a mix of pulpy and baroque (is that a mix, or are they the same?) It's a surprisingly long and disjointed story for how short it is, with all sorts of curious action happening sometimes with good reasons and sometimes not. The story is thick with lurid descriptions and place names that have a lot of apostrophes. There's exactly one female character with any lines of dialogue, who is a clearer thinker than anyone else in the book, and yet is so helpless and hapless that it doesn't matter. Fearing that her brother (Elric's rival) will get up to shenannigans if he's left in charge for a while, she still refuses to take up the regency although she's obviously the best suited for it, and this only happens because she's a woman, and it's a pulp novel from the sixties, and so certainly she can't be in charge. Weird adventures happen only to be weird, not to further the plot. Everything is described as sardonic. Ancient histories are mentioned but make no sense. All in all, it's a bit of a mess on every level.

And yet, I still quite liked it. There's nostalgia in that, of course; but quite often we turn to something we loved as a young person and find it dreadful, so that's not all. Some parts of the book I remembered as clearly as if I'd read them only a year ago, instead of twenty years; other parts were surprising, and often in good ways. The writing, disjointed and overwrought as it is, still has quickness and fluidity; one couldn't stick as much plot as happens in a tiny little book if that wasn't the case. It's very easy to see how it influenced a generation of writers; the Targaryens from A Song of Ice and Fire owe considerable debt to the Melniboneans, for one thing, and a host of ideas I've had and worked on, and sometimes loved dearly, are clearly developed out of Moorcock's Elric saga.

Did I still love it? Well, maybe not. The glow of nostalgia did make the reread delightful, and it held up pretty well. But it was never my favorite Moorcock in any case (that would be Corum, which I might get to in time), and so love maybe is overstated. It was good enough, however, that I'll probably end up searching out the rest of the volumes in used bookstores, seeing what I've gotten jumbled up, how much I've forgotten and how much I remember.

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