Elric of Melniboné is one of those fantasy giants that shook the genre. He’s probably not so well-known as Conan or Gandalf, but he’s nonetheless in the same country club of figures often cited as seminal to sword and sorcery — for good reason. The argument could definitely be made that Elric was the basis for most of the brooding, troubled heroes that have become so popular of late. Think of all those angsty sorcerers and tragically doomed warriors wandering across unforgiving worlds. Some — perhaps most — of them would not exist in their current form without Elric. Even those readers out there who are just about now awkwardly wondering whether they’re supposed to have heard of this guy and what it means that they haven’t would probably recognize some of the art or music associated with Moorcock’s work. So yes, Elric is and has been quite the relevant fellow in this genre, but… how’s the writing? Well… it’s good. And weird. Frequently it’s both at once.
Elric’s world was, at the time of Moorcock’s writing, a kind of antithesis of the usual fantasy tropes authors were kicking around. Elric rules the kingdom of Melinboné, an ancient empire of magically powerful and long-lived superhumans now diminishing with the rise of the Young Kingdoms (i.e. human beings) to power and prominence. There the similarities to the Tolkienian elves end, however, as Melniboné appears as a kind of anti-Rivendell in which the inhabitants are callous, cruel, and egomaniacal, aligned for millennia to a powerful Chaos demon. Elric himself, their emperor, is something like an anti-Conan: a physically frail and sickly albino sorcerer who relies on herbal medication to survive. This persistent weakness throughout his life, however, has perhaps engendered in Elric a compassion and decency not only absent in but actively scorned by his people. Elric is probably best known for his time as an adventurer, but we get little of Elric the doomed, damned wanderer in this, an origin story.
Elric of Melniboné is not the first Elric story that Moorcock wrote, but it is the first in the series’s internal chronology. Perhaps for this reason, while Moorcock clearly makes effort to forge the novel into a decent introduction to Elric for new readers, there’s a confidence in his description of his protagonist that the reader is going to take what he says at face value without a lot of explanation or justification. This is very much a novel by an author who’s fairly certain that he’s got an audience, which allows him to relax a little and take some liberties. That can be both good and bad. The style of Elric is quite engaging, and the character comes alive from the first page, but on the other hand Moorcock’s apparent fearlessness sometimes manifests in some rather odd or even silly moments that another author might have been a bit too cautious to include. A good example is a fight scene in which Elric and his cousin Yrkoon are fighting and feel compelled to bellow forth the oh-so-melodramatic names of their swords. “Stormbringer!” cries Elric. “Mournblade!” roars back his adversary. It’s hard to tell whether to giggle or gasp.
Actually, most of the novel (and indeed the series) walks that knife’s edge between “dramatic” and “over-the-top”. Even in its less assured moments, Moorcock’s prose tends toward the richly bombastic. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, per se (particularly as Moorcock is a good enough author that he rarely lets it get too ridiculously out of hand), but it does make for an interesting and by modern standards rather abnormal reading experience. The language used is gorgeously lush and resonant, and the imagery is made to match. This is a story that is in every way an epic, larger than life and rather proud of the fact. It can look a touch overwrought. That said, Moorcock generally has the eloquence to back up the bluster, and once I’d acclimated to the prose I found myself actually savoring the style. I realize some of what I’ve said may have readers marking this down as a ridiculously windy book full of thees and wherefores, but I actually encourage you to see the prose as an overall mark in the novel’s favor. You will not read much fantasy that sounds like this, and by the time the end of the series comes, you may be quite glad that Moorcock chose an epic style to match his events.
Now for the plot. Well, a major criticism that has been leveled at the ELRIC SAGA (in fact, probably the major criticism) is that the plot seems rather perfunctory, a kind of paste to hold together Moorcock’s events. That’s probably rather fair, but happily there’s not a lot of poor plotting in this first novel in the series. In fact, it all clips along fairly easily until Elric’s final decision, which may raise a few eyebrows but is explainable enough given the context. I won’t claim that the plot is anything special — in fact, I’ll go so far as to say it does feel just a little lazy — but it’s not particularly troublesome here and, when left by itself, the novel feels quite adequate as an adventure story.
To sum up: the ELRIC series has dramatic, at times slightly clunky prose by modern standards (in fact, despite Moorcock’s infamous distaste for Tolkien’s work, The Lord of the Rings is probably the most prominent example I can give of similar style) but overall it works. The plot is nothing particularly twisting or special, but it gets the job done. The imagery is good, the characterization great, and the presentation assured. A win for Moorcock in the first round, but with the looming caveat that one of the most controversial (read: weirdest) of the Elric stories is upcoming next in Sailor on the Seas of Fate.
Elric, emperor of Melniboné, is not your typical fantasy hero. He’s an albino with white skin, long white hair, and slanting red eyes. He’s weak and has to take drugs every few hours just to maintain the strength of a normal man. He’s a brooding and contemplative scholar, which makes him dull at parties.
Some people think Elric is a demon — he sure looks like one — and many of his subjects would prefer to have the throne of Melniboné occupied by Elric’s charismatic cousin Yyrkoon who looks and acts like a leader should. He’s strong, agile, and nationalistic, and he wants to restore Melniboné to its former greatness.
While Yyrkoon is dancing, acting like a proper nobleman, and plotting to kill Elric, Elric spends his time thinking about tradition, social justice, and his duty to his country. Is it Elric’s job to give the people of Melniboné what they want — tradition, a powerful leader, war, and dominance over smaller states — or is it better to be universally humanistic and to try to lead Melniboné, against its wishes, into cooperation and peace with its neighbors? Should Elric sacrifice his personal ideals in order to be the leader his people demand? Is his responsibility to his country or to the world at large?
Elric of Melniboné, by Michael Moorcock, is a thought-provoking work but, at the same time, it’s appealing to those who just want to read a good sword & sorcery story — sea battles in grottos, ships that sail on land or sea, magic mirrors that wipe out memory, and fights with demons in the underworld. Many of the Elric stories were originally published in pulp magazines or as novellas, so they are fast-paced with sketchy scene and character development. This is likely to be unsatisfying to some readers, but I enjoyed the quick pace and appreciated Elric’s introspective concerns about his duties.
I listened to Audio Realms’ production of Elric of Melniboné. Jeff West was an excellent narrator, but I was annoyed by the music which plays behind the entire book’s text — not just at the beginning of chapters or scenes (listen to sample). It is soft and doesn’t cause any trouble with hearing the narration, but it’s clearly designed to add drama and emotion to the story and I prefer to let Moorcock do that himself. I would have enjoyed Elric of Melniboné more if there had been no music at all and I’ll be careful about Audio Realms’ productions in the future.
Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné is one of those fantasy cult classics that’s hovered in my periphery for several years. And after being greatly pleased with Del Rey’s recent trade paperback editions of the The Fully Illustrated Robert E. Howard Library, their new publications of the Moorcock’ s Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné seemed the perfect opportunity for a Sword & Sorcery fan, like myself, to finally read them, (especially since I’m a sucker for illustrated books, too). So I started this book with very high expectations. But maybe, just a little too high.
Elric is the last prince of a dying race and his royal blood carries a genetic defect that makes him a pure albino and physically frail. He possesses or, more accurately, is possessed by the evil soul-stealing sword, Stormbringer, which grants him power, but also makes Elric physically dependent. As the last prince of a fallen and advanced civilization, Elric has the knowledge of generations studied in dark sorceries at his disposal. He’s a brooding and vengeful character who is haunted by past unforgivable deeds. But he is also the dark savior whose destiny is to stop total domination by the forces of chaos, and to maintain the universal balance. This also means the complete destruction of himself and his world.
I especially enjoy the connection between Elric’s fantasy world and our real one. I also found myself intrigued almost as much by Elric’s sidekick, Moonglum, as I was by Elric himself. Throughout the stories, I delightfully wonder just what makes a freebooting adventurer like Moonglum so faithful to a self-destructive soul like Elric. Granted, there is sometimes profit to be gained, but Elric isn’t really a likable guy and Stormbringer can be just as likely to kill friends as enemies.
As literary value to the genre, these stories are well worthy of more than five stars. With Elric, Mr. Moorcock was one of the pioneers in modern fantasy fiction in the early 1960’s. It’s easy to see his influence in fantasy today (not too mention that a few early 70’s hard-rock bands reference Elric in their music). From what I understand, when Moorcock first wrote the Elric of MelnibonÉ stories, he set out to create something totally different from the standard Sword & Sorcery heroes that came before. Elric is most definitely different. In fact, he’s one of the most unique fantasy characters I’ve ever read.
However, I try to reserve that fifth star for the books that just “blow-me-away,” and despite Elric having all the ingredients I like in a fantasy story, it just didn’t do that for me. Maybe it’s simply just dated, or maybe it was the magazine format these stories were originally written for, but overall, it was missing that grab-me-by-the-guts, keep-me-up-past bedtime experience. In some parts, the mind-blowing incomprehensibility just ended up being too over-the-top and forgettable, if not boring. It’s still an enjoyable read and there’s definite potential for the following books to be even better.
Elric of Melniboné — (1963-1991) Publisher: It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair that flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone. He is Elric, Emperor of Melniboné, cursed with a keen and cynical intelligence, schooled in the art of sorcery — the hero of Michael Moorcock’s remarkable epic of conflict and adventure at the dawn of human history.
There are other collections of Elric stories available, including graphic novels.