Because of the original post cited above, I've never actually tackled an Elric story as part of this series. That's odd, because there's little doubt that the Elric saga had a clear and powerful influence on early D&D (and not just its alignment system). It's odd too given how much I adore Chaosium's Stormbringer RPG. Likewise, the Elric saga is, in my opinion, a textbook example of the dangers of success, a topic near and dear to my heart, as you well know. So, when I woke up this morning and read Dan Collins's excellent post on "Elric and Art," I knew today was the day to write my own post on the first Elric short story, "The Dreaming City," which appeared in the June 1961 issue of Science Fantasy.
The story begins evocatively:
For ten thousand years did the Bright Empire of Melniboné flourish -- ruling the world. Ten thousand years before history was recorded -- or ten thousand years before history had ceased to be chronicled. For that span of time, reckon it how you will, the Bright Empire had thrived. Be hopeful, if you like, and think of the dreadful past the Earth has known, or brood upon the future. But if you believe the unholy truth -- then Time is an agony of Now, and so it will always be.It's a terrific opening and one that really sets the mood for both the setting and the specific story Moorcock is about to tell. Equally terrific is the first description of Elric, which in my opinion matches Howard's justly famed description of Conan (which seems appropriate, given Elric's origin as, at least in part, an "anti-Conan").
Elric, the moody-eyed wanderer -- a lonely man who fought a world, living by his wits and his runesword Stormbringer. Elric, last Lord of Melniboné, last worshiper of its grotesque and beautiful gods -- reckless reaver and cynical slayer -- torn by great griefs and with knowledge locked in his skull which could turn lesser men to babbling idiots. Elric, moulder of madnesses, dabbler in wild delights ...What's most interesting about "The Dreaming City" is that the story it tells, that of Elric's invasion of Imrryr, capital of the Bright Empire, with the aid of sea raiders in order to defeat his cousin Yyrkoon and rescue his lover Cymoril, who's been placed in an enchanted sleep by Yyrkoon, her brother. Thus, Elric's saga begins with the climactic battle between his chief nemesis. Yyrkoon's eventual defeat at Elric's hands is thus the starting off point for what follows rather than the conclusion to it.
This should come as little surprise, given that Moorcock wanted, by his own admission, to turn many of the timeworn convention of swords-and-sorcery fiction on their heads and so he does here. Elric, as presented in "The Dreaming City" is a weak, decadent albino whose power comes as much, if not more, from sorcery and pacts with demonic entities, as it does from his blade. Were he in a Conan tale, he would almost certainly be an antagonist and, even in "The Dreaming City," he comes across as not wholly sympathetic. He is, after all, a man willing to betray his own people, leading others to sack the unconquered city of Imrryr in his personal quest for revenge.
"Imrryr fell, in spirit, five hundred years ago -- she will fall completely soon -- for ever! I have a little debt to settle. This is my sole reason for aiding you. As you know I have made only a few conditions -- that you raze the city to the ground and a certain man and woman are unharmed. I refer to my cousin Yyrkoon and his sister Cymoril ..."Yyrkoon has usurped Elric's throne while the albino sorcerer was away, wandering among the sneeringly named Young Kingdoms, the "lesser" states that have grown up in the shadow of Melniboné and whose powers have waxed while the Bright Empire's have waned. Unlike others of his race, Elric appreciated "the less sophisticated pleasures of the outside world," but he also felt "the pulse of his ancestry beat strongly in his deficient veins," equally appreciating the dark beauties of his own culture.
Speaking for myself, I find Elric a very ambiguous character, as I am sure he was intended to be. Though perhaps less cruel than his kinsmen, he is nevertheless a cruel character, one whose intensely personal drives lead him to the ruin of others, even those he least wishes to harm. It's possible, I think, to be sympathetic with Elric at times, but it's difficult to like him unreservedly. He possesses a powerful, raw appeal nonetheless and it's not hard to understand why he struck a chord with many readers only familiar with the often unimaginative pulp fantasy heroes who rose to prominence during the 40s and the 50s.
There's no question that Elric was different and fantasy readers were ready for different. Unfortunately, he also proved so successful that Moorcock could never abandon him, leading to ever more ridiculous stories featuring the character, the vast majority of which aren't, in my opinion, particularly good. Over time, Elric has become every bit as much a caricature of himself as had Conan under the guidance of L. Sprague de Camp. The much-reviled Drizzt Do'Urden may be laughable to a lot of us, but he would never have been possible without Elric, who firmly established the angsty, good-member-of-an-evil-people as a fantasy archetype.
None of this, though, undermines the genuine goodness of "The Dreaming City," which remains every bit as good as it probably was in 1961. Indeed, if anything, it's probably better now in some respects, since all of us who've suffered through the later Elric stories can return to it and its immediate sequels to remember that, once upon a time, Elric really was an interesting character and Moorcock was a visionary writer whose stories positively crackled with taut prose and amazing ideas.