Elric of Melniboné

"King of ruins, lord of a scattered race that had once ruled over the ancient world. Elric, sorcerer and swordsman, slayer of kin, despoiler of his home land, white-faced albino, last of his line..."

I needed a palate cleanser between the John Gardner Bonds and the Raymond Benson Bonds I'm presently reading, and these Elric books did the trick nicely. As Jason Sheehan put it: "In the long litany of sword-wielding mass murderers that populate the pages of a thousand lesser fantasy novels, Elric of Melniboné is far and away the coolest, grimmest, moodiest, most elegant, degenerate, drug-addicted, cursed, twisted and emotionally weird mass murderer of them all."

I'm thin on Michael Moorcock's stuff. I really only know his reputation (one of the key figures of the UK Sci-Fi/Fantasy New Wave of the 60s and 70s and still publishing widely acclaimed work in the 21st century) and these Elrics. That being the case, I'll limit my remarks to those.

So, who's Elric?

"He had an obscene urge to wander and sample the less sophisticated pleasures of the outside world. Ten thousand years of a cruel, brilliant, and malicious culture was behind him, and the pulse of his ancestry beat strongly in his deficient veins." 

This urge to wander and his admittedly-wavering interest in justice and philosophy make Elric something of an outcast in his native Melniboné, aka the Dragon Isle, the capitol of a Bright Empire increasingly diminished and challenged by the Young Kingdoms of the world. He holds court in Imrryr, the Dreaming City, but he's bored with its traditions of slavery and torture. He's also an albino - a condition I know absolutely nothing about - which requires him to use spellcraft, drugs, and herbs to keep his strength up.  

Later, he's able to sustain himself via his hell-blade, Stormbringer, a sword forged in Chaos itself that drinks the souls of its victims and deposits some of that energy into Elric

Insouciant, self-possessed, vengeful, sensitive, sardonic but loyal (usually), Elric wanders as sword-for-hire in a world where Chaos and Law fight a proxy war from their respective planes. As a Melnibonéan, he is pledged to Chaos (specifically a Duke of Hell named Arioch, giving rise to his frequent refrain "Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!") but he gradually embraces a different destiny: to bring about the utter destruction of his world so that a new one, untethered to the Lords of Chaos and Law, may rise from the ashes.
I only read these for the first time 5 years ago, and the ones I read were the DAW editions from 1976-7 (which were reordered and revised from the stories Moorcock started publishing in the 60s) and the two standalone Elric books The Fortress of the Pearl (1989) and The Revenge of the Rose (1991). In 2008 Del Rey put out a 10-volume Chronicles of Elric set that includes all of the above and more. Those of you who would like a much more in-depth overview should check out Karin L. Kross's Elric Re-Read over at Tor, which I cite liberally below. Hers are the non-italicized quotes; the italicized ones are from the books themselves. It got a little repetitive writing/reading "And as Karin Kross remarked" so here's the citation(s) up front.

As for the pictures, all the book covers are by Michael Whelan. Anything else is either from the comics (P. Craig Russell unless otherwise noted) or Deities and Demigods (Jeff Dee, Davis S. LaForce, and Erol Otus - among others, but those are the guys who drew the pics I used), which published a "Melnibonéan Mythos" section in an early edition, which I got for Christmas in the early 80s and still have today. In it, they list Elric's alignment as Chaotic Evil. I'm not sure what alignment he would be - my guess would be Lawful Evil, but even that doesn't quite sum up Elric's code of behavior - but Chaotic Evil is flat-out incorrect. 

Is this corrected in later editions? Unknown, since "Melnibonéan Mythos"disappeared from Deities and Demigods starting in 1981. I'm sure this is a topic well-hashed-out in many a thread. I'd be curious to see what the general opinion is.


I hate excessive apostrophes and pointlessly-added vowels in place-and-character names in sci-fi/fantasy, and there is tons of that in Elric. But - as I did with subsequently-over-troped aspects of Frank Herbert - Moorcock gets a full pass for that here. Not his fault he was so influential. #Sportsmanship

Okay, so in character-chronological order:

1. Elric of Melniboné

"Elric had told three lies. And upon those three lies was his destiny to be built, for it is only about things which concern us most profoundly that we lie clearly and with profound conviction."

Plot: Elric, the 428th Emperor of Melniboné, is besieged from without and within: by his cousin Yyrkoon, who desires the throne for himself, by the upstart Young Kingdoms, who stage a great raid on the Dragon Isle, and by his own troubled conscience and frailty. To resolve these conflicts, Elric pledges himself to Arioch, a powerful Duke of Hell and Lord of Chaos, who sends Elric through the Shade Gate to retrieve that foul thing of Chaos, the runeblade Stormbringer. At story's end, Elric leaves his betrothed Cymoril behind and leaves to wander the world.

This one has all the hallmarks of the series: Epic world-building, Elric calling upon supernatural aid to escape certain death or overwhelming odds, traveling widely and facing all manner of beast and army, acquiring a magic item to counteract a different magic item (in this case, the Ship Which Sails Over Land and Sea to overcome a Magical Mirror that wipes the memories of those that look upon it), memorable villainy, and over-the-top angst.

"This sense of attenuation and melancholy is part of what makes Elric’s story more than a standard sword-and-sorcery tale — as is the refined sense of irony and the mordant, even bizarre humor (such as when the magical mirror) vomits thousands of years’ worth of memories when smashed, driving everyone in the vicinity to insanity." 

This novel introduces three characters (not counting Arioch, who usually takes the form of a swirling mist before fully materializing as a beautiful youth) that will continue to play an important role in Elric's adventures:

Yyrkoon, foe, and Rackhir the Red Archer, friend.
And Cymoril.

2. The Fortress of the Pearl

"The obligations of rule involve little more than inventing new terrors by which we may cow and control others. Power feeds upon itself. It is a hungry beast, devouring those who would possess it and those who hate it - devouring even those who own it."

Plot: Elric lies in a weakened state in the land of Quarzhasaat, a once-mighty city buried in desert sand long ago as punishment for its failed rebellion against Melnibonéan rule. When he is poisoned as a result of accepting a quest to find the mysterious Pearl at the Heart of the World, Elric must join forces with Oone the Dream Thief to navigate the land of dreams in order to receive the antidote. His success upon finding it results in memorable bloodshed

I liked Fortress, but it's an odd book. Tonally, its at odds with the books around it (Melniboné, above, and Sailor, below), but that's only to be expected. All of the early Elric tales were written by a writer barely out of his teens; Fortress et al. are the work of an older man with decades of publishing under his belt. Sometimes that works well. For example:

"The most notable difference between Fortress and Elric of Melniboné is the role of women in the story. In Moorcock’s work in general from the 1970s onward, (you can see) increased agency of his female characters over time. (...) Oone the Dreamthief is neither a mere sidekick nor the remote initiator of the quest nor a prize at the end; only she has the skill and strength of will to guide Elric through the dream-realms. Equally, she needs him to confront the dangers that consume another dreamthief before her.(...)  Elric treats Oone as an equal and, though still devoted to Cymoril, he comes to care deeply for her — leading to a dalliance in the Land of Forgotten Love * that will prove to have consequences in the waking world for Oone, Elric, and the Multiverse itself."

* One of the seven dream-lands, the others being the Land of Dreams in Common, the Land of Old Desires, the Land of Lost Beliefs, the Land of New Ambition, the Land of Madness, and the seventh, which has no name.

Other times - such as where Moorcock seems to be speaking through the characters mouths about Tories and capitalists, etc. - it doesn't.

3. The Sailor on the Seas of Fate

Before I get to the plot, every time I see this cover I get Tears for Fears's "Sowing the Seeds of Love" in mind and chuckle. My formerly-oxygen-breathing friend Klum and I used to have a long-running joke about that song, based on how it abruptly came in and out of the movie Greenfingers. I wish he was a) alive, and b) an Elric fan so I could share with him the Weird-Al version of the song I've been singing to myself over the past month as a result of seeing the cover so often. He'd have enjoyed it even not knowing Elric. Auld Lang Syne, friends.

Plot: Sailor is a fusion of three different stories: 1) "Sailing to the Future," where Elric joins the mysterious crew of other incarnations of the Eternal Champion to battle two alien sorcerers; 2) "Sailing to the Present," where Elric awakens on a strange beach under a blue sun, convinced the first story was only a dream, before falling in with a new companion (Smiorgan Baldhead) and an ancient Melnibonéan myth come to life; and 3) "Sailing to the Past," where Elric, Moonglum, and Duke Avam sail to the home of Elric's ancestors (R'lin K'ren A'a) in search of two enormous gems rumored to be the Jade Man's Eyes. With the help of The Creature Doomed to Live, they set off the chain of events that will lead to the end of the world.

This will be all we see of R'lin K'ren A'a, but we'll be returning to these other locations apace.

Sailor is a tad disjointed, but each story is a lot of fun. Moorcock keeps a brisk pace, and each setting is memorably drawn. The section in R'lin is perhaps my favorite of the three. It's like a sword-and-sorcery mix of Temple of Doom, the Kobol episodes of BSG, and Evil Dead 2. Maybe even Aguirre. But don't take my word for it.

4. The Weird of the White Wolf

"I should admit that I scream in my sleep sometimes and am often tortured by incommunicable self-loathing."

Plot: Another book stitched together in sections: 1) "The Dream of Earl Aubec," a prologue which doesn't feature Elric at all, but the ancient hero of the title, who ventures to the mystical castle of Kaneloon on the edge of Chaos and meets its mistress, Myshella; 2) "The Dreaming City," where Elric leads Smiorgan Baldhead and a host of other Younger Kingdom warriors against Imrryr to avenge himself on Yyrkoon and rescue Cymoril from her enchanted slumber. Instead, he (or rather, Stormbringer) everyone except himself dies horribly, and the Dreaming City is destroyed.

3) "While the Gods Laugh," which takes place a year after the previous story, where Elric is hired by Shaarilla, a wingless woman from Myyrrh, where the people all have wings, to find The Dead God's Book, a famed repository of ancient knowledge that lies somewhere beyond the Marshes of the Mist; and 4) "The Singing Citadel," where Elric (and his newfound companion Moonglum) are hired by Queen Yishana of Jharkor to solve the mystery of a citadel that emits a siren song that bewitches any who hear it. Elric discovers the domain is the residence of Lord Balo, the Jester of the Court of Chaos, and summons Arioch to reclaim him. In doing so, he earns the eternal jealousy of Theleb Ka'arna, the Queen's sorcerer.

This one, befitting its plot points perhaps, some of which I won't list outright, has a lot of anguished prose ("he cursed the malevolent Gods for the black day when idly, for their amusement, they had spawned men"), and the writing styles of the four stories don't mesh together all that well, since they were written at different points of his evolving style. But you've got to admire the go-for-brokeness of "The Dreaming City." Elric fails so completely and with such paradigm-smashing results, and it's all just shy of the midpoint of the series. I can only imagine how readers at the time must have reacted to it. Even coming to it so much later, I was impressed at the audacity.

In addition to detailing the pivotal event of Elric's life in the sack of Imrryr, the reader continues to learn more about Stormbringer, which Elric attempts to cast overboard at one point only for it to refuse to sink into the depths, singing its mind-rendering devil scream until Elric reclaims it. And it's in Weird that we meet several characters who will play an ongoing role in things. From left to right:

Theleb Ka'arna, foe, and Moonglum, friend.
And Queen Yishana and Myshella, depicted here astride her flying jeweled ostrich. They are each instantly and aggressively hot for Elric upon meeting him, naturally.

"Elric’s sex-appeal is, like his ferocious moodiness and self-pity, something that wears thin when one has lived a little. For a young male reader, there is wish-fulfillment in being attractive to women despite — because of? — staggering gloominess, self-absorption, and fixation on a sword (...), and for a young female reader, there is the appeal of the bad boy of whom your parents most certainly wouldn’t approve. Approached later in life, there’s something just a bit ridiculous, or at least immature, about it all." 

True enough. But if the the other aspects of any genre fiction are enjoyable enough - and I think Elric's very much are - I can usually shrug this off. YMMV.   

5. The Vanishing Tower 

"And a white-faced demon stood over the dead thing of Hell and its crimson eyes blazed and its pale mouth opened and it roared with wild laughter, flinging its arms upward, the runesword flaming with a black and horrid flame, and it howled a wordless, exultant song to the Lords of Chaos."

Plot: 1) In "The Torment of the Last Lord," Elric and Moonglum seek Theleb Ka'arna in Lormyr. They are kidnapped by shapeshifting winged beasts and brought to Kaneloon (the castle we first saw in "The Dream of Earl Aubec") to aid the sleeping mistress of the castle (Myshella), upon whom Theleb marches with a massive army. After retrieving a pouch from an island in the Boiling Sea, Elric and Myshella (memorably) defeat the army, but Theleb escapes. Myshella offers to show Elric his heart's desire, and Moonglum is told to go wait in the car. 

2) In "To Snare the Pale Prince" Theleb allies himself with Ulrish the Seven-Fingered, the hideous ruler of Nadsokor, the City of Beggars, whose squalor is its protection against invaders. Their agents manage to steal the Ring of Kings from Elric's finger, and Elric and Moonglum give chase. Elric finds himself in a labyrinth where he must defeat Checkalakh, the Burning God. When Donblas, one of the Lords of Order, this motivates Arioch to personally intervene. 3) In "Three Heroes with a Single Aim" Elric and Moonglum again team up with Elric's Eternal Champion cohorts and Rackhir the Red Archer both to save Tanelorn, that fabled city of peace bound neither to Law nor Chaos, and rescue Jhary ("companion of Champions") from an evil dwarf in another dimension. All in a day's work.

Tanelorn, as envisioned by Rodney Matthews.

I had fond memories of this one from my first time reading it, but upon revisit, it's a tad creaky. The ambiance is still top-notch, but Elric's world-weariness drags a bit. 

"In his introduction to the Del Rey edition of The Sleeping Sorceress, Moorcock notes that he was under “considerable pressure from publishers” to deliver more adventures of his popular anti-hero, and as this was written after the actual end of Elric’s story in Stormbringer, one might perceive a little of the effect similar to that of Conan Doyle having to write about Sherlock Holmes after “The Final Problem.” By 1972, Moorcock had already moved well on to Jerry Cornelius, Corum, and other denizens of his Multiverse, so perhaps his revisiting of Elric here can be forgiven for seeming a little rote."

There's a moment, though, when Elric emerges alone from Castle Kaneloon and engages the entire army of Theleb Ka'arna and his other-dimensional shock troops. He slaughters hundreds before he eventually maxes out on the energy Stormbringer can deliver to him with each soul it drinks. When Stormbringer's full, in other words, the party's over. How he manages to escape, and the payoff, is great reading.

6. The Revenge of the Rose:
A Tale of the Albino Prince in the Years of His Wandering.

"Wheldrake saw Gaynor's agitated figure, all angry, living metal, running back into the heart of his army, seeking a fresh mount. There was a sword in his gauntleted fist now - a sword that forked black and yellow - a sword whose blade seemed to twist in and out of the dimensions as the Damned One wielded it."

Plot: Scarsnout, one of the mighty dragons of Imrryr, is dispatched to bring Elric to his dead father, whose eternal fate is disputed by different Lords of Chaos. Elric needs to find the sandalwood box in which his father has hidden his soul or he will be bound together forever in hate and sorrow with dear Dad forever. From there: 

"(Elric meets several other Multiverse wanderers), encounters a family of clairvoyants, a nation of villages borne on gigantic wooden platforms that never cease in their eternal journey across their world, a viscous ocean that can only be navigated with the help of a monstrous toad, a forest of crystal trees, a trio of mysterious sisters, and a ship warped beyond recognition by Chaos." 

Lots of balls in the air. Also, Lord Gaynor, who's more or less an Elric-gone-bad. (Or maybe it's Elric-gone-worse.)

Elric is a bit of an albino Paul Stanley on this cover, eh?

One of the people whom this work is dedicated to is Christopher Lee - "Arioch awaits thee!" Now there's a hell of a thing to wish upon a friend. Literally. I'm sure Lee adored it.

I admired many aspects of Rose - the father/son stuff, Elric's-Evil-Doppelganger business - but I just didn't enjoy Wheldrake (one of Elric's dozen companions for this tale). Given the amount of page-time Wheldrake gets, that pretty much sank Rose for me. I also was put off by the switching from present to past tense every so often. I couldn't see any pattern to it, and maybe the fault is mine. Moorcock writes in the intro that he felt compelled to keep experimenting, and I can respect that. But innovation for its own sake can be tedious and that's how these tense-switch sections felt. 

7. The Bane of the Black Sword

"Be wary of this devil-blade, Moonglum. It kills the foe - but savors the blood of friends and kin-folk most."

Plot: 1) In "The Stealer of Souls," Elric and Moonglum hook up with Dyvim Tvar and the other survivors of Elric's destruction of Melniboné (they still regard him as their emperor. Melnibonéans, unh?) to defeat Theleb K'aarna once and for all. 2) We meet the last great love of Elric's life, Zarozinia, in "Kings in Darkness" -

a great ghost story, which provides the inspiration for the cover:
which might be my favorite of all of them.

Zarozinia and Elric fall rather improbably in love after spending a single night together. (Moonglum is dispatched to the car again to "polish his curved sword with wry jealousy.") 3) In "Caravan of Forgotten Dreams" Elric is now married to Zarozinia and living a peaceful life in his new home of Karlak. But when Terarn Gashtek, a powerful warrior who has enslaved an even more powerful sorcerer, threatens the city, he must sully forth with Moonglum to meet the danger head-on. And in 4) "To Rescue Tanelorn" Rackhir the Red Archer gets a solo story as he must retrieve the Arrows of Law from 5 different dimensions in order to, well, the title. 

It's all great fun. The Lord of Cats from Another Dimension (Meerclar) who appears to resolve aspects of "Caravan" is certainly memorable.

"Elric’s doom is upon him. And upon his entire world as well. The time has finally come for one of the most nihilistic fantasy novels ever written..."

8. Stormbringer

"The entity that was Stormbringer, last manifestation of Chaos which would remain with this new world as it grew, looked down upon Elric and smiled.
 'Farewell, friend. I was a thousand times more evil than thee.'"

Rather than recap the plot of this one as I've been doing, let me turn things over one last time to Miss Kross:

"The audacity of Stormbringer lies not in the plotting, which is straightforward plot-coupon collection, nor in the writing, nor simply in the final death of its anti-hero. This is a book where the 'victory' means the complete annihilation of the protagonist and everything he holds dear. It’s not entirely without hope: in a mystical journey that Elric takes to retrieve a magical horn from a hero called Roland, it’s plainly suggested that the demise of Elric’s Earth will give rise to our own. (Medievalists: yes, it’s that Roland.) Still, saving the world by chucking the magic ring in the volcano this is not."

Plot coupon it may be, but what a fun read. This one has a bit of everything: Chaos moving across the face of the Earth and rewriting Laws of Physics and Biology as it does, horrifying monsters, shocking fates, a villain (Jagreen Lern, the theocrat of Pan Tang) that you really want to see get Stormbringer-ed, a Sad Giant whose shield is the only effective countermeasure against the weapons of Chaos -

- the "ten terrible riders of Fate" (whose leader, Sepiriz, is of great aid to Elric), an army of hell-blades fighting the Lords of Chaos underneath a City of Screaming Statues, witch trees, and more Satanic sorcery to make even Asmodeus Jones uncomfortable. 

This was my favorite of all the Elrics. I can definitely see how shocking (and, as Kross alludes to, anti-Tolkien) it must have been when first appearing in Science Fantasy in the early 60s. I think it benefits from it being the first Elric I ever read. Sure technically it's a little like reading the last chapter first, but it isn't, really, given the revisions and the way the stories are presented in the DAW editions vs. the publication-order Del Rey ones (where the stories that comprise Stormbringer come in the very first volume).

So, if you've never taken the Elric challenge, I'd recommend the same to you - start with Stormbringer, and if you like it, go back and read the others in whatever order makes sense to you. 

"And then it leapt from the Earth and went spearing upwards, 
its wild voice laughing mockery at the Cosmic Balance; 
filling the universe with its unholy joy."


  1. "I wish he was a) alive, and b) an Elric fan so I could share with him the Weird-Al version of the song I've been singing to myself over the past month as a result of seeing the cover so often."

    I hope you won't think I'm making light of a dark situation when I say that this sentence struck me as extremely funny. Not funny that Klum has sailed beyond the sunset, of course; just an amusingly-written sentence. From what I've heard about Klum, he'd probably agree, which makes the sentence not only funny, but a nice tribute to a departed comrade.

    1. Not at all re: making light of a dark situation. And you're right - I could see him ending up singing my Elric version of "Sowing..." and then shaking his head about not knowing what the hell any of it meant.

  2. I'd never heard of this series. I've heard of Moorcock, of course; but I've never read him, and know virtually nothing about who he is and what he's done.

    These sound delightful, though. I want to own and read all of them. Last thing I need! Another goddam multi-volume series to obsess over! I say that, but every time I get invested in a new one, I think that I have leveled up somehow. So when and if I pull the trigger on these, I'm sure I'll feel the same.

    Any series partially dedicated to noted heavy-metal and dragon enthusiast Christopher Lee is probably worth devouring. If its protagonist is an albino, even better. Shit, how can that lose? Especially with the Roland tie-ins.

    Lots of great cover art here, too. Fantasy is great for that, or at least used to be. Very little seems good for that nowadays. Which presidential candidate seems most likely to bring the halcyon days of great book-cover art? I'll vote for them and right quick.

    1. If only "Restoring Sci-Fi Cover Art to the Level of a Previous Era - Making America Great Again" was what dominated election season.

      That description of Elric as "the best sword-wielding mass murderer etc." really cracks me up. I've never read any Robert E. Howard (though I will one day read everything by him, along with Lovecraft and several other authors queued for Total Immersion) but I know he created a few that might challenge that statement. Nevertheless, the Elric books rock. They're quick reads and fine additions to any library. I got the DAW editions on the cheap a few years ago from a used books shop.

      I know of and continually aspire to this leveling-up feeling you describe. I always feel like Tron when I do so. If I were trying to explain it to a Tamarian, I'd say "Tron, His Disc Returned and Renewed!" or something and see if I got anywhere.

      Damn it, now I want to come up with a list of Elric-inspired "Darmok" expressions. I already have the "Sowing the Seeds" thing, I don't need to expand my Pointless Elric Mash-Ups That No One Will Ever Get Nor I Have Any Real Venue To Use repertoire.