Michael Moorcock (2007)
“Writer, rock star, lover of cities and the eternal champion of democratic empowerment, Michael Moorcock is an author whose works have profoundly influenced the current shape of fantastical fiction.” That was the introductory strapline that ran before this interview when it was originally published in Death Ray 2. It was true then, and is true today. This is the second long interview that I have done with Mike, the first was for SFX back in 1999 (I think). I remember that one, being extremely nervous beforehand, but what a conversation!
Mike’s fiction has influenced me deeply and, although as a country boy I do not share his endless fascination with the city, his works did exactly what fiction should do – opened my eyes to another way of thinking. They say never meet your heroes, and although I’ve never technically met the man in the flesh, only on the phone and via email, he so disproves that rule as to render it comical. Always ready for a quick chat, kind, supportive and terrifyingly clever, making contact with Mike is one of the highlights of my career.
Michael Moorcock Fact File
Born: 1939, London, England.
Where is he to be found? Lives in Paris and Texas.
What does he write? A large amount of his is in the heroic fantasy vein, though he does write SF, as well as some almost straight literary fiction. All of his books do have some element of the fantastical to them, whether by direct circumstance or indirect association of character and place. Much of his work can be classified as “science fantasy”. He has a strong interest in urban fantasy and democracy. The underpinning of his writing is a procession of characters of semi-fixed type who undergo variations of a similar story. These stories, however, or not repeats of one another, and often involve rich subtexts of pastiche, parody and satire.
Who was he influenced by? Moorcock’s work draws on the traditions of Robert E Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H Rider Haggard, all authors he read when a boy. Though he often subverts the themes of such books, he never mocks them, and it is this that makes his stories, which can be interpreted in a complex manner, eminently accessible.
Awards: He has won 14 awards, including a Nebula (for Behold the Man, 1967), four August Derleth awards, two World Fantasy Awards and a Bram Stoker Award. He is also a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Michael Moorcock is one of the most influential figures in science fiction and fantasy alive today. Born in 1939, he was perfectly placed in time and spacer to take full advantage of the sixties, mixing it up with rock stars and challenging the conventions of just about everything in SF literature. It is partly thanks to Moorcock’s editorship of the ground-breaking magazine New Worlds that we are treated to such a wide array of interlinked fantastical genres now, for he and his cadre of elite counter-cultural authors challenged the established orthodoxies of ‘scientist’ science fiction, turning their backs on the predicative aspects of SF in favour of exploring greater themes using the established tools of the genre. The works wrought by the New Wave authors helped change SF, and though the genre is doubtless not as radical or as dangerous now as it was then, it is a far richer and more freeform method of storytelling than it was, where issues other than those raised by technology can be discussed in environments created through extensive mingling of tropes and the use of genuine literary technique.
Moorcock has claimed many awards over the years, and stands well respected both in the genre and mainstream literary communities. A large chunk of his novels are heroic fantasies, and this strand of the fantastical he enriched especially, subverting it often by inverting established relationships and norms, and through parody. However, he has always respected the form, his willingness to operate within the accepted bounds of the genre creating something that could have been pastiche but is instead rich and thought provoking. Of course, elsewhere he gleefully attacked the very structure of narrative, delivering the open-source metafiction of Jerry Cornelius. He is, if anything, highly creative.
Endlessly ingenious, righteously angry and frighteningly intelligent, Moorcock is one of the few SF and fantasy writers who bridges the gap between SF and the mainstream. He also plays a mean guitar.
We got in touch with Michael Moorcock to talk a little with him about his work and his beliefs. Here’s what the original SF revolutionary had to say to us.
Guy Haley Throughout these questions I refer to ‘SF’. By that I mean a loose grouping of SF, fantasy and horror genres and their various subgenres and crossovers – do you think that literary classification of different fictions into tinier sub-categories is useful, or is it counterproductive, especially when it becomes an endless parsing of type?
Michael Moorcock Well, there’s no real definition existing for the broad kind of fiction I grew up reading, which is essentially imaginative adventure fiction. That can include historical fiction like The Great Captains by Henry Treece or SF like Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Much of what I enjoyed as a kid was what’s called ‘Sword and Planet’ fiction of the sort Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote and which appeared regularly in Planet Stories and Startling Stories, but I enjoyed Robert E Howard in the old Weird Tales I bought. These were the only sf pulps I really enjoyed. I also liked a certain kind of Western when it was just becoming a genre – Owen Wister, Clarence E. Mulford and so on. I liked a few Max Brands, but by then it had become an established form. I enjoyed urban adventure fiction – what’s sometimes called ‘hardboiled’ or ‘noir’ thriller fiction. The only detective stories I ever enjoy is urban. Hammett. Walter Mosley. I like Simenon a lot better when he’s writing about Paris, for instance, and doubt if I’d read, say, Chandler if he’d set his stories in the rural midwest. Most ‘literary’ fiction I like has an urban background – Defoe, Dickens, Balzac – even Dumas is at his best for me when, say, the Musketeers are in Paris. I prefer Scott’s novels when they’re set, say, in London or Edinburgh. What do you call such a broad sweep of urban fiction ? That’s why categories for me have always been nonsense and why I’ve always done my best to refuse using those portmanteau terms. Counterproductive, I think, as I’ve said.
GH You are highly regarded by both the mainstream and the SF literary communities. Which do you think is the more important to you? Do you see yourself as a science fiction writer, or a writer who writes science fiction?
MM They’re both important. I really see them as a single community which doesn’t always communicate very well! Those who DO communicate well are the ones I probably appreciate best. I’m a writer who sometimes writes science fiction. Of course, I haven’t written any ‘straight’ SF for many years. Even my most recent imaginative fiction has confused any boundaries. Blood and The War Amongst the Angels is scarcely conventional SFand the Elric novels which began with The Dreamthief’s Daughter aren’t conventional fantasy, either. The final volume, like the Hawkmoon books, would probably best be described by that old term ‘science fantasy’. In my view what China Mieville and others were called ‘new weird’ was essentally science fantasy, much of it with an urban focus. The fantasy I still read tends to be set in cities, like Holly Black’s YA novels, for instance. The city rules!
GH Your magazine New Worlds was hugely influential at the time. Do you thinkit remains so today?
MM Well, of course, it has had a permanent influence since the 1960s. I think it had as much an influence on fiction in general as it did on genre SF. In fact it probably had a wider influence on the writers who have been called ‘postmodern’ or ‘magic realist’ than on the SF mainstream. While it’s probably better written and even better imagined, I don’t think so-called hard SF has changed much in almost a hundred years. There have always been good writers writing it – Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance come immediately to mind – and, like most fiction, is generally not that well written. Sometimes it can start well, so the first few pages are ambitious both in concept and in writing, but most of it soon descends into unthinking repetition of standard style and genre imaginings.
Leiber and Vance are probably less influenced by genre than, say, Phil Dick. Phil did some great stuff in the sixties but his work emerged very much from a sub-genre which appeared regularly in Galaxy magazine from the 1950s on. He gets credit these days for inventing many of the concepts which were standard to the likes of Pohl and Kornbluth, Alfred Bester, Robert Sheckley and several others, who were regular contributors to Galaxy, along with Cordwainer Smith, Leiber and Vance. A writer like Charles Harness, who was incredibly original, especially in the fifties, in stories like’ The Rose‘ and ‘The Paradox Men‘, is scarcely remembered at all, these days. I was one of the first to promote Dick’s fiction, but it’s disappointing to see how, like Lovecraft, he has become a ‘name brand’ these days. Anyway, this doesn’t have much to do with New Worlds, I suppose. I think I’m saying we’re all the sum of those good writers who have gone before us. New Worlds WAS influential but how influential it was is probably not for me to say. I was determined to offer a platform for ambitious writers who were not working within the conventional modernist tradition. In that sense we were anti-modernist rather than post-modernist, drawing inspiration from pre-modernist fiction as well as creating new conventions of our own. Among the writers I offered that platform to were Ballard, Disch, Sladek, Masson, Aldiss, M John Harrison and John Brunner, when he began to write fiction like Stand on Zanzibar. We also offered a ‘shop window’ to people like Leiber and Vance when they were writing less conventionally. We brought various art forms together – pop artists like Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton, speculative scientists like Chris Evans, critics like Clute… We were trying hard to get away from categories and to blend a whole bunch of different forms. Our policy, when we were asked, was given as ‘running it up the flagpole to see who shoots at it’.
GH Is it inevitable that over time a genre like SF undergo radical change many times (as epitomised by the move the New Wave engendered away fromthe ‘scientist story’ style), or is it becoming increasingly conservative as time goes on?
MM Generic science fiction, as we all probably imagine it, was always conservative. It’s mainly written by engineers or would-be engineers and most engineers are by nature somewhat conservative. Most popular fiction is conservative – witness what’s out there, from Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings to Rankin’s thrillers and literary fiction like Ian MacEwan. There’s something inherently conservative to genre fiction, whether it’s SF or modernist social fiction. Of course, some of the writers are liberal but the form forces them to conservatism. That was what I discovered when I tried writing both SF and modernist social fiction. That’s how Jerry Cornelius came to be! If you are radical, you have to find radical forms to suit your temperament. You wind up inventing your own.
GH Taking a peek into a hypothetical crystal ball, do you see another wave of ‘new’ SF coming, or have we reached a stage in literature that we have arguably reached in politics, where the old right/ left labels are irrelevant and we have politicians who are all just different shades of the same colour?
MM I’m not sure I’d know it if I saw it, any more than I see any difference between the pop music of ‘my’ day – Herman’s Hermits, say, or maybe the Bay City Rollers – and the pop music of today. It always was pretty conventional, pretty bland at root. Changes are made by individuals, really, not genres. The individual might have an influence on the genre and the genre might originally influence the individual, but ultimately out of it will come an uncategorisable writer like Ballard, say. Ballard is Ballard. Ballard’s world, like Greene’s, is Ballardland.
GH Of all the writers who first gained recognition in the pages of New Worlds, who do you think had the most impact on SF?
MM Probably Ballard and myself. Mike Harrison has been a big influence on good contemporary writers like Mieville.
GH Do you think fantasy is a more powerful literary tool than what we will call, for the sake of argument ‘Hard SF’?
MM It’s a more flexible tool, that’s for sure. Hard SF, as I’ve already said, is pretty inflexible. It forces you to write IT in the end. Its conventions simply aren’t all that flexible. You see that in most of the best modern writers of the genre, I think. Banks or Hamilton are scarcely distinguishable, except in minor variations of language, from Blish and Heinlein.
GH Moving on, I’d like to talk about the 19 60s a little. This was a time of great, tumultuous change for the world. Do you think the decade can be adjudged in the terms of being a success or failure, or is it ultimately unfair to look at a small slice of the great sweep of history in this way?
MM Well, as someone reminded me the other day, I was probably the only person of my generation actually living the 60s! Other writers would tell me they wanted to meet my ‘rock and roll friends’ and when they did they were usually horrified by the excesses of those friends. This was perfectly natural to me. I was in the thick of it, ultimately performing with my own band The Deep Fix and with Hawkwind and half my friends were musicians rather than other writers. I emerged from that culture pretty much the same way the Beatles, the Who or even Pink Floyd emerged. We all had the same tastes, the same influences – most of us played in skiffle groups, even! When I go out to dinner in Austin it’s more likely to be with friends like Mac McLagen (ex-Faces keyboardist) and, say, Jake Riviera (Stiff Records mastermind) than any of the SF people who live there. We have more in common. In Paris it’s a bit more across the board, yet we all have the 60s and 70s in common – Martin Stone is a good friend. He is an astonishingly knowledgeable book dealer as well as one of the great guitarists to emerge from the 60s (The Action, Mighty Baby and so on). Pete Pavli (High Tide, Third Ear Band) remains a close friend in the UK, though coincidentally HE now deals in books. There’s a loose circle of people who both read and play rock and roll – Lemmy, of course, is another. I think it’s fair to say most of us also had a familiarity with imaginative fiction. It’s out of that, I suppose, that you got space rock. I think that generation had a huge influence on the world of the arts and still does. People go back to the 60s (and what are called the 60sbut were really the 70s) as the wellsprings.There’s even a movement at the moment which I’m picking up on – it’s reviving 60s/70s SF. There are certain key albums from that period and certain key books. So I have to say it remains influential, yes. It can’t, of course, be reproduced. There were specific economic reasons and cultural reasons for it coming into existence and it had its roots, of course, in a lot of post-war culture – urban blues and pulp science fiction included. Jazz, too, we should remember. Beat fiction.
Most economists agree that roughly between 1920 and 1970 wealth was spreading more evenly across the classes. Essentially wealth was moving from capital to labour. As a result we were all far more optimistic because we understood, albeit dimly, that we COULD change the world; that there were more of us able to affect change. By 1970 that power was being grabbed back until by 1980 those represented by Thatcher and Reagan had put ‘monetarism’ in place and if there was ever a system designed to put the most wealth in the fewest hands that’s it. Even better at preserving power than feudalism was in some ways, because we do get better crumbs from the table than the old peasants did – so we’re less likely to revolt, but we’re still getting crumbs. We’re not getting the power. I think all this is exemplified in the problems of modern democracy, too.
So that’s why the 60s seemed so good. They WERE better for the majority. We DID have the means of changing the world. We didn’t do all we could. That’s what the Cornelius stories are largely about – the failure of my generation to take and use the power when we had it. The new Jerry Cornelius novel I’m writing is precisely about that and has Jerry going back to the 60s to see where we went wrong. He was already asking what was going wrong at the time, but now he also has the benefit of hindsight…
GH The world faces a great many challenges at the moment, how do you think humanity will fare in the coming couple of centuries?
MM I think we’ll fare pretty well IF we can get our hands back on the democratic political power. For me the main problem of the moment is how to restore real democracy, how to take the power away from the oligarchs, from the plutocracy, and spread it more evenly. One of the reasons we have fewer apparently responsible voters in places like the UK and US is because we know instinctively that our vote really doesn’t mean a great deal any more. Where there’s an issue, as in France, you can see a genuine struggle going on. Sadly, that struggle might not be won by the real democrats, but it’s early days yet.
GH You exhibit a large interest in cities thoughout your work, not just as agglomerations of humanity, but also as places with an animus of their own (or so it seems to me). We now live in a period of history that, for the first time, more people live in cities than in the ‘countryside’. What effect do you think the rapid growth of such megalopolises as Mexico City, Beijing, or Rio de Janeiro will have on the sense of place that urban environments currently possess. Can a city of 25 million have a personality in the same way that a city of 250,000 can? And what effect do you think such massive cities will have on human society and the human psyche?
MM Oh, yes! The bigger the city, the bigger the personality. I happen to share this view with my architect son-in-law, Ian Abley. The group he belongs to envisions a London, say, that stretches from Oxford to Folkestone, just as Ford Madox Ford envisaged it at the beginning of the 20th century. I have always believed in big urban conglomorations, rather than suburban spread across the countryside. One or two megacities and we can leave the rest of the environment alone. In those cities, we can learn to build energy-efficient systems which we can more readily control, while energy from renewable systems can give us transport between them (or to the country if that’s where you prefer to live). Cities offer stories. There are, as an old TV show used to say, ‘six million stories in The Naked City’. A city of fifty million will not only have those fifty million stories, it will blend and merge and influence and produce even more stories. Any storyteller worth their salt who lives in the 21st century must welcome the growth of cities. New York, London – imagine a Paris where the ‘cities’ or projects are renewed, made places of wealth and culture. My faith in the megacity goes hand in hand with my faith in a restored democracy. Cities are always by nature far more democratic and tolerant than villages.
In those days there were oceans of light and cities in the skies and wild flying beasts of bronze. There were crimson cattle that roared and were taller than castles. There were shrill, viridian things that haunted bleak rivers. It was a time of gods, manifesting themselves upon our world in all her aspects; a time of giants who walked on water, of mindless sprites and misshapen creatures who could be summoned by an ill-considered thought but driven away only on pain of some fearful sacrifice; of magics, phantasms, unstable nature, impossible events, insane paradoxes, dreams come true, dreams gone awry, of nightmares assuming reality… The Bull and The Spear (1973)
GH If art reflects life, what does SF say about mankind right now?
MM From what I’ve seen of hard SF, it paints a fairly gloomy picture, even if the authors don’t believe they’re being pessimistic. But if we’re talking about general imaginative fiction, it paints a wonderful picture of diversity, wealth, tolerance and growth. The best of it does this. The other stuff, because, as we’ve discussed, it’s conservative can only really see a dull or dystopian future – either over-controlled and under-democratised or falling apart and dictatorial. Almost all those dystopian fictions you find in comics and movies these days are fundamentally lyrical conservatism, offering a simplified view of the world. People like Alan Moore, whose vision so influenced those movies and comics, don’t do that. But there aren’t many people like Alan Moore. Most of those he’s influenced simply respond to the simplistic elements in his stories, not the variety and richness he’s really writing about.
GH Finally, can mankind solve its problems, or is it doomed, like your Eternal Champion, to repeatedly face similar difficulties over and over again?
MM I suppose I’d have to say both. Bester, in my favourite sf novel Tiger! Tiger! began with a quote from The Tale of Two Cities – ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ – and that’s always going to be the case to some extent. Even as that wealth I talked about spread, we had the rise of fascism (probably in response to the spread) and the Holocaust, lynchings in Alabama and so on. Happily the wealth spread in time to put power in enough hands to get us some breathing space, some improvements (including the Civil Rights Act in America and the Human Rights declaration in Europe) so we have some tools to work with. I think the future’s going to be amazing and it’s going to be great and there are going to be some things about it that old farts like me are going to hate. There are ALWAYS recurring problems, because human nature is human nature. And if my stories say one thing, they certainly drum that one in over and over again. We have to keep struggling in order to maintain justice – the Balance. The price of freedom is, to quote again, eternal vigilance.
My most recent book The Metatemporal Detective might otherwise be different from anything I’ve done before, but ultimately that’s the same message it offers. As does my most recent non-SF book, The Vengeance of Rome. Life ain’t easy, but it’s the only one we have, so we might as well make the most of it. The more of us there are having fun, the more fun we’ll go on having.
Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse
At the heart of Moorcock’s heroic fantasy and SF novels lies the concept of the Multiverse, an indefinitely-numbered multiplicity of universes in which fate follows many differing paths. In the Multiverse we see different versions of our own Earth, from the distant past, far future, or alternate timelines, and in this regard he uses the device to depict satirical visions of contemporary society or fiction.
The two dominant forces in the Multiverse are those of Law and of Chaos, whose constant struggle to wrest control of creation from the other would result in disaster were either of them to win. So there exists between the two a Cosmic Balance, maintained by higher forces to keep the influence of Chaos and Law equal. But as Law is opposed by Chaos, the antithesis of the Balance is the Black Sword.
The Eternal Champion is the upholder of this balance, though he often does not know it, it is not always readily apparent what he is to do and why, and he often wields the Black Sword. Indeed, his aims, though similar, are different from book to book. However, though the Champion is born into many different worlds and times, the situations he finds himself in and the cast of characters that surround him are always recognizable. This has led some to draw comparisons between Moorcock’s work and the conventions of the Commedia Dell’Arte, a form of mumming that dates back to Roman times and forms a large part of the foundation of modern narrative tradition.
“Like the idea of the Multiverse, the Eternal Champion seemed to grow out of story demands,” Moorcock explained to Death Ray. “Rather than sketching out ‘ideas’ in my early fiction, I mostly conceived it in terms of characters. The notion of a constantly reincarnated character wasn’t new, of course. It might have been done first by Edwin Lester Arnold with Phra the Phoenician, about a man reincarnated down the centuries. Arnold’s interest in history was mainly what was being displayed there. Rider Haggard also reincarnated Allan Quartermain a few times in books like She and Allan. This reincarnation device was also used by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard with Almuric. I suppose I produced a more sophisticated version of the idea, with someone doomed to fight for the Cosmic Balance across the Multiverse. ‘The Eternal Champion’ came before the Multiverse, but there was only about a year between the appearance of that story and ‘The Sundered Worlds’ (one in Science Fantasy and the other in Science Fiction Adventures) and the two are inextricably involved. You couldn’t really have the Eternal Champion without the Multiverse.”
The idea of Chaos as the eternal foe was not new when Moorcock seized upon it, having roots in Greek myth, and had been used by fantasists like Poul Anderson, a writer who had some influence on Moorcock. However, Moorcock was the first to express the idea of an opposing force that, while it might seem ‘Good’, was not wholly so, and nor was Chaos ‘Evil’. Other fictions have used ‘Chaos’ as a synonym for ‘evil’, but in Moorcock’s worlds this is not the case.
The Champion is also not so simple a concept as it may seem. A reading of Moorcock’s work eventually reveals that the hero, his companions, and his opponents are all aspects of the Champion.
“That’s a riff on a common idea,” says Moorcock, “especially aired in the 60s, that we’re all heroes. I’ve also said that we have to look for the hero (or heroine) within us just as we must find ‘Mars’ within us. The constant riff of my fiction is that it’s harder to live an ‘ordinary’ life than it is to live the life of a sword-wielding hero. Joseph Kiss of Mother London is perhaps more of a hero than Jerry Cornelius. Jerry might be more of a hero than Elric (from whose loins, as it were, he sprang).”
Sometimes these themes are at the fore of Moorcock’s work, sometimes almost hidden; but it is a rare novel indeed from this author that lacks some hint or implication that the story you are reading is but a part, or a reflection of a part, of a much greater one.
Avatars of Eternity
Prime aspects of the eternal champion
The ‘first’ Eternal Champion and wielder of the radioactive sword Kanajana, Erekosë is the only champion that remembers who he is and why he is doomed. Once a man named John Daker, he discovers his destiny upon being catapulted across space and time to an Earth where humanity is locked in endless war with the inhuman Eldren (elf-like races, older than man, feature often in Moorcock’s literature). However, once there he discovers that it is mankind who are the true barbarians. He falls in love with one of the Eldren, Ermizhad, and exterminates human civilization. It is implied that this is the crime that traps his soul on the path of the champion.
The last of the Melniboneans, a race of cruel, elf-like people who are brought to ruin by Elric himself (the theme of genocide is also revisited by Moorcock severaltimes). He is an albino, and physically weak, but through his possession with the Black Sword, here called Stormbringer, he is a mighty warrior. The relationship between Elric and Stormbringer is symbiotic but fraught, for Elric can barely control its ravening spirit, and it often forces him to commit atrocity. Elric is an occasional champion of Chaos, and his wanderings take him all over his own world and beyond.
Elric is probably Moorcock’s most famous character. He was created to be an antithesis of Tolkien’s noble heroes and as a dark mirror to Robert E Howard’s Conan, He is a true anti-hero; weak, venal, utterly ruthless and totally amoral.
A dandified super-spy whose complex stories are so full of internal referencing and non-causal relationships that they defy description. He is a creation who Moorcock has described as more of a technique than a character, and one he opened up to many other writers to play with as they will. Pan-sexual, dangerous, endlessly slaying his own brother and frequently involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister Catherine, Jerry Cornelius is a chaotic metaphor for 1960’s counter culture. Cornelius does not bear a direct relationship to the other Champions, but the tales he features in exemplify what Moorcock was driving at with the concept: an eternal, ever-shifting character who is nevertheless trapped by story, no matter his cunning. His initials are the same as Jesus Christ’s, this is not accidental.
Corum’s full name, Corum Jhaelen Irsei, is an anagram of Jeremiah Cornelius, just one of the many places where Jerry Cornelius’ name crops up in differing forms. Corum is one of the last Vadhagh, a people descended from marine mammals who inhabited the British Isles in the prehistoric past. The rest of his kind, and their ancient enemies the Nhadragh, are nearly wiped out by humans, who blind Corum in one eye and cut his hand off. The Corum stories can be seen as an oblique ribbing of Tolkien’s introspective Elves, but they also draw heavily on Celtic mythology.
A German count of Köln from the far future, Dorian Hawkmoon is the last of the avatars of the Eternal Champion, and perhaps the most sympathetic. The books he appears in are pure science fantasy, where Hawkmon battles the evils of Baron Meliadus of Kroiden and the beast-masked soldiers of Granbretan with flame lance and sword. In a second trilogy of books, he joins forces with many other avatars of the Eternal Champion to destroy the Cosmic Balance and its antithesis, the Black Sword. He is thus loosed from the curse of the Eternal Champion, and is free to pursue an independent life. Or not…
Gaynor the Damned
An evil figure in multi-coloured, shimmering armour, it is revealed that Gaynor is a champion from a previous cycle of existence who turned to Chaos. This means that he is the same being as the champion he opposes, for although the champion may seem to have a beginning and an end in the stories, the turning of the spheres of the Multiverse goes on eternally, as is often said by Jhary a Conel.
The self-styled companion to champions, Jhary-a-Conel accompanies many separate aspects of the Eternal Champion, and it is he that often reveals to them that they are the Eternal Champion. But then, so is Jhary himself. As the name implies, Jhary effectively is Jerry Cornelius, albeit a more ‘fixed’ version of him. Whereas Cornelius can be regarded as an ‘anti-Harlequin’ in narrative terms, Jhary fulfils the more traditional Commedia role of a cunning helper. He of all the characters wears the most obvious ‘mask’, as his appearance never changes. He can also be regarded as a mythological trickster or Campbellian companion figure, as well as the direct voice of the author himself, teasing us as much as the champion by dropping numerous hints.
Other aspects: Jherek Carnelian – From a time when time itself is running out; Oswald Bastable – dimensional plane-wandering steampunk airship captain; Von Bek – a family of German aristocrats which, through the centuries, produce many scions who are the Eternal Champion; Michael Kane – the hero of Moorcock’s homage to Edgar Rice Burrough’s ‘Barsoom’ stories, and many, many more…
Eight of the best
Michael Moorcock is an extremely prolific author – he has said in the past that he can crank out 15,000 words a day – and has written over 70 books. The sheer size of his corpus of work, and his tendency to repeatedly revise it, makes it hard to recommend a mere handful of his novels, but here are some you should definitely try…*
*(NB, as Moorcock frequently alters his work, we make no guarantee that your Moorcock experience will be identical to ours).
Further NB, when this was originally published, someone else wrote the text for Mother London, which I do not have, so that’s why there are only seven entries in this list.
Behold the Man
The novella that garnered Moorcock the Nebula award, later expanded to novel length, Behold the Man tells of Karl Glogauer, time traveller, who voyages to the holy land in order to meet Jesus, only to discover the saviour of mankind is a drooling idiot.
Like all the best of Moorcock’s work, Behold the Man is an atmospheric book, drawing a picture of the holy land with thumbnail sketches of spare prose, but it is in the depiction of the pull of destiny that the book excels. The ultimate expression of Moorcock’s ‘fated man’, Glogauer walks dreamily towards the doom of another, his personality buried under the weight of history. Fate is both inescapable and eminently avoidable; Glogauer is so caught up in the idea of there being more to life than the material, that he takes great pains to ensure history plays out as he remembers it. In doing so he creates a self-contained circle, dooming himself by his need for faith, something he only realises as he is dying on the cross.
Karl is a complex character, troubled by his homosexuality. He occurs a few times in Moorcock’s fiction, being an incidental character in The Dancers at the End of Time, the main player in Breakfast in the Ruins, and is mentioned as one of the incarnations of The Eternal Champion in the book of the same name.
The Eternal Champion
As the name suggests, this novel provides much information on the nature of the Eternal Champion and suggests a possible reason for his damnation to an eternity of war, as Erekosë, the avatar who the book is about, is aware of his fate and remembers many of his other incarnations.
As a story in its own right the Eternal Champion is not as accomplished nor as engaging as some of Moorcock’s other tales, but it is still a good adventure, moving from Earth to a generic fantasyland, the twist being that the story has a science fiction element to it. As happens in other Champion tales (notably to Corum in 1973’s The Bull and The Spear) Erekosë is called across time and space from his life as John Daker on Earth to help defend humankind from the Eldren, with whom they have been fighting a war for centuries. Erekosë eventually turns on his own kind, and destroys them.
The Eternal Champion gives you a ‘beginning’ to the Eternal Champion saga, as The Quest for Tanelorn (see below) gives you an ‘end’. However, it’s safe to say that you should not accept the explanations in either book at face value.
The Swords of Corum
A collection of three of the six Corum books, The Swords of Corum introduces us to Corum Jhaelen Irsei, Prince of the Vadhagh. His mutilation at the hands of mankind does not prevent his falling in love with one of them, and he sets out to rid his world of gods.
In this the story mirrors that of Elric, who vows to do the same, an indication that Moorcock was by this time not only playing with the narrative conventions of others, but also with his own. Corum is the opposite of Elric. Both come from ancient, elf-like races, but whereas the Melniboneans are venal and hedonistic, the Vadhagh are withdrawn and self-obsessed; where Elric must learn compassion, Corum must learn to kill.
The Corum books are intricately connected to past mythologies – the tales are rooted in Celtic myth, while Corum’s ordeals mirroring the sufferings of the Norse gods. They are arguably Moorcock’s best heroic fantasies, having a coherence some of his other cycles only had imposed upon them later. The Swords sequence is notable in itself for the sense of horror that accompany Corum’s mutilation, and the weird creatures and sorcerers he must battle. It is full of invention that epitomises Moorcock’s fertile imagination, laced with poetic prose. These are but some of the reasons the three novels that make up this collection (it has been published many times under different titles) remain among my favourite Moorcock stories.
The Quest for Tanelorn
Ostensibly the final story in the Eternal Champion cycle, the book sees Corum, Elric, Erekosë, and Dorian Hawkmoon team up along with various companions, including Jhary-a-conel. What begins as a quest to find Hawkmoon’s two children Manfred and Yarmila ends up as a struggle to bring an end to the struggle between Chaos and Law, the Balance and the Sword. The showdown is in the indestructible Tanelorn, the Eternal City, which features often in Moorcock’s work, existing, it is said, on every plane of existence in one form or another.
By the time Moorcock wrote The Quest for Tanelorn his writing had become increasingly accomplished, and the second saga of Hawkmoon – Count Brass – stands alongside Corum as his finest fantasy work. Much about the Eternal Champion is revealed at the conclusion of the tale and his endless struggle is brought to an end.
But time works oddly in the Multiverse, and when we meet Jhary-a-conel again he is describing the quest to Corum, who, though also on the quest, has not undergone it at the point in his life where Jhary is relating the tale to him.
The Tetralogy of Colonel Pyat encompasses 25 years of Moorcock’s career. Its component volumes are Byzantium Endures, The Laughter of Carthage (written in tandem with The City in the Autumn Stars, one at night, the other during the day), Jerusalem Commands and The Vengeance of Rome. There are no fantasy or SF elements in this cycle (though it is very much part of the Multiverse – Colonel Pyat appears in some of the Cornelius stories, other Cornelius characters crop up in the novels and Pyat fantasises about a different world close to that of Moorcock’s Victorian thriller pastiche Bastable novels), but instead represents Moorcock’s attempts to pen a story that make some sense of the intense, worldwide violence that bedevilled the 20th century.
The books are presented as the memoirs of Pyat, a reprehensible character with virtually no morals whatsoever. He’s a Jew, but an anti-semite, a liar who has lost the ability to see the limits of his own delusions, a cocaine addict, a paedophile and a traitor of stupendous proportions. Pyat has been hailed as Moorcock’s most vivid creation, and these books are his perhaps the best of all his extensive canon. But be warned, they are very different fare to his heroic SF and fantasy, full of Moorcock’s rage against humanity’s evil.
The City in the Autumn Stars
The Von Beks are a family of German aristocrats from our world, whose ranks contain many avatars of the Eternal Champion, some of whom occasionally act as companions to other Champions (notably Elric). Their role is to guard the grail against Satan, who can be read as an agent of Chaos in these stories.
The City in the Autumn Stars is the second Von Bek book (the first being The Warhound and the World’s Pain), and begins in revolutionary France. Manfred Von Bek, having initially supported the revolution, decides to flee as the terror grows in intensity. Thus begins a swashbuckling adventure of epic proportion as he travels first to Switzerland, and then takes an airship to the fable Mittelmarche, a place between worlds, where he must confront Satan to secure the future of the grail.
It is a flamboyant tale that combines historical detail and exuberant Dumas-style derring-do with Moorcock’s fantastical ideas. (In this regard the book is comparable to the work of Tim Powers). As a side note, the story is presented as fact, taken from an account written by Von Bek himself. Moorcock enjoys this kind of literary dissembling – besides historical documents, he’s presented stories as the result of fictional interviews, and even pretended to be dead.
The Fortress of the Pearl
It is hard to recommend a single Elric book. Moorcock has a great affection for the albino emperor, and has cast him in many guises over the last two decades, some of which are far away, texturally, from his initial incarnation. Appearing back in 1962, Elric has evolved from a clever parody of Conan to become a complex literary device, and as time as gone on he has become closer to Jerry Cornelius, albeit walking a different path to get to the same point.
Some S&S fans have been disappointed by this increasing ‘literariness’ of Moorcock’s work, yearning for the less philosophical adventure stories of his early career. The recommendation of a single Elric book is further complicated by the fact Moorcock has revised, added to and updated the Elric saga the most.
The Fortress of the Pearl sits in the middle of all this. It exhibits all the verve of his earlier books, balanced against his later metaphysical musings. Likewise, it dates from a time when the Elric chronology was more or less fixed. Moorcock can be appreciated as an adventure writer and a literary author, but though his ambition has been to break down literary barriers, his efforts to blend both sides of his talent are not always successful in a populist sense – he’s just too clever for a lot of us – but The Fortress of the Pearl is certainly a place where both sensibilities can be enjoyed equally.