Friday, 6 December 2013

Michael Moorcock – The Stealer of Souls (1963)

Cover: Bob Haberfield
My apologies for the lateness of this review, if anyone is actually waiting with baited breath, I am learning how to run a newspaper at the moment.

The Stealer of Souls encompasses five short stories ‘The Dreaming City’, ‘While the Gods Laugh’, ‘The Stealer of Souls’, ‘Kings in Darkness’ and ‘Flame Bringers’.

Rodney Matthews

The Story
I read Moorcock’s stories of Elric before I stumbled onto Robert E. Howard and the pale king with his malign sword has in many ways overshadowed any image I have of Conan. I realise this is probably because Elric is an archetypal dark hero, agonising about his shady and unfortunate existence, and 15-year-olds dig that kind of thing.

“Mighty Elric…Mightier sword!” The back of this book reads.

The world of Elric is a world in the before-time of Earth; ancient kingdoms have risen and fallen and new cities are built on the bones of old. This earth is a cruel place, harsh and filled with war bands and monsters, demons, gods, sorcerers and dark deeds.

Elric begins as a petulant and apathetic princeling, a brooding proponent of evil and violent acts. He leads an enemy army against his own kingdom, the ancient city-state Imrryr, and is willing to watch as the city is raped, burned and looted if it will get him his heart’s desire: his lover Cymoril and the death of the royal usurper, Yyrkoon.

Elric is an albino; because of this, he is weak, half-blind and extremely sensitive—entirely the wrong person for a heroic narrative. Elric is only able to achieve his legendary deeds because of the power of his vampiric sword, Stormbringer. He gains strength and clarity of mind when he uses Stormbringer to strike an enemy. The sword draws out the souls of the people it kills in order to feed Elric the superior strength he needs to be a feared and heroic figure. Thus it becomes clear that Elric is dependent on his sword for vitality and life, and that the sword, Stormbringer, holds the real power in the dynamic.

“Be wary of this devil-blade. It kills the foe – but savours the blood of friends and kin-folk most”, Elric warns his companion after the sword betrays him by guiding his hand to kill an innocent man.

Elric’s realisation of this ugly truth heralds his growth as a likeable character. He begins to realise that he is a tool of the sword, Stormbringer, rather than the other way around, and that he would like nothing more than to be free from the power it has over him.

The Tasty Bit
 There are a few neat things about the Elric books, one being the concept of the (always masculine) ‘Eternal Champion’, a device poetically similar to Joseph Campbell’s 1949 treatise, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The Eternal Champion is the figure that Michael Moorcock reincarnates in every new story. A figure doomed to be reincarnated in other places and times, when the ‘laws’ of the worlds are disrupted and a new, often ruthless, balance must be exacted. Alongside the eternal champion are two other figures: the Soulmate and the Companion, female and male consecutively. 

As Moorcock’s stories are episodic, the far-reaching and multi-tiered applications of an eternally reincarnated soul are endless and the individual heroes often run into each other through the mystical warping of time, space and narrative causality

While this concept doesn’t come into overt play in the Stealer of Souls, Elric as a character is aware that he is part of an ominous plan that goes far beyond the conflicts of gods and humankind. Getting your teeth into this tasty bit requires a certain amount of Moorcockian (haha…) dedication, in particular reading the Erekose, Hawkmooon and Corum collections.

In some ways I felt a little nervous about tackling a review of a Michael Moorcock book, especially Elric. There’s a lot of colour, movement and raw emotion on Moorcock’s writing, and the concepts are fascinating, but in many ways it’s the allure of oil on water—beautiful, intriguing even, but ultimately unsatisfying when looking for anything more complex. 

That being said the books are true treasures of the 60s. Moorcock describes his books as being born of the characters' emotional states, his environments are out of Bosch or Dali, immense and violent landscapes with grotesque figures. The worlds are psychedelic and colourful and the characters are so charismatically byronesque that it's impossible to ruin.

My only real qualms with Moorcock are his depictions of masculine versus feminine agency, which are a little bit too Arthurian, but ultimately inoffensive. 

Other Stuff
Gollancz has recently re-published a number of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books in its Masterworks collection. I find, however, that the new publications lack the physical grace of Granada’s ‘mayflower science fantasy’ prints with Haberfield's artwork. If you can acquire a 2nd hand copy of these books, I promise you it’s worth it!

Where to start: The issue of linearity doesn’t really come into Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books, as previously mentioned, because they’re all sort of reincarnations of each other. That being said, I don’t recommend reading the Erekose collection first, as it ruins the surprise.

The list of characters and books in the Eternal Champion series is huge, I recommend: Corum, Elric, Erekose, Jherek Carnelion (not to be confused with Jerry Cornelous, another book by Moorcock), and Dorian Hawkmoon.  

Cover: Bob Haberfield, this probably isn't a very good example of his work, which is fascinatingly psychedelic and perfect for Elric.

Artwork: Rodney Matthews , whose aesthetic I absolutely adore, also did a number of covers for Moorcock - go forth and see his amazing work!

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