Monday, October 18, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: While the Gods Laugh

Whatever else one can say about Michael Moorcock's tales of albino sorcerer Elric of Melniboné, there's no question that they're chock full of fantastic concepts. This is notably so in "While the Gods Laugh," a short story first published in issue #49 of Science Fantasy (October 1961). Being the immediate sequel to "The Dreaming City," in which we see not only the sack of Imrryr and but also the death Elric's lover, Cymoril, Moorcock no doubt found himself in a difficult place story-wise. What does one do for an encore after such a startling opening act?

Naturally, "While the Gods Laugh" begins with Elric brooding, as he drinks alone in a tavern. While he ruminates over the disastrous events of the previous year, he is interrupted by "a wingless woman of Myyrrhn," who initially does not identify herself by name. She has sought after Elric for some time and, now that she has found him, she wishes to speak with him. For his part, Elric attempts to dissuade her, explaining that he is "an evil man" and his destiny is "hell-doomed." 

The woman is undeterred. She tells him that her name is Shaarilla of the Dancing Mist, the "wingless daughter of a dead necromancer – a cripple in her own strange land, and an outcast." Further, she asks Elric if he has ever heard of the Dead Gods' Book.

Elric nodded. He was interested, despite the need he felt to disassociate himself as much as possible from his fellows. The mythical book was believed to contain knowledge which could solve many problems that had plagued men for centuries – it held a holy and mighty wisdom which every sorcerer desired to sample. But it was believed destroyed, hurled into the sun when the Old Gods were dying in the cosmic wastes which lay beyond the outer reaches of the solar system. Another legend, apparently of later origin, spoke vaguely of the dark ones who interrupted the Book's sunward coursing and had stolen it before it could be destroyed. Most scholars discounted this legend, arguing that, by this time, the Book would have come to light if it did still exist.

Shaarilla insists that the book exists and that she knows where it is. She promises to give the Book – and herself, if he wishes – to Elric, if only he would aid her in finding it. Elric is confused.

"If you want it so badly that you seek my help," he said eventually, "why do you not wish to keep it?"

"Because I would be afraid to have such a thing perpetually in any custody – it is not a book for an ordinary mortal to own, but you are possibly the last mighty nigromancer left in the world and it is fitting that you should have it. Besides, you might kill me to obtain it – I would never be safe with such a volume in my hands. I need only a small part of its wisdom."

"What is that?" Elric enquired, studying her patrician beauty with a new pulse stirring within him.

Her mouth set and the lids fell over her eyes. "When we have the Book in our hands – then you will have your answer. Not before."

"This answer is good enough," Elric remarked quickly, seeing that he would gain no more information at that stage.

Elric himself seeks the book because he believes it might contain "the secret of peace" within its pages, the secret that would free him from the "incommunicable self-loathing" that leads him to "scream in [his] sleep." As they travel in the Silent Land together later, Elric talks more explicitly to Shaarilla about why he seeks the Book.

The tall albino dropped the folded tent to the grass and sighed. His fingers played nervously with the pommel of his runesword. "Can an ultimate god exist – or not? That is what I need to know Shaarilla, if my life is to have any direction at all.

"The Lords of Law and Chaos now govern our lives. But is there some being greater than them?"

Shaarilla put a hand on Elric's arm. "Why must you know?" she said.

"Despairingly, sometimes, I seek the comfort of a beningn god, Shaarilla. My mind goes out, lying awake at night, searching through black barrenness for something – anything – which will take me to it, warm me, protect me, tell me that is order in the chaotic tumble of the universe; that it is consistent, this precision of the planets, not simply a brief spark of sanity in an eternity of malevolent anarchy."

Elric sighed and his quiet tones were tinged with hopelessness. "Without some confirmation of the order of things, my only comfort is to accept anarchy. This way, I can revel in chaos and know, without fear, that we are all doomed from the start – that our brief existence is both meaningless and damned. I can accept that, then, that we are more than forsaken, because there was never anything there to forsake us. I have weighed the proof, Shaarilla, and must believe that anarchy prevails, in spite of all the laws which seemingly govern our actions, our sorcery, our logic. I see only chaos in the world. If the book we seek tells me otherwise, then I shall gladly believe it. Until then, I will put my trust only in my sword and myself." 

How one reacts to this passage will, I think, say a great deal about how one views the overall story of "While the Gods Laugh." This is, in many ways, a fairly straightforward fantasy quest, with Elric and Shaarilla, later joined by Moonglum of Elwher, who will of course become the Melnibonéan's boon companion, traveling across the Young Kingdoms and facing many obstacles before reaching their ultimate destination – and the Book itself. What separates it from similar fare are the philosophical musings and asides, as Moorcock begins to work out the details of the cosmology of Law and Chaos and how that cosmology affects the realm of mortals like Elric. 

I won't pretend there's anything deep here, but it's compelling stuff nonetheless. It's for this reason that I put up with Elric's perpetual moping: it's often an occasion for Moorcock to tease out underlying reality of the Young Kingdoms and the forces that govern it. If nothing else, it's more food for thought in the eternal struggle to make sense of alignment and how it might be made to work in Dungeons & Dragons. That's more than worth the price of admission in my opinion.


  1. Huh, it's an odd story, almost purposefully formulaic. I didn't know it was the second story and I felt that Moonglum seemed a bit shoehorned in, as if the later stories were writ before this one, and Moorcock was trying to justify his existence.

    Still love the Marsh Giant part, excellent monster.

    1. Never could decide which was the best section in the first Deities & Demigods book - Cthulhu Mythos, Melnibone, or Nehwon.

      Vulture lions were awfully cool too. Reaper makes a very nice Clakar proxy figure under the appropriately-chosen "demonic ape" name, who conveniently doubles as the nameless degenerate horror that killed Belit in Howard's Queen of the Black Coast.

  2. What is also interesting about this is the title - a quote from a poem of Mervyn Peake, author of Gormenghast (whom Moorcock admired and, I believe, met).

  3. "Until then, I will put my trust only in my sword and myself."

    Always thought that line sounded more like Conan than Elric, especially given that trusting Stormbringer doesn't work out very well in the end. Or ever, really.

    I should really re-read Moorcock again, or at least the Eternal Champion stuff. My originals are long gone though and it's more difficult to find good reasonably-complete compilations for his work than, say, Howard or Lovecraft.

    Been ploughing through Conan again lately and my principle observation is that REH was a serious ophidiophobe. There's a snake shoehorned into at least every other story, and I'm not even up to the stuff set in Stygia or revolving around Thoth-amon. It gets really noticeable after a bit.

    Ah well, still better than the personal terrors Lovecraft wrote into his work.

    1. well, texas. there are real snakey risks there, 1920s....

    2. Oh, not saying it's an unjustified fear. But he's got it bad, and it shows. And if you're not afraid of snakes (which I'm not, just sensibly cautious around venomous types) they don't work so well as objects of dread. He wrote a whole weird tales horror story around a guy being stalked by a snake in his nightmares which I suspect was echoing his own experiences.

      When you're reading a lot of his work back to back it gets a bit jarring how often he reaches for a snake to amp up the terror a bit.

  4. The first five Elric stories are amongst my favorite S&S yarns. They are the most compulsive page-turners I've ever read, and that doesn't change no matter how many times I've read them!

  5. I like this story, but it feels very formulaic, just with a better punchline than a lot of Swords & Sorcery stories. Hero meets woman, has sex with woman, go on quest, meet stranger, fight monsters, the prize isn't what it seems, hero leaves woman and goes on to further adventures. It's well written and atmospheric but it doesn't feel unique in the way that The Dreaming City does.

    1. For me the strength of it lies in the ways it twists the usual elements of the formula. Elric's an oddball for a S&S hero to start with, Shaarilla isn't your average damsel in distress (or undress), and the monsters are pretty imaginative and quirky instead of the more common "giant version of normal animal" and "indescribable eldritch horror" types. Doesn't hurt that the Silent Land and Marshes of Mists are both memorably-described and creepy settings.

      Not his best work, but even mediocre Moorcock is pretty good.

  6. Ah, yea, probably not his best story, but still pretty good (I have a hard time chosing a favorite Elric story, there's something to like in all of them)

    I like that Moorcock wrote a Jerry Cornelius version of this story too.
    The execution... less so