I’ve been in the mood for some classic SF/F lately, and since I’ve been meaning to re-read the Elric saga this seemed like the perfect, timely choice.
This post contains the review for Elric of Malniboné and The Weird of the White Wolf. Though there are different ways of ordering the series, those are the prequel (1972) and a collections the first original stories (1961-62).
What to Expect
Classic swords-and-sorcery stories on one of the most famous and influential heroes of fantasy. Moorcock wrote the original stories in the 1960’s, but revisited Elric throughout the coming decades. I set out to read the original tales, but started with the prequel that was written when all the first stories were collected into volumes in the early 70’s. Publishing, it seems, has always been a madhouse.
Elric of Malniboné
The story tells about how Elric came into possession of Stormbringer, his demonic sword. His character here is not as cynical and self-proclaimed evil as in the previous stories, but that is an artefact of Moorcock painting the picture of how Elric got to be the way he is.
The Weird of the White Wolf
Contains three swords-and-sorcery novelettes of one of the most famous heroes of fantasy, plus one semi-related short not involving Elric. Moorcock wrote the original stories in the 1960’s, and though he revisited Elric throughout the coming decades I wanted to read the original tales.
The first story, The Dreaming City, tells of Elric’s revenge and destruction of the culture on which he was raised. This essentially closes the events described in the prequel Elric of Malniboné (written a decade later), but bear in mind it was the first Elric story published and sets to describe Elric and set the scene for his future adventures.
The second is While the Gods Laugh, and is somewhat hallucinogenic (hey, man, it was the 60’s). In this Elric meets his longtime companion, Moonglum.
The last is The Singing Citadel, exploring more of Elric’s patron god, his revenge motivations, and the earthly magic vs truly demonic powers.
What I liked
There is a certain charm (but see below) in old-style swords-and-sorcery. Not every book that has medieval weapons and mages is S&S, there are certain elements of style that stretch from Conan onwards: the personal rather than grandiose conflicts, the low-magic high-adventure, and often a sense of ennui accompanying the hero.
The writing style was interesting, employing a choice of words and sentence construction that fits well with the vaguely archaic saga-feeling and that one does not often see today. Elric himself is somewhat more relatable in this volume than the original stories, but in true pulp style having a character interesting is not the same as sympathetic – don’t expect the deep attachment common in today’s prurient YA styles.
I also enjoyed the cosmology and mythology, done in a style that perfectly fits the blurry border between Sci-Fi and Fantasy, the tone of low-magic Swords & Sorcery and themes common in the era (order vs chaos), and it probably a big factor in the series overall success.
What to be aware of
This word is dated, and it’s emulating a style even older (that of the pulps). There are certainly things that would look so to a modern reader, from the adverb-heavy descriptions to the rampant chauvinism. This is the style of work that was never meant to be inclusive for women or anyone beyond the “typically masculine” hero. It is interesting to read in context, but even for the time it was written there were already plenty of SF/F works that were ahead of their times, rather harking going back (eg see my review of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress).
Felix found this a lot more relatable. Probably because he himself comes from an older culture. He enjoyed the adventure, could see the dangers of emperors and their cruelties, and while he sympathises with the benefits of using magic and demonic swords, he’d rather keep otherworldly beings where they belong – elsewhere.
It’s a dated work, and it shows. I’d recommend the books for those trying to explore classic Swords & Sorcery, to learn from both the (good) style of storytelling and the (bad) way of handling diversity. At this point, I think I got what I wanted out of it and might take me a while to pick up the other volumes.