In the time of Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of Melniboné, the Bright Empire is in an advanced state of decay, as its ruler is only too aware. Although the empire has traditionally dominated the humans of the Young Kingdoms, the latter have long since broken away and emerged as powers in their own right. More than that, Elric finds himself increasingly torn between his heritage as the first and highest among this cruel, ancient race and some very un-Melnibonéan thoughts and feelings—notions of freedom and morality alien to his ancestors, his brethren, and his race's supernatural masters, the Chaos Lords, who know only whim and desire, mastery and servitude, legitimized by brutal tradition.
Of course, Elric's tenure is not an easy one, and following a successful power struggle against his scheming cousin Yyrkoon, his curiosity about humans drives him to leave the throne to Yyrkoon and go into self-exile, to "see how other nations conduct their affairs" (The Elric Saga, Part One [New York: Nelson Doubleday, 1984], p. 128), as he puts it in the prequel, Elric of Melniboné (to appear in a future volume of the Chronicles). Wandering the wider world, however, he is still not free of his past. His deeds as a warrior have made him famous and infamous, his unusual appearance (Elric is a frail albino) marks him wherever he goes, his thirst for revenge often gets the better of him, and all the while he remains the servant of the Chaos Lord Duke Arioch, on whose behalf he wields the sword Stormbringer, a living, supernatural weapon that vampirically drinks the souls of those for Arioch and for its wielder, whom it makes superhuman in battle.
The relationship between Elric and his blade is tortured at best, the sword as frequently bringing tragedy as triumph into his life, but he can never resist turning to it in times of need. Equally, the sword shows no intention of ever letting him go, invariably returning to his hand to lead him on to his destiny—fighting for the cosmic balance between Law (the endless drive toward order, which ultimately means sterility) and Chaos (which unchecked means the victory of entropy over all) as an Eternal Champion, one of those who fight for the balance in the parallel, intersecting universes of the "multiverse."
As Moorcock has related, he developed a knack early on for the 15,000-word novella, which he was able to knock off in a day and thereby pay a month's rent. The Elric stories began as such novellas for Science Fantasy magazine and were only later assembled into books, a course of development reflected in this latest reissue. Unlike the two-volume Elric Saga or the volumes devoted to Elric in the larger, fifteen-book release of the various Eternal Champion-themed series as a single set in the 1990s, these Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné make no attempt to put the stories in their narrative sequence, instead offering them in the order in which they first appeared.
This means that readers who have seen earlier editions will recognize chunks from several different books in this one. Stealer of Souls brings together five early Elric novellas (previously published as three of the parts of The Bane of the Black Sword and two parts of The Weird of the White Wolf) and the novel Stormbringer (the first Elric tale conceived as a full-length book). The first of these is "The Dreaming City," which opens with Elric already a self-exiled emperor, plotting with a fleet of sea raiders to exact a shocking vengeance on his usurping cousin Yyrkoon. It is followed by "While the Gods Laugh," "The Stealer of Souls," "Kings in Darkness," and "The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams," which detail his battle against the sorcerer Theleb K'aarna, his earliest adventures with his diminutive sidekick Moonglum, who proves to be his most faithful companion, and his romance with the human princess Zarozinia, the great love of his life. Stormbringer relates the end of the Elric saga and offers as sprawling, ferocious, romantic, inventive, and literally earth-shattering a finale as could be hoped for. However, those who want to read the story from the beginning—to see for themselves Elric's initial association with Stormbringer, his feud with Yrkoon, and his exile from his homeland—will have to either look up an earlier edition of Elric of Melniboné or wait for the upcoming volumes in the Chronicles of the Last Emperor.
This first volume also includes considerable supplementary material, including a poetically extravagant foreword by Alan Moore, "Return of the White Duke"; a new, fourteen-page introduction by Moorcock himself, offering not just a review of Elric's origins but also the trajectory of the writer's literary career and the fantasy genre as a whole; an assortment of other essays, including a 1963 Moorcock piece that lucidly explains the metaphysics of Elric's world; an early, unrelated Moorcock piece, "Mission to Asno," featuring his very first serial fantasy hero, Sojan; illustrations of the texts by acclaimed artist John Picacio; and a selection of artwork from previous editions.
This arrangement of the stories and the volume's emphasis on its extras (which put me in mind of a special-edition DVD) suggest it was prepared with an eye to longtime fans rather than new readers. However, those who have never read Moorcock before should find it accessible enough and, after getting to know Elric, will likely find the extras to be well worth their time.
This is particularly the case for readers interested in not just these novels but also Moorcock's broader body of work, most obviously the various Eternal Champion series, from the historical fantasy of the Von Beks (The War Hound and the World's Pain) to the steampunk-themed alternate histories of Oswald Bastable (The Warlord of the Air) and the loopy, experimental adventures of secret agent Jerry Cornelius (The Final Programme). Elric may not have been the first of the Eternal Champions (the less well-known John Daker, who preceded him in sword-and-sorcery stories with something of the same genre-redefining, cliché-busting spirit, can claim that title), but he is the most popular of them and enjoys a central place in Moorcock's canon. Moorcock himself has said that Cornelius, the only other character to have attained comparable pop culture status, is his 1960s-era reinvention of Elric. Another famous Moorcock character, Monsieur Zenith (frequent antagonist of Seaton Begg, whose stories appeared in the collection The Metatemporal Detective last year), is Elric yet again, projecting himself into Begg's universe from his bed in Imrryr.
More subtly, the influence of the Elric stories even extends to Moorcock's more "literary" writing, like the rightly celebrated Between the Wars cycle (which centers on a recurring multiverse character, "Colonel" Pyat), in which the struggle for balance between Chaos and Order has been an equally important theme. As Moore's foreword to Elric: The Stealer of Souls puts it, after books like Mother London and The Vengeance of Rome and Moorcock's "ascent to literary landmark, it has become fashionable to assert that . . . [his] glittering fantasy trilogies . . . are in some way minor works, safely excluded from the author's serious canon" (p. xviii-xix). But this would be to misunderstand that canon altogether: "All the blood and passion that informs his work has the genetic markers of Melniboné stamped clearly on each paragraph, each line" (p. xix).
As one might guess from looking at what followed them, while the Elric novels are as packed with action, spectacle, and grandly operatic drama as any other series of the type, their cosmological, mythological, and philosophical complexity make them a far cry from the "Merrie England" tales Moorcock famously derided three decades ago in his widely read essay "Epic Pooh." One reason is that his fictional worlds draw on a far wider and richer range of sources of inspiration. As he has often said, it was not C. S. Lewis, H. P. Lovecraft, or J. R. R. Tolkien who were the great influences on the Elric stories, but Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions and The Broken Sword, Fletcher Pratt's The Well of the Unicorn, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, and Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (which were about as well known as Tolkien when Moorcock first imagined Elric, but are comparatively obscure today). And long before Moorcock advised would-be writers to "go back to the roots of the genre as deeply possible" (see p. xxix), he had himself been delving into Gothic novels, Peninsular romances, and even Bunyan and Milton, as well as Norse, Celtic, Hindu, and Zoroastrian myth.
However, there are more modern influences at work here too, Moorcock having repeatedly noted Anthony Skene's Sexton Blake detective series as a source of inspiration for Monsieur Zenith (p. xxiii). He has similarly paid tribute in this way to a number of twentieth-century dramatists, including Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Bertolt Brecht (p. xxiii), whose classic The Threepenny Opera he described in the dedication to Elric of Melniboné as no less important an influence on the Elric tales than Anderson and Pratt. Additionally, the worlds Elric travels through are as easily post- as prescientific (for a very contemporary-sounding physics underpins the magic) and bring to the page the rock aesthetic of the songwriter for Blue Öyster Cult and Hawkwind which Moorcock has been.
Not surprisingly, the tales remain fresh after the passage of nearly half a century of fantasy writing (not only in prose fiction, but in comics, gaming, and music as well). While the frail Elric may come across as a deliberate counterstereotype to Robert E. Howard's Conan and the other hulking brutes so famously rendered on the canvas by Frank Frazetta and other classic fantasy artists, he has not degenerated into simply another stereotype, as so many counterstereotypes do. An unconventional, many-sided figure capable of great compassion, sacrifice, and tenderness on the one hand while still able to perpetrate truly terrible acts that out-Melniboné his fellow Melnibonéans for sheer abandon, brutality, and wrath, Elric has often been referred to as an antihero, a label Moorcock has generally rejected. As far as he's concerned, Elric is a hero, period.
While it has been said many times before, the point bears repeating nonetheless: the Elric stories are essential reading for any serious fantasy fan and are well worth a look from those who have not previously found the genre to be to their taste. And, as Moorcock's writings are generally harder to come by than they should be (at least in the United States), those with any interest in them have considerable reason to look up this latest edition.
Nader Elhefnawy has taught literature at several colleges, including the University of Miami and Florida International University. In addition to reviewing and writing on science fiction for several publications, he writes extensively on international issues. His most recent article, "The Impending Oil Shock," appeared in the April-May issue of Survival.