Monday, December 5, 2022

Book Review: Elric of Melnibone

Book Review: 'Elric of Melnibone' by Michael Moorcock
5 / 5 Stars

It's been 50 (!) years since the first publication of 'Elric of Melnibone', so I recently sat down with a copy of the DAW Books paperback edition (160 pp.), which was published in October, 1976, and features a cover illustration by Michael Whelan. 

I last read this novel some 30 or more years ago, so I was overdue to revisit it, particularly as this month, Simon and Schuster is publishing a brand-new Elric novel, 'The Citadel of Forgotten Myths', in hardcover.

The Elric character first appeared in a set of stories published during the early 1960s in the UK magazine Science Fantasy. These later were compiled into various paperback editions for publishers in the UK and the US. The stories that constitute 'Elric of Melnibone' were gathered into a 1972 paperback from Lancer Books, titled 'The Dreaming City'. Moorcock didn't approve of the title, nor the editorial changes, made to 'The Dreaming City', and thus the 1976 DAW version represents that which Moorcock approves. 

Trying to keep track of the various printed incarnations of the Elric canon is.........a formidable task. It's best, probably, either to collect the five-volume paperback series published in 1976 - 1977 by DAW Books (although these copies increasingly are rare and thus, expensive) or to acquire the various omnibus editions, such as the Science Fiction Book Club / Doubleday hardbacks, which are titled 'The Elric Saga' Parts I and II. More recently, Saga / Gallery Press issued the Elric novels in deluxe hardback editions, featuring color illustrations.

Anyways, on to 'Elric of Melnibone'. After reading some pretty lengthy fantasy novels (such as 'Shardik') over the past few months, I was quite pleased with the shorter length of Moorcock's novel. I appreciated the concise nature of the prose, the succinct approach to world-building, and the regular insertion of various action sequences into the plot. 

What is most noticeable upon a re-reading of 'Elric' are the sharp, nasty little episodes of cruelty and violence that are inserted into the narrative, such as the actions of the Court Torturer, Doctor Jest:

.....the scalpel he held was thin, too, almost invisible save when it flashed in the light from the fire which erupted from a pit on the far side of the cavern.

Dr. Jest returned to his charges and, reaching out with his free hand, expertly seized the genitals of one of the male prisoners. The scalpel flashed. There was a groan. Dr. Jest tossed something into the fire. Elric sat in the chair prepared for him. He was bored rather than disgusted by the rituals attendant upon the gathering of information and the discordant screams, the clash of the chains, the thin whisperings of Dr. Jest, all served to ruin the feeling of well-being he had retained even as he reached the chamber.

These quasi-splatterpunk episodes, along with the moral ambiguities of Elric's dealings with the various gods and devils of his worlds, emphasize how 'transgressive' these stories were for the time period in which they appeared. Indeed, in the early 1960s the Conan novels were known only to a relatively circumscribed group of readers, and fantasy fiction was limited to children's adventures, such as T. H. White's 'The Once and Future King', and of course, Tolkien. Those with a particularly driving interest in fantasy during the 1950s and 1960s might have been familiar with the novels of Fletcher Pratt, or C. S. Lewis's 'Narnia' novels. 

All of these authors and their works were at the time designated as suitable for children and young adults. And of course, none of the these authors fostered the melding of the numinous with the depraved in the manner that Moorcock did with his Elric pieces.

I finished 'Elric of Melnibone' thinking, not for the first time, that Moorcock delivered an engaging story in the span of just 160 pages, while so many contemporary fantasy novels can't do half as much, in the span of novels of 500 or more pages. 

In closing, if you haven't yet read 'Elric of Melnibone' and the other volumes in the series, now is a good time to start. 

1 comment:

Michael Liam Murphy said...

I recall loving everything about the book - except the ending which also seemed to have most other fellow readers I knew facepalming. It may have been necessary to set up the earlier-written, later-set "The Dreaming City" but having the events set in motion by an actual coup may have been a lot less daft.