I read this one while I was traveling, so it took me a little while to write up my thoughts. If you’re following along with my reading challenge this is #90 on the list, The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock. The first Elric novelette was published in 1961, with continuations, sequels, prequels, etc. being published through the early 2000s.
This one was tricky to get started on. There are a lot of Elric stories floating around and I had to resort to a chronological list to try to figure out exactly what I was reading and where it fell in the scheme of things. I ended up reading a collection that contained most of the stories from the 1960s, from Elric’s first appearance through the one in which he meets his end. From what I gather, the stories and novels published later are all meant to fill in the spaces in-between these original tales. While I enjoyed what I read enough to want more, I decided to stop in the interests of moving forward with this challenge, and not potentially ruining a good thing.
Elric appeared on the scene at a time when high sorcery and adventure were in favor and instead gave us a moody, evil, and ultimately weak anti-hero. The stories take place in a place and time that might be future or past but has to exist because the stories of heroes keep having to retell themselves. Elric himself is a long-lived, elf-like being, one of the last remnants of a dead civilization that’s been replaced by younger races. He’s the last of a royal line, but he’s sickly and weak and marked as an outsider by his albinism. The guy should be a giant walking cliche but even though I was rolling my eyes at the start, it turns out that these stories are actually strangely compelling.
There’s a thread of addiction and loss that feels personal even though it is presented in fantasy trope trappings. Elric’s sword, Stormbringer, feeds and empowers him via the souls of those he has killed with it. With it in hand he is nigh invincible, without it he can barely function, but in addition to being outright evil, it also has a penchant for claiming the souls of those closest to him whether he tries to prevent it or not. In the end Stormbringer is a necessary evil because without it Elric would be too weak to fight and chaos would take over the world.
The greater battle in this series is cast as chaos versus law instead of evil versus good. Many of the ideas presented here have percolated their way through so much of the fantasy media and games I’ve consumed, unknowing, over the years. In retrospect it is not surprising at all to me that some of the pantheon from these stories ended up in one of the early monster manuals for D&D. Again and again what was surprising was the quality of the writing itself and its somewhat more literary approach. Sure, some of its metaphors are heavy-handed, but at least there are metaphors instead of beating you about the head with the obvious like many genre works do.
Looking at the covers, the descriptions, and the date of publication of the Elric stories I would have guessed that I would be panning this series. Instead I really enjoyed it, and would recommend checking it out. Something about judging books by their covers I guess…
TL;DR: A brooding anti-hero with a magic sword that manages to be engaging instead of completely cliched.
The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock
Rating: 4/5 stars
Verdict: I really enjoyed these, in spite of myself. Sword and sorcery isn’t usually my favorite genre but when it is this well written it is easy to see why so many people love it.
Next up: The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon