I started reading Michael Moorcock only a few years ago, and already he is one of my favorite authors. And the six-book CORUM series, for me, is second only to the ELRIC saga. In some ways I like better that Corum’s story is complete within these six volumes, unlike Elric’s, which never ends as Moorcock continues to add new stories (though he has, at least, written the story that tells of Elric’s end as a character). The basic story is that Corum, a being of an older race in its decline, is confronted by the upstart creatures Man, who attack Corum’s people, systematically destroying them all, leaving Corum the last of his race. Corum’s story is, at first, his simply seeking revenge, but what makes the story great is that his revenge eventually is channeled to a higher, greater purpose.
In The Knight of the Swords (1971), we are introduced to the world of Corum, including its cosmology, which is similar to Elric’s since they are both Eternal Champions who serve to right the Balance between the Lords of Chaos and the Lords of Order. Corum, of course, has no idea that he is working for the Lords of Order in this larger game played across the fifteen planes of existence. But by the end of the book, he understands this larger cosmology (with which readers of Moorcock would already be familiar). His confrontation with The Knight of the Swords is his first meeting with a Lord of Chaos (one known well by Elric fans), and we know that Corum’s journey will get much worse in future volumes as he faces the wrath of the more powerful Queen and King of Swords.
Why do I love this short novel so much? Well, in addition to the cosmology, I love the descriptions of the Vadhagh, Corum’s race, and their culture, particularly in comparison to the early race of man (who seem to have too much in common with the contemporary race of men):
The Vadhagh and the Nhadragh [the other elder race] spent their long hours in considering abstractions, in the creation of works of art and the like. [They were] rational, sophisticated, at one with themselves.
These older races were also able to cross, at will, five of the fifteen planes, while, in comparison, “Man was deficient in sensitivity, had no awareness of the multitude of dimensions” and they “spread like a pestilence across the world.” The clash of these two races gives us much to consider about our own existence. Though each race is an extreme version of the potential human beings have, those extremes allow us to see more clearly the positive and negative qualities of human nature, culture, religion, education, and ethical values.
I also love the fast pace of The Knight of the Swords and all the novels in the Corum series: Each of the six volumes takes less than three hours to read, and yet, the world Moorcock builds is wonderfully rich and layered. Unlike many contemporary authors, he builds that world in an incredibly concise fashion. I think the straightforward nature of this novel is deceptive in its seeming simplicity, and I believe most verbose fantasy writers would find it harder to write such a masterful two-hundred page novel than they do writing the six-hundred page volumes that are the current trend in fantasy. I wish there were more authors taking their cue from writers such as Moorcock and Poul Anderson, both of whom are able to build complex and detailed worlds with great concision.
I think many contemporary readers wouldn’t give this volume more than four stars, because it can be read in an afternoon and tossed aside, and if, for you, one of the qualities of a great fantasy novel is getting the chance to immerse yourself in a novel that takes at least a week to read, you, too, might find The Knight of the Swords too short. But, for me, this novel should be appreciated as is a sonnet: Its brevity shows the author’s ability to cut out every unnecessary part, leaving only the essentials. For me, this first volume is nothing less than a five-star work of art deserving multiple readings.
Corum (Eternal Champion) — (1971-1974) The ancient races, the Vadhagh and the Nhadragh, are dying. By creating Mankind, the universe has condemned Earth to a pestilence of destruction and fear. Prince Corum is the last remaining Vadhagh. He sets out on a crusade of vengeance against the forces that slaughtered his family and his race, to challenge the unjust power of the puppet masters of Man: the Lords of Chaos. Along the way he will barter with his soul for the limbs of gods to repair his mutilated body, and will encounter a member of the very race who caused the mutilation, the irresistible Rhalina…