Monday, December 5, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Stealer of Souls

Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné is unquestionably one of the greatest characters in all of fantasy literature. The stories of his exploits exercised a profound influence not just on subsequent writers in the genre but also on the early history of roleplaying games. In particular, the idea of an eternal war between the powers of Law and Chaos – cribbed from Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, by Moorcock's own admission – is one without which Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, to cite just three prominent examples, would be impossible. 

Yet, for all the cosmic elements of the saga of Elric, what makes its tales compelling are the personal struggles of its protagonist, as he attempts to square the demands of his conscience with those of the soul-hungry demon sword whose magic enables him to overcome the physical impairments of his birth. In this respect, the stories of Elric are very much in keeping with those of his pulp fantasy forebears, including Robert E. Howard's Conan, whose own adventures often stem from clashes between his convictions and the vicissitudes of life. Though Elric and Conan could not be more different – intentionally so – in this important respect there is a remarkable similarity.

I was reminded of this when re-reading The Stealer of Souls, the third of Moorcock's original Elric novelettes. Originally published in the February 1962 issue of Science Fantasy, it was published as a separate volume less than a year later by UK publisher, Neville Spearman. The Stealer of Souls is, first and foremost, a story of revenge and, in that respect, it could have featured Conan as its protagonist – except, of course, that Elric, unlike REH's barbarian, depends upon and wields dark magic to achieve his desired ends. Indeed, dark magic plays a significant role in the tale's events, which is part of why it's one of my favorite stories of Elric.

Another reason is that Moorcock's prose is delightfully pulpy and evocative throughout. Consider, for example, the start of the novelette:

In a city called Bakshaan, which was rich enough to make all other cities of the north-east seem poor, in a tall-towered tavern one night, Elric, Lord of the smoking ruins of Melniboné, smiled like a shark and dryly jested with four powerful merchant princes whom, in a day or so, he intended to pauperize. 

It's wonderful stuff, all the more so because Elric is much more immediately active in this adventure than he was in his previous outings. That lends a certain energy, even urgency, to The Stealer of Souls that I find quite attractive.

The merchant princes wish to hire Elric for his "particular qualities as a swordsman and sorcerer" and are willing to pay well for them. They offer him gold and gems for his services, but he rejects them, calling them "chains," adding that "free travelers need no chains." Elric says he decide on the nature of his payment later, which arouses some suspicion in his would-be employers, but they are sufficiently keen to enlist his aid that they let the matter rest.

The merchants explain that they wish Elric to eliminate a competitor of theirs, a man named Nikorn of Ilmar. Nikorn, it seems, is able to undercut all other merchants of Bakshaan. This impresses Elric, who states that, from what they have described of him, "[Nikorn] has earned his position." Why should he wish to kill him? Moreover, why not simply employ an assassin? They are commonplace in Bakshaan, after all. This is where the merchants come to the real crux of the matter – and of their need for Elric.

"... Nikorn employs a sorcerer – and a private army. The sorcerer protects him and his palace by means of magic. And a guard of desert men serve to ensure that if the magic fails, then natural methods can be used for the purpose. Assassins have attempted to eliminate the trader, but unfortunately, they were not lucky."

After briefly pausing to drink "a wine for those who wished to dream of different and less tangible worlds," Elric asks

"And who is this mighty sorcerer, Master Pilarmo?"

"His name is Theleb K'aarna," Pilarmo answered nervously.

Elric's scarlet eyes narrowed. "The sorcerer of Pan Tang?"

"Aye – he comes from that island."

Elric put his cup down upon the table and rise, fingering his blade of black iron, the runesword Stormbringer.

He said with conviction: "I will help you, gentlemen." He had made up his mind not to rob them, after all. A new and more important plan was forming in his brain.

Theleb K'aarna, he thought. So you have made Bakshaaan your bolt-hole, eh? 

Theleb K'aarna, we learn, is not only a sorcerer of Pan Tang, but an enemy of Elric, in large part because Elric had previously displaced him in the affections of Yishana, the queen of Jharkor. Now, he seeks to "prove" to Yishana, whom he still loves, that Elric is not worthy of her esteem by bringing him low. Elric, for his part, has been pursuing Theleb K'aarna across the Young Kingdoms for some time and sees the merchant princes' offer as an opportunity to best the Pan Tangian once again. 

Naturally, there's more to The Stealer of Souls than the tale of two men seeking vengeance upon one another, but revenge is its through-line, as well as its overarching theme. Along the way, though, the reader is treated to several magnificent displays of sorcery, including a battle between two elementals summoned by Elric and Theleb K'aarna. Elric must also deal with the aftermath of the downfall of Melniboné that he effected in The Dreaming City and that, too, adds to the personal stakes of the story's events. All in all, it's a fast-moving and character-driven narrative that, I think, shows Moorcock at his best.


  1. The more Sword & Sorcery stories of Elric are way more interesting to me than the Cosmic, high fantasy ones, although even those have their charm.

  2. The Elric series (and Corum) were my faves when I was young. I've not read them in probably 40 years barring passages in Stormbringer/Eric (rpgs) . I need to remedy that.

  3. The first five Elric stories are among my short list of favorite fantasy literature. They are the most compulsively readable tales that I own.

  4. Speaking of covers, what is happening in this one? I can’t make anything out but some vague red shapes.

  5. The newest Elric novel hits the shelves today, too.