They say you never forget your first: the long, pregnant silences; the fumbling fingers and clumsy hands; the open mouth; the half-closed eyes; the sweet and sensuous smell of wood pulp.
Yeah. I’m talking about the first book I ever loved. The first book that opened my eyes and changed me and still works its magic on me today, even though I’ve moved on and courted hundreds since (hell, thousands—I’m an inveterate book whore). What did you think I was talking about? Pervs…
A couple weeks back, I revisited 1982 and wallowed in some completely unfettered geek nostalgia. In the process of writing that piece, I was reminded of a favorite piece of childhood literature that I was introduced to in that same era, and found myself drawing said volumes off the shelf for a fresh perusal. The books are those that make up the Elric saga, and their creator is a Brit with an awesome beard named Michael Moorcock. If you’re a fantasy-loving geek like myself but like a little salt in your caramel, I suggest you lay hands on the Elric library ASAP. They may rock your world the same way they rocked mine in those wayback, hallowed yesterday. It all started with a slim little paperback titled Elric of Melniboné.
It goes like this: once upon a time, on the far western edge of a fractious and barbaric world, there was an island called Imryrr, supporting a decadent race whose time of power and influence had passed; a race that spent the greater part of their time throwing fabulous parties full of sex and narcotics and boredom in their towered capitol city of Melniboné. Lording over these perfidious effetes was their prince—a brooding, cerebral albino and dabbler in magic named Elric. Though he wielded power over a rich kingdom, had the love of his smokin’ hot and always sympathetic cousin, Cymoril, and looked a lot like a LARPing David Bowie, Elric could see through the smoke and haze, and knew well enough that Imryrr was doomed, and he was probably doomed with it. Thus, when his evil cousin Yrkoon tries to kill him and steal the throne, kidnaps Elric’s main squeeze (and Yrkoon’s own sister) Cymoril and exercises his kinky incestuous attraction to her, then ultimately puts all of Imryrr in danger to feed his own narcissism, Elric is almost happy for the distraction from his broody, stagnating existence. Lickety-split, he starts calling in favors from the chaos gods he worships, tear-assing through multiple dimensions to serve up some whoop-ass on Yrkoon, and finally claims a sorcerous, soul-sucking sword called Stormbringer that will make him both an unstoppable badass knight errant and a terrible, tragic antihero whose source of power is also his source of damnation (not to mention inspiration for a bitchin’ Blue Oyster Cult song).
More popular and well-known in England than here in the States (though by no means unknown on this side of the pond), Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné is a touchstone work of fantasy that’s seldom praised simply because it’s become too familiar, too comfortable a houseguest in the hearts and minds of its many fans. It’s not that it isn’t a great work of fantasy fiction, or that it didn’t have an earth-shaking effect on the genre—it’s simply that those effects have been so long-hence encountered and absorbed that we’ve sort of forgotten the initial shock and wonder of them. Not only did it introduce the world to its mean, moody, and magnificent eponymous antihero, it’s also a well-realized piece of escapist fiction: as finely-tuned and smoothly crafted as its auspicious pulpy predecessors, and overflowing with adventuresome incident, unforgettable characters, malefic mysticism, and wonders galore. But my love for Elric goes deeper than mere enjoyment or admiration: it enters the realm of influence.
When I was first handed Elric of Melniboné (by my older brother’s best friend, when I was ten), fantasy, for me, consisted of a very simple trinity: The Hobbit (and by extension, The Lord of the Rings); Conan the Barbarian (who I was more familiar with through his Marvel comics than through his film incarnation, who I was still not allowed to watch); and Dungeons & Dragons. Fantasy was hobbits running from goblins bearing magic rings. Fantasy was a big, strapping hero cutting a bloody swathe through the world because no one—I mean no one—could stop him. Or, fantasy was my older brother and his friends (and sometimes, me, after much whining) sitting around our dining room table eating Cheetos, drinking grape soda, pretending to be on some rad adventure in a mythical land of dragons and wizards—when in fact all we were doing was sitting at a table, staring at a map, occasionally rolling some funny dice to see if we made our saving throws or not. In short, fantasy was safe; fantasy was escapist; and fantasy was, largely, still about good and evil, right and wrong, being small and morally upright like a hobbit, or big, brawny, bloody and lusty like Conan.
But, encountering Elric, I discovered something that my precocious-but-still-fairly-sheltered little mind could barely grasp: fantasy didn’t need good and evil. More importantly, fantasy could be about some deep, serious, frightening and philosophical stuff—while also being thoroughly entertaining and wildly imaginative. What a concept! You could talk about deep stuff (which, as a kid, I vaguely knew existed—like other planets—but really knew very little of in terms of direct experience), while also letting your sword whistle down on enemies helms, cleaving skulls as to dash out brains (as the Song of Roland poet might say).
Elric, though clearly the guy the reader was concerned with—for lack of a better word, the hero—was nothing like the other heroes I’d read about or seen in movies. He was skinny, scrawny, pale (as I was in my childhood); he was physically weak but incredibly smart, and liked to sit and think about things (another point of identification for little me); and even though he was the guy in charge—the prince, the leader!—he didn’t seem happy about it. Most of the heroes I’d encountered always started as nobody but became great leaders. Getting to be in charge was, in many ways, the prize they earned by being the heroes of stories (that, and getting the girl). But here was a guy who was already large and in charge, yet didn’t seem to care.
But chief among Elric’s attractions was his constant awareness of how shady everything and everyone around him was. He didn’t trust the decadence of his fellow Melnibonéans, or their entire, degenerate culture. He didn’t trust the chaos gods he regularly sought help from (though he still sought help from them, because chaos gods are more or less reliable when it comes to slaying your enemies and stuff). And when he finally acquires Stormbringer at the end of Elric of Melniboné—the black, red rune-covered, soul-sucking sword that will ultimately make him a fearsome legend in his own time (“Bound by hell-forged chains and fate-haunted circumstance”) —well, he doesn’t trust that damned sword, either. For a hero, Elric spent an awful lot of time questioning stuff, and that made an impression on me, even though it would be years before I could intellectually articulate why it made an impression.
There was also the worldview offered by Michael Moorcock—a cosmology in which there were no gods of good or evil—indeed, there was almost never even a consideration of good and evil. Rather, in Elric’s world (and, I would come to learn, all the worlds of the ‘Multiverse’ which Moorcock’s imagination played in), the primary conflict was between Law (capital L) and Chaos (capital C). These forces (man, this really wracked my brain at the time) were neither good nor evil in and of themselves; they were, rather, meant to be in balance. It was only the excess of one or the other that threatened life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And Elric, as an incarnation of the Eternal Champion (another of Moorcock’s tropes that really put the zap on my wee little imagination), was meant not to always champion one cause or the other, but simply to restore a balance. Too much law created stasis and decay; too much chaos made growth and progress impossible. The Eternal Champion (be he Elric, or Corum, or Hawkmoon, or Von Bek, or any of the other incarnations whom Moorcock would also write about and whom I would discover later) was sometimes an agent of Chaos, sometimes an agent of Law—but his mission was always the same: to upset the established order, and restore balance.
Damn. Cue screaming guitar solo by Cream to indicate the profundity of Moorcock’s fantasy carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of my mind. I honestly, truly believe that, even though I had wanted to be a writer—a teller of tales—ever since I could remember, encountering Michael Moorcock and Elric at that pivotal moment in my childhood really determined the sort of writer I would ultimately want to be: namely, the sort who could let his imagination run free; who could astound and awe and entertain with a vengeance; but also the sort who could think deeply about all sorts of strange, bizarre, and profound things, and weave those ruminations into the colors and textures of his thrilling little penny dreadfuls. I’ve revisited Elric over the years, and it still stirs the same, seemingly-disparate feelings in me: to think deeply on one hand; to be borne away on flights of fancy on the other; and to finally realize that you can do both at the same time. That profound influence upon my imagination and my vision of the tale-teller I wanted to be would only be matched by one other writer who I encountered in my childhood: Stephen King, who didn’t show up on the scene for me until Michael Moorcock was already well-entrenched.
So, even though throughout my adolescence people came to accuse me of being a creepy little King, the truth is, I was probably a brooding little Moorcock first. God bless you, Michael Moorcock, for showing me the way!
So that’s my little reminiscence about the first book I fell in love with. What say you, constant readers? What was the book that didn’t just delight you, but that actually left a mark on you that’s never been erased?