I’ll let others speak to Moorcock’s foundational role in the genre. They are, after all, more qualified than me for that. Me? I simply have a confession to make.
I am an Elric fanboy. There. I said it. Feels good to get it out.
My love of fantasy fiction started in a more or less traditional way. I began in fifth grade with Tolkien, whom I perceived as the father of the modern epic fantasy. And the tropes and archetypes he put forward in The Lord of the Rings served as my understanding of “fantasy” for years. I wanted to be Aragorn. I prayed I had some Elvish blood in my veins.
After that I went on a binge of Tolkien derivatives (Shannara, The Belgariad, heck even McKiernan’s Iron Tower Trilogy) and further cemented the idea in my mind that fantasy meant Middle Earth, or at least some reasonable facsimile thereof. Fantasy meant Good with a capital G and Evil with a capital E. Fantasy meant a white hero and a dark villain. What else could there possibly be?
Well, there could be Moorcock. I read Elric of Melnibone in junior high and it upset the applecart of my happy ignorance. In days, I devoured the entire Elric series through Stormbringer, which blew me away. Aragorn who? Gandalf what?
Moorcock forced me to reevaluate and reconceptualize fantasy fiction. Walls crumbled in my young mind. Gone were Dark Lords on their dark thrones, exiled but noble kings-in-waiting, plucky heroes under four feet tall. Gone was the necessity for Good and Evil in any objective sense. Instead, I read of men and women at turns venal and noble, at turns hateful and loving. I saw a world of incredible imagination (the Sea of Fate? The Eternal Chanpion? That’s beautiful stuff) where good and evil were filtered through the lens of human (and not quite human) protagonists, not pre-existing metaphysics and divine fiat. Looking back now, the Elric stories strike me as nearly post-modernist in their moral sensibilities (at least until Stormbringer, when the whole previous moral construct is suddenly and brilliantly turned on its head; “I was ever more evil than thou.” Indeed, indeed.).
If fantasy fiction were considered as Hegelian dialectic, Moorcock’s Elric series would be the antithesis (Epic Pooh, anyone?) of Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring thesis (which might make G.R.R. Martin their synthesis). Tolkien sets forth a world in which Platonism’s objective Good and objective Evil do battle. There is little in-between. Moorcock’s world spurns those clear moral delineations and explores, through the eyes of a not-quite-human-Elric, what it means to be human in a world of grays.
Please note that I’m not claiming Moorcock is superior to Tolkien or vice versa. Both crafted brilliant creations, but they do different things in different ways. For me, Tolkien explored what it meant to be human in the context of moral clarity. Moorcock explored what it meant to be human in the context of moral ambiguity. Comparing the two is like comparing the movies of Orson Wells and Sergio Leone. Both brilliant, but very different. Why bother comparing Citizen Kane to The Good, the Bad, and Ugly. I’d rather just enjoy both.
In Elric of Melinbone I’d encountered one of the most psychologically complex protagonists of fantasy fiction I’d ever read. Like most human beings (and unlike most of Tolkien’s characters, save perhaps Boromir, Faramir, and Denethor), he fairly oozes contradictions – weakness from his albinism, strength of purpose and arm (but the latter only when drinking the vitality of others through Stormbringer), fierce loyalty to his friends (when he’s not killing them), alternating hate and reverence for his people. In Elric, somehow, self-loathing and a fierce pride coexist and pour from the pages.
Elric is the anti-hero’s anti-hero, capable of only a very limited expression of redeeming virtues. Think fantasy anti-hero and you think of Elric first. Or second. And if you don’t think of him first or second, you’re probably high and contemplating the micro-universe under your fingernail (duuuude!). Elric is not interested in redemption, as such. He’s interested in purpose. But he is flawed and doomed, never to see or fully understand his purpose, and as he comes to realize that fact, so do we, and so do the characters around him. But we want to walk beside him to the doom, and we feel pity and pride in and for him as it approaches.
I marveled then and I marvel now at the quality of Elric’s characterization. How could Moorcock reconcile all that contradiction, all those cross purposes, and cause such motivations to ring true? I don’t have an answer, even now, and if I did I wouldn’t want to ruin that ride for you. Read the stories yourself, then decide for yourself. Then take a step back and realize that Elric probably evokes a series of contradictory feelings in you, the reader, that he demonstrates on the page – simultaneous loathing and admiration and pity. That’s the richness of Elric’s story and the skill of Moorcock in telling it.
Moorcock’s Elric stories strike me still as fearlessly and unselfconsciously willing to entertain, and in that they perfectly embody the ethos of sword and sorcery fantasy fiction. There’s no pretense in them, no ham-handed attempt to elevate the storytelling to something critics and colleagues might consider “serious” or “literary.” I imagine Moorcock sitting in a room somewhere, considering how he might subvert, reverse, or interrogate this or that trope, before finally saying “Hell with it,” and writing the story he wanted to tell. And in answering to his own muse, his work went beyond merely serious or literary to become legendary in the genre.
And here’s the thing about legends – they affect all that comes after. Legends reach down through time, grab later generations by the shirt, and give them a good shake. I was shook but good. My entire series of Erevis Cale stories and novels are, in part, an homage to the writer who broadened my conception of fantasy and showed me the subtleties of complex characterization.
Thanks, Mr. Moorcock. Much appreciated.
And now I’ve gushed enough. I need to go write.
Hell with it.