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Play Matt: Elric, Ranked

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Play Matt: Elric, Ranked
There Will Be Games

While confined to our homes, in a time of crisis, introspection and nostalgia are an understandable, comforting response. So too is escapism. I combined both by re-reading some of the pulp fantasy classics I encountered as a teenage nerd. But teenage me is not adult me, and I was surprised and dismayed by my reactions.

Conan revolted me with its cheap racism. David Eddings tired me with his empty repetition of stock fantasy motifs. Then I tried Elric, a series that bowled me over with its transgressive antihero the first time I read it. And with Elric, at least, there was enough pleasure to last me to the end of the series.

What I found most surprising about the whole journey is that to the modern, adult eye, Elric doesn’t feel that transgressive. Perhaps he did in the early sixties when he was first written. But after decades of grimdark and cyberpunk and Game of Thrones, it feels tame in comparison. Even his much-vaunted status as an antihero feels in doubt. Despite carrying names like Kinslayer and Prince of Ruins, he acts and thinks like a traditional hero much of the time.

Another surprise is that there’s little out there on the internet by way of fan service. There’s no question that Elric has been a huge influence in the development of the fantasy genre. The Witcher owes a huge and obvious debt to the series. So does every talking sword and mention of chaos as a corrupting, antagonistic force. Yet poor Elric himself seems to have been forgotten. Here’s my ranking of his adventures, with mini-reviews, as my own offering to push the pale warrior back into the spotlight.

#8 Bane of the Black Sword

While only the second of the books written, if its the penultimate in the internal chronology of the series. And if read in that order, by this point, Elric’s incessant self-pity is becoming very tiresome. There’s not very much here to offset it. After a good early adventure in the horrible Forest of Troos, the book falls back on tired old tropes. Elrics sets off a quest. Elric hits some trouble. Elric escapes thanks to a sorcerous MacGuffin. It doesn’t help that a central plot driver in this book is the middle-aged Elric falling in love with and marrying a seventeen-year-old girl. There’s transgressive, and there’s plain creepy.

#7 Revenge of the Rose

Written some years after the rest of the books, this reads like a sore thumb. It’s much slower paced than the others, with more elaborate prose and philosophical digressions. At first, this feels like a welcome change but soon it becomes apparent that this style doesn’t suit a series based on violent adventure. Worse, most of it is rather empty rhetoric bound up to a convoluted and confusing plot. What saves Revenge of the Rose is Moorcock’s prodigious imagination. The Gypsy Nation is a stupendous and horrifying concept. Elric’s long discussion with Arioch at the latter’s terrifying machine is a fascinating glimpse into how Moorcock considered the Gods of his world and religion in the real world.

#6 The Fortress of the Pearl

Of all the books in the series, this is the one that’s most like traditional fantasy. It’s a good read, exciting, and full of imaginative concepts. The whole idea of the Dreamthief is fascinating and well realised in Elric’s adventures through the multiple layers of the dream world, each more bizarre than the last. Lord Gho is a great villain whom you learn to really loathe. So why the low ranking? Because it’s not Elric. Books like this are dime a dozen in the fantasy section of any bookstore, just as exciting and readable. Our protagonist has never been more heroic or generic than here, doing good deeds left and right and Stormbringer is relegated to a background presence.

#5 The Weird of the White Wolf

These were the first stories written about Elric, and it shows. What should be the centrepiece of the entire series, and would have been in the hands of a more experienced author, is rushed through in a few dozen pages. The bleakness of this story was extraordinary when it was published, but it’s hard not to look back and think about how much more impactful it could have been if Moorcock had laid more groundwork for his characters before killing them off. The second and third stories are fine fantasy romps, full of energy and imagination, but they don’t coalesce together into a cohesive novel. In particular, the grim tone of the first two is at odds with the relative levity of the third.

#4 Elric of Melnibone

Much as Bane of the Black Sword suffered from being toward the end of the series, this book benefits from being the first. The characters and setting feel wild and fresh, from the decadence of old Melinbone to the scheming and selfish Yyrkoon. It also benefits from being the only book prior to Fortress of the Pearl that feels like a single ongoing narrative from beginning to end. We learn sympathy for Elric, of how he feels trapped by his albinism and his father’s disappointment. We learn hatred of Yyrkoon, a far more impressive and wicked antagonist than Theleb K’aarna will be in later books. And the ending is a clear clarion call that there’s much to resolve over coming instalments. 

#3 The Vanishing Tower

There’s a lot to enjoy here, from horrible set pieces like the Noose of Flesh to the excursion into Nadsokor, city of beggars. This is also the book where Elric’s nemesis, Theleb K’aarna feels most like an actual nemesis rather than a bumbling fool. But what I found most enjoyable is what seems to have turned off a lot of other readers: Elric’s descent into teenage moodiness. Sure, it’s so self-indulgent at times as to be approaching parody. But this is what sets Elric apart from other fantasy protagonists: here, he really feels like the antihero he’s supposed to be. Full of self-destructive pity and darkness, a seething ball of unvarnished masculine toxicity. Rather than wrapping that horror in sweet-smelling derring-do as most fantasy does, here it’s on full display and we can see the monster for - and in - ourselves. 

#2 Stormbringer

As the climactic book to the series, Stormbringer has a lot to live up to and manages it. Elric is at his gloomiest, yet has overcome self-pity and is steeled to the terrible fate he must endure. The sword as drugs metaphor at it’s clearest and most disturbing. The huge battles that take up much of the second half are handled with the epic scale they deserve and the denouement is chilling. It left such a mark on me the first time around that it’s the only bit of the whole saga I could have quoted before this re-read. What lets the book down is it’s opening third which is so reliant on deus ex machina devices that it would annoy even a credulous teen reader.    

#1 Sailor on the Seas of Fate

This is one of the books I remembered least from my original trip through the series, so I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it so much. In fact, that lack of recollection may be partly why it ended up being my favourite. And it’s odd because it’s probably the most fragmented of all the books, the one most clearly written with an eye to serialisation. Yet that works in its favour. Here are three tales of thrilling fantasy adventure, each pulsing with energy and imagination. Smiorgan Baldhead makes a great foil for Elrics’ grim nature and, for the first time, we see events that give Elric good reason to be grim. The single cohesive thread between the tales - nautical adventure - works better as a unifying factor than the hither and thither jaunts of the first two books.

It is interesting how three of my top four are from the period where Moorcock went back to Elric in the seventies. They showcase how he’d grown in skill as an author in the decade since the original three books. The two books from the second time he returned to the character twenty years later are lower because, stylistically, they don’t fit with their earlier cousins. This older, wiser, Moorcock lacked the snarling cynicism and pessimistic outlook necessary to keep Elric as the tragic figure he was at first.

For all the acclaim heaped on the Elric stories, they are, first and foremost, pulp fantasy. Pulp of the highest quality, to be sure, fizzing with creativity and allusion, but pulp nevertheless. And the books seem to work best when they play to that pulp nature, putting excitement and adventure to the fore, and pushing the gloom and faux-philosophising behind. Sailor on the Seas of Fate does that best of all the novels and tops my list as a result. 

There Will Be Games
Matt Thrower (He/Him)
Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #321923 12 Apr 2021 09:38
Good rundown on the Elric books. Like you, I ignore Elric at the End of Time as being more of an End of Time book than an Elric book. It's a shame that nobody has made a serious effort to do an Elric movie or even an Elric cartoon, because it has cast such a long shadow over subsequent fantasy, and Moorcock practically deserves royalty checks from Games Workshop. I ran and played a lot of the Stormbringer rpg many years ago and kept all my stuff. I think that I may roll it out for one more Stormbringer campaign next year.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #321924 12 Apr 2021 10:05
So apparently there are 8 Elric books now. I read them when there were 6, didn't know more books were slotted in afterwards. Not exactly sure how books can follow Stormbringer in the timeline . . .

One of the things I remember about Elric from college was that a good friend, an English major read Stormbringer first and was really impressed with it. He bummed my copies of the other books and read them in order, and by the time he reached book 4 or so he was disappointed, not so much with the earlier works but with Strombringer, "last" in the series at the time, where he expressed to me his disappointment that Elric's character didn't have half of the backstory that he had expected to find in the earlier works. Elric became a shallower character the more he read. He had given the character (i.e., the author) the benefit of the doubt.

That is, Stormbringer stood on its own, impressing a pretty critical reader. When the other materials were slotted in before it, they took away from Stormbringer's quality. To this day 40 years later I'm still trying to square that statement. It clearly had an impact on me.

Right now I'm considering grabbing Graphic Audio's rendition of Corum (same author) but I'm not sure I'm looking to pull that trigger. I enjoyed much of Moorecock's other eternal champion stuff, but that was a long time ago. A kid read that stuff, adult me isn't terribly interested in fiction anymore, may just fall flat.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #321931 12 Apr 2021 10:44
The Elric books published after Stormbringer are chronologically inserted in between the previous books. There have actually been more like 11 Elric books now, but I personally found nearly everything published after Stormbringer to be a disappointment. White Wolf also published a collection of Elric short stories by other writers, and the first story is actually a new and good one by Moorcock himself.

That's an interesting observation that Elric becomes more shallow as the series goes on. Moorcock was pretty young when he wrote the early Elric books, so his creativity was strong but his character development was more of an afterthought. Later in his career, Moorcock lost some of the wild creativity but became better at character development. The creativity is especially noteworthy when compared to other popular fantasy writers. Elric was likely conceived as an anti-Conan, but he also is a significant departure from the overwhelming number of fantasy stories that combine a coming-of-age story with a boring power fantasy. Meanwhile, Elric is sailing a ship across land to lead an army of blind men into battle, or slaying gods, or summoning demons while in a psychedelic stupor. Moorcock also had a nice knack for names, often using onomatopoeia to strong effect.

My favorite scene in Stormbringer is the very unexpected cameo of a famous historical figure, and the role that he plays.

There were some good Elric comics published in the '80s and '90s, by Marvel's Epic line and then First Comics. Artists often misinterpret Elric as musclebound, when he is in fact skinny and sickly, dependent on magic and herbs. The Elric comics tend to capture a more visually appropriate version of Elric, especially artist P. Craig Russell.
the_jake_1973's Avatar
the_jake_1973 replied the topic: #321943 12 Apr 2021 13:34
While my peers cut their fantasy teeth on Tolkien, I was drawn to Elric. Likely due to having moved around a lot because of my mom's frequent marriages so I felt like a loner amongst people who had history together. I continue to collect the old Eternal Champion series in the old DAW paperback format since those covers are the best. The Eternal Champion omnibus collections are nice to track down as well. For my money, Moorcock is a more interesting writer than Tolkien was, and I will die on that hill.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #321945 12 Apr 2021 14:16

the_jake_1973 wrote: Moorcock is a more interesting writer than Tolkien was, and I will die on that hill.


I got your back on this one. Tolkien's prose is magnificent, but the story work and characters are pretty pedestrian. Moorcock is much more interesting.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #321946 12 Apr 2021 14:30
Moorcock has notoriously said a lot about Tolkien, in his critical piece Epic Pooh:

warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentst..._m.1978epic_pooh.pdf

Count me as a member of Team Moorcock.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #321947 12 Apr 2021 14:33
Good stuff, Matt. Thanks.

I have the original DAW yellow spine copies of the first six books (Elric of Melnibone, Sailor on the Seas of Fate, Weird of the White Wolf, The Vanishing Tower, Bane of the Black Sword, Stormbringer) which I acquired from a used bookstore (Remember those?), along with the trio of Corum books, when I was a teenager. I was determined to read them in order and my response was somewhat different from yours. I kind of disliked Sailor because I was more interested in Moorcock's world-building than his excursions into weirdness. Being the constant DM among my RPG groups, world-building was kind of a thing for me at the time. Only later did I come to appreciate the more interesting stories that Sailor and Tower were actually comprised of. The two books that followed many years later were things that I acquired and read, along with the White Wolf collection that Shellhead mentions, but none of that had any real impact on me. "Decent Elric stuff" would be a good summation.

Similar to others, I think Stormbringer or Elric would be my choice for the best of the books, since they're the two with a definite narrative arc, rather than being collections of short stories. And I agree that Theleb Ka'arna was never the threat that Yyrkoon was, unfortunately. I kind of felt that Theleb was played up by later readers, similarly to Thoth-Amon from the Conan stories, who got more exposure in Marvel's comics than he ever really did in Howard's work.

In our last move, I sacrificed the vast majority of my paperback library, not wanting to move them again and not really having the space for them, either. A few hundred went to the curbside trash pickup, because no one would take them (not used bookstores, not libraries, not charities, not resale shops, not the teen center in town- No one.) But among the couple dozen I saved were the Elric and Corum books because I'm still fond of Moorcock's writing and it still seemed like those old yellow spine copies might have some value to someone, sometime.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #321949 12 Apr 2021 14:59
Moorcock himself seemed only vaguely interested in world-building. The writers for the various editions and adventures for the Stormbringer rpg seized on every detail from the Elric books and worked hard to build them up into a fully-realized setting, but Moorcock was reportedly bemused by their efforts. His later Elric books certainly showed only a loose association with the world of Melnibone and the Young Kingdoms. Speaking of which, this discussion is missing reference to three later Elric books, possible due to the absence of his name from the titles: The Dreamthief's Daughter, the Skrayling Tree, and the White Wolf's Son. I have read the first two, but they didn't leave a lasting impression as they were more average quality works for Moorcock, To establish a baseline, I consider the first six Elric books to be his best, followed by the Von Bek works and then the two Corum trilogies. The Cornelius, Hawkmoon, and End of Time stories were nowhere near as good, and I would put these latest Elric books with the second group.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #321972 12 Apr 2021 21:50
David Eddings...now there's a name I've not heard....

Can't really knock him if he doesn't satisfy as an adult, I think his stuff is firmly in the YA category, such as it was in the 80's. Brandon Sanderson is basically his successor. Silk was practically a role model for my friends and I.

That old Fire and Ice cartoon is basically Conan versus Elric. There are quite a few 60s to 80s era authors that would be nice to see a Lovecraft type resurgence. Once they go into the public domain I guess.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #321979 13 Apr 2021 00:31

Shellhead wrote: Moorcock has notoriously said a lot about Tolkien, in his critical piece Epic Pooh:

warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentst..._m.1978epic_pooh.pdf

Count me as a member of Team Moorcock.

That's a man who really doesn't like Tolkien.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #321980 13 Apr 2021 00:42

jason10mm wrote: David Eddings...now there's a name I've not heard....

Can't really knock him if he doesn't satisfy as an adult, I think his stuff is firmly in the YA category, such as it was in the 80's. Brandon Sanderson is basically his successor. Silk was practically a role model for my friends and I.

I've read The Belgariad, as a two-volume SF Book Club omnibus. I did finish it, but it was pretty mediocre. It was the essence of Plot Coupons, where the characters collect all the coupons and send them off to the author for the ending.

To stay on track: I need to read Eric of Melnibone again - I read it ages ago, and didn't like it. But back then I was all about Conan The Whatever.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #321985 13 Apr 2021 08:42

Shellhead wrote: I ran and played a lot of the Stormbringer rpg many years ago and kept all my stuff. I think that I may roll it out for one more Stormbringer campaign next year.


I also played Stormbringer when I was about 17. The only thing I remember about it was that my character lucked out on the nationality table and was a Melnibonean sorceror, whereas all the other characters were beggars and farmhands.

I basically was the entire campaign, swatting away every threat and problem like it was a gentle breeze, until I volunteered to retire him and re-roll. It rather soured me on the system, to be honest. It remains, however, a striking example of RPG design philosophy then vs now.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #321986 13 Apr 2021 08:48
That's a rule I would have marked to be ignored on first reading.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #321987 13 Apr 2021 08:50

Sagrilarus wrote: One of the things I remember about Elric from college was that a good friend, an English major read Stormbringer first and was really impressed with it. He bummed my copies of the other books and read them in order, and by the time he reached book 4 or so he was disappointed, not so much with the earlier works but with Strombringer, "last" in the series at the time, where he expressed to me his disappointment that Elric's character didn't have half of the backstory that he had expected to find in the earlier works. Elric became a shallower character the more he read. He had given the character (i.e., the author) the benefit of the doubt.


This is similar to the experience I had, reading them in narrative order. Elric doesn't actually have any kind of character arc. His personality is dependent entirely on Moorcock's mood at the time of writing rather than developing along with his experiences. Early Elric is aggressive and bloodthirsty. 70's Elric is whiny and self-pitying. Late Elric is actually a pretty typical fantasy hero.

But this comes back to the point I made about pulp fantasy. Elric has an exaggerated reputation because he's been so hugely influential on fantasy writing and because Moorcock eventually became a writer of considerable literary stature. But pulp Elric is not fine literature, and it's a mistake to read it as such and expect that level of depth and coherence from it. It's a series to be admired for its energy and imagination.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #321990 13 Apr 2021 09:05

Shellhead wrote: Moorcock has notoriously said a lot about Tolkien, in his critical piece Epic Pooh:

warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentst..._m.1978epic_pooh.pdf

Count me as a member of Team Moorcock.


This actually really put me off Moorcock as a person and a writer, because it sticks the boot in quite viciously while failing to understand what it was Tolkein was seeking to achieve with his writing.

It's all very well to criticise a conservative for reflecting their views in their writing. But Tolkien was never about fantasy as a disruptive force: he saw it as a unifying force. A shared mythology that bound cultures together. He sought to re-create Englands lost mythology by scavenging bits from other north European legends. No writer before or since has attempted such a colossal undertaking, let alone succeeded in the degree Tolkien did.

To criticise him for conservatism, or even for the quality of his narratives, is a bit like critiquing Picasso for failing to follow accepted artistic conventions. It rather misses the point.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #321998 13 Apr 2021 11:54

Matt Thrower wrote:

Shellhead wrote: Moorcock has notoriously said a lot about Tolkien, in his critical piece Epic Pooh:

warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentst..._m.1978epic_pooh.pdf

Count me as a member of Team Moorcock.


This actually really put me off Moorcock as a person and a writer, because it sticks the boot in quite viciously while failing to understand what it was Tolkein was seeking to achieve with his writing.

I agree. He comes off as uninformed — much like a teenager who thinks they know everything. With a tinge of bitterness underlying it all.

This is my favorite response to that nonsense:

gwydionmadawc.com/57-about-tolkien/defen...ation/#_Toc421951847