The main character (I hesitate to use the word hero for any Moorcock book) is Ulrich von Bek. Son of a learned nobleman, he rejected his father and family by first becoming a soldier and, later on, a mercenary for hire. The novel opens towards the end of the Thirty Years War, with Europe in general and Germany in particular largely torn apart by the long, violent clash between nations. Ulrich (whose similarity in name to Elric is certainly purposeful) is battle-weary at this point. We see him travelling across a devastated landscape looking for temporary sanctuary before joining yet another conflict.
Ulrich stumbles across an ancient castle. Lacking any guards, he first thinks it empty and helps himself to a nice bed and some food. But it isn’t long before he discovers Sabrina, a beautiful raven-haired woman he instantly falls for. After a wild night of debauchery, Sabrina openly admits to being a slave for Lucifer and that she’s being used to help arrange a meeting between Ulrich and her master. Ulrich thinks Sabrina, despite her intelligence and beauty, might be a bit crazy. Or at least her master might be. Curious, he decides to play along to see what will happen.
The Lucifer he meets, as it turns out, is quite real. But this Lucifer is not the stereotypical fire-and-brimstone devil. There’s no pitchfork, no horns, no tail. Ulrich walks into the fallen angel’s private study and finds “Seated at the table and apparently reading a book...the most wonderful being I had ever seen. I became light-headed. My body refused any commands. I found myself bowing” (34). This description sits closer to the descriptions we see of Angels in the Bible than it does to the stereotypical descriptions of demons and devils. Which makes sense since Lucifer is, after all, an Angel God kicked out of heaven. The portrayal here reminds me of Lucifer as Neil Gaiman portrays him in his Sandman series, and, of course Mike Carey’s spinoff comic book series Lucifer. It would not surprise me to find out that this novel was an influence on both writers. Lucifer has a deal for Ulrich.
Since Ulrich has spent most of his life bringing war to the world, Ulrich’s soul belongs fully to Lucifer. The fallen angel vows to release Ulrich’s soul on the condition that Ulrich locate the Holy Grail. Lucifer believes it to hold the secret to the cure for the world’s pain and through its use hopes to both bring mankind eternal happiness and reclaim his own place in heaven at God’s side. Despite the being’s obvious power, Ulrich remains dubious that this could be the one and only Lucifer. So the demon takes the warrior on a whilrwind tour of hell, showing him everything from bored spirits to tormented souls. Ulrich accepts Lucifer’s deal, on the one condition that Sabrina’s soul be released as well if he succeeds. The quest takes Ulrich across war-torn Europe and deep into forgotten mystical lands. Along the way he acquires a companion, a not-too-bright East European warrior named Sedenko who pledges his life to help Ulrich. He also meets Groot, a strange mystic who holds the key to the Grail’s location. These two very different companions represent two different ways of looking at the world---Sedenko’s being filled with supersition and mistrust while Groot holds tight to ideas of mysticism and idealism. The two of them have several disagreements throughout the tale. Discouraged about there progress, at one point Ulrich asks, “What’s the use?”
Groot replies, “Because we are alive, I suppose, Captain von Bek. Because we have no choice but to hope to make it better, through our own designs.” “The world is the world,” said Sedenko. “We cannot change it. That is for God to do”.“Perhaps he thinks it is for us to do,” said Groot quietly. 156
This last line is key to the ideas of free will and taking responsibility, two of the great themes of this book.
But this is also an adventure story, and what would an adventure be without a villain? Early in his journey Ulrich meets a man named Klosterheim. A former valiant knight who also once sought the grail, Klosterheim now serves a demon of hell hoping to take advantage of Lucifer’s failure and usurp control of both Hell and Earth. Groot tells us:
...should Lucifer be defeated, there will be a wild carelessness come upon Creation and it will be the end of the world, indeed. There will be no single Anti-Christ, though Klosterheim could be said to represent them all. There will be open warfare, in every region, between Heaven and Hell. It will be Armageddon, gentlemen, as has been predicted. Mankind will perish. And I believe, no matter what the Christian Bible predicts, that the outcome will be uncertain. 151
When Ulrich first meets Klosterheim he is little more than a gang-leader controlling a handful of vagabonds. But by the end he is a true threat, reigning over a vast army of men, demons and undead eager to stop Ulrich from fulfilling his quest. Because this is a heroic tale Ulrich does ultimately find the Grail and sees it for what it is---a simple clay pot. In a final confrontation between himself and Klosterheim, Ulrich holds the Grail out towards Klosterheim’s blood-hungry horde.
I held the Grail up high. No shining came out of it. No music came out if it. No great event took place. It remained what it was: a small clay pot.Yet, here and there in the ranks of Hell, pairs of eyes became transfixed. The looked. And a certain sort of peace came upon the faces of those who looked....They were falling to their knees. The were dismounting from their beasts. Even the most grotesque of them was transfixed by the clay pot. 175-176
The evil warriors defeated, Ulrich travels back to the castle to give the Grail to Lucifer and end his quest. Ulrich finds Lucifer not a champion but a being given a new task.
I am charged to bring Reason and Humanity into the world and thus discover a Cure for the World’s Pain. I am charged to understand the nature of this cup. When I understand its nature and mankind understands its nature, we shall both be redeemed...Your destiny is yours. Your lives are your own....You are at the beginning of a new age for Man. Man, whether he be Christian or pagan, must learn to rule himself, to understand himself, to take responsibility for himself. There can be no Armageddon now. If Man is destroyed, he shall have destroyed himself.
So we are to live without aid? Sabrina asks.
“And without hindrance," Lucifer replied. 180
Like all great stories, while the tale of Ulrich ends here it plants the seeds for another story. At this ending I couldn’t help but think what would come next of humanity and I see with interest that the next volume in the series takes place in Europe in the late 1700’s----after the influence of the Age of Reason stirred populations in colonial America and Europe to revolt against the long-held power of the royal families .
Overall the book is a mix of (sometimes heavy-handed) philosophy and action, so basically I loved it. It explores some high-minded thoughts you don’t always see in fantasy---or even traditional fiction----very often. I was also quite surprised by how much I liked Ulrich as a character. While Elric with his constant hand-wringing and wanting to change the established order is certainly a interesting I can’t say I’ve ever liked him. Ulrich, on the other hand, is a man of action but smart enough to think about beforehand. He’s a good leader but also willing do the hard-work and also sit down, have a beer and get to know his men. Much more interesting and rich a character. Since the next two books look at other generations of his family I’ll be especially interested to see what they are like and how this will tie into the whole Eternal Champions thing.
Next up: Book II in the Von Bek Cycle: The City in the Autumn Stars