Saturday, September 10, 2011

Moorcock's Eternal Champions

During the onslaught of Hurricane Irene a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I did what a lot of people probably did. We huddled up together in our powerless house, turned on some flashlights and read a lot. Although I ploughed through a bunch of graphic novels I had sitting around, I also pulled the first volume of Michael Moorcock's Elric series, Elric of Melniboné out of my stuffed bookcase.

If you aren't familiar with Elric, the character is essentially Moorcock's response to the extreme popularity and reverence the world had at the time for Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga. Elric is the last emperor of a stagnate civilzation known as Melnibone. Elric the Albino, as he is often called, is physically weak and supplements his health with a regimen of drugs and herbs. Unlike the rest of his people Elric holds a tiny sliver of regret for the decadence his empire enjoys and sees it as a sign of the end of their generations-long rule. This makes him unpopular and a target by his family members who seek to end his life and steal his political power for themselves. To survive, Elric sets out on a quest for the magic sword Stormbringer, a powerful magic weapon that lives off the souls of any it strikes down.

The Elric books were first recomended to me back in high school. A friend at the time loaned me the first one; I remember taking it home, starting it after dinner and reading it straight through until 5 AM the next morning. Even by today's standards Elric is such a different hero, for lack of a better term. He does reprehensible, horrible things, but he also continually questions what he does, why he does it and why the world is as it is. That existential twist sparked something in me, so I went on to devour the entire series.

A few years later, probably half-way through college, I read something somewhere that cited Elric as Moorcock's first piece in his complex Eternal Champions cycle....something only vaguley hinted at in the Elric books. As I understand it, which is not very well at all, the Eternal Champion is a kind of reincarnation of a poweful, pivotally important being. Sometimes they serve good. Sometimes evil. And sometimes something in-between. This concept runs through a lot, although not all, of Moorcock's fiction, showing up in fantasy, science fiction, psychelic spy satires, and more.

Unfortunately most of the dozens of books that fit into the cycle are out of print, so I've picked them up randomly over the years when I find them in used book stores. Which has made understanding the whole over-arching concept of the eternal champion a bit difficult. Re-reading Elric of Melniboné made me want to figure out the whole thing out so I visited Moorcock's own website to figure out a place to start. There, in the forums, is a listing of all the Eternal Champion's titles and the suggested order of reading.

Oddly enough, the most suggested starting place is not the Elric books but another series called Von Bek. Set much later in time, and written a decade later, it seems an odd place to dive in. But it was suggested by both readers and Moorcock himself as a place to get a real foothold in the crazy multiverse he's created. I have an old copy of the first volume, The War Hound and the World's Pain, sitting on my shelf right now. There are so many books that tie into Moorcock's Multiverse and the Eternal Champion that I'm probably setting myself up for failure. But we'll see if I can figure this thing out.




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