Review: ELRIC OF MELNIBONÉ (The Elric Saga #1) by Michael Moorcock


Ah Elric my lad, we meet at last. It’s weird to feel excited about starting to read a 50-year-old fantasy series, but the Elric books have been on my radar for a while now, through the joyous human being that is Matt Colville, a big name in the Dungeons & Dragons scene, who has talked in the past about The Elric Saga and how it blew his mind as a fantasy reader back in the day. Elric is often touted as the first ‘anti-hero’ and the books the birth of dark fantasy. I’ve not delved too deeply into Moorcock as a person yet, but I’m vaguely aware of his disdain for the straightforward Tolkien-esque ‘good guys versus the dark lord’ brand of fantasy. This first book in The Elric Saga introduces us to the titular Emperor of Melniboné, a sickly and troubled…man? It’s hard to say, the Melnibonéans are described as not being exactly human, so I dunno. Anyway, this first book introduces us to Elric and his court, his cousin and wannabe usurper Yrykoon, and his other cousin (Yrykoon’s sister) Cymoril, who is also his lover. Bit weird, until you find out Yrykoon also wants to bang her, then it starts to look vaguely tame in comparison. The book is essentially the story of Yrykoon attempting to usurp Elric’s throne and Elric’s subsequent hunt for him when he fails and escapes.



Reading this book in 2021 was a weird experience cos, while it probably was revolutionary in its day, it does still feel quite dated to the modern reader. The plot structure is pretty straightforward: protagonist has an enemy and pursues a McGuffin to attain the power he needs to defeat him, and some stuff happens along the way. And yet there’s a kind of charm in all that. I find it difficult to talk about these old fantasy stories to be honest, because I read them with different expectations to modern books and there’s a lot of stuff in here I wouldn’t tolerate from a more recent release, but still enjoyed here. The worldbuilding isn’t that extensive, Yrykoon is a bit of a moustache-twirling villain and Cymoril the damsel-in-distress if ever I saw one, and yet for all that I did get a great sense of the kind of unforgiving, brutal and hedonistic society Melniboné is and I enjoyed hating Yrykoon without ever feeling like Elric was the good guy.

I was initially sceptical of the ‘grimdarkness’ of this book, as the series is often touted as the precursor to the more evidently grimdark books that are all the rage today, but I admit I didn’t really get it to begin with. A lot of that was probs due to my own preconceptions of what grimdark is and a lot of the modern tropes of the genre, and Moorcock doesn’t exactly conform to those expectations. In many ways, Elric feels like a bridge between classic fantasy and modern grimdark, maintaining some elements of the old while introducing some darker elements that didn’t conform to the genre expectations of the 1970s. Again, with these older books, it’s difficult to have to constantly remind yourself that judging them by how the genre has evolved since isn’t exactly a fair benchmark and I concede these books were no doubt ground-breaking in their day. I think there’s also the danger of looking at every story through the same lens, assuming they’re all trying to do the same thing. I don’t think Moorcock was necessarily setting out to create the kind of SFF book we expect nowadays, with their granular and interconnected world-building and deeply realised character relationships. Rather, I get the sense this book is an introduction to a sort of deep character study of a troubled and conflicted anti-hero that I expect to see expand in future books. As a story it’s good, pulp fantasy fun as well and I quite enjoyed the simplicity of the story itself – there’s a bit of deus ex machina and some not-very-three-dimensional side characters and Elric’s quest is very straightforward. It was just some good, old-fashioned, uncomplicated fun.

I’ve referenced the very enlightening Twitter conversation I had with Peat from Peat Long’s Blog a few times in previous posts, but he really helped me clarify my initial thoughts when I’d just finished reading this book. It’s potentially easy to be lured into believing Elric’s own internal narrative of himself as ‘a good king’ who rejects the cruelty of his people and looks to bring enlightenment to a decadent empire in decline. I think I fell into this trap to begin with which, combined with the very traditional story structure, led me to believe this book tilted much more towards the classic sword and sorcery fantasy than it did to anything fresh or new. I don’t think that’s quite right though. Elric is, like people in real life, an unreliable narrator when it comes to how he views himself and his place in the world and it goes back to the old adage that everyone is the hero of their own story and there are no self-professed villains. I find myself very intrigued by Elric as a character cos, even though he oversees brutal torture and worships a chaotic demon god, I don’t see him as a straightforwardly evil ruler and I don’t know why. You can probably tell I still haven’t fully come to terms with this book and I still find myself thinking about it weeks later.

This has been a shorter review, but I am going to leave it there for now. I get the sense I haven’t fully grasped this book yet. There’s something amorphous about it, something just out of reach that I haven’t quite understood yet, and I hope to develop more concrete thoughts as I move through the series. I do want to say though, that for all it does feel somewhat dated, I really did enjoy the story and there’s something very alluring about Elric that I can’t quite place. I’m looking forward to delving deeper into his world and discovering more about him as a character.


image credit: by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

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21 thoughts on “Review: ELRIC OF MELNIBONÉ (The Elric Saga #1) by Michael Moorcock

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  1. If a book still preys on your mind (so to speak) weeks after you finished it, there must be something intriguing indeed that counterbalances the older type of story and the possibility of outdated narrative. The fact that the main character can be viewed as an unreliable narrator is quite intriguing indeed…

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    1. Honestly it’s a book I don’t see most people wanting to read these days. People’s tastes have (shockingly) changed in the 50 years since Elric was published haha and I don’t think this is the kind of story most modern fantasy readers want. But it’s a book I’ve wanted to read for a while just for its legendary place in the fantasy canon and it’s influence on the development of the genre. I also still have a fondness and nostalgia for these old stories. I’m far from being old enough to have read them when this was first released but I still grew up in the 90s reading second hand books from this sort of era so it has a kind of nostalgic charm to me 🙂

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    1. LOL! Yeah to be fair it’s a book that 90% of the people who read my blog would have zero patience with. For all it is thematically different to most of the fantasy from way back when, you can still tell if you’re the kind of reader who’s gonna like it just by thinking ‘muscle-bound sword-wielding pulp fantasy hero’ 😄

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  2. You got a couple things there. This is the first book and Elric does develop a lot more, particularly when Moonglum comes on board in the later books. One of the things that Moorcock did, was rather than fill in the blanks for the reader, he left it to their own ability to use their own imagination. And whilst you can see the obvious influence of people like Robert E. Howard on his writing, it develops further when the storyline becomes more interconnected, particularly with the concept of The Eternal Champion and the fact that other heroes in the pantheon, such as Corum, Count Brass and others were a different facet of the same concept.

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    1. Yeah since writing this review I’ve read The Sailor on the Seas of Fate as well and feel I’m getting a better grasp of Elric as a character and the way the story is progressing. I’m really intrigued by him and his story and I’m looking forward to starting The Weird of the White Wolf. They’re definitely of their time but I still really like these books.

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  3. I’ve also had this on my radar for a while and keep going back and forth between giving it a shot or not. Knowing it’s not actually grimdark is encouraging though, my patience for older books is pretty thin.

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    1. Yeah it’s difficult, cos it does very much have that classic sword and sorcery fantasy vibe, but I think so long as you know that going in and know what to expect, it’s a good story despite being a bit dated to the modern reader. Hope you like it if you decide to give it a go 😀

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    2. To add my tup’pence – it’s short and quick and straight-forwards and as such, providing you can source a copy easily, it’s a decent shout for giving a go to simply because it’s not a big investment. Mood wise – I think you can argue back and forth on whether it’s grimdark, but a lot of what might be considered so is kinda subtextual and secondary. This book is all about the quest and a bit of weirdness, all in a cynical and sardonic way.

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  4. Finally actually finished this myself. Mulling over my thoughts for my own review. Gonna have to find that twitter convo.

    I think it’s best to think of the Melnibone peeps as fucked up elves, from what I recall of the Stormbringer RPG articles at least.

    I’m not sure how revolutionary these would have been at the time and certainly, narrative wise, I think they’re pretty ordinary. Moorcock was notorious for writing books very, very fast (like… in a weekend) and I don’t think that happens if you’re thinking hard about narrative. I think what got people was the tone and weirdness of them, but caveat emptor as this is a sloppily researched historical opinion.

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    1. Haha ‘fucked up elves’ made me laugh. I did wonder whether my statement about them being ground-breaking was strictly accurate. I agree, certainly not narratively speaking, there’s nothing new there, but there’s something I *still* haven’t quite placed that’s different about these books. I got to grips with it a bit more when I read The Sailor on the Seas of Fate and I’ve just received my copy of The Weird of the White Wolf today, so looking forward to trying to pin it down a bit more when I start that book.

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      1. I look forwards to you trying to pin it down. I’m a little behind but might try and catch up as nothing’s grabbing my mood much.

        And mood’s the word. I think the mood of it is the big thing I’ve never really come across before, except maybe in Viriconium.

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        1. I’d actually not heard of the Viriconium books til you mentioned it here and I looked it up. Sounds quite bizarre, I’d quite like to read them.

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          1. First heard of them in an Anna Smith Sparks interview and yeah, they’re trippy. I haven’t read your review on her yet but if you liked her stuff, I’d go for it. I need to find what I did with my copy (of both Smith Sparks and Viriconium)

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            1. I was a bit iffy on her Empires of Dust books. Weirdly I thought the middle book of the trilogy was the best one, but I’m not sure I can say I enjoyed the series. I’ll still check out the Viriconium books regardless though.

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