Monday, September 7, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: Stormbringer

Today's entry is something of a cheat, because Michael Moorcock's 1965 novel, Stormbringer, is in fact a fix-up, which is to say, a collection of previously published stories stitched together into a single work. In this case, the stories in question are "Dead God's Homecoming," "Black Sword's Brothers," "Sad Giant's Passing," and "Doomed Lord's Passing," all of which were published in the pages of the British periodical Science Fantasy during the preceding two years. Taken together, though, these four stories form a coherent narrative of the final days of Moorcock's most famous literary creation, Elric of Melniboné. 

Stormbringer begins with a prologue that highlights both Moorcock's strengths as a writer and of the Elric saga as fantasy literature:

There came a time when there was a great movement upon the Earth and above it, when the destiny of Men and Gods, was hammered out upon the forge of Fate, when monstrous wars were brewed and mighty deeds were designed. And there rose up in this time, which was called the Age of the Young Kingdoms, heroes. Greatest of these heroes was a doom-driven adventurer who bore a crooning runeblade that he loathed.

His name was Elric of Melniboné, king of ruins, lord of a scattered race that had once ruled the ancient world. Elric, sorcerer and swordsman, slayer of kin, despoiler of his homeland, white-faced albino, last of his line.

That's powerful, heady stuff, almost Biblical in its verbiage. Reading that again for the first time in years, I found myself wanting to crack open the big box of Chaosium's 1981 roleplaying game and plan out a campaign in the Young Kingdoms. Moorcock excels myth-making and Stormbringer tells perhaps his greatest myth: the final battle between Law and Chaos.

Despite the epic backdrop, Elric's adventure in Stormbringer are, if not quite a picaresque, rambling, tumultuous affair, as he goes from place to place in response to the actions of his various antagonists. The novel begins with his wife, Zarozinia, being kidnapped by agents of Chaos under the cover of an unnatural storm. Shaken and fearing that Zarozinia would share the doom of his first love, Cymoril, Elric decides he must reclaim his runeblade, Stormbringer, which he had previously handed over to be locked away in the armory of Karlaak.

"I must have Stormbringer!"

"But you renounced the blade for fear of its evil power over you!" Lord Voashoon reminded him quietly.

Elric replied impatiently. "Aye–but I renounced the blade for Zarozinia's sake, too. I must have Stormbringer if I am to bring her back. The logic is simple."

Ominously, Elric says to his sword that "we are too closely linked now for less than death to separate us." The Melnibonéan is more correct than he realizes, but, for the moment, his only concern is rescuing his wife and he will do anything to ensure her safety.

Eventually, Elric learns that Zarozinia was kidnapped at the behest of the dead god Darnizhaan, now restored to life. Darnizhaan attempts to explain the true nature of what is happening to the world.

"No, Elric. Mark my words, whatever happens. The dawn is over and will soon be swept away like dead leaves before the wind of morning. The Earth's history has not even begun. You, your ancestors, these men of the new races even, you are nothing but a prelude to history. You will all be forgotten if the real history of the world begins. But we can avert that–we can survive, conquer the Earth and hold it against the Lords of Law, against Fate herself, against the Cosmic Balance–we can continue to live, but you must give me the swords!"

The swords in question are, of course, the Black Swords, Stormbringer and its counterpart, Mournblade. While Elric is willing to accede to Darnizhaan's demands, the swords have other ideas. Together, they return Darnizhaan to death and set into motion the events of the rest of the novel, which see Elric and his companion travel far and wide in a desperate effort to halt the apocalyptic battle of whose dire consequences Darnizhaan had spoken. 

On the off-chance that anyone reading this has not yet read Stormbringer, I will say no more of its plot, only that it concludes with one of the greatest lines in all of fantasy literature, "Farewell, friend. I was a thousand times more evil than thou!" Stormbringer is laden with portent and dripping with doom. Reading this, it's impossible not to recognize that the tale it's telling is the culmination of a saga years in the making. Whether one likes that sort of thing will color how one reacts to Stormbringer. I'm conflicted myself, as I frequently am with Moorcock's work, but, when it works, it works very well indeed. If nothing else, the novel might give more food for thought to those for whom alignment is an unnecessary abstraction. Stormbringer should put any such notion to rest. 

1 comment:

  1. While I always preferred Corum to Elric, I did really enjoy the Melnibonean's adventures. I still have my 1e of the Stormbringer RPG lying around somewhere.