Monday, April 20, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Jewel in the Skull

I have a love-hate relationship with Michael Moorcock. I'm frequently attracted to his ideas but only occasionally to his writing, which I find is often sloppy and loose. Likewise, his characters are in equal parts despicable and pathetic, making it hard for me to form the attachments necessary to make my way through his stories. The primary exception to this is Dorian Hawkmoon, who makes his appearance in the 1967 novel, The Jewel in the Skull, the first part of the four-part "History of the Runestaff" series. I not only like Hawkmoon as a character, I also find the series in which he appears a fair bit more coherent than, say, the adventures of Elric. Gary Gygax noted the influence of the Hawkmoon novels over D&D, although, intriguingly, he added "esp. the first three books." When I have more time, it might be worth trying to figure out why he said this.

The Jewel in the Skull takes place in "the Tragic Millennium," a post-apocalyptic future in which super-science and magic exist side by side and the world is threatened by the Dark Empire of Granbretan. This places it within a sub-set of swords-and-sorcery novels epitomized by works like The Dying Earth, where the future of our world is portrayed as a fantasy setting. Its protagonist is the aforementioned Dorian Hawkmoon, Duke of Köln, who, while leading a rebellion against the Dark Empire, is captured and offered a chance to escape death: aid Granbretan by acting as its agent in the Kamarg. Hawkmoon accepts this offer, along with a magical black jewel that's placed inside his head, which prevents him from betraying his evil masters. Fortunately for Hawkmoon, the Kamarg's ruler, Count Brass, finds a means to nullify the black jewel temporarily, setting into motion a plan by which he and Hawkmoon can foil Granbretan's nefarious schemes.

Like most Moorcock novels, The Jewel in the Skull is full of great ideas, breezily delivered. Most of the flaws evident in his other novels are here too, but I found myself quite able to overlook them, because I enjoyed the world and inhabitants Moorcock described. The Tragic Millennium is one of those settings that, while far from ground-breaking, neveretheless achieves a certain power because of the way it appropriates familiar places and names to play with -- and against -- our expectations of them. The result is a world that's at once recognizable and alien, which, to my mind, is exactly the right approach when dealing with swords-and-sorcery tales. Hawkmoon himself is a fairly attractive figure, neither reprehensible nor overwrought, which makes him stand out in a genre that contains too many examples of each for my liking. All in all, this is a fun book that kicks off a fun series. Even if you normally don't like Moorcock, I recommend giving it a try.


  1. I haven't ever read that particular story, but I've had a very similar reaction to Moorcock in general. I struggle to understand why he's so popular amongst D&D fans, except that Gygax recommended him. And I sometimes struggle with why Gygax would have recommended him unless it was because in those earlier days fantasy was in such short supply that everybody who was interested in it read everything that there was to read. I struggled through the first three Elric novels, finding them pretty much completely bereft of redeeming features, and I went and read his Barsoom knock-off books and found them even worse. I haven't looked at anything Moorcockian since.

    However, you almost tempt me to try this one out... just in case.

  2. I fell in love with Hawkmoon as a teenager, much more so than Elric. I was inspired to write an essay for my English class which came back covered in red pen. My teacher, no fan of fantasy, didn't appreciate my spelling of 'magick'. Philistine.

  3. "I have a love-hate relationship with Michael Moorcock. I'm frequently attracted to his ideas but only occasionally to his writing."

    I'm glad I'm not the only one. Twice I've tried to read 'Eteranl champion' novels as the concept is great. I just couldn't get into them. I'm going to try the Elric novels see how Ifare with those.

    Back in 80/81 when I was playing B/X a friend had a Jewel in the Skull *graphic novel that we all loved and went hand in hand with D&D.

    *Although back then we just called it a comic. Don't think I heard the term graphic novel until The Dark Knight Returns came out.

  4. Probably the best thing about the Runestaff books is the baroque, overblown nature of the villains (the bemasked nihilist warlords of Granbretan and their globe-enthroned foetus-emperor).

    Despite their being somewhat overwrought you can see in them Moorcock starting to reach towards the themes explored in his more mature writings (Gloriana, the Von Beck stories, the Colonel Pyatt quartet(?)).

    Unfortunately, everything else in the series kind of pales next to the macabre spectacle of a totalitarian future-Britain conquering the world just to stave off ennui.

  5. Moorcock is the one writer who I will read no mater what. For me, his Pyat Quartet, Behold the Man and Mother London are his best works. My favorite is his The Dancers at the End of Time.

    Hell, at least for me, he is one of the major influences on my design thoughts. I know that would surprise most, but it is what it is.

  6. I believe it is Mike's pioneering nature as a writer, and the elements which he brought to S&S which have become fixtures, that cause him to be rightly considered a great fantasist.

    Though I know him less well than, Ken St. Andre or Liz Danforth, I have met Mike, and correspond with him regularly, and can tell you that as his contributions to the field become more muddled in the mix of subsequent writers, he does feel a bit wronged. His greatest pet peeve, I believe, is the misappropriation of his iconic terms (the Multiverse, etc.) and artistic rip-offs of his characters (a prevalence of Elric knock-offs, for example).
    Fortunately, his receiving the Grandmaster Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Nebulas, let him know how much he has been an influence (both as a writer and editor). His response was very humbling in his thanking so many of the younger writers he had the honour of editing and aiding in the business -- myself included.

    Though, I will admit the same interest in his ideas, over his execution, it should be understood that most of his novels were written in about 24 hours time on very tight pay schedules.
    For his hurried work to have been as interesting as it is suggests that his more patient works ought to be of greater depth and masterful execution.

  7. Definitely don't judge Moorcock's writing based on the work he's most famous for, nearly all of it which was written in the 60s and 70s. He's much better in the 80s and 90s (although 70s novella Behold the Man is pretty amazing too), writing literature quality work that's far away from the pulp work in the Hawkmoon, Elric, Corum etc. series. That's not to say those aren't great in their own way, but different era, different writer. Kind of the same way with Vance too, the Dying Earth stories are nice, but the man went on to write far better stuff after his pulp beginnings.

  8. I believe it is Mike's pioneering nature as a writer, and the elements which he brought to S&S which have become fixtures, that cause him to be rightly considered a great fantasist. I disagree that reversing stereotypes was pioneering, and that's the most innovative that Moorcock was in his early, most famous fiction. Elric is merely the anti-Conan in every way, not something that really required a pioneering nature.

    I dunno; maybe I'm missing the real crucial works that prove me wrong, but the Moorcock that I've read wasn't breaking any significant boundaries.

  9. @ Joshua,

    I invite you to to peruse the wiki pages and fora, and to post your thoughts there. I'm certain others much more familiar with his work may be able to demonstrate more of what makes him such a well-respected writer.

  10. Well, the boundaries were already broken, by Moorcock. ;)

    I love the simple and "sloppy" S&S stuff Mike wrote back then. It's a bubbling kettle of so many weird images and motifs that have been boiled down to cliches by later writers of both fiction and rpgs.

    The boundless enthusiasm of those early works, and a strong use of mythic themes and symbols makes them gold mines as inspirational material. It's like being high and then as you come down you try to capture the essence of the moment in something of your own creative genius. I love it.

    Even though I really appreciate much of his later stuff (higher quality and literate writing - Mother London is sublime), I still feel most energized by some Hawkwind music and a old pulpy Elric or Hawkmoon adventure.

  11. I have mixed feelings of Moorcock's work too There are ones I don't like, and there are ones I read over and over. I like the Elric stories, but they are far from the best. My favorites are the first Corum novels, the first Von Bek story, and the Hawkmoon novels. The first Corum trilogy, and the War Hound and the Worlds Pain we read around the time when we started playing d&d, and especially the Corum books, very much effected our playing world. We were always hopping planes, and anywhere we went there were some magical adventure... It was good for the club style of game, when somebody didn't turned up for the next session his character was taken away with some magical means. And next time, when that player wanted to play in a completely different andventure at another DM's table, he was just there... It was the "multiverse aproach" to d&d. :-)

  12. The Jewel in the Skull was my first Moorcock novel, read when I was eleven years old as a country boy, when fantasy novels of any sort were unheard of. I had read only the Hobbit and some 1950s historical novels of my grandmother's (by Laurence Schoonover and Frank Yerby).

    Tragic Europe enthralled me, the more so for being unable to find the sequels. Hawkmoon was a noble hero and Meliadus was a worthy and detestable villain (who threatened the fair Yselde with a fate worse than death!)

    Later on I tracked down more of Moorcock, chiefly Hawkmoon and Corum at first. Stumbling across Jerry Cornelius in high school, I was shocked, appalled,fascinated, seduced and bewildered. Moorcock's pretentions to art amounted mostly to prurience and narcotics I eventually concluded.

    But there have been few authors as prolific in simple and strange ideas seemingly crafted for roleplaying.

  13. I think you should take another look at Moorcocks later fiction, Dean. Less drugs, I promise. :)

  14. Guys, Moorcock is up there with Vance, Lovecraft, Burroughs, Brackett, Howard and anyone else you care to name in any "old school pulp canon" that you might wish to invent. This is a self-evident *fact* : )

    I have a soft spot for Hawkmoon too. I love anything set in a surreal decaying far future and this series is particularly worth reading: giant flamingo steeds!

    As for modern sword and sorcery stories, give me Jerry Cornelius over James Bond any day.

    WV: hakind

  15. Flamingoes! 'nuff said!

    I don't agree with you about Bond, though.

  16. There is some wonderful imagery in this book, starting with the vision of decadent Great Britain, but otherwise, the entire work felt lazy and thrown together. Coincidentally, the Jewel in the Skull was the last Moorcock book I ever read. There is a particular bit where our hero is lost in the mountains of Future Bulgaria, and he comes across a short guy described as wearing soft leather boots and a feathered hat. My first reaction was, "Aha, this is going to be the Companion." After it turned out that yes, he was the Companion, it was very hard to take the rest seriously. I slogged through the book, tried to engage with the second volume, but there was no chemistry at all, and my omnibus edition is now collecting dust on the shelf.

    Give me von Bek for Mike's writing (at least the first novel, I don't know about the rest), and forget rest.

  17. Hawkmoon is probably amongst Moorcock's pulpiest fantasies - though his Mars homage to Burroughs is right up there. Personally, so far as fantasy goes, the Celtic flavoured Corum stories are pretty near unmatched in the genre and the core Elric stories make most post-Tolkien fantasy look like Mills and Boon. Moorcock's later more literary works (includingg as mentioned above, Mother London, the Pyat Quartet, etc) are significant pieces of fiction. And I'll see your Jerry Cornelius and raise you an Oswald Bastable....

  18. Whichever way you choose to crumble this particular cookie, Moorcock, even at his loosest, is a more accomplished and fulfilling writer than Gygax himself (and I like them both, and have recently re-read the Gord novels with great delight). Moorcock, who just lost his pal of 50 years in the passing of J G Ballard, was and is an unstoppably fecund imagination with little regard for genres (thankfully) and an inspiration to many. Gygax was, I think, less self-consciously aware of his place upon the wave of countercultural and imaginal flux born out of, say, the sixties experience. Which is to say that to Gygax the focus was on play. For Moorcok, the stakes are higher and the focus resonates at a higher frequency. That both modes can relate in the flickering of ideas, images, scope and story, is a joy indeed. Wish I could be in London in May for the latest Moorcock/Alan Moore public chat.

  19. Yeah Hawkmoon has its faults but I daresay it's far better than any of Gygax's novels, of which I'm afraid I've read none.

    I think you guys should give the Elrics another chance. I'm slowly rereading them. For some reason I got it in my head that I disliked Sailor on the Seas of Fate and han't read it again for over at least a decade. I reread it recently and writing is fantastic: the first chapter is especially evocative and poetic.

  20. How can you say Hawkmoon is better than Gygax novels when you haven't read any of them?

    Herulka in onto something about Moorcock, though. He is always a political writer. His background in the swinging sixties and all, he manages to bring his political ideas into even his cheapest pulps. He has the ability to not only sparkle but also to cut, even when he writes a novel in 24h with a bottle of whisky by his side.

  21. I'm just glad I'm not the only one; Moorcock, generally, does absolutely nothing for me. Most of the stories I've begun (and I admit that most of those have been Elric-based) have been an endurance contest to finish. Some individual scenes have been great, but the endless doom and gloom, combined with the fact that all of the Eternal Champion aspects are essentially indestructible, makes reading Moorcock a slog for me.

    (Aside: the Stormbringer RPG is excellent, though)

  22. I invite you to to peruse the wiki pages and fora, and to post your thoughts there. I'm certain others much more familiar with his work may be able to demonstrate more of what makes him such a well-respected writer.Oh, I've heard all the arguments time and time again (it would be difficult to frequent online D&D communities and not have this discussion over and over again with Moorcock fans.) I just think that Moorcock is terribly over-rated. I suspect it's because many of his fans discovered him when they were younger and their tastes were more pliable and less focused on quality.

    I also think that Moorcock did do some things that hadn't been done before, but that doesn't mean that they were particularly innovative or revolutionary. The entire Eternal Champion line was all about repeating the "Heroic Journey" over and over again with different characters who, nonetheless, bore an awful lot of similarities to each other. His Barsoom knock-off stories were just that: Barsoom knock-off stories. It sounds like Hawkmoon is, in many ways, the same thing to Jack Vance.

  23. Joshua, to claim that Moorcocks writing is of lesser quality and that his fans are just impressionable isn't very nice.

    Sure, you don't like the guys stuff, fair enough.

  24. In the last few years, I see a lot of folks deriding Moorcok's writing. I find myself bewildered by this. So much so that I went back and reread a number of the books I loved the most of his (including The Jewel in the Skull) and find the writing as engaging as ever. His S&S books are written as well as Howard's: both were written for the pulp market, to make money, but with real relish.

    Contra to James (and probably explanatory of our differences on this topic), Dorian Hawkmoon is one of the least engaging of Moorcock's Champions to me. Actually, he is rather interesting in the first book, when he is in emotional shock. After that, he really has no personality at all. Fortunately, the delightful Huillam D'Averc appears in the 2nd novel and he more than makes up for Hawkmoon's stolidity. I can't tell you how many rpg characters I have based on D'Averc, including the hypochondria.

    Moorcock's works were the single biggest S&S influence on me. I always admired the way in which he could write bloody stories in which the characters still pause to engage in philosophical discussion. The way in which his protagonists find themselves constantly divided and unsure of their ultimate goals resonates much more with me than, say, Conan's immense self-assurance and the Lankhmarites devoted self-interest. And, maybe most all, the good Anglo-Saxon sense of doom that pervades everything.

    I just read the original version of "The Citadel of Chaos" the other day for the first time (having only read the version that appeared in the book Weird of the White Wolf) and enjoyed it immensely.

    But, to each his own.

  25. @Andreas:

    Yeah, well... that's how reviewing creative works goes. When's the last time you called Roger Ebert "not nice" because he gave a bad review to a movie you happened to like?

    You do like him. Great. I'm not really interested in trying to be nice or not nice, I'm just discussing the merits of his work. It's not a sacred canon above reproach or criticism. And when I see claims that I disagree with, well, I make my own counter claims.

    Chill out. No need to feel insulted just because some random guy on the internet doesn't have the same taste as you do.

  26. Andreas, yeah I'm probably being unfair on Gygax. I will probably sample his writing some day in my eternal quest to devour all visionary sf/fantasy.

    Moorcock is famously not a fan of the Lord of the Rings.

  27. Hey, Joshua, I'm chilling just as we speak :)

    I just wondered if you intended to phrase it in a way which so easily could be taken as condescending.

    I have no problem with some candour in reviews and criticism, though. That's your way of expression, fair enough. I just looked at your blog and saw that you call yourself opinionated, and since you like The Black Company you must be ok, even if you're wrong about Moorcock. :)

  28. When I was a teenager I *loved* Moorcock's stuff, especially Corum and Hawkmoon (Elric I thought was too whiney -- he had Stormbringer, why all the moping?!?)

    I tried to reread those stories a couple of years ago and just could *not* enjoy the writing style. Way too slapdash and sloppy for my tastes! In contast, I recently reread all of Howard's Conan stories, and loved them as much as I did when I first read them 26+ years ago.

    I can't deny that Moorcock had many great *ideas*. As a writer, though, I think he's quite mediocre.

  29. @ Andreas: Ah, well that's fair enough. It's always so difficult to convey tone over the internet. I don't intend to come across as condescending, certainly. Although I'll admit that my comments could be taken that way regardless of my intention.

  30. Elric is definitely the emo Eternal Champion : )