Sunday, January 29, 2012

Enter Moorcock in White and Black - The Jade Man's Eyes

   It was bound to happen.  At some point the work of Michael Moorcock, traveler of the multiverse, was going to appear here.  After Howard and Leiber, Moorcock is the third leg of a swords & sorcery tripod for me, and probably the biggest one at that.  I read most of the original Eternal Champion books long before I read much Howard and any Leiber.  Between Dorian Hawkmoon, Prince Corum, Erekose and Elric of Melnibone that's a lot of titles.  (I also read scads of his other work; the man was ludicrously prolific) 
I remember getting excited beyond reason when I bought my copy of "Stormbringer" with the staggeringly cool Michael Whelan cover at the long gone Paperback Booksmith at the Staten Island Mall.  I was thirteen and had been hoarding my money to buy each of the original six novels.  I had read the edited Lancer editions of "The Dreaming City" and "The Sleeping Sorceress" years earlier.  Now I was reading the definitive (for that decade - everything would get rewritten by Moorcock in later years) Elric books as Moorcock had planned and written them.  I was hooked.
   I read as much of Moorcock's swords & sorcery as I could get my hands on.  Tracking down "The Champion of Garathorm" and "The Quest for Tanelorn" proved exceptionally difficult.  But I found them and devoured them.
   Michael Moorcock holds an important place in my heart.  In his short, exotically set books with their baroque universe hopping plots and alien beasts and demons, I encountered the truly strange.  The Young Kingdoms world of the inhuman albino emperor of Melnibone and his cursed black runesword was like nothing I had encountered before.

  The only significant fantasy I'd read before the Elric stories was the Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien makes sense.  His world, with all its beauty and mythic history, is still very much like ours', rooted in a realistic world.  The magic cast, even by the darkest enemy, is subtle and rare.
   The primary setting of the Elric stories is the world of the Young Kingdoms.  It is land of ghoul ridden forests, boiling seas and lands subject to the mutability of Chaos.  Nations are ruled by evil hierophants, twisted beggar kings as well as merchant princes and savage kings.  Magic is thrown with abandon and creatures from numerous plains of existence are summoned on almost every other page.
   And the main character himself was intriguingly strange.  Instead of a noble king-in-waiting like Aragorn, Elric is the demon summoning emperor of an empire of amoral non-human beings.  Bereft of health by his albinism he subsists on rare herbs and drugs.  He is moved to action by curiosity at first and later by revenge.  Much of the time anything noble he does is only a byproduct of nearly selfish actions.  Over time he takes on a nobler cast but his initial darker nature is never far off.
   Over the years I've reread the original six Elric books (Elric of Melnibone, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, The Weird of the White Wolf, The Vanishing Tower, The Bane of the Black Sword and Stormbringer) several times and some of the novels and stories Moorock added on in the eighties.  I never finished the latter and I should go back and read all of them but late additions like "The Fortress of the Pearl" did not compel me greatly.
   I've been more than thrilled to find the Elric series holds up.  The character of Elric is by turns intriguing, infuriating, thrilling and sympathetic.  And it's all done in six books of under 250 pages apiece.  That's about 1000 pages - that's less than two of Steven Erikson's Malazan books (which I do enjoy).  You just don't really need umpteen thousand pages of supposed character development and plot padding to tell a complex tale.

   "The Jade Man's Eyes" was first published in 1973 as a chapbook from the Unicorn Bookshop and then more widely in Lin Carter's "Flashing Swords #2".  Apparently, Moorcock has said he doesn't remember exactly when he first wrote the story but it might have been as early as 1966.
  In its initial form "The Jade Man's Eyes" tells the tale of Elric and his friend and adventuring companion Moonglum and how they join Duke Avan in his search for the mythic city of R'lin K'ren A'a.  It will take them around the edge of the Boiling Sea, against deadly reptilian beings and into contact with a demon lord and a man cursed with immortality.
  The story is a perfect introduction to the exotic world of Elric.  When first met, Elric and Moonglum are penniless and sleeping on the streets of the wealthy city of Chalal.  When he and Moonglum are threatened with arrest for despoiling the visual beauty the city strives for, Elric makes it quite clear he is willing and able to kill all the guards threatening them.
   The imminent bloodshed is staved off  by the arrival of Duke Avan, native to Chalal and someone who's been searching for Elric for several months.  A renowned adventurer, explorer and collector of antiquities, the Duke desires to find the lost city of  R'lin K'ren A'a.  He needs a sorcerer experienced with adventure and willing to risk great danger.  Saying the "The adventure is to my taste", Elric signs on to Avan's voyage.
   R'lin K'ren A'a is located way up a jungle lined river on the distant and unexplored Western Continent.  Several days up the river they are assaulted by hideous creatures, scaled and walking on legs like wading birds.  To Elric their faces remind him of his own people and he wonders if the Melniboneans were cousins of the creatures or even their descendants.
   Eventually Elric, Moonglum, the Duke and several crewmen reach R'lin K'ren A'a. Each step toward the center of the city reveals There Elric is forced into confrontation with his demonic patron, Arioch.  That confrontation sets in motion even greater events that will come speak to the fate of the world of the Young Kingdoms.
   Later, in the seventies, when DAW published the core six Elric books arranged as intended and without the cuts made by Lancer, Moorcock rewrote "The Jade Man's Eyes".  It became part of the second book, "The Sailor on the Seas of Fate" retitled as "Sailing to the Past" and Moonglum was replaced with Count Smiorgan of the Purple Towns.  Instead of the beggared Elric contemplating his next source of income, Elric is in the midst of a sea voyage across time and space that has set him aside strange yet familiar heroes.

   After the awfulness of the last week's "The Sadness of the Executioner" by Fritz Leiber, "The Jade Man's Eyes" was a nice palate cleansing tonic.  Often Moorcock's swords & sorcery can be burdened down with a weariness and cynicism that seems unwarranted but no so much here.  There's plenty of action, insight into Elric's character and his abilities and history of his world.  Moorcock's sowrds & sorcery roots lay in many places ("Elric of Melnibone is dedicated to Poul Anderson, Fletcher Pratt and Bertolt Brecht) but the lost jungle city, dangerous, monstrous tribesmen and giant statues of gods tropes he employs reflect his strong pulp foundations.  At 16 he was the editor of "Tarzan Adventurers".
   I like the original version of "The Jade Man's Eyes" a little bit better than the rewrite.  It feels tacked on in the novel.  By itself it stands well as just one more adventure in Elric's wanderings across the Young Kingdoms.  Either way, though, it's an exciting story with all the elements of good swords & sorcery; swords, sorcery, monsters and adventure.
   I plan to start rereading the original Elric stories for a later, much more thorough look at Moorcock's most well known creation.  With the current lavishly illustrated Del Rey reprints of the Elric material I hope new generations of swords & sorcery fans are getting to sink their teeth into them.  

1 comment:

  1. I really liked those Del Rey editions. I've only read the first one but they're put together pretty nicely. Good introductions, nice art, and a mind blowing first dip into one of the craziest sword and sorcery authors alive.