Monday, April 11, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Last Enchantment

Though the character of Elric of Melniboné is perhaps best known from the novelettes and novellas in which he appears, like "The Dreaming City," Michael Moorcock also penned numerous shorter works featuring the last emperor of the Bright Empire. One of my favorites is "The Last Enchantment," which was first published in the pages of Ariel: The Book of Fantasy: Volume Three in October 1978 and later included in several different collections (which is where I read it). Though this was its first published appearance, Moorcock had actually written it almost two decades earlier, in 1962, at which time it bore the title "Jesting with Chaos" – a much more apt title in my opinion. Consequently, in terms of its conception, it harkens back to the early days of Moorcock's writing about Elric, which may well explain its appeal to me.

The tale begins as "a shuddering man … his bloated eyes full of blood" is running through a dark forest, clutching "a glowing black talisman" in his hand and muttering to himself. The reader soon learns that the man is named Slorg and that the strange talisman he carries enables him to speak with a disembodied being called Teshwan. It's then that Elric enters the story, riding through the very same forest.

The horseman's long, sharply delineated skull was leper-white, as if stripped of flesh, and his slightly slanting eyes gleamed crimson. He wore a jerkin of black velvet caught at the throat by a thin silver chain. His britches, too, were of black cloth, and his leather boots were high and shining. Over his shoulders was a high-collared cape of scarlet and a heavy longsword slapped at his side as he pulled his steed to a standstill. His long, flowing hair was as white as his face. The horseman was an albino.
Elric comes across Slorg, who begs him to aid him against the Hungry Whisperers, demonic beings who dog his trail. "Now why should I, my friend? Tell me that." Elric replies. Slorg then explains – or tries to explain – that he has been "profaned," but Elric quickly tells him that this is "none of my business." This doesn't sit well with Slorg, who becomes angry and tells the wandering Melnibonéan that, though he was "a man no longer," he was nevertheless "Siletah Slorg – Siletah of Oberlorn," a title that means nothing to Elric. 

Elric, in turn, introduces himself and this elicits a reaction from Slorg, who calls him an "outcast." He then asks Elric again for aid. "Help me and I will tell you secrets – such secrets!" Elric remains disinterested and bids Slorg farewell. The strange man then threatens the Melnibonéan with his talisman's "last enchantment" if he does not do as he asks. When Elric urges his horse onward instead, Slorg calls upon Teshwan to perform "a deed of vengeance" against him.

Not long afterward, Elric finds himself transported to "a vast and lonely expanse of flat, grey stone" that he suspects is another world, one ruled completely by the Lords of Chaos, of whom Teshwan was undoubtedly one. Worse than that, his mighty runesword, Stormbringer, is dead.

Normally the blade, forged by unhuman smith for Elric's royal ancestors, was alive with sentience – throbbing with the life-force it had stolen from a hundred men and women whom Elric had slain. Once before it had been like this – in the Caverns of Chaos long ago. 

Elric tightened his lips, then shrugged as he replaced the sword in its scabbard.

"In a world completely dominated by the forces of Chaos," he said, "I cannot rely on the powers which normally aid me in my sorcery. Thank Arioch I have a good supply of drugs about me, or I would indeed be doomed."

Elric presses forward and encounters another traveler, a man "dressed in green, a silver sword dangling in his right hand." The man tells Elric that he travels "to Kaneloon, for the Rites." The Rites, it seems, are performed by the Lords of Chaos to reform the world "into a fresh variety of patterns." Hearing this, he asks the man if there might be some way he could leave this realm of Chaos. The man suggests visiting the palace of Kaneloon. There, he might be able to convince the Lords to return him to his own world – or not, since "the Lords of Chaos are fickle." The man then disappears.

Elric makes his way to the palace and is given entrance by the guardian giant, who tells him that 

"My masters order me to inform you that you may enter but that, having once come to the Palace of Kaneloon, you may never leave save under certain conditions."

"Those conditions?"

"Of these they will tell you if you enter. Are you reckless – or will you stand pondering?"

"I'll avail myself of their generosity," smiled Elric and spurred his nervous horse forward.

The remainder of the story details Elric's meeting with the Lords of Chaos, including Teshwan, whom Slorg beseeched to exact his revenge on the Melnibonéan. He must confront them and the aforementioned condition in order to return home: "You may leave only if you can create something which it has never occurred to us to create."

"The Last Enchantment" is short and evocative. Not only is the reader treated to seeing Elric attempt to outwit the Lords of Chaos to save himself, but we get to something of the nature of these mysterious beings and their role in the multiverse. It's fascinating, even thought provoking stuff, made all the more enjoyable because Moorcock keeps his philosophizing on a short leash. The story is not over-indulgent and Elric, despite his exile, does not much yield to his signature melancholy. Instead, we get tight, clever tale of almost mythological character, in which a mortal contends with godlike beings – and wins.


  1. Always liked Moorcock's shorter fiction better than his novels, especially as we get later in his writing career.

    1. Honestly, I think the same could be said about most writers whose work I like. It's rare when I think they're better served by longer pieces than by shorter, but maybe I'm weird that way.

    2. Depends on the author for me. I like Jack Vance's novels better than his short stories, but many of them are pretty slim already (especially by modern standards). Same for James Schmitz, Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett and Keith Laumer. REH and HPL though, I favor the short stories.

    3. Interesting. I find some of his longer works more impressive, like the initial three Dancers at the End of Time novels.

    4. The Dancers books are among my favorites of his longer work (although they're still quite short by 2022 standards) but they don't quite edge out the best of his short fiction for me. They're also fairly old - 1976-ish IIRC - and it's the more recent stuff that's being leaving me increasingly cold. Still haven't been able to get through the Pyat Quartet books for ex, and that's a first for me. Maybe I'm just outgrowing his style - it's almost all post-90s work that's lost its luster, maybe because the older work has more nostalgia appeal for me.

    5. Dancers at the End of Time is one of his best works for me as well

    6. That makes sense. I haven’t ventured past the seventies and probably won’t. I still need to try the Cornelius quartet again at some point, along with others like Breakfast in the Ruins.

    7. "It's rare when I think they're better served by longer pieces than by shorter..."

      Agree. Sadly, the more famous that writers become, the longer their work often becomes (J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, etc). They reach a point where they can't or won't be edited.

    8. "Sadly, the more famous that writers become, the longer their work often becomes (J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, etc). They reach a point where they can't or won't be edited."

      I think the most tragic example of that for me is David Weber. His earlier work is quite a good example of military scifi, tightly written and well-paced. Then somewhere into the Honor Harrington boom he clearly told the editors to bugger off, and now his work is bloated beyond recognition with whole chapters of tedious and unnatural expository dialog.

  2. Great piece. I've never heard of this tale despite having read 10 or 11 of Moorcock's novels/novellas/works. I wish you'd go ahead and tell us the ending though, as I doubt I'll ever come across this story. Revealing the ending 40+ years after a work's publication can no longer be considered a spoiler--there's a statute of limitations on spoilers. : )

    1. I absolutely agree about "spoilers," the very concept of which annoys me.

      I didn't include details about the ending primarily as an enticement to reading it, which I'd like to encourage. That said, your point stands that a lot of people likely will never read the story. Perhaps I need to consider a better way to achieve my intention.

    2. It's apparently available as a free download here:

      Also available through other sources, including some compilations.

    3. It's a great story, and you should absolutely check it out. I don't recall there being much to spoil, but better you experience it fresh I suppose.

    4. The Last Enchantment is included in the To Rescue Tanelorn compilation. I've got several of these on my Nook app. That way I can carry Elric with me wherever I go.

  3. I felt "Last Enchantement" to be somewhat lacking and not well developed for me. More the idea of a story than an actual story.
    From the same period I like "Elric at the End of Time" better.

    1. That's fair – although I think could be said about much of Moorcock's output.

    2. Agreed, MM is proud of his ability to create large amounts of prose in comparatively short time, the problem is that it comes at the cost uneven quality.
      To be more precise about my criticism of The Last Enchantment,
      I felt somewhat cheated by the ending.
      Elric's smartness (can I say "smartassness?") reflects the author's.
      MM himself acknowledged this issue himself in an anthology called Casablanca that included TLE.

    3. Interesting! I did not know that.

    4. It looks like I mislead you, and was mislead myself by my (poor) memory.
      The book I remembered including TLE was not Casablanca, but an edition of Elric at The End of Time, that also included MM's juvenile ERB pastiche Sojan, some speculation on New Worlds and Jerry Cornelius, and the self-parody "The Stone Thing".
      MM is not openly critical of TLE, but is... uncharacteristically modest about it.
      In my memory this registered as a sort of self-criticism on his part.
      "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 and in his capacity as my agent sent The Last Enchantment to America, where it was rejected. Some fifteen years later Ted's successor, Les Flood, came across the story and returned it to me. It eventually appeared in Ariel magazine in the U.S. in 1978, illustrated by Tim Conrad. That was its only publication until now.
      Like Elric at the End of Time it has never been published in England and this is its first appearance in book form."

    5. Feel the same. It’s just a simple setup for the wan punchline. I also enjoyed “Elric at the End of Time” more but wasn’t that written much later than 1962?

    6. Elric at the End of Time seems to have been written around 1979-1980.
      When I said "same period" I was referring to pre-Fortress of the Pearl Moorcock, that is the years in which he wrote all the foundational books of his cycles (Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, Dancers...), and before his "return" to intensive writing of new Elric stories and comics (most of which I didn't like, btw).