Created by Michael Moorcock in 1961 with the story “The Dreaming City”, Elric of Melniboné is one of the definitive characters in British fantasy fiction. A albino sorcerer and warrior with milk-white skin and hair, Elric is a magnetic antihero - cursed with a black sword which feeds on souls and bound to serve the capricious chaos deity, Arioch. In writing the Elric stories, Moorcock consciously worked to avoid repeating the high fantasy style of Tolkien - and in so doing inspired numerous subsequent imitators of his own.
While Elric is well-known to fans of fantasy, the character might even be a household name if the series were more approachable to read. Until relatively recently, the eight main novels in the sequence could be difficult to get hold of, and while the reissues by the publisher Gollancz are very welcome, they also leave something to be desired.
The Michael Moorcock Collection is a mammoth undertaking, as it comprises no less than 28 volumes, most of them containing multiple novels. Gollancz and the mastermind of the project, John Davey, deserve a great deal of credit for making Moorcock’s work more available. Unfortunately, in the case of the Elric books very little indication is given as to reading order, or the circumstances in which the stories were originally published. Stories are inserted into odd places, and a lot of frankly extraneous material is inserted - presumably to bulk up the thinner volumes.
Because the Elric stories were written out of sequence over a period of decades, and have been republished several times, there was already a high potential for confusion. Split into two parts, this introductory guide to the books lists and introduces them in order of their internal chronology. First, though, an introduction to the Pale Emperor himself.
Elric is a tortured antihero, the reluctant Emperor of the decadent and depleted empire of Melniboné. As a Melnibonéan, Elric is part of a long lineage of sorcerers and his people drew on a pact with the Lords of Chaos to build and maintain their empire. The forces of Chaos and Law, and the Balance between them, are the essential framework behind most of Moorcock’s sprawling fictional universe. Elric eventually learns that he is his universe’s incarnation of the “Eternal Champion”, with the cosmic purpose of keeping the energies of Chaos and Law in balance.
As the saga progresses, Elric learns more of his role as an Eternal Champion and the universes that exist alongside his own - he even meets a few of his counterparts, the Eternal Champions from other universes. Along the way he meets numerous allies and sworn enemies, and his evil sword Stormbringer is rarely without souls to feed upon for very long. While the White Wolf - as he is sometimes known - has goals of his own, he is inexorably drawn towards his ultimate destiny in the struggle between Chaos and Law.
Book 1: Elric of Melniboné (1972)
Things begin straightforwardly enough with Elric of Melniboné, the story set earliest in the timeline. Moorcock had already written numerous Elric stories by the time he published this book in 1972. Years earlier, he had written the end of the saga in the form of Stormbringer (1965), and so he eventually came around to writing its true beginning.
Written as a novel, as opposed to being made up of separate stories, the book serves as a prequel and a kind of origin story for Elric. When the book opens, our antihero is serving as Elric VIII, the 428th Emperor of Melniboné. His nation is decadent and decaying - while it once ruled the whole of the world, it is now reduced to controlling only the Dragon Isle itself. It does however exert some influence on the now-independent realms outside, known as the Young Kingdoms.
The book concerns the struggle for Elric to retain the Ruby Throne and his lover Cymoril - his rival in both is his own cousin, and Cymoril’s brother, Yyrkoon. These characters had a minor role in later books but are more developed here. Also introduced are Melniboné’s golden fleet, its army of dragons, Elric’s pact with the chaos lord Arioch, and his fateful encounter with the soul-eating black sword Stormbringer. All of these will be critical in the stories to follow.
Typical of Moorcock’s style of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Elric of Melniboné is a fast-paced, rollicking adventure. The chapters are short and action-packed, with major events occurring every few pages. This makes it an excellent, accessible introduction to the series.
Book 2: The Fortress of the Pearl (1989)
Expect a huge change of pace and style from the second book of the saga, The Fortress of the Pearl. This is perhaps unsurprising, as it is one of the late Elric novels, written 17 years after its predecessor. Moorcock’s approach had changed enormously, and this is reflected in every aspect of the novel. It is longer, stranger, and more deliberately paced. Its emphasis is less on action, and more on philosophy and the metaphysical.
The plot is set within a period when Elric is exploring the Young Kingdoms. Finding himself close to death in the ancient desert city of Quarzhasaat, Elric is easily coerced into undertaking a quest against his will. He is tasked with acquiring the “pearl at the heart of the world” and is eventually aided in his mission by the dreamthief Oone. Seasoned readers of Moorcock will recognise this character as an alternate version of Una Persson, a recurring presence in many of his novels. The dreamthief’s critical part in the story reflects the greater role for women in Moorcock’s fiction by the late ‘80s.
One of the distinctive elements of The Fortress of the Pearl is that much of the narrative takes place in a succession of dream worlds. Combined with the lack of references to these events in other novels - because of course it didn’t exist when they were written - this further heightens the sense of separateness of this particular story.
Book 3: The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976)
This is where things get complicated. Not written as a novel per se, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate is essentially a fix-up in which Moorcock combines new material with re-written versions of previously published stories. Like many fix-up novels, it has a framing device. When the novel opens, Elric is a fugitive but is whisked away to safety - or so it seems - by a mysterious ship which can travel between universes. The places to which Elric is taken serve as the setting for three novellas.
The first novella, “Sailing to the Future”, is a re-written version of a part of Moorcock’s earlier novel The Quest for Tanelorn (1975). Whereas that book followed Dorian Hawkmoon, this novella depicts the same events from Elric’s perspective. Hawkmoon and Elric are two incarnations of the “Eternal Champion”, from different universes. The blind captain of the mysterious ship brings them together with two other incarnations, Corum Jhaelen Irsei and Erekosë, to confront a common enemy. Together, they must defeat the evil creatures Agak and Gagak, who threaten to consume the world. It’s a thrill to see multiple Champions working together, particularly if you have already read some books featuring them. In this case, they are stripped of their memory of the events, but they will meet again.
The second story, “Sailing to the Present”, is the only one completely new to this volume. In it, Elric meets a new ally in Count Smiorgan Baldhead, an affable pirate lord from the Isle of the Purple Towns. The story is unusual in that Elric and Baldhead mostly serve as facilitators for the plot - the prime movers are the Melnibonéan nobles Saxif D’An and Prince Carolak, who are in dispute over the princess Vassliss. Finally, “Sailing to the Past” sees Elric and Baldhead explore the mysterious city of R'lin K'ren A'a, which may or may not be the true origin of the Melnibonéan people. A different version of this story was previously published in a chapbook under the title “The Jade Man’s Eyes” in 1973.
Book 4: The Weird of the White Wolf (1977)
While it was first published just a year after the previous book, The Weird of the White Wolf - the word “weird” here being used in its archaic sense to mean “destiny” - is a compendium of some of the first Elric stories to be written, beginning way back in 1961. Not surprisingly, these are much more rough around the edges than later material, and there is little sense that Moorcock expected to be writing about this character for the next 40 years.
This volume begins in earnest with “The Dreaming City”, the first Elric story ever published. The city in question is Imryrr, the capital of Melniboné, to which Elric makes a violent return. As with The Fortress of the Pearl, this story makes for a jarring change of pace. The characters of Yyrkoon and Cymoril, first met in Elric of Melniboné, are dealt with in a surprisingly brief fashion. Had Moorcock known that the events depicted here would be critical to such a long series, he might not have given them such short shrift.
“While the Gods Laugh”, also from 1961, is much less vital to the overarching Elric mythos, but does introduce Moonglum of Elwher. This diminutive thief provides a degree of comic relief, contrasted with the increasingly moody albino antihero. He is an incarnation of the Eternal Companion, drawn by cosmic destiny to fight at Elric’s side for much of the rest of the series. Together, they pursue the “dead god’s book”, an ancient artefact which Elric agrees to pursue for his own existential reasons. The final entry in the book, “The Singing Citadel”, was originally published much later than the others, in 1967. In this story Elric and Moonglum confront the upstart sorcerer Theleb Ka’arna, who proves to be one of the series’ recurring villains.
That ends part one of this overview of the Elric series. While varied, all four of these books are very much worth reading and a fine introduction to Michael Moorcock’s unique and fascinating multiverse. If you enjoy the Elric novels, there’s a huge range of other Eternal Champion books to explore, not least the ones featuring Hawkmoon, Corum and Erekosë. In the UK all of the four books are available in their recent paperback editions from Gollancz, under the titles used here.
In the concluding part of this overview, we’ll take a look at the remaining four Elric novels - beginning with The Sleeping Sorceress and ending with the final struggle of Stormbringer.