Friday, August 26, 2005

The Eternal Champion Rides Again

Back in high school I read almost nothing but fantasy. If it didn’t have a wizard or some busty amazon wielding a massive sword on the cover, I didn’t want any part of it. Mike, a drummer friend of mine at the time, once put a thin, tattered paperback in my hands called Elric of Melniboné. I was dubious, because the cover featured a gaunt, pale, rather morose looking fellow seated on a throne. The only hint of some action was a black sword sitting just to his side.

I ended up reading straight through the night and finishing the whole book. Although fully in the world of myth and magic, Elric is a very different hero. A slender, and even sickly, albino he was not the typical muscle bound hero as a well educated, scheming courtier plotting his way to the throne. As the story develops he kills his own lover and leads a revolution on his home Empire of Melniboné. An unusually complex character driven by desires of adventure (not to mention a sentient soul-drinking sword called Stormbringer) Elric pushes onward into his difficult destiny instead of taking the simple path of immediate riches of power.

Elric is what creator Michael Moorcock terms an avatar of the Eternal Champion, a being who defends the balance between law and chaos across the multiverse. Although despicable, devious, violent, and cruel Elric managed to be a compelling character because when he came down to it he acted a hero. He did whatever it took to maintain the balance, even purposefully destroying the very society he once ruled over. I had never read a character I liked and despised at the same time, so I was quickly addicted to his world.

What I didn’t realize was that reading Elric launched me into what’s one of the longest running series of fantasy books ever. As Moorcock continued writing, he expanded on his ideas of the multiverse and the Eternal Champion. He or she takes different forms in different series, sometimes fighting on the side of what we would consider good, other times on the side of what we think of as evil. Jerry Cornelius, Corum, Hawkmoon, the von Beks. Each spawned their own series of books, and each gave Moorcock the opportunity to expand on his ideas through different points in history and mythology.

Moorcock’s latest installment, The White Wolf’s Son, makes a valiant attempt at tying together a number of loose threads created over the years while still leaving some room for future volumes if he decides to push even farther. This story primarily belongs to Oonaugh, a distant relative of Elric living in modern day England. Oonaugh’s normal, twelve-year-old lifestyle is shattered when Prince Gaynor the Damned and his assistant Klosterheim attempt to kidnap her. She manages to avoid their plots, but only by falling into a Lewis Carroll inspired reality populated by sentient houses and talking foxes who love to quote Robespierre. We see most of the tale through Oonaugh’s eyes, told as a retrospective tale of sorts after she’s reached old age. Although I don’t always believe Oonaugh’s voice to be that of a woman, it gives Moorcock the opportunity to expand on observations and philosophical ideas that he would otherwise not be able to explore.

As Oonaugh travels through different realities, we learn that Gaynor and Klosterheim believe her to be an essential piece of their plot to destroy the entire multiverse and recreate it in their own image. Every world she enters seems poised on the edge of revolution, and Oonaugh’s very presence seems the cause. Elric, his daughter Oona (who's also somehow Oonagh's grandmother) and a cast of others who protect the Cosmic Balance seek to protect the girl and, eventually, a young man also related to Elric.

Needless to say, this story develops out of a very complicated nature. References to Moorcock’s past works, appearances of numerous Eternal Champions, and no small bit of philosophy make it a detailed and deeply involved book. I have mixed feelings about this. Moorcock’s dedication to his vision and unwillingness to dumb down his work is admirable. And while these aspects will certainly appeal to the uber-fans of Elric, it creates a natural barrier to anyone picking up this volume as an introduction to his writing. Surely a difficult line to walk.

To help battle this problem, Moorcock employs young Oonaugh as a device to clue in the newer reader (or readers like me who might have forgotten a lot) into the back-story by asking continual questions. Moorcock does an admirable job weaving these into the narrative, but it can get a little overbearing if you’re just reading for pure action. Not to fear, though. Elric develops and schemes political plots aplenty and the climatic scene at the end spins more thrills than almost anything else Moorcock has ever penned.

Despite some small issues Son of the White Wolf is a fresh, fabulous work, showing what an artist truly dedicated to his vision can create in the often worn out epic fantasy genre. The layers of complicated plot will satisfy longtime fans of Elric. Although that very nature might drive some readers away, it will hopefully drive the more adventurous readers to Moorcock’s other works so they can better understand everything within his vast multiverse.


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