Monday, May 24, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Dreaming City

You may well recall the image to the left, as it was one of the earliest installments in what I'd then dubbed "Pulp Fantasy Gallery," a recurring feature intended to highlight the artwork associated with the classics of pulp fantasy on which D&D was founded. It didn't take long for me to rename the feature to what it is today, in part because I'm an even poorer critic of art than I am of literature, but also because, sadly, much of the artwork associated with pulp fantasy is pretty uninteresting to me. I honestly didn't think I could have sustained a weekly series by discussing art alone. Others might be better suited to that task, which is why I've stuck with discussing (largely) written works whose ideas and stories struck a chord with the founders of our shared hobby.

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.

17 comments:

  1. I think Elric's ambiguous character is largely due to Moorock's own outlook at the time.

    Here's a quote from the man himself:
    "My point is, that Elric WAS me (the me of 1960-1 anyway) and the mingled qualities of betrayer and betrayed, the bewilderment about life in general, the search for some solution to it all, the expression of this bewilderment in terms of violence, cynicism and the need for revenge, were all characteristics of mine. So, when I got the chance to write The Dreaming City, I was identifying very closely with my hero-villain. I thought myself something of an outcast (another romantic notion largely unsubstantiated now I look back) and emphasized Elric's physical difference accordingly. . ."

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  2. 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.

    Seconded, and I am puzzled to no end that Moorcock typically rejects the earlier stories (including such masterworks of weird fantasy as The Kings In Darkness) as pandering to an audience, in favor of the latter stories.

    Nick Bielik's post above is enlightening in this regard, but I still operate under the impression that, as far as pulp fantasy writers go, Mr. Moorcock is too pretentious (or at least, too vocal in his pretense) for his own good.

    I still respect his early work immensely, having had the excellent good fortune to read it the order that it was published.

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  3. Moorcock is an author whose work I find to be of very mixed quality. His two Corum trilogies are amongst my favourite fantasy series of all time, thanks in part to their inspiration in Celtic (specifically, Cornish and Irish) mythology. On the other hand, many of his other stories seem rather sloppy and slapdash in nature. The Elric tales are a mix of good and bad, as James points out.

    Moorcock's great contribution to the fantasy genre, and fantasy gaming in particular, are his ideas: the struggle between Law and Chaos, the multiverse, and so forth. Overall, I appreciate Moorcock's ideas and 'myth building' (his cosmology, etc.) more than his actual stories and characters.

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  4. Thanks for the shout out!

    If I can continue my enormous ire at this copy of "Elric: Song of the Black Sword" by White Wolf Publishing that I've been cursed with -- the copy of "The Dreaming City" that it contains has all of the introductory quotes that you praise removed. I'd never read them before! God, what did they do to this work?

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  5. Moorcock's great contribution to the fantasy genre, and fantasy gaming in particular, are his ideas: the struggle between Law and Chaos, the multiverse, and so forth. Overall, I appreciate Moorcock's ideas and 'myth building' (his cosmology, etc.) more than his actual stories and characters.

    I largely agree. I'll only add that I think, as Delta noted in his own post, that Moorcock is a much better short story writer than he is a writer of larger works. Much as I love the Hawkmoon series, for example, the books themselves are often quite plodding and unnecessarily long-winded. Compared to the early Elric books, they're in many ways quite weak, but the ideas contained within are so compelling that I'm willing to put up with their literary defects.

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  6. Delta,

    I own almost the entirety of the recent Del Rey series of Elric stories and they're all presented in order of publication. Their texts, I assume, are identical to those of their original appearances as well. The White Wolf collections from the 90s, I think (but don't quote me on this) were modified in various ways in order to create a more coherent saga.

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  7. I've got copies of many of the other White Wolf editions of Moorcock's work (but not the Elric ones), and he usually discusses any changes he made to the texts in question. I'm guessing the Elric editions were altered. I'll stick with my old Berkley paperbacks (which are the same copies I read when I was twelve).

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  8. Below are the first publications of the original Elric stories:

    "The Dreaming City" (Science Fantasy #47, June 1961)

    "While the Gods Laugh" (Science Fantasy #49, October 1961)

    "The Stealer of Souls" (Science Fantasy #51, February 1962)

    "Kings in Darkness" (Science Fantasy #54, August 1962)

    "The Flame Bringers" [later renamed "The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams"] (Science Fantasy #55, October 1962)

    Here is a quote from Michael Moorcock found on pages 9-10 of Elric at the End of Time: 'The Last Enchantment was meant to be the final Elric story. It was written in 1962, only a short while after the first had appeared in magazine form and before I wrote what was to become Stormbringer. I gave the story to Ted Carnell for his magazine Science Fantasy but he didn't want a "last" Elric story. He persuaded me to write some more novellas...' (Therefore "The Last Enchantment didn't get published until 1978.)

    The first installment of Stormbringer (which novel I consider to be ridiculous and over-the-top) appeared in Science Fantasy #59, June 1963.

    For me, the canonical Elric consists of the stories written in 1961 and 1962. The Elric stories of 1963 and later I consider apocryphal.

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  9. I'd have to agree with the general sentiment that Moorcock's work has gotten weaker over time, mostly because he's become (even more) pretentious and politicized. He also has the annoying tendency to revise his own stories fairly extensively when a new edition comes out, which I suppose is his prerogative, but it makes things confusing. Perhaps someday his literary executor will publish a 12 volume exercise in literary archeology, "The History of the Multiverse" like C. Tolkien's "History of Middle-earth". We might need it by then to make sense of all the different versions.

    I'm unsure if his tinkering is responsible for the dropped passages. The WW Leiber volume "Farewell to Lankhmar" (basically "The Knight and Knave of Swords") is missing several pages at the end of "The Curse of Smalls and Stars", which I assume was an editorial goof. Could be either in MM's case.

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  10. As a teenager, I related to the Elric Saga far more than, say, the Lord of the Rings. But then again, in many ways Elric is himself adolescent, the causeless rebel who is a bit of an albino Hamlet or James Dean. Over time my own criticisms of Moorcock have grown sharper, but I will always have that soft spot for the White Wolf.

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  11. James,

    The recent Del Rey volumes you mentioned, are those in the "Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné" series? The idea that the copies I have (from Ace in this case) aren't the original stories bugs the heck out of me, and I may be forced to order these.

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  12. I don't believe that you can paint Moorcock's works with such broad strokes, in general. While many pulp-era fans might find the the changes in tone and chronology and thematic alignment that MM introduces throughout his Eternal Champion sagas anthema, the EC works have gone through at least three major published revisions:

    - original versions
    - 1977 DAW reworkings (which are likely the versions of the stories that many of the readers here first encountered)
    - early 1980s rise of the Von Beks
    - early 1990s Millennium/White Wolf reworkings
    - late 1990s/early 2000s = return to Elric
    - late 2000s Del Rey back to the originals/basics versions

    Moorcock's ideas about the multiverse, about the nature of humanity's relationships with our gods, and the importance of the individual within this ever-expanding multiversal canvas evolved throughout his literary fictions. He also shifts the nature of his examination of "what is evil" to be more firmly grounded in the concrete evils of our recent history, where nationalism and hatred are examined with more vision and perspective: Nazis play a larger role in the Von Bek and later Elric/EC sagas, as well as pivotal roles in his most-mature works like The Warhound and the World's Pain, Mother London, and the Pyat quartet. The evils of fantasy cede their place to the real evils of our world.

    Allan.

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  14. dhowarth 333 said: "I'd have to agree with the general sentiment that Moorcock's work has gotten weaker over time, mostly because he's become (even more) pretentious and politicized."

    I would agree that his recent work is not as interesting as some of his earlier work, but I'd argue that his best work is during the "middle period" of the 1970s and 80s. The Von Bek novels, Gloriana, and the Dancers At The End of Time series are all exceptional fantasies written during this period.

    I don't really see pretension except in that he's an ambitious writer who wanted to push against conventions and restrictions in the genres he was working in. Any good writer does this.

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  15. I admit being a bit confused. I have a copy of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks "Elric" which contains Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer, but does not appear to have the two quotes mentioned above. James, you say you have the latest Del Ray editions, which I assume is "Elric: Stealer of Souls" (Feb 2008), but the excerpt on the Del Rey website starts the same as mine ("What is the hour?"). So where can I find the original that you quote?

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  16. @Nick Bielik-

    Perhaps I painted MM with too broad a brush. Yes, many of the "middle period" works you mention are quite good. The "End of Time" novels and novellas, in particular, are some of my favorites, and showcase a somewhat subtler and more thoughtful approach than the sausage-factory novels (I'm looking at you, Corum and Hawkmoon!) MM dashed off in the late '60s and '70s.

    On the other hand, MM has a peter-pannish knack for sophomoric political philosophy and shallow eroticism that continually resurfaces and comes across to me as forced and maladroit. I'm forced to disagree with grodog here. "Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius" reads to me like a cheap porno novel with a thin veneer of literary glitz; same with "Gloriana" (and this from someone who think Fritz Leiber handles sex maturely in his F & GM stories--I'm no prude!) And to my mind, his last three Elric novels might as well be retitled, "Elric vs. the Nazis, or How Madcap Hijinks Across the Multiverse Can be Dull as Dishwater". He doesn't deal with evil in a realistic way at all--the Nazis are just cardboard cutouts, IMO. Haven't read the Pyat stuff or Mother London, so can't speak to those.

    I think what anyone could agree on is that MM is a daring and highly experimental author with some really weird ideas, not all of which come off well in execution.

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  17. dhowarth333:
    "I think what anyone could agree on is that MM is a daring and highly experimental author with some really weird ideas, not all of which come off well in execution."

    That's what happens when you write over a hundred books!

    I disagree with you about the Corum novels despite the fact that he probably did write each of them in 3-4 days (which is pretty %$#&ing amazing whatever you think of the writing). They work for me as perfectly realized heroic fantasy novels. The stock characters and highly structured story all seem to work in those books.

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