IN WILD DELIGHTS
‘Science Fantasy’ no.47 – published in June 1961,
introduces the world to a new fantasy character, the dark
doomed-laden Elric of Melniboné, created by a
‘new author to our pages’, Michael Moorcock.
This is where the legend begins…
In the 1981 novelette “Elric At The End Of Time” the sorcerer is described as ‘a somewhat unhealthy-looking albino with gaunt features, exaggeratedly large and slanting eyes, ears that were virtually pointed and glaring, half-mad red pupils.’ This is not quite the swashbuckling image that adorns the cover of ‘Science Fantasy no.47’, marking the first-ever print appearance of the brooding doom-laden Lord of Melniboné. The issue is dated June 1961, with editor John Carnell writing ‘this is the first of a new series of stories by a new author to our pages.’ Moorcock would later acknowledge ‘the encouragement and help given me when writing them (the Elric tales) by John Carnell.’
It seems strange to think of Michael Moorcock being introduced as a ‘new author’. It seems strange to imagine a time when Elric was not a vital part of genre Sci-Fi mythology. There have subsequently been prequels, novels, graphic novel adaptations, and all manner of tie-in elaborations. But as far as the world was concerned, “The Dreaming City” was the first glimpse of Elric. Born 18 December 1939, Michael Moorcock was twenty-two and a bit. Born some time later, I was halfway through fourteen. I did not discover ‘Science Fantasy’ until some years after, when I happened upon a cache of old issues on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop off Princes Avenue in Hull. But I was instantly captivated, and drawn into the dark imaginings of the savage destiny it describes. Carnell adds in a neatly summarised thumbnail sketch of what is to come, that ‘unlike many central characters, Elric is puny on his own, but as a wanderer in another place and time he has the power of sorcery to boost his strength,’ alluding to ‘Stormbringer’, the semi-sentient battle-blade that is also ‘The Stealer Of Souls’.
Brian Lewis became one of the few artists to work on all three of those UK Space Hero picture-strips, which meant I immediately recognised his style in the glossy cover-art for ‘Science Fantasy’ no.47. It shows Elric looking more like a Roman soldier, wearing emerald cloak ‘of rustling green velvet’ draped over his shoulder, decorated armour with ‘breastplate of strangely-wrought silver’ and ornate flared runesword held loosely, with the faint futuristic lines of a ghost city behind him. Lewis was one of Britain’s finest and most imaginative graphic artists, producing a gallery of beautiful highly distinctive covers for all three of John Carnell’s Nova Publications. Of course, the portrayal of Elric would become increasingly stylised and sophisticated as the mythos developed through further tales. In fairness, this commission was the first attempt to capture his appearance, a preparatory sketch from which future images would evolve. There are no illustrations on the cheaper-quality interior pages.
Moorcock was enthusiastically familiar with Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and had already chronicled the exploits of his own Conan – with a cycle of ‘Sojan The Swordsman’ tales for the juvenile ‘Tarzan Adventures’ comic under his own editorial regime. But Elric was a step beyond anything that had come before. Deeper, more nuanced and sophisticated. Closer in character development to Fritz Leiber’s ‘Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser’ series set in the Swords And Sorcery dimension of Lankhmar. Only more so. Elric attunes to the dark adolescent Gothic lure of fin de siècle decadence, as much Aubrey Beardsley as it is Brian Lewis. The florid prose revels in diseased pain and nihilistic decay, with Stormbringer as a powerful addiction metaphor. Huge in scope and dramatic, forged from incandescent anger out of Moorcock’s own furious impatience at the world’s intractable dullness, Elric captures the generational rebel angst burning within the time, and is yet timeless. There was as yet no such genre as Young Adult Fantasy, but it’s clear to see how its moody shadow appealed to the messed-up adolescent in me.
The prose is raw and vivid, loaded and overwrought with darkness, piling charged adjectives one upon the other where more calculating writers would show reticence or restraint, establishing a relentless momentum towards the inexorable climax. In a penultimate sequence the freebooter fleet leaves the ‘flame-spewing ruins of Imrryr’ even as the city inflicts a posthumous revenge in golden battle-barges and unleashed dragons. Elric summons witch-winds for his own escape, leaving the reavers to face decimation. All is destruction. Nothing remains. The past burns. There is no future. In his terrible misery, the Proud Prince of Ruins unsheathes his blade, ‘the frightful thing had used its wielder and had made Elric destroy Cymoril’, he loathes his dependence upon the runesword, without which he will lose vitality, and ultimately his life. He attempts to hurl it away into the depths of the sea. Yet it impales itself in the surface, refusing to sink. And despite his fear and resentment, he’s forced to retrieve it. Accepting the Faustian pact that bonds them, less parasitic, more a symbiosis. ‘They rode together, sword and man, and none could tell which the master.’
It’s interesting that in no.53 Moorcock was already commencing his parallel “The Eternal Champion” cycle, in first-person prose, separate, but related – ‘a story of the dim and distant past, or the far-flung future, whichever way you look at it.’ The scale of massacre and extermination is horrific as the resurrected Erekose, with his own ‘poisonous blade’, switches allegiances to aid the alien Eldren and end human life on Earth, while uniting and linking up fictional continuums towards the multiverse ‘where myriad dimensions blended under a never-setting sun.’ To what extent the pantheon was already worked out, or if it continually evolved as stories emerged is open to conjecture. But the strands were already coming together. Among the aspects of the Eternal Champion are ‘Roland, Ilanth, Ulysses, Alric…’
Needless to say, as a surly and messed-up adolescent myself, I was instantly captivated by Elric’s ghastly aura, and began seeking out further Moorcock tales. Something that I’ve continued to do through to… pretty much, now. Igniting a lifetime’s addiction. Begun with this beautiful and treasured little issue of ‘Science Fantasy no.47’.
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