Wednesday 21 August 2019

Michael Moorcock's first 'ELRIC'


 ‘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’.

In that remote time-lost June 1961, eternal cowboy hero Gary Cooper died aged sixty, as well as psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung – aged eighty-five, whose concepts of ‘archetypes’ may well have contributed to the mix of influences feeding into Moorcock’s tale. American astronaut Alan Shepard followed Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space, albeit in a sub-orbital shot, as the superpower ‘Space Race’ gathers momentum. Elvis Presley was no.1 for the month’s first three weeks with “Surrender”, with Del Shannon, the Shadows, Everly Brothers and Billy Fury vying for chart places beneath him. Tony Hancock’s ‘Half-Hour’ was on BBC-TV. Stirling Moss won the Brands Hatch Silver Cup Trophy. Although, at the time, I was more caught up with Dan Dare adventuring on ‘The Platinum Planet’ on the ‘Eagle’ front-page. In ‘Lion’ Keith Watson was illustrating the large-scale Space Opera ‘Captain Condor And The War In Space’. While over at ‘Tiger’ Jet-Ace Logan was encountering the shape-shifting ‘Giants From Space’.

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.

Priced at just two shillings and sixpence, ‘Science Fantasy’ was a uniquely niché’d little magazine, straddling the fault-line its title suggests – the word ‘Science’ in clear black font, ‘Fantasy’ in more playful italicised script. A slipstream title more ‘Weird Tales’ than it was ‘New Worlds’. The issue also includes a second novelette – John Rackham’s “The Veil Of Isis” (pseudonym of John T Phillifent) – an amusing sequel in which the protagonists from earlier story “The Black Cat’s Paw” confront reanimated Egyptological undead slaves. Plus two short stories – “Blood Offering” by John Kippax, where a trader on a tropical island is menaced by the local’s Shark God, and the charming “Valley Of The Rainbirds” by WT Webb, a poetic offering in which a man called Peabody is devoured by a storm of starlings. The issue is wrapped up by the twelfth in Sam Moskowitz’s ‘Studies In Science Fiction’ series, a scholarly essay on Stanley G Weinbaum – creator of “A Martian Odyssey”. There’s a back-page panel advertising the current ‘New Worlds’ – no.106, highlighted by John Rackham’s “Blink” (also cover-illustrated by Brian Lewis), alongside tales by JG Ballard (‘The Terminal Beach’ story “Deep End”), Philip E High, Alan Barclay and John Ashcroft. While the Brian Lewis cover of ‘Science Fiction Adventures’ no.20 – advertised on the inside back-page, illustrates Robert Silverberg’s “The Wages Of Death” and Kenneth Bulmer’s “Wind Of Liberty”.

The annals of Moorcockiana continue to debate the provenance and authorship of earlier tales and comicstrips that the young Moorcock scripted, frequently in various combinations with the other teenage protégé Barrington J Bayley. Moorcock’s official adult debut came with “Peace On Earth”, in collaboration with Bayley – under the byline ‘Michael Barrington’, in ‘New Worlds SF’ (no.89, December 1959), the magazine he was later to edit. Carnell extends a welcome as ‘a new author makes his debut with a different approach to the immortality theme – two men with eternity before them searching for an ancient Earth-type antidote for restlessness.’ Two immortal post-humans two-million years hence, Fra-Thala and Bulik are on a galaxy-wide quest for meaning, guided by Aber Juillard’s black-bound Book. With an earnest striving for significance, they find the answer lies in accepting the finality of death on an arid empty Earth, because only death gives life meaning. He would follow the story with “Going Home” for ‘Science Fiction Adventures’ (no.25, March 1962), in which Bayley may also have had some input.

But the first adult publication as Michael Moorcock is in ‘Science Fantasy no.47’. Hold that issue in your hands now, plucked direct from the newsagent’s display. Smell that freshly-minted aroma of new paper. Flip past the ‘Contents’ page… pretend you’ve never seen those story-titles before. Read it as though you’ve never heard of Elric, or ‘the cruel, brilliant and malicious’ Bright Empire of Melniboné ever before, or Stormbringer ‘forged by an ancient and alien sorcerer’, or alternately ‘forged by gods before the world gave birth to human offspring’. Before the follow-ups, the rewrites and the reconfigurations. This is the original text. Re-experience that first time.

Commencing on the issue’s page two, Moorcock’s ‘Introduction’ to “The Dreaming City” sets its time-fix into the chronoflow as an aspect of ‘an agony of Now, and so it will always be’. Yet it’s also located ‘ten-thousand years before history was recorded – or ten-thousand years after history had ceased to be chronicled.’ There are further hints. ‘Ravaged, at last, by the formless terror called Time, Melniboné fell’ and ‘then history began: India, China, Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Greece and Rome – all these came after Melniboné.’ Which places these fictional events firmly in prehistory, as we understand it. Science Fiction has colonised the far future. But Robert E Howard had populated his archaic Hyborian age with a miscellany of monsters and magic, in which Conan has become an iconic archetype for mighty-thewed imitators clear down through heroic fiction to Sláine of ‘2000AD’. Also in those 1930s issues of ‘Weird Tales’ Clark Ashton Smith set his Poseidonis as a Miocene remnant of lost Atlantis, which plumbs into another persistent myth-strand.

Academic recorded history commences with the receding of the last Ice Age, a mere ten-thousand years ago. Although proto-humans have existed for around six-million years, within which modern humans evolved some 200,000 years ago. Either way this time-span is wide enough for entire chunks of earlier culture to be carelessly mislaid. We can speculate if there had been such an earlier protean civilisation that evidence could easily have become eroded by environmental change, flooding on one hand – inundation from melting glaciers causing rising sea-levels, and on the other, desertification as habitable zones shift. Which is not to say that the realms of Conan, Atlantis and Elric are likely, merely that there’s the vaguest tenuous wisp of possibility that distant antiquity is big enough to hold secrets as yet unsuspected by academe.

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 story itself opens with an alliance of six marauding Sea Lords awaiting Elric’s arrival. He will guide the ‘mightiest fleet to sail the Sighing Sea’, using sorcerer’s powers to enable them to pass through the formidable seawall and treacherous waterways of the five-doored maze of high-walled channels to the secret ports of Imrryr the Beautiful, the Dreaming City. In doing so, he is betraying the last stronghold of the ten-thousand year Melnibonéan empire, where a decadent narcotic aristocracy play sadistic games of ‘soporific desolation’. In the romantic tradition of heroic fiction, outsider Elric is rightful King Of The Dragon Isle, the Ruby Throne to which his cousin – Yyrkoon, is usurper. With Yyrkoon’s sister, and Elric’s beloved Cymoril, held in an enchanted sleep. Yet, at odds with those fictional expectations, Elric regards ‘crowns and rulership’ with disgust. His motives are the revenge of nihilistic destruction.

First he ‘crooned his hideous mind-juddering song of sorcery’ and uses ‘unthinkable pacts with the elementals’ to draw a concealing mist down upon the fjord to hide the swift vessels of the fleet. He makes a solo reconnaissance journey to the city. Then, subverting mythic archetype themes, from the Sleeping Beauty fairytale image to the Homeric fleet attacking and ransacking Troy, ‘Elric hacked a blood-drenched path’ through the Imrryr defences. Again – as in all classic dramas, there’s the decisive confrontation between the two arch-protagonists, Elric faces Yyrkoon who wields runesword Mournblade, a twin to Elric’s sentient hellblade. Yet Moorcock turns the solo combat in unexpected ways. The blades take on urgencies of their own. In supernatural torment Elric becomes puppet to Stormbringer. Laughing ‘like a gibbering demon from the foulest depths of hell’ Yyrkoon deflects Elric’s blade, causing the albino to kill Cymoril. He is now not only outcast, but woman-slayer.

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.’

Elric, ‘the last mighty Nigromancer left in the world,’ returns to ‘Science Fantasy’ with “While The Gods Laugh” (no.49, October 1961), where more familiar elements fall into place. There is Moonglum the Outlander, from Elwher of the Young Kingdoms. There are the Lords of Entropy, and the eternal struggle/ balance between the forces of Law and Chaos. The tale opens as, guided by Shaarilla, the wingless woman of Myyrrhn, the duo cross the Silent Land and the Marshes of the Mist, face the Devil-Dogs of Dharzi and the Mist Giant, then sail a vast subterranean sea in search of the ‘Dead God’s Book’ which holds ‘the ultimate truth of existence.’ A distant cousin, perhaps, of Aber Juillard’s black-bound ‘Book’ from Michael Barrington’s “Peace On Earth”? For Moorcock strikes at the most primal myths of the collective unconscious, black castles, swords, epic crusades, caves, darkness and light… books that turn to dust.

Then there is “The Stealer Of Souls” (no.51, February 1962), as Elric – ‘poor white chosen plaything of the Gods of Time’ forms a pragmatic alliance with Imrryrian exiles, using supernatural forces in order to attack the gloomy fortress of Nikorn of Ilmar. Within the stronghold, Yishana, Queen of Jharkor is loved by Theleb K’aarna, rival sorcerer of Pan Tang, but she yearns for Elric, her lost lover. The plotting is occasionally porous, as when Theleb incapacitates Elric by stealing Stormbringer, Moonglum simply uses Yishana to steal it back, as ‘her breasts heaved beneath the flimsy fabric.’ Just as, similarly, it’s a useful narrative device having a sorcerer protagonist, as in the next Elric story. Chained to the sacrificial menhirs of the Org surrounded by flesh-feasting ghouls, Elric merely calls upon the Demon-God Arioch who responds with a convenient lightening bolt to smash the stones asunder and free him. Not that it matters. The tales work in weaving their enticing moody spell. Continuity is for nitpickers. Reality is there to be suspended.

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…’

Elric returns in “Kings In Darkness” (no.54, August 1962). Hounded from Nadsoker, the City of Beggars, they meet Lady Zarozinia in the evil Forest Of Troos, and agree to escort her home to Karlaak, the City of Jade Towers. Their journey is interrupted by the bestial Orgians who unleash the millennia-dead King From Beneath The Hill, once ruler of the Doomed Folk. There’s a further temporal blurring in that the malignant forest and devolved beast-men are the result of a race ‘who had wrought such destruction upon the Earth an entire Time Cycle before…’ using ‘tremendous forces’ that ‘caused terrible changes among men, beasts and vegetation.’ The obvious inference, particularly within the context of Cold War SF, is gene-mutating radioactivity. Moving away from whatever Conan connections we’d maybe once assumed, and into pure Moorcockiana.

Bringing the story-cycle to a close, “The Flame Bringers” – cover-illustrated by James Cawthorne debuts in no.55 (October 1962). Now contentedly married to Zarozinia and settled in Karlaak, using Troos drugs to control his albino-needs, Elric learns from Moonglum that the Genghis Khan figure of Terarn Gashtek leads a barbarian army of five-hundred-thousand warriors across the Weeping Wastes to loot and pillage the Young Kingdoms of the west. And that the enslaved sorcerer Drinij Bara is compelled to do his bidding. Elric calls upon Meerclar, Lord of the Cats, to free Bara’s soul, then uses the Melnibonéan dragons – first glimpsed in “The Dreaming City”, to wipe out the horde. In another pleasing circularity he again attempts to rid himself of Stormbringer. Yet again the hell-blade returns of its own volition.

This trove of the first five Elric stories were collected into ‘The Stealer Of Souls’ (Neville Spearman, 1963), followed by the Mayflower paperback in 1968 with a JG Ballard cover-quote to the effect that this is ‘Moorcock’s most original creation’. Leslie Flood reviews the collection in ‘New Worlds’ (no.137, December 1963), the full review reads ‘Michael Moorcock’s stories of Elric, mythical hero-adventurer, apparently filled for many readers of ‘Science Fantasy’ an aching void caused by the lapse of similar material by the late Robert E Howard (to whose Conan stories a great debt is surely owed for the conception of Elric) and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Mr Moorcock adds an individual touch by deepening the purpleness of his prose and double-dyeing his mighty warrior with a dabbling of sorcery and insatiable bloodlust. All his five adventures are now collected in ‘The Stealer Of Souls’ (Neville Spearman, 15/-).’

Inevitably there’s a wealth of academic speculation concerning the antecedents and influences acting upon the tyro Moorcock feeding into the character of Elric, from Norse mythology, through Poul Anderson’s ‘Three Hearts And Three Lions’ (1961, expanded from a 1953 ‘Magazine Of Fantasy And SF’ novella), Fletcher Pratt’s ‘The Well Of The Unicorn’ (1948), as well as the albino ‘Sexton Blake’ antihero Monsieur Zenith, created by Anthony Skene. Moorcock himself has – perhaps playfully, suggested other inputs to tease and confuse, including Bertolt Brecht. I prefer to reread this original story in the pages of ‘Science Fantasy’, and envisage the young Moorcock sitting there hacking out the text on an old manual typewriter, and attribute its rich creativity more to Moorcock’s fertile imagination itself. In the same way that the early Beatles took from Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and Motown Records, but remade it into something wholly new and original.

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’.

More MICHAEL MOORCOCK on ‘Eight Miles Higher’...


Paul B said...

Science Fantasy - I am looking for no 52, 54, 55, 56, 59, 61, 63 & 64
If have them and want to sell please respond to

Guy Lawley said...

What a great piece... thanks, Andrew.
Worth adding, I think, that Cawthorn’s cover drawing for Science Fantasy 55 was surely intended to illustrate no. 47’s “Dreaming City.’
It even has Count Smiorgan Baldhead standing just behind Elric.
And, of course, a more ‘accurate’ Elric than (the great) Brian Lewis’s version.
And, as you also know, Mike has said since that Cawthorn’s input to the creation and fleshing out of the character was highly significant.

Mike Moorcock said...

Um -- thanks for the piece, of course -- but I was 21 in 1961 as I'm 81 now! Petty, I know, but you start counting the years at my age. Recently did a new Elrc coming out next year from Saga. Thanks again!!

Mike Moorcock said...

I delivered the drawing with the story! Bit cheeky, but at least Jim got his first professional cover! On the wrong story....

Mike Moorcock said...

Excellent and perceptive (sympathetic!) description of the first book. By coincidence the next ELRIC book was supposed to come out ths year but time was wasted and opportunity lost. It is supposed to be appearing from GOLLANCZ UK and SIMON AND SCHUSTER, US next year. This one was intended to be 'oldstyle', about a third to a half is 'cannibalised' from a story published in WEIIRD TALES and another in an anthology, some ten or fifteen year ago. All rewritten, with plenty of dragons, sorcery, Law v Chaos and the works. Hope people have fun! It's called THE CITADEL OF FORGOTTEN MYTHS. Looking forward to your opinion! Forgot to say that part of The Eternal Champion appeared in AVILION, a fantasy fanzine that I now think only got to stencil stage, since printed copies can't be found. It was the last of my output of fanzines between 1955-57, so I'd have been 17, around the time I was doing Sojan. Frankly, I think it showed a bit. So much is founded on that story! Economically, it was not worth my spending more than one draft or two days on any story I wrote for Ted because the rates were far lower than anything else I was writing for the general press. I had a growing family in a two-room flat, shared toilet, bath in the kitchen, in Notting Hill, which I desperately needed to leave. By 1965 we were able to move -- thanks to Mrs Pash of Pash's Music Shop -- from Colville Terrace to Ladbroke Grove.