During the 1960s, Michael Moorcock was editor of New Worlds, a controversial British science fiction magazine and one of the vanguards of the “New Wave” in SF, reacting against the traditional, technological focus of the Campbellian school of Hard Science Fiction.
Many of his stories involved what he called the Eternal Champion, a heroic protagonist who fights for Balance between Order and Chaos in many different incarnations in many different times and worlds. Of these champions, the most famous has to be Elric of Melniboné.
To begin with, Elric is doomed.
This is not a spoiler. The text tells us this from the very beginning.
On the island kingdom of Melniboné all the old rituals are still observed, though the nation’s power has waned for five hundred years, and now her way of life is maintained only by her trade with the Young Kingdoms and the fact that the city of Imrryr has become the meeting place of merchants. Are those rituals no longer useful; can the rituals be denied and doom avoided? One who would rule in Emperor Elric’s stead prefers to think not. He says that Elric will bring destruction to Melniboné by his refusal to honour all the rituals (Elric honours many). And now opens the tragedy which will close many years from now and precipitate the destruction of this world.Melniboné is a very old kingdom. For about ten thousand years it commanded the oceans surrounding . It was an island of sorcery and to a great extent owed its preeminence to the patronage of the Gods of Chaos. The Melnibonéans are renowned for their cruelty and their decadence. They are not quite human, or at least do not acknowledge themselves as such. But the Gods of Chaos withdrew from the world many centuries ago, and the Kingdom of Melniboné has gone into a decline.
The theme of ancient, decedent kingdoms is one that recurs in Moorcocks works. His Dancers at the End of Time stories are set during the last age of the Universe when the stars are slowly going out. It’s tempting to guess that Moorcock is drawing a parallel with the British Empire, which at the time he was writing had long past its peak and was losing its former colonies. Or perhaps the decadent Melnibonéans are the Old School Hard SF writers trying to stay relevant in the face of the New Wave represented by Moorcock’s generation.
Melniboné is still great and still powerful, but it is not as great as it once was, and the far-sighted can tell that the end must come someday; maybe not within this generation, maybe not within this millennium, but eventually.
Elric the frail albino with bone-white skin and slanted eyes, realizes this. It’s one of the reasons why he takes no delight in the revels of his court and why he spends his days in lassitude and melancholy. By all rights, Elric should not even be alive. His father, going against ancient Melnibonéan tradition, actually loved his wife, and when she died giving birth to their only son, a weak and sickly albino, he used all the spells and potions at his disposal to keep the child alive. Dependent on drugs to keep alive, Elric grew up to be a quiet, introspective young man. Reading the books of his father’s massive library exposed him to different philosophies and ideas and gave him something no other Melnibonéan ever had: a conscience.
This conscience is the reason why he does not follow the sadistic and bloodthirsty rituals handed down from the days when the Melnibonéans served the Gods of Chaos – not all of them anyway. His cousin, Prince Yyrkoon thinks this makes him weak and a threat to the nation. Yyrkoon thinks that he would make a better Emperor of Melniboné, and isn’t shy about making that opinion known.
Yyrkoon tries to provoke Elric at a court function into making a scene that he might use to his advantage, but cagey Elric twits him back with a display of verbal fencing and mock courtesy that embarrasses and infuriates the ambitious prince.
Elric’s closest friend, the Lord of the Dragon Caves Dyvim Tvar, thinks that Elric would do well to have Yyrkoon executed, but he doesn’t for several reasons. For one, Elric is in love with Yyrkoon’s sister, Cymoril. (Not that this is a big reason; Cymoril knows her brother is a creep and also urges Elric to kill him). More important is Elric’s conscience. Killing Yyrkoon would be the solution in accordance with the Melnibonéam tradition; but Elric is trying to break with that tradition. That tradition is leading his kingdom to decline and stagnation; he hopes to forge a better way for his people. He’s going against ten thousand years of inertia.
Cymoril and Elric spend a pleasant morning together out riding, away from the court. They deeply love each other, and to her he can express some of his deepest doubts and apprehensions. Perhaps Melniboné would be better off with her brother on the throne. Yyrkoon would certainly take a more aggressive policy towards Melniboné’s enemies and perhaps, for a short time, reclaim some of its past glories.
“You see doom in all things,” she teases him. “Can you not accept the good gifts granted you? They are few enough, my lord.”
This brief idyll is one of the good gifts Elric has. It does not last. Soldiers come to inform him that a group of spies have been captured, and under the traditions of Melniboné, the Emperor is required to be present during their questioning.
Elric finds this particular duty extremely tiresome, but it is one of the cruel traditions he has not abolished. He has a conscience, but it is a pragmatic one; and spies are spies. One of the spies is a woman, and another a child. When the inquisitor, ironically named Doctor Jest, has finished the procedure – the Melnibonéans have had millennia to refine the practice of torture – the mutilated victims hardly look human any more; but he has the information the spies carried. A barbarian fleet is going to attack the capitol city Imrryr soon.
In previous centuries, the Emperor could have swept out with his fleet and crushed the invaders. Even in these latter days, Melniboné commands flights of dragons to rain destruction on their foes from above; but Dyvin Tvar informs Elric that the dragons are resting after their last battle and won’t come out of hibernation for a while. That was Yyrkoon’s fault; Dyvin Tvar hadn’t wanted to use the dragons against a group of pirates, but Prince Macho-pants insisted.
No matter. Elric devised a plan to draw the invaders into a trap in the city’s harbor. Long ago, the Emperors of Melniboné constructed a huge maze within the city’s vast harbor. The Imperial battle barges, artificial floating mountains armoured in gold, will lie in wait for the enemy fleet.
Yyrkoon suggests that it would be safer for the Emperor to remain in his palace, but Elric knows that to do so would be to appear weak. Elric takes personal command of the flagship His trap succeeds, and Melnibonéam fleet crushes the unwary invaders.
At one point, Elirc fights in close combat with the captain of one of the enemy galleys. He asks the captain why they have been so rash as to attack; after all, Melniboné has not sailed against the Young Kingdoms in many years.
“You harm us by your very presence, Whiteface. There is your sorcery. There are your customs. And there is your arrogance. …you creatures are not human. Worse – you are not gods, though you behave as if you were. Your day is over and you must be wiped out, your city destroyed, your sorceries forgotten.”Elric is not certain that the man is wrong.. The captain goes on to predict that the Chaos Lords whom the Melnibonéans serve will themselves bring about their downfall. In that, Elric is certain he is wrong; the Gods of Chaos lost interest in the affairs of men long ago.. He kills the barbarian captain.
A remnant of the enemy fleet has escaped. Elric is strongly inclined to let them go. He is feeling weak from the battle, and will soon require another dose of the mystic drugs he uses to stay alive. But Yyrkoon insists on hunting down every last ship, and Elric cannot back down without seeming weak – precisely what Yyrkoon wants. So he orders his barge out into the open sea and gives chase.
The pursuit is a long one, and the fugitive ships do not go down without a fight And it is during this last skirmish with the desperate barbarians, that Elric feels his limbs lose their strength and his body fail him. He loses consciousness.
When he regains it, the battle is over, and Yyrkoon is preparing to head back to Imrryr; but first the Prince has one other piece of business to attend to. He’s going to chuck Elric overboard.
“Farewell, Elric. Now a true Melnibonéan shall sit upon the Ruby Throne. And, who knows, might even make Cymoril his queen? It has not been unheard of…”Tumbling over the edge of the barge, Elric plunges into the dark waters and sinks beneath the waves. This would seem to be his end.
Elric’s not that lucky. Remember? He's doomed.
NEXT: Friends in Deep Places; The Emperor Yyrkoon Begins His Reign, but who’s that on the Ruby Throne? And the Lord of Chaos Descends!