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.
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