Moorcock has a reputation among fantasy editors for the speed with which he can turn out a story--call him and tell him you have a slot in an upcomingMoorcock has a reputation among fantasy editors for the speed with which he can turn out a story--call him and tell him you have a slot in an upcoming anthology that need filling, and he'll send you something the next day. It reminds me of an old truism in writing: if you never seem to be able to finish anything, then you're too critical of yourself, but if you are finishing things constantly, then you probably aren't critical enough.
That isn't to suggest that Moorcock has a swell head--from everything I've heard, he's a pleasant, self-effacing fellow--but that perhaps sometimes, his pen ends up working faster than his brain. I'd heard that the ideas he begins to touch upon in early works like Elric don't start coming into their own until later pieces, like Corum or Von Bek--which was why I was surprised that a number of elements in Corum felt less sophisticated than their treatment in Elric.
Unlike Elric, Corum doesn’t maintain his internal conflict throughout. Though he comes from an artistic, intellectual, peaceful background originally, this doesn’t really color his later actions or thoughts. Once the ‘badass warrior switch’ is flipped, that seems to be it, and he’s onto his new life. Certainly, there is a sense that he wants this to be over with, so he can return to a state of peace, but one would expect that his former life would change the way he approaches being a sword-weilding demon fighter, but it simply doesn’t seem to.
Doubtless, there was plenty of reason for the character to change--his whole life, everything he knew was ripped away from him--but I still would have liked to see that transformation play out, to see the contradiction between how his expectations and assumptions just don’t match the world around him, and the life he is forced into living. The whole story of his race is that they are ancient, wise, but naive and out of touch, and it would have worked better to see more of that in Corum, instead of the ‘take it as it comes’ style of the average sword and sorcery hero.
Likewise, the romance, while a central part of the story, is dealt with in a rather perfunctory fashion. We don't really see how the characters fell in love, or why this particular relationship formed, and so it ends up feeling less personal and more like a plot point--especially when compared to something like Dancers at the End of Time--but then, that was an occasion where Moorcock really took the time to get into the characters heads, to let the romance develop over the course of several books, and to explore the conflicting feelings at its heart.
Of course, it's not quite a fair comparison to make, since in that series, the romance really is the central plot, while here, as important as it might be to Corum's character, it's still secondary to the massive multi-dimensional conflict that takes center stage. It's unfortunate, because by focusing on that, he really could have separated Corum from Elric, who hardly has much time for sentiment.
The introduction of the dimension-hopping heroes' companion in book two didn't work especially well, either--like in Leiber's Swords of Lankhmar, the series suddenly takes an odd left turn, introducing this silly dimensional traveller who suddenly starts explaining the makeup of the universe and other such dull exposition.
We were reading a story about a man embroiled in a great conflict, but also a personal one--trying to avenge the death of his family, the only life he’d ever known, who has since become bitter and broken through struggle, but who has also found love, and keeps fighting for the sake of that love. To have this secondary character burst in with a completely different voice and tone, insisting that Corum is just one of many distracts from his story, cheapens his struggle, and makes the whole thing feel oddly goofy, especially compared to the opening book.
From there on, especially as we go into the third book and near the climax proper, the story becomes more piecemeal, where each scene begins to feel more like a self-enclosed event. It’s very much the cliche pulp approach, where this happens, then this happens, and we’re technically moving forward toward the final conflict, but the individual episodes aren’t placed in a meaningful order. It brings to mind the old writing adage that every scene should be followed by a ‘but’ or ‘therefore’ which connects it directly to the next scene. It’s not enough that they’re simply given to us in a certain order, they must be reliant on each other, there must be a sense of build, of inevitability, of meaningful connection from moment to moment.
The writing likewise vacillates in quality, from the flat exposition of the prologue to the quite visceral and imaginative scenes in the palace of the horrid chaos god Arioch at the end of book one--which indeed, are much more effective than the climaxes of the next two books, making them feel rather underwhelming in comparison.
But for all that, I can see why people find Corum to be an expansion on Elric, because there is one very real way that Moorcock is pushing the envelope here: the shifting dimensions, the alternate realities and identities, and layers of contradictory worlds are a great way to push the boundaries of what fantasy is, and how it operates--and yet, I'm reluctant to give Moorcock his due here as the self-defined 'bad writer with big ideas', because these aren't quite ideas.
What he's doing here is playing with form and structure, with the symbols that authors use to explore their ideas--but he's not creating themes and concepts beneath these symbols to hold them up and give them meaning. Magic is a symbol, and there are many different ways magic can be presented, and many ideas we can explore through our magic. However, far too many authors are content to simply produce complex magic systems without ever bothering to connect them to meaningful themes and ideas.
As other authors have proven in later books, like Viriconium and Bas-Lag--or even games like Planescape-Moorcock's symbolic innovation provides an exceedingly rich field of play for any writer to explore and represent a plurality of ideas--but unfortunately, Moorcock himself does not do much with them here.
Likewise, his focus on law vs. chaos instead of good vs. evil presents a number of interesting opportunities, from entropy and the Social Contract to the nature of the creative spirit, itself--but again, he's not pushing these representations very far.
It's the same problem he has in Dancers at the End of Time: he's given us a very strange and complex world, but the characters and themes in the book just aren't strange enough to match it. The structure Moorcock presents, wherein different individuals from various times and dimensions might come together, and that some of those individuals are really the same person, expressed in a different age--that’s quite interesting, but it’s also disappointing that he doesn’t do more with it. What does it mean for one person to meet a different version of himself? How does that feel, how does it affect him, moving forward? It should certainly offer some profound insights, or at least force us to confront some common preconceptions.
Likewise, it’s a great opportunity to explore the nature of storytelling, itself--the fact that we authors do keep writing about these similar kinds of figures, who really do feel like ‘versions’ of the same hero, or love interest, or villain--one begins to imagine the way that Gaiman would approach it. Once again, it’s something that Harrison spends a great deal of time exploring in Viriconium, where the same plot and characters are destined to recur, over and over again, but with such different pacing, voice, and tone that it becomes clear that these standard forms and types are really not the heart of the story--that indeed, they become almost superfluous.
After all, think of all the various stories in any medium, books, movies, comics, that play out pretty much exactly the same, whether they take on the form of the monomyth or the murder mystery or any other, with the same standard character types (hero, sidekick, wise man, love interest, villain, henchmen)--and then realize that this has nothing to do with the quality of the work. It’s all the other stuff that makes it good, that makes it feel original--or fails to.
The fact that, to combine their powers together, the characters are compelled to link arms and form a sort of cosmic kickline certainly does not help to make the experience feel as profound and strange as meeting an amoral albino version of yourself ought to--and really, what else is a good fantasy book but an opportunity to meet a version of yourself you'd never previously imagined could exist?
In the end, Moorcock gives us a blueprint for what the curious future of fantasy might look light, but sadly, it's largely inspirational because it invites other writers to fill in the holes he's left in his story, to take that huge, complex symbolic structure and really make it do some of the heavy lifting--and happily, they best fantasists of the modern era have done precisely that--but it's still a bit disappointing that Moorcock himself didn't sit down and take the time to give us his version of it.
There are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is thaThere are stumbling blocks for every author--we each have our crutches, our weak points, our awkward moments--but what sets a good author apart is that, despite these things, there is always something that carries them through it, some verve or strength that makes up for it.
This is especially true for pulp and genre authors: their work may be unpolished, even bordering on the cliche, but some aspect of their approach and vision still shines through. Lovecraft's pacing and voice often left much to be desired, but his unique vision of cosmic horror still makes much of his work intriguing. Early on, Moorcock struggled with subtlety and sophistication, but his odd conceptual approach often saved him. Indeed, for Howard, the more polished his style became, the more it lost the vitality that set it apart.
With Wagner, I struggled to find the unique aspect of voice that makes a story worth telling--and worth reading. Certainly, there are some things he does well: his writing shines when he is setting a scene, in descriptions of places, structures, weather, the tapestry of a landscape passing the lonely traveler by. There is some real loveliness there, some fine turns of phrase and genuine tone.
However, outside of these passages the style becomes finicky. The action scenes get bogged down in deliberate, meticulous description, preventing them from flowing, from being dramatic and wild. It all begins to feel like a foregone conclusion. Wagner doesn’t seem to be able to create interesting tensions within the action to keep us interested.
In actions scenes, there is always the obvious, overarching conflict that must be resolved. In combat, it is the naked question of who will prevail, whose sword arm will prove stronger. In the chase, it is the question of whether the quarry will escape, or be captured. In order to lengthen these into full scenes, there must be a sequence of smaller conflicts playing out which are progressively dealt with en route to the final conclusion.
However, it is vital that these smaller conflicts be interesting in themselves, and not just be an extension of the larger. So, it cannot just be ‘our hero sees a new foe before him’, to be cut down and defeated in a repetitious succession of thud and blunder. There must be some wrinkle, some particular that must be overcome in a way that requires something specific of our hero, that engages him. It is not enough simply to have a quick foe, or a massive one--that quickness or size must be given some particular thrust--some detail that makes it feel true to the reader, that makes it imperative to the hero’s momentary survival.
Kane is meant to be preternaturally skilled and competent--but even the most certain man must grit his teeth and will his way through at least some of his struggles. The combat often ends up lacking a sense of danger or thrill or unpredictability to keep things moving. It shows how difficult it really is to produce the kind of exciting flow that Howard seems to create so effortlessly--almost thoughtlessly--in the Conan stories.
Wagner’s dialogue likewise shows a niceness that causes it to lose much of the punch it might otherwise have. Firstly, he walks that line le Guin marked in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in that when he makes his language conversational, it can start to feel overly modern and plain in the mouths of these outlandish characters. That isn't to say that characters in fantasy should all speak like chivalric knights errant, but creating conversation that is both rough and retains a period feel is no easy feat.
Secondly, like many authors unsure of their own voice, he seems to fear being misunderstood. So, he leaves nothing implied, allows no subtle nods, instead making sure the whole is stated outright for the reader. So, if we have our hero speaking with a shady character, a dark-cloaked spy who works both sides, you can be certain that at some point, there will be an aside where he thinks to himself ‘I’m not sure if I can trust him’. If two characters are planning to break into a castle, one will probably mention that he doesn’t want to be caught and tortured.
There’s a reason that writers don’t do this: ‘While fully dressed and facing forward, he walked with his feet across the green grass lawn’--most of those words simply aren’t necessary. The exact same image is communicated by ‘He walked across the lawn’. The true job of a writer is deciding what needs to be shown versus what can be left unsaid. If our hero walked backwards on his hands while naked across a perfumed lawn of purple bones, that might be worth mentioning. Ultimately, it makes Wagner’s writing tedious to get through--less like characters engaged in conversation and more like two writers plotting the outline for a script.
The Cthulhu bits are played too straight, too matter-of-factly. Wagner isn’t adding anything or putting his own spin on it, he’s just lifting Lovecraft’s descriptions whole cloth. Indeed, the characters often speak of magic and demons with all the wonder and fear of a mechanic talking about rebuilding an engine.
Moreover, the events of the story don’t really seem to touch Kane, to change him moment to moment. Of course, his immortality would give him an unusual point of view, and it’s certainly not unthinkable that he should feel disconnected from the world--jaded and detached. But even so, this jadedness does not seem to drive him, it does not modify his reactions, it simply leaves him blank. With Moorcock's Elric, we get the idea that he has grander desires that drive him, even if they tend to be personal ones, and he otherwise feels separate from the world.
Now, if the intent were to explore the existential ennui of immortality, that could make for an interesting story, but the events of Kane’s life are very much the norm for a sword & sorcery hero--battles and demons, pirates and assassins. His own actions in this world are also very much the norm, so it’s not as if we’re being provided with some fresh outlook or approach to underscore his unique perspective.
I was excited to try this series, based on it's reputation--a darker Conan, a modern take on Eddison's and Anderson's violent, blood-and-glory tales--unfortunately, the tone, characterization, dialogue, and plotting simply weren't up to the challenge. Ultimately, though Wagner is certainly reaching for what might be an interesting vision of fantasy, he never quite succeeds at bringing it to life, on the page.
I've spoken before about the constant invention and reinvention of the 'Mystical East' in Western fiction, but by and large, the reason authors do thiI've spoken before about the constant invention and reinvention of the 'Mystical East' in Western fiction, but by and large, the reason authors do this isn't to malign the East, or to produce propaganda--these are just the secondary results--indeed, it isn't really about the East at all, it's about the author and their own personal self-invention.
It is the dark and coursing undercurrent of European perversity, sensuality, and violence which inspires these writers. It is an obsession with transgression, with things that cannot be openly and plainly discussed. The technique here is to express and explore these forbidden topics, but then to blame them on the image of the East in order to create the necessary safe distance, providing the author a buffer, a layer of deniability.
There are whole structures in our language built to produce just this kind of distancing. We talk about 'French' kissing, or 'Greek' love--we named buggery for the Bulgars, and mutual female desire for the residents of Lesbos. Even as we discuss, request, and engage in these acts, we blame them on someone else. Even as we perform them, we typify them not as our own behaviors, but the behaviors of others.
It's not as if our desires to do these things are going to go away, so instead, we personify and externalize those desires. A man sees an attractive woman on the street, he desires her, and he thinks of her as the source of that desire--but while it might be true that she inspired the desire in him, it is still he who is desiring, the desire comes from within him. Her role is passive, because she can inspire such desire without even being aware of it.
And yet, there are men who will blame her for that desire, who will project their own desires onto her: 'she wants it, if she didn't, she wouldn't dress that way, it's flattering, girls like being appreciated'. It is just an attempt to justify this desire, to justify feeling it, or even acting on it.
The same pattern of justification is evident in colonialism: that the colonized power must want to be colonized, must need it. Again and again, the argument was made that they wanted to be ruled, that they couldn't make it on their own, that they were immature, brutal, uncivilized, and that to be ruled was a gift. Domination stems from a desire for power and control, for profit, to take advantage of others, everything else is merely excuses, projections onto the passive party to blame them for being acted upon.
As such, the notion of the East became a natural site for displaced desires. Pulp stories are sites of sex and violence, which has long been their bane, as it makes them a target for censorship and blame. As such, it makes sense that pulp authors would use projection and justifications of this kind to ‘take the heat off’, to present sex and violence with a naturally built in buffer, a socially accepted rationale: we’re presenting it not simply to revel in it, but to present cultural dynamics that we all know are true.
But this means that, beyond simply condemning such presentations of the East as racist and convenient, we can look at them as they actually are: messy representations of the Western id run rampant, presented under a thin veil of obfuscation. After the colonial adventure tales of Kipling and Haggard slipped out of popular venues and were related to study in classrooms, the vision of the 'Mystical East' on which they relied found a new home in Sword & Sorcery fantasy, and there may be no more pure and evocative representation of it than here in Smith's Zothique.
The prose is precise, unusual, powerful--the voice of a poet. It is neither the plodding dulness of Lovecraft nor the sometimes grasping repetition of Howard. This is the true and unique world of Sword & Sorcery fantasy which some other authors labor to inhabit, rich and perverse and full of deathly passions. Lovecraft cannot match it, nor Burroughs, nor even Howard, its most notable practitioner. The lineage of influence stretching from Smith to later fantasists is obvious, for instance the sense of humor that pervades these tales, which Vance reproduced in a tone much more dry, and Leiber in one very much less.
Even they were not quite able to capture the pervasive world Smith presents. It may be painted in crude images of ebony-skinned, thick-lipped, obese enchanters, but if it’s crude, that’s only what it’s meant to be. A complex, nuanced view of the imagined East would deny its presentation as a photonegative of the West (or at least, of how the West likes to imagine itself). The oversexed, overly violent projection of the id can hardly be presented in subtle terms.
The fairy tale must be drawn in broad strokes, lacking the subtlety that allows for various interpretations. It denies the reader access to the inner workings of the piece, denies them the privilege of interpretation. Instead, it is done as propaganda, simplified enough that the sides are clear.
This is why the post-modern habit has been rewriting and reimagining these fairy tales, looking at them through the eyes of the ‘villain’, looking at the absurdity of the symbols on which the allegory relies, symbols which inevitably fly apart when analyzed closely. The story deconstructs the tale by going through all the same steps, but refusing to make the same assumptions.
As such, is it possible to recreate the invented East in a modern tale, or is that the equivalent of taking the allegory it represents for granted? Does injecting any kind of subtlety, realism, and other such space for interpretation make the wild, strange, exotic setting impossible? I'd be curious to see a skilled author try it.
Perhaps it was inevitable that, as evocative as his uncanny realm is, it tends to dwarf his characters, making it difficult to get into their heads, or to care much about them. This was one area where Howard outperformed him, producing figures of suitably 'gigantic melancholy and gigantic mirth' to fit their grand stage--and Leiber took the same formula even further.
To some degree, this is a deliberate aspect of Smith's style: he is not interested in whether his characters thrive or survive, indeed their wry downfalls are often part of the charm. Yet, these are not quite the tonal explorations of Dunsany, where characters are entirely secondary to description, rhythm, and feel. We do spend time with Smith's characters, with their thoughts and feelings, their desires and motivations, and yet, for all this, they rarely manage to stand out.
And while this collection has some very strong stories, the presentation sometimes suffers. The final story has a strong premise, interesting themes, but Smith presents them simply, in straightforward narration, making it feel more like an outline or summary at times than a story. Though he has a strong poetic voice and interesting language, in comparison to an author like Dunsany, he lacks a light touch, the subtlety that weaves magic throughout. A story’s theme should become clear to us based on the events described, the characters, the details, the use of words--not just explained to us in so many words.
Though he is certainly a writer with flaws, the sheer idiom of his style draws us in: the strength of his voice, and the unusual, playful way that he treats his tales. In the few stories where either the characters manage to sparkle, or Smith simply allows them to subsist in the background as the true protagonist, his setting, takes its rightful place, this series contains some true gems, visions which have inspired not merely other authors, but the very innovators of fantasy, writers who have changed its course, and who have created unique worlds in their own right. Smith is a stylist and a grandfather to stylists, demonstrating that often times, the only way to write is to take things too far, to indulge, to get lost at play, to produce a repast so rich and overwhelming that we cannot savor it--but neither will we forget it....more
In the hands of its most talented practitioners, Sword & Sorcery can be thrilling, scintillating, and deeply ironic--which makes it all the more rIn the hands of its most talented practitioners, Sword & Sorcery can be thrilling, scintillating, and deeply ironic--which makes it all the more regrettable to see just how thoughtless and cliche depictions of race and sex tend to be in the genre. Part of what excited me about the prospect of reading this hard-to-find series was that it is very much about race, a self-aware deconstruction of one of the genre’s historic failings.
It is that--as well as a dip into African History, a fascinating (and vast) slice of the human story that is too often ignored and downplayed--especially in the face of the endless pseudo-Medieval setting that covers the fantasy genre like a fetid swamp. However, the parallels with modern, Colonial slavery and the complexities of identity of American Blacks born to that tradition are a bit too on-the-nose. I would have appreciated more of a Humanistic look at the role slavery has played in human history, as well as the way that racial identity is coded and manufactured socially--it’s a vast and important set of ideas that needs more than simply the xenophobia of Lovecraft versus the modern, post-Civil Rights view to encapsulate it.
It was pleasant--particularly after trying the Kane series--to read stories which are so intensely focused upon the hero's internal life: his decisions, thoughts, experiences, and emotions. Never was there that struggle to connect the character to the world and to the story--as so often crops up in tales of ‘impossibly muscled’ heroes who cleave their way from danger to danger by the sweat of their brow, but otherwise remain aloof.
Unfortunately, Imaro’s successes were too often the result of a sort of generic ‘strength’--an overcoming by gritting one’s teeth, and simply coming out the other side unscathed. It’s always a shame to see a writer give in to such a simplistic resolution--but it's very common, and not only in the fantasy genre. There are few things more escapist, more wish-fulfilling than the notion of achieving something simply by wanting it enough, willing your way through, and forcing your preferences on the world. If only the world would bend to us, recognize that we are right, and let us have our way--but such a fantasy makes for a poorer story.
I wished that these internal struggles felt as personal and emotional to the character as his motivations. Intense conflict is such a great place to reveal a character, to show how he differs from everyone else on the page--what unique approach he takes, in light of his experiences and personal style.
Of course, that requires the imagination and skill of a seasoned author, while this is only Saunders' preliminary outing. There's certainly a lot of room for improvement, but also a lot of strong elements that make the story engaging and readable. I'll have to give Imaro another try, down the road, and see how he progresses....more
"I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I'd rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas." -Michael Moorcock
With this simple sentenc"I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I'd rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas." -Michael Moorcock
With this simple sentence, Moorcock reveals something troubling and endemic to the fantasy genre: that not enough fantasy authors start out with fantastical ideas. There are a lot of big writers out there (with really big books) who don't have very big ideas. But perhaps that shouldn't surprise us, since their ur-inspiration, Tolkien, has a remarkably vast amount of skill sadly limited by a very small vision, while Moorcock is the opposite: a man with grandiose visions who is sometimes limited by his meager skill.
Certainly, Moorcock is capable of some pretty, frilly prose, and shows in this story, as in the tale which opens Elric's saga, that he is capable of providing a consistent tone and driving plot. But, at his core, he is still (at least through the early Elric stories), a pulp writer, and he admits as much in the introduction to 'Stealer of Souls', talking about how many of the stories were rushed, how some were written for money, that many disparate stories were combined to make saleable novels, and how most of these stories were explorations of ideas that he would only fully develop in later series.
I admit I appreciate this straightforward humility much more than the pretension of many in the genre, and as usual, it is the most humble author who tends to produce the best work--it is almost as if some level of restraint and self-awareness was vital to being a skilled writer. Though not all of his experiments work out so well, like Leiber, the earlier writing seems to have the most drive and vitality. While this dark, mythic vision of Ragnarok might be the conclusion of Elric's tragedy, it actually comprises some of the earliest stories.
Like the introductory story of the series, this one has a consistent arc of plot and tone, and is much more concerned with Elric's psychological struggles than some of the others, where he is more standoffish and archetypally mythic.
There is also an interesting crossover here between Elric's story and the historical myths that inspired him--namely the Song of Roland, and it is an interesting choice on Moorcock's part to create a literal connection to his inspirations instead of merely a symbolic, allusive one. It is another sign of his authorial inventiveness and boldness to delve suddenly into pastiche and give his mythic world a very real connection to his reader's reality.
Once again, I am struck by the fact that, reading the entirety of the original Elric tales, I have grossed about eight-hundred-fifty pages, and in that space, have gotten a character's life: his several loves, many companions met, befriended, lost, and mourned, empires destroyed, mythical realms explored, and a worldwide war begun, waged, and concluded. In many other fantasy series, I might still be waiting for the plot to actually pick up.
Already I have gotten a depth and breadth that exceeds many longer works, and that is despite the fact that several of the Elric stories are experiments that never quite concluded, and thus acted as filler. I know that Elric is not quite an 'Epic Fantasy' (though it does have some epic scope), but it seems to me that too few authors actually have enough ideas to actually fill a series the length of the average epic.
Moorcock does have a wealth of ideas, many of them promising and unusual, and it's unfortunate that Moorcock never quite explores them all, though he has said that for him, the Elric stories were just the opening forays for concepts he would develop more fully later, and so I look forward to reading those later books and seeing how his promising concepts play out when he has the opportunity to put more time and thought into them. One complaint I had with the stories was that the interesting magical cosmology of the world never seemed to manifest in the characters, who tended to be more mythical than psychologically complex, and if, in the future, Moorcock is able to rectify this, it would deepen his fantasy immensely.
The conclusion is impressive, and if all of the stories had the same drive, continuity of tone, and depth of psychology, it would be a much stronger series. As it stands, it is an interesting experiment, an exploration of fantastical concepts that, if not as focused as we might hope, at least present a unique, inspiring vision of what fantasy can be.
There is an unusual tonal conflict central to almost all of the Elric series between the complex, metaphysical, magical world and the rather straightfThere is an unusual tonal conflict central to almost all of the Elric series between the complex, metaphysical, magical world and the rather straightforward, formulaic characters. Elric, himself shows some complexity and nuanced introspection in the very first story, but then the focus changes and we embark upon a sequence of adventures where a recognizable pattern emerges.
Again and again we see Elric battling against difficult odds, his terrible sword at first ably defending him, but soon its strength fails, and he is compelled to call upon pacts with spirits for aid, never certain whether they will obey or abandon him. Sometimes this is done well, and the summoned creature gives us an insight into how Moorcock's world works--and while it may temporarily solve Elric's problem, another conflict often develops from that solution.
When it is not done as well, it becomes predictable, a standard way to resolve story conflicts. Yet, I am reluctant to entirely condemn it, even then, since it is really no more repetitive than the fantasy hero who fights his way out of everything, or who calls upon some inner magical strength to inevitably overcome.
In addition, there is something mythic in the formulaic way that Moorcock constructs his stories and characters. It reminds me of how Howard always refers to Conan as 'panther-like', sometimes several times a story. At first this just looks redundant and sloppy, until one begins to think in terms of Homer or other classic epics, where the repetition of certain elements, particularly descriptions, becomes a character motif, like the epithet of a king.
Moorcock's stylistic formula extends beyond this convention, however. After the first book, I kept waiting for Elric's character to catch up with the complex metaphysics of his world, but he never does. It never quite extends down to the characters, because they are not created with the same philosophical outlook.
They are not, fundamentally, characters of existential realism and modern psychology, but mythic, archetypal figures, who develop friendships or rivalry insouciantly, who bear loves and hates that are ultimately facile. Like Beowulf or Roland, they are beholden to the plot, and their motivations, more often than not, are not willful, but received.
Which is why it is all the more unusual that the world, the cosmology, the many dimensions and realities, the magic, the gods, and the spirits tend to be so strikingly modern, owing more to quantum theories than to the great traditions. The characters cast their eyes back, while the world is halfway into an unknown future, which produces a rather strange effect. It is not that the characters are never existential, it is rather that, if they do have existential thoughts, they approach them like mythic archetypes would.
So, to some degree, I have stopped waiting for Elric to become a fully-fleshed, modern character, realizing that I only expected it because of the modern philosophy which underpins Moorcock's world. However, I am wary about declaring this experiment of his a total success. It is certainly interesting, unusual, and thought-provoking, but I am not sure that these two parts ever find a real common ground.
One definition of genius is 'the ability to take disparate ideas and synthesize them into a single, new idea', and while Moorcock sometimes approaches this, he never quite succeeds so fully that it satisfies, and so the core of the world and the characters are always strangely at odds.
More than this, the stories sometimes lack focus. They do not always have a central tone or idea that ties them together, even if there is a progression of plot, it can be somewhat arbitrary. Yet in this book, we get some of the most vibrant, cohesive tales in the entire series, reminiscent of the sort of focused excitement that make the Conan and Lankhmar stories so delightful.
These stories were almost enough to pull out a four-star rating, but it still felt rather patchwork, with some stories running too long, others feeling rushed, and rarely a strong enough central tone to tie them together into a larger arc. I have one more story to read before I try one of the much later Elric stories, and I am very curious to see whether Moorcock is able to tighten his ideas into a more streamlined conceptual whole, as he did in Gloriana.
In my last two reviews, I have talked about how Moorcock's fevered imagination keeps these books aloft, even when the plot seems to grow disconnectedIn my last two reviews, I have talked about how Moorcock's fevered imagination keeps these books aloft, even when the plot seems to grow disconnected from the series, or the characters grow repetitive, but he seems to be losing steam, for this book moves along apace, advancing the plot here and there, but not materially adding anything new to our understanding of the world or the characters.
Moorcock's shorter plot arcs lack the grand set pieces and focus which make Leiber's and Howard's works so delightful, and even if the brief episodes which make up the larger plot might be called 'short stories', they do not show the completeness or unity of idea of Conan or Lankhmar.
I keep longing for a return to form from Moorcock, wishing that he could combine those moments of lucid, pretty prose with his wild metaphysical magics and the brooding introspection which first defined Elric. But alas, it grows harder to look past his errors when he begins to repeat himself.
As usual, he has problems finding scenes which illustrate his characters, and so he ends up relying on exposition, or on the characters talking at length about their own thoughts and reactions, which always ends up feeling stilted and incomplete, especially when those traits are not always outwardly demonstrated.
the series itself begins to grow repetitive, as Elric is always followed by some bosom compatriot, who by the end will be betrayed, or killed, or lost, or all three. Likewise there are the female interests, who seem to traipse in and out of Elric's life to torment him, but who often have little character of their own.
The series focuses narrowly, sometimes unsparingly, upon Elric himself, but it feels as if much more could be done with his character if he had an equally strong supporting cast to play off of. When secondary characters are summarily introduced and dropped, it becomes harder for them to have any effect on Elric--and if they do produce some sudden effect upon him, it can feel rather overly convenient if the relationship has not yet been fully-developed.
One of the hallmarks of the Conan series is that in each story, Howard shows us very different sides of Conan: different humors, desires, fears, and outlooks. In the first three stories we get Conan young, aged, and full-grown, and each portrayal depicts a different sort of man.
Clearly, with Elric, we would not expect so drastic a shift, as we follow him from place to place in chronological order, but I do find myself disappointed that we don't tend to see other sides to Elric: he is always brooding, somewhat naive, and less callous than he imagines himself. I keep waiting to find something surprising in him, some aspect of depth before unexplored.
In short, I wait for the mad philosophical explorations which live in Moorcock's magic to reach Elric, to show up in him in some fundamental way, to change him or leave a trace on him, to become an exploration of his character, and more than that, of his possibility.
The series is always looking forward, always moving forward--sometimes too quickly, sometimes without a chance to build or pause or ponder--but always moving; and I have to ask myself: for what? Where are we going?
Certainly there are hints, there are moments of conflict and feeling for Elric, but rarely are they given time to emerge, rarely is the story constructed so as to reveal them naturally. If they are not constructed carefully, over time, then when they arrive, they will always be too early, or too late, and seem almost inconsequential in the face of the vast cosmic conflict which tends to make up the heart of the story.
Elric feels weak and unsure. He travels somewhere to reach something strange and magical which has piqued his interest. He battles an otherworldly thing, which he defeats, but he now feels drained. He wanders through a strange dimension and faces another thing, which is powerful and dangerous. He almost dies, but then he summons something and it saves him. the most recent of a series of doomed soldier friends saves him and makes an ironic quip (always ironic). Elric departs no richer than he arrived, and despondent at his failure.
I am still enjoying this series, and it shows a lot of promise, but at this point, the gap between what it is and what it could be is widening. Sure, it's still more interesting, original, and better-written than most of the fantasy out there, but I'm desperate for it to really find its groove. Moorcock has the tools, I just want to see him use them all at once.
Too few fantasy authors ask what 'magic' means, which is a problem, since, with a few notable exceptions, magic is what makes fantasy fantastical. WheToo few fantasy authors ask what 'magic' means, which is a problem, since, with a few notable exceptions, magic is what makes fantasy fantastical. When reading Moorcock, it becomes clear you have found an author who is very interested in exploring what 'magic' is, and who has made very deliberate decisions about what his magic means.
Magic is a conceptual space. It was created, inadvertently, as a representation of the inner reality of human thought, as opposed to the external reality of the physical world. Human beings saw the physical world around them and, in attempting to understand it, created a matching symbolic world in their heads.
They looked at a river, which moves and changes, floods, and pulls people under, and they imagined a River Spirit for it. They would have a string of bad luck, remember a person who had spoken ill of them, and imagined they were cursed. Magic mostly exists as a way for people to take inexplicable things and imagine how they might be controlled or personified, hence making them more 'human'. So magic is largely symbolic, because it is made up of ideas, of the meanings that we create to make sense of the world around us.
Thus, anyone who has studied the history of magic, from epic poems, myths, theology, and early sciences--like astrology and alchemy--can see that magic shifts and changes with time to match the changes in how people think. As a conceptual, metaphysical space, magic is made to fit our changing ideas and philosophies.
Because of this, magic is fundamentally different in different cultures and at different time periods, because of what the people in those places and times are capable of imagining. If you go back to the myths of the Ancient Greeks, you will not find teleportation, alternate realities, or time-travel, because these ideas are based on modern knowledge and theories.
When the gods move swiftly from one place to another, they must still pass the intervening space--however quickly--because dematerialization does not have a place in the ancient Greek worldview. We may get visions of the afterlife and spirits who take the form of men, but they not the concept of an alternate world which is like ours, and which contains an alternate 'you'.
In plotting my own fantastical stories, I have often struggled in deciding whether or not to include such modern concepts in my magic, fearing that my story would end up like so many others: with characters, politics, and magic feeling so thoroughly contemporary that barely anything fantastical remains. When an author makes magic a simple replacement for technology, a tool for resolving plot conflicts so the characters don't have to, structuring it with points and levels and 'schools' like a videogame, it ceases to feel magical.
What makes it magical is when it is unpredictable, unusual, and when, instead of solving all the characters' problems, it makes new problems. But until reading Moorcock, I had not considered that since magic is built from the geography of the human mind, it could be used to look forward as well as back through time.
A fantasy author who seeks to capture the feel of the past must research, and must make sure the psychology of his characters and his magic give the reader insight into a different place and time. Likewise, a fantasy author can take a cue from authors of Science Fiction (and Speculative Fiction) and show us a vision of the future of human thought, even if it is dressed in the trappings of an ancient myth. Apparently, the problem with dull genre fantasy authors is not that they are too modern in their thinking, but that they are not modern enough.
As I mentioned in my review of the first volume in the Elric series, Moorcock draws on many unusual concepts in crafting his world, so that his magic is equal parts quantum mechanics and myth. The result is something wholly unique: a mythology of modern scientific concepts which are just as strange, unpredictable, and awe-inspiring as any ancient god.
In the second volume of the series, he allows his imagination to fly away with the concept, abandoning for the moment the introspective political intrigue that marked the first plot arc, and diving headfirst into something much more unusual. Instead of slowly building to a climax, we are immediately thrust through time, across dimensions, into dream and myth and symbol, where ships of fate ferry a handful of different faces of the same man to a rendezvous with the end of the world, where selves must be combined, Shiva-like, to save a universe already lost from what may be a robot and his sister.
It is jarring to say the least for Moorcock to leave us with a certain expectation after the previous book and then to abscond on this daring vision of half-dreams. Though the structure is sometimes less than flowing, and the prose rises to moments of greater beauty than the first volume, what carries it all over is the pure, unbridled imagination.
It is a vision that has proven very influential over the past half-century of fantasy--though it is an influence which often goes unrecognized. From the man-doomed-to-live to the soul-stealing sword to the battle between the forces of law and chaos over an entire 'multiverse' of realities, one is bound to find echoes of him in most modern fantasy, though sadly, very few of authors have done as much with the concepts and Moorcock did, and most have just reused them thoughtlessly, failing to recognize what made them interesting in the first place.
Eventually, Moorcock gets us back on track toward the central plot, but each smaller story is its own unique arc, reminiscent of the technique used by Howard and Leiber of creating many brief stories which suggest a larger, more complex world in the gaps between them, though since Moorcock's stories have fewer gaps, there is not quite the same sense of scale.
I would have appreciated more story and less explanation, and more character and psychology, allowing the vastness of the many worlds to loom mysteriously. Moorcock is not foolish enough to make his world truly small by over-explanation, but I enjoy a story more when the setting serves the characters and the plot, and not vice versa, and Moorcock sometimes crosses that line.
But throughout he is surprising, as the ideas drive the story along at a clip. It sometimes feels as if Moorcock is worried that his story might not be different enough, that he needs to establish the incomprehensibly vast strangeness of his world quickly and fully, but that's the thing about the incomprehensibly vast: it can't really afford to be rushed.
There is little risk of Moorcock being like other writers because he has a thoughtful, well-considered direction for his world. He has asked himself what magic means, what purpose it serves, and what sort of tool it is for him, as an author, and he has a good answer. If magic represents the inner-workings of human thought, then why should it have any limits other than what we are capable of thinking?
I have spent a long time searching for a modern fantastical epic which is worth reading. It seems like there should be one, out there, somewhere. I haI have spent a long time searching for a modern fantastical epic which is worth reading. It seems like there should be one, out there, somewhere. I have so enjoyed the battlefields of Troy, the dank cavern of Grendel's dam, Dido's lament, Ovid's hundred wild-spun tales, perfidious Odysseus, the madness of Orlando, Satan's twisted rhetoric, and Gilgamesh's sea-voyage to the forgotten lands of death. And so I seek some modern author to reinvent these tales with some sense of scholarship, poetry, character, and adventure.
There are many great modern fantasies, but the epic subgenre lacks luster. In reading the offerings--Martin, Jordan, Goodkind, Paolini, even much-lauded Wolfe--I have found them all wanting. They are all flawed in the same ways: their protagonists are dull caricatures of some universal 'badass' ideal, plot conflicts are glossed-over with magic or convenient deaths, the magic itself is not a mysterious force but a familiar tool, and women are made secondary or worse (though the authors often talk about how women are strong and independent, the women never actually act that way).
But then, they are all acolytes of Old Tolkien, who is as stodgy, unromantic, and methodical as a fantasist can be (without being C.S. Lewis). Though I respect Tolkien's work as a well-researched literary exercise, it is hard to forgive him for making it acceptable to write fantasy which is so dull, aimless, and self-absorbed. It is unfortunate that so many people think that fantasy began with Tolkien, because that is a great falsehood, and anyone who believes it does not really know fantasy at all. It nearly died with him.
Yet there are many who do think he started it. They like to comment on reviews, especially reviews of their favorite books--especially negative reviews of their favorite books--which have, lamentably, become a specialty of mine. And often, they end up asking me "Well, what fantasy do you like?" There are many I could name, numerous favorites which have shocked and overawed me, which have shaken me to my core, which have shown me worlds and magic I dared not dream. But none of them are epics.
I could mention Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a powerfully self-possessed work and one of the only fantasies of the past twenty years that I consider worth reading--the other is China Mieville's Perdido Street Station--but these are a Victorian alternate history continuation of the British Fairy Tale tradition and a New Weird Urban Fantasy, respectively. I could mention Mervyn Peake's Titus books, which so powerfully inhabit my five-star rating that Mieville and Clarke must be relegated to four--but this is a work whose fantastical nature would probably not even be apparent to most fantasy enthusiasts.
Alas they are not good counter-examples. I can (and do) mention Robert E. Howard's Conan, and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series, but these are fast-paced adventure stories, and though their worlds may be vast, mysterious, and grand, the stories themselves lack the hyperopic arc at the heart of an epic work.
But there have been many suggestions, many readers who have come to my aid, and who have named authors I might look to next, in my quest: Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Jeff VanderMeer, Michael De Larrabietti, John M. Harrison, Scott Lynch, Patricia McKillip, and John Crowley (Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss have been both suggested and sneered at). It is my hope that, somewhere amongst them, I will find the exemplary epic fantasy I am looking for--but I haven't found it in Moorcock.
Moorcock is good, he has scope, depth, complexity, and long, twisting plots, but at their core, his stories are modern, metaphysical, and subversive. They are light and lilting, ironical and wry--too quick and twisting to be 'epic'. The characters are introspective and self-aware, and it is clear that it is they, and not the world, who will be at the forefront.
It is all so thoroughly modern, so reinvented, full of sprightly ideas and metaphysical brooding. But it is decidedly not modern in the accidental, self-defeating ways of all those pretenders to the 'epic' title. The characters are not merely the male-fantasy counterpart of a bodice ripper, with modern, familiar minds dressed thinly in Medieval costume. The world is not simply our world with an overlay of castles--dragons for jet fighters, spells for guns, with modern politics and sensibilities.
No, Moorcock's world and characters are alien and fantastical, but Moorcock does not achieve this by ripping them whole-cloth from history, but by extrapolating them from modern philosophical ideas. Fantasy stories have always been full of dreamscapes, of impossible places for the reader to inhabit. These places draw us in, somehow we recognize them, like our own dreams, because of what they represent.
Anthropomorphism is the human tendency to see people where there are none: to see smiling faces in wood grain, to assign complex emotional motivations to cats, and to curse at the storm that breaks our window. The 'Other World' of British Fairy Tales is based on the latter: the assigning of our luck--good and bad--to capricious spirits. The world of fairy has rules (as do storms), but those rules are mostly a mystery to man.
But Moorcock's world personifies the ideas of Kant and Nietzsche: his 'Other Worlds' (called 'Planes') are those of the human mind: they are places of morality, like heaven and hell, except he has updated the concept to existential morality. There is Chaos, and there is Law; Chaos is the selfish urge, Law the communal urge, and he arrays his magic, spirits, and dreamscapes along this axis.
Like Milton, he has infused his epic with the latest thoughts and notions, updating it for the modern age. Also like Milton, Moorcock's influence has been felt, far and wide, despite the fact that most people do not recognize it.
The Dungeons & Dragons game prominently used his Law/Chaos dichotomy, among other concepts, and his 'Wheel of Psychic Planes' is an influence on their most audacious and unusual publication, the philosophical 'Steampunk' setting, Planescape. And many of these tropes have filtered down into the grab-bag common to the modern voice of fantasy stories.
Reading Elric, one will invariably be reminded of a dozen other books and games, as Elric drinks endless potions to maintain his strength and vitality, slaying twisted demons on a plane of fire in search of a rune-sword, dressed in ornate black armor and a dragon-helm. Indeed, the central mythology (and much of the plot) of the Elder Scrolls games--in particular Oblivion--owe a vast debt to Elric and his world, and not simply for the land of 'Elwher'.
Clearly, Moorcock's odd vision has been transcribed onto the imaginations of fantasists, but as with those who were inspired by Tolkien, most of his followers have failed to recreate the weight of the original message. Except for a few outliers, like Planescape and Perdido Street Station, most authors have copied the outward appearance of Moorcock's alien world, but were not skilled or knowledgeable enough to take the substance along with the form--the existential ideas, the vital core of his dreamscapes, are most often missing, or at best, faded.
But while the ideas and the overall vision are strong--even compared to the ubiquitous attempts to recreate them--there are a number of flaws in Moorcock's presentation. The first and most damaging is a weakness in the voice. Moorcock has a lot to say, but must sometimes resort to explaining his ideas to us. He is not always able to deliver his world and characters through interactions, hints, tone, and actions. He is hardly an inexperienced enough author to explain to us that which is already self-evident, but it is a weakness in his delivery which sometimes takes us out of the flow of the story, so that we must step back from the world and listen to Moorcock talk about it, though he does do his best to veil it with Elric's thoughts.
Secondly, it can be difficult to get a strong impression of his characters, they are often difficult to sympathize with or to predict. It isn't that they aren't vivid and active, but that their actions are often based around ideas and concepts--the things Moorcock built his world on--which can create a sense of a top-down world, where the characters are there to fulfill a purpose, to explore various notions and philosophies.
The book is certainly not an allegory--there are no easy one-to-one correlations to be made between characters and ideas, but the world does not revolve around personalities--except, perhaps, for Elric's, but his thoughts and motivations are often the most difficult to reconcile. The personalities of all the other characters are, more or less, wholly dependent on him.
To some degree, the characters seem to operate on much older fantasy rules: their capricious yet repetitive acts becoming motifs for the larger ideas in the story, not unlike Tolkien's fantasy forefather, E.R. Eddison, whose characters seem half-mad with heroism for its own sake (another candidate for my favorite epic, if I didn't think his beautiful, deliberate archaism might prove too remote for many readers).
Part of the reason for this is that Elric's personality and world were created as an exercise, and with an explicit purpose: to portray the anti-Conan. He is sickly, weak, pale, effeminate, sorcerous, erudite, cruel, reluctant, intellectual, and hardly promiscuous. Conan becomes king by his own hand, while Elric begins as emperor and we witness the hardships of his downfall.
But this contrariness, while coloring the story, is hardly its center. Moorcock uses it as a springboard--an inspiration to drive him to something greater. It is one more example of the fact that genius is at its best when it has a lofty challenge before it. Moorcock is not interested in making a parody, but in exploring a little-trodden path, operating on the notion that if you start with something familiar and begin to move away from it, you are bound to end up somewhere else.
I must also mention an unbelievable incident involving a group of blind soldiers, which put dire strain to credulity. A bit of creative myth or capricious magic could have saved it, but as it stands in the book, it makes little sense.
But despite the subtle weaknesses in voice and characterization, Moorcock's idiomatic adventure story is eminently enjoyable. There are few fantasy books I could name which suggest such a playful intellect as this, and though it is not as wildly imaginative as his Gloriana, this philosophical exploration disguised as a pulp adventure is a delightful read that never gets bogged-down in indulging its own thoughtfulness.
It's disappointing the way modern critics often fail to address issues of race as they are presented in books from earlier time periods. Sure, when wrIt's disappointing the way modern critics often fail to address issues of race as they are presented in books from earlier time periods. Sure, when writing of Howard and Lovecraft (or even Twain and Poe) critics will not fail to repeat some notion that their racism is 'an unfortunate artifact of that time and culture'--but that is not the same as actually meeting the issue of race head on and dealing with what it means in a text.
The way an author approaches race is an integral part of their worldview, of the philosophies they explore and the ideas they present. But, it is also an issue that continues to be contentious, and critics rightly fear the harsh response that often comes when we open up that Pandoran box. So instead, we excuse it, or condemn it (it amounts to the same thing), as if by merely pointing it out we can diffuse it, absolve ourselves of actually doing the dirty work of unpacking it: 'I acknowledge that the author was Racist, and that it was Bad--so having got that out of the way, let's move on to my real analysis ...'
But critics cannot be allowed to let themselves off so easily--we much be brave, and push on. In talking about Howard's racism, it's not with the notion that I should defend him , or repair him--or least meaningfully, condemn him--but that, in order to understand Howard, it is necessary to understand how he conceptualized race, how he used it, and what it means to his stories.
As ever, with Howard (not only with his presentation of race, but also sexuality and politics) the surface tends to be grim, resembling familiar forms of prejudice: dark-skinned, menacing foreigners, scanty-clad maidens to be rescued, all problems solvable by a combination of fascist force and Nietzschean will--but beneath that, there is always more subtlety, more awareness, and more irony than Howard tends to get credit for.
In this collection, the racist hypocrisy is actually laid bare in a single narrative moment:
“The Picts were a white race, though swarthy, but the border men never spoke of them as such.”
This is not race as some inescapable, god-given aspect of identity, an inherent piece of the human soul, but as self-identity, self-creation, an act undertaken by men to separate themselves from one another. Conan himself makes the same separation, both in his own words:
“... we can’t have the cursed devils making so free with white men’s heads”
and in the view of others:
“These barbarians live by their own particular code of honor, and Conan would never desert men of his own complection to be slaughtered by people of another race. He’ll help us against the Picts, even though he plans to murder us himself ...”
Yet again and again, Conan’s own cultural background is equated with that of the Picts: he is a barbarian, like them, a wild creature born in the wilderness. The events of Beyond the Black River show Pictish lands being colonized, the natives driven out and replaced by Aquilonian farms and forts--until finally, civilization pushes too far, and the Picts unite and fight back. The Picts are then compared to Conan’s people, the Cimmerians, who also eventually rose up and attacked the Aquilonian fort built in their own lands, destroying all the settlers--a battle where a young Conan fought against the White invaders.
So Conan shares a great deal with the Picts: he is wild like them, not tame like the Aquilonians, and yet he goes to great lengths to differentiate himself from them--using the tool of race to ally himself not with his fellow barbarians, but with ‘civilized men’--while at the same time scorning the softness and ineptitude of the city-born.
Though built in the same mold of ‘Mighty Whitey’ characters like Natty Bummpo or Tarzan--the White man who is both better at woodcraft than the natives and able to outsmart the civilized men--Conan is actually born to it, actually a tribesman who has ‘lifted himself up’. It is unfortunate that Howard does not do more to explore what is clearly a deep internal conflict for Conan, trapped between these worlds, competent in both, and yet unsure of his own racial and cultural loyalties.
The resolution of the story does provide a kind of resolution, and one which should surprise no fan of Howard's--in his work, it is always barbarism that wins, because barbarism is the more pure, the more natural state of man. For Conan, as much as the trappings of civilization might tempt him, as much as he lives off of it as a scavenger, as a predator, the civilizing influence is always tainted, always stagnating, rotting away at the core, unable to sustain itself against animal man.
It might seem an odd tack to take, for a modern White writer in post-Colonial America--in many ways, civilization had already won, and won big--but that's precisely the point, and Howard's portrayal of this romantic, somewhat tragic figure of the noble primitive adds another wrinkle altogether to his portrayal of race.
By the time of these later tales, Howard was having trouble keeping himself interested in Conan stories. This tended to happen with all his characters as he went on: he would gradually find himself more interested in supporting characters, or in the politics of the world, or just in telling a different kind of story altogether. Hence, these stories mark a deliberate change on Howard’s part. In his own words, he’d ‘abandoned the exotic settings of lost cities, decaying civilizations, golden domes, marble palaces, silk-clad dancing girls, etc., and thrown my story against a background of rivers, log cabins, frontier outposts, buckskin-clad settlers, and painted tribesmen’.
In short, he was trying to write stories of the American frontier, with the Picts and Cimmerians as the native tribes, and the Aquilonians and Zingarans as then English and Spanish, respectively. Of course, choosing the painted Picts is natural, since they were the rebellious natives whom the Romans pushed out, clearing the forests for lumber and building farms and forts in their place. There is certainly a place for such stories in the ancient world, but unfortunately, Howard’s attempts don’t draw on those earlier portrayals--they are too modern, too American, and the character and world of Conan seem to be a bit lost in this fresh setting.
The ancient empires, strange magics, cosmic horrors, crumbling temples, immortal priests, sensuous ports, and Atlantean curses of Ashton Smith are left behind, as are the stoic Norse sagas which mark Conan's origins--and along with them, the majority of the tone and depth of Hyboria also dissipates, until we’re left with Howardian versions of Hawthorn’s Leatherstocking tales or Sabatini's Captain Blood, inexplicably featuring Conan at their center--well, perhaps not inexplicably: after all, Howard knew that Conan stories would sell.
Indeed, The Black Stranger is actually written along the lines of a Gothic novel--a disgraced count in exile on a desolate island with his beautiful niece, a roguish courtier-turned-pirate after a lost treasure, a deadly and unseasonable storm, and that shadowy threat that looms over all in the stranger, himself. Conan himself barely shows up through the first half of the story--and when he does, he's dressed in full 17th Century pirate regalia. Perhaps sensing the ill fit, Howard later changed out Conan for a different lead character and updated the setting.
These stories are considered some of Howard's best by some critics, as the essays included in the Del Rey edition demonstrate, and they certainly do have some things going for them. As he enters his thirties, Howard's prose becomes tighter, his vocabulary both more varied and more specific--no longer do we see the same crutch words and repetitions that marked the earlier tales. But also gone is the tone and vibrance which set the Conan stories apart.
The actual structure of the stories also leaves something to be desired--they are somewhat piecemeal and meandering, the conflicts often solved by convenient interruptions, and with a general lack of interesting set pieces and stand-out scenes. In quite a few instances, characters act in ways that make little sense in context--in the last story, for example, Conan and others keep switching sides in the middle of combat.
That isn't to say that this new, crisp style of prose couldn't have worked for Howard, were he just writing pirate tales and frontier stories, but adding the additional layers of ancient Hyborea and Conan stretch them too thin, setting them tonally at odds with themselves. Certainly, there is much more of Howard the American in them--the stories are more personal to his experiences, but mixing them with the Conan mythos does them no favors.
Beyond that, the wild Picts, a 'White race who are not called White' become just another example of over-romanticized natives, that White-guilt urge to go 'back to nature', while at the same time painting the natives as both less and more than human, both pitied and put on a pedestal, but never actually considered as more than an image, a grand symbol for the spiritual enrichment of Whiteness.
The sexual politics are likewise troubled: though Valeria is in some ways a refreshing figure--she is actually competent, actually seeks her own equality, is skilled with a sword--in other ways she’s more constrained than many of the other female figures in Conan stories. Simply being strong of arm and having masculine traits does not make a female figure a strong character--and beyond that, it takes for granted that the only way to add strength to a female character is by making her more like a man.
What is missing in the romances of these stories is the woman’s point-of-view which made earlier Howard stories intriguing: that we got to see those women from the inside. They may have been constrained socially, they may not have been physically powerful, but they still chose to act out despite this--what made them strong was the fact that they were willing to question their society and to oppose it. What attracts them to Conan is that he is outside civilization, he is not simply another man who leers over them, controls them, and treats them as objects. He is interested in them in a more mutual way.
Unfortunately, with Valeria and dancing-girl Zabibi, we instead get only Conan’s point of view, and he leers and gropes after them unpleasantly as they try to avoid his advances--he even agrees to help Zabibi in exchange for sexual favors, thereby fulfilling the cliche which Howard earlier subverted in ‘The Vale of the Lost Women’ (though given the conclusion, it’s hinted that he never intended to collect on the bargain, and that it was likely just a ploy on his part to put her off guard). These later stories are less subversive and more cliche--the sort of thing you’d expect from a piece of unremarkable sword & sorcery.
It seems that, much like Leiber, the later, personal experiments Howard made with his best-known series were much less effective than his early outings. Perhaps it has something to do with the freshness, the wildness of an early writer being a better match for the rollicking adventures of Sword & Sorcery. With time comes polish and ponderousness, which do not match well with the genre, and even in the few examples where Howard does return to the earlier themes, the presentation is lacking--it just feels like old ground retread.
I guess that, for me, the earliest Conan stories are the best--perhaps because, like Conan himself, Howard was still finding his way, still discovering new places, still capable of surprising himself, of being delighted merely to be on the road, weapon in hand, unsure of what might be found over the next hill.
Back when I was a young fencing coach, I had an epiphany about how skill develops that has come to define the way I approach learning. I'd be workingBack when I was a young fencing coach, I had an epiphany about how skill develops that has come to define the way I approach learning. I'd be working with students who might have been fencing for a few weeks or a few months when a new face would walk in. I'd put a sword in his hand and set him up against one of the others and, as often as not, the newcomer would get a few points, despite having no foreknowledge of fencing. His frustrated opponent would sigh, shake his head, and declare "it's not my fault, he was doing weird stuff".
When we first begin to practice any activity, we have no preconception for how it's going to feel, for the rhythm or the most effective techniques--we just do what comes to mind. Then, we are taught all the basic rules, and these rules can be constraining. I could beat every one of those regular students because I knew how to deal with circle parries, ripostes, and balestras. There was nothing about the direction of attack or the changes in distance that was going to surprise me. Learning the rules changes how you think about the game, and it makes you predictable.
I've seen the same pattern in writers: often, their first few works are vivid and unusual, difficult to pin down. Writing is still a challenge to them, an unfamiliar thing which they must figure out as they go along, and creativity is always the result of trying to overcome difficulty.
After a while, they begin to settle in to a mode: they have figured out what works for them, they have the methods and shortcuts down. But without hardship to drive them, this can lead to predictable, repetitive work.
This is the second volume in Del Rey's collection of the Conan stories, and it is the only collection of all Howard's original manuscripts for those stories, untainted by later editors. As I mentioned in my review, the earlier stories from the first volume are wilder, and show more variability, depicting Conan at many points in his life, dealing with a number of different situations.
This volume is more homogenous: they are about an older Conan embroiled in political machinations, which was enjoyable for a student of history, as anyone who has read Tacitus or Sallust cannot fail to recognize Howard's stylistic inspiration.
That isn't to say that the stories do not also contain the patented bloody action which Conan is known for, but for the first time I began to feel that Conan didn't need action. His stories are always about human desires, about interaction and struggle, and open conflict is only one way to resolve such conflicts. Howard shows he is willing and capable of exploring other aspects of his world, and that, unlike other authors who wrote about the character, Howard never forgets that Conan is not merely some emotionless killer, but a man with "gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth".
But the style and tone of these stories becomes predictable. We do not get the subversive women or eccentric secondary characters, instead there are mostly cliches and placeholders, dull copies of figures we've seen in earlier stories. It seems like Howard has settled into a groove here, which isn't beneficial for pulp or weird fiction.
But there is one thing in this collection that is new for Howard: length. Many authors have tried to transition from short works to novels, and it's rarely a pretty thing to watch. For later master of Sword & Sorcery Fritz Leiber, the additional length meant a loss of pace and depth. Whereas before, a hundred pages would hold a half dozen stories, each with its own tone and setting, now it was all the continuation of a single tone.
But Howard shows that he is able to make the transition without losing his fast pace or his myriad views of the world. Though the novel-length Hour of the Dragon takes many themes and ideas from previous stories, the way they are woven together with action, intrigue, and a larger, overarching plot is skillful. There is no filler there--indeed, there are a number of scenes that could have run on longer, with more detail, without hurting the book's pace.
The larger plot is reliant on that genre standby: the fetch quest for the magical mcguffin--but Howard's treatment of it is not as simplistic or convenient as most genre books. Conan doesn't port the thing around in his pocket and pull it out to get himself out of jams, the same magic both opens and closes the action of the plot, and the item itself has its own history, distinct from the events of the plot. Beyond that, any careful reader familiar with the Mythos connection between Lovecraft and Howard will see numerous clues about how magic in Conan's world has a more insidious, cosmic source.
What was disappointing in the story was the fact that, despite depicting an ancient, pre-deluge world, the combat was all described in terms of high chivalric cavalry charges, longbows, and heavy armor. It would have been more interesting to see a take on Greek or Roman warfare instead of a rehash of Doyle's White Company, especially one so out of place with the tone Howard sets.
So it seems that after his early experiments, stories that were sometimes erratic but rarely repetitious, Howard has settled into a more predictable style, that plateau we all hit after we have learned and internalized a set of rules. But then, why learn them in the first place? The secret is that once we have mastered those rules, once they are second nature, we can begin again to experiment, and to become unpredictable.
Though many think of a 'black belt' as the sign of a master, in truth it is the sign that a student has learned all of those basic things which must be gotten out of the way before the real learning can start. It is only once those basic elements no longer occupy us, we are free to really explore. Just like my young fencing students, you begin unfettered, but also unskilled. As you learn more and more of the rules and techniques, you also become predictable. It is only when you internalize those rules, when they become second nature, that you can become unfettered again, combining knowledge and unpredictability to produce the great hallmark of the master: innovation.
It was my hope that in the next volume, Howard would be able to combine the creativity of his early works with the reliability of this middle stretch and produce final stories might live up to their reputation as the strongest of the Conan tales--but alas, Howard died too young, and never reached that peak. Though the final volume is more polished, more personal, and more thoughtful, never again does he recapture the youthful vitality of his earliest tales.
A lot of fun, much like the stories that inspired them. Though Chaykin's pacing is sometimes choppy, his use of the language is delightfully in-characA lot of fun, much like the stories that inspired them. Though Chaykin's pacing is sometimes choppy, his use of the language is delightfully in-character. It's unfortunate that the series didn't catch on, it could have been a more humorous compliment to the many successful Conan comics.
As usual, Mignola is a delight, though it's amusing to see him at a much earlier stage, where his lines are more sketchy and his angular shading has that definitively early nineties 'edgy' look so favored in comics and Vampire roleplaying books. I love his draughtsmanship, particularly the buildings and statuary, which manage to be intricate and mysterious without relying on the obsessive miscellany of a Bachalo or Darrow.
It's always interesting to see how artists characterize Fafhrd and the Mouser, since they are not as narrowly-defined as Conan or John Carter. The Mouser, in particular, has always been a shifting, undefined figure in my mind, with the sort of average, forgettable face that lets a thief lose himself in any crowd.
Mignola's Mouser is a little more beefy and heroic, with sharp, Eastern-European features, which I found an interesting vision, and fitting for the character. I also appreciated Mignola's range of expression and the pure personality of his characters, something all too rare in comics, where wooden faces scream with an unsettlingly even mixture of joy, hatred, pain, and sorrow.
In the end, there's no replacement for an inspired artist....more
What it is that makes Howard so much more compelling than his many imitators? To the untrained eye, it may be hard to see differences, since his faultWhat it is that makes Howard so much more compelling than his many imitators? To the untrained eye, it may be hard to see differences, since his faults are sometimes more readily apparent than his virtues, though he has plenty of both. Some might try to 'salvage him' from his pulp origins, but despite all his literary aspirations, I'm happy to call him a pulp author, and one of the best.
I have a great deal of praise for this edition in particular, volume one of a three-part series which collects for the first time Howard's Conan stories as he originally wrote them, without the meddling of either magazine editors or De Camp (who shamelessly rewrote Howard's unfinished stories to match his own views, and released them as 'originals'). It is also first to publish them in pure chronological order, eschewing all and sundry attempts to produce an official 'internal chronology'.
Howard meant the order to be somewhat ambiguous, mimicking the epics and histories that inspired the names and events of his stories. Our delightful editor plays the old Lit Crit game of connecting all the dots from the Conan tales to their origins in Plutarch, Bullfinch's Mythology, Lovecraft, or Bierce. I'm indebted to her for helping me to see Conan with new eyes by lending me the perspective of the Howard scholar.
Seeing the way his world sprang up from notes, sketches, and maps is fascinating, and the critical essays try to get a little more mileage out of Lovecraft's misunderstanding of Howard's pseudo-historical names. They are meant to be evocative of a world that, while familiar, still holds surprises. We can recognize a type, a historic conflict, terrain, and temperament without being tied down to the specificity of true historical fiction.
Howard did not want so narrow a view, and was never a stickler for small details, as evidenced by the singular madness his chronologers develop trying to account for the appearance and disappearance of Conan's red cloak and horned helm throughout the stories. Howard liked an underpinning of consistency, but excitement and story always took precedence, which is why, despite drawing names and plots from history (much as Shakespeare did), he never let them bog down his stories, always aiming, above all, to entertain.
When I say that we get Howard without editorial meddling, we must still understand that he was writing for an audience, and that much of the excitement and titillation in his tales was a sugaring of his pill for the lower denominator. Yet for all that, much of his psychology and sexual politics is deceptively complex. It is easy to dismiss him as a cliche strong man with an endless following of swooning women, but there is something more subtle at work.
Firstly, each story that shows Conan in a relationship is written from the point of view of the woman. Often, Conan does not even appear until after her character and situation are already developed. We rarely get an emotional insight into Conan, into his plans or emotions, but we do see into his heroines, which is the reverse of most fantasy romances.
In addition, Conan is often painted as the object of desire. The author's vision rests equally on the desirability of Conan and of the women, showing how and why feeling might develop between them. Conan, having been raised outside of civil society, cannot charm the women, bargain with them for favors, or fool them. His appeal is not that he has wealth, prestige, or grooming, but that he is attractive, confident, physically powerful, guileless, and does not mingle his desires with ulterior motive. He is part 'bad boy', but he is also attractive because he lies outside the arena of sexual politics--something like dating someone outside your high school to avoid the judgment, name-calling, in groups, and jealousy that would otherwise result.
The women are often the victims of civilization; that is to say, they have been carefully bred to be beautiful, desirable, and controlled. They rarely have power in their own cultures, often finding themselves at the whims of powerful men, and so it makes sense that they would seek out Conan, who is not a part of this unbalanced social system, and who has the physical and mental strength to protect them from reprisal when she abandons that culture.
On the surface, "The Vale of Lost Women" is the story which most condemns Howard as a chauvinist (and racist), but there is a subtle subversion within the tale that shows Howard as a much more canny student of the human condition than most give him credit for. The premise of the story doesn't do Howard any favors, and certainly hasn't aged well: a well-bred white woman has been captured by a barbaric pseudo-African tribe by whom Conan has found himself employed.
He finds the woman accidentally, during a revel, chained up in a tent, and she begs him to release her, saying that surely not even a barbarian like him would leave a white woman in the hands of the cruel black chief. It's hard to read without feeling a lump of political correctness rise in our throats--but socially and historically, it's neither and absurd statement, nor an insulting one.
'Odalisques' or white, virgin girls were the most valuable in trade for Barbary pirates to Moorish harems. Even today, Black women get fewer responses in online dating than any other race/sex group. Just because it's unpleasant doesn't mean that it isn't socially true, and just because it is a current social fact doesn't mean that it is an ultimate, universal truth.
We can say it is a social fact that women have been historically controlled and judged by the slut/virgin dichotomy, but that doesn't mean that they desire to be controlled, or to be sluts or virgins. It also doesn't mean that stories which portray this unfortunate dynamic necessarily support it. As students of Nietzsche and Machiavelli know, saying 'this is how the world is' is not the same as saying 'this is how it ought to be'.
Let me say that again: just because a writer presents white women as more culturally valuable doesn't mean that they are any more attractive, intelligent, or worthwhile than any other person. Cultural values are funny things, and don't necessarily align with real values. Just because someone is willing to pay $500 for a rare Beanie Baby doesn't mean that a Beanie Baby is somehow intrinsically better than a comparatively cheaper encyclopedia or road atlas.
It's easy to get hung up on what the author is specifically saying, and hard to step beyond it and look at how and why it's being said. A character's statement is different from an author's, and Howard is surprisingly careful to keep social observations in the mouths of characters, and out of the omniscient narrative voice. After her appeal to racial loyalty, the woman offers herself to Conan in exchange for being freed from the tribe--aghast at the lengths to which she must go. But Conan laughs.
He laughs and tells her that she is sadly mistaken if she assumes that she can merely trade sex for favors, as she has been taught to do in civilized society. It's this simple observation that shows that Howard (and Conan) are better students of the human condition than they get credit for. For Conan, sex does not have this connotation of a social trade, it is an act engaged in out of desire, not coercion. He scorns the 'civilized' notion that women are property to be bargained for. This separation is the same conclusion Angela Carter makes about De Sade in her incomparable Sadeian Woman: that the trade value of sex must be unveiled and demystified in order to approach any kind of sexual equality.
We must recall that this understanding of sex is enforced on both sides, and that if women have an artificially increased value in sexual social trade, it will eclipse any other value they have, or that they might wish to have, and few will consider them as anything else.
But Conan, being outside of that system, values women differently. After his moment of insight, he shocks us back with his barbarism, saying he really couldn't leave a white girl like her in the hands of the chief, and that he's tired of 'black sluts', which is unpleasant and unsympathetic enough to clamp our minds shut again, though whether it might be true to the world or the character (who has hang-ups with his own racial identity), I leave up to you. After all, it is rare that a person raised under one set of signifiers for attractiveness learns in later life how to appreciate a completely different idea of beauty.
He does decide to save her, but not in trade for sexual favor, which once again separates Howard from the thud and blunder writers who followed him. Again and again, if we look at Conan's scattered romantic relationships, we see that he is only interested in the fulfillment of mutual desire, and that the woman's side of the relationship is often the one Howard chooses to explore. Conan rejects the notion of coercing women, let alone forcing them, as beneath him.
He doesn't pressure women, or conquer them, or trade for sex, and the women are constantly surprised at his lack of overture, his refusal to make a game out of the whole thing--or a schoolboy's lovesick obsession. But then, Conan is less interested in an 'erotic victory' than in mutually beneficial pleasure, even if that pleasure is not socially condoned, and is, instead transgressively focused on female desire. Conan's outsider status as a barbarian allows him to approach women on more-or-less equal terms, giving them an opportunity to reject the values which otherwise bind them and to choose for themselves.
Sure, the relationships and their consummation might be idealized and romantic--they're still pulp--and I'm not claiming Howard didn't harbor certain racist and sexist opinions, but the way these themes develop psychologically in his work is rarely so simple. Howard, like Conan, was a man of contradiction and surprising subtlety.
His language also makes his work stand out from the pack: high-energy, evocative, and well-paced, his world and characters are always alive and active on the page. He takes generously from his historical and literary influences, playing with vocabulary and style to evoke a far-off period without growing so distant that he risks losing the uninitiated, as an eccentric linguist like Eddison is liable to do.
One thing the reader must come to terms with in order to enjoy him is Howard's repetition. He has favored words, phrases, and descriptions that come up again and again throughout the stories, and sometimes they feel like crutches. Part of it is that these were to be consumed as single stories, so some repetition would not likely have been noticed--but it happens even within a story.
At these points, I am tempted to compare Howard to the deliberate repetition of the epic tradition of the 'Homeric Epithet', an oft-repeated poetic phrase that becomes part of the rhythm of the text, such as "wine dark sea" or "long-haired Acheans"--or the way every warrior in the Shahnameh is described as a lion, and every beautiful woman is a cypress. Howard knows that there is power in phrases, and by repeating them, he creates motifs, identities, and connections. But, as usual for Howard, it's a combination of highs and lows: we get glimpses of his powerful, poetic language intermixed with his less effective, florid attempts.
But more than even his most effective prose (and occasional, surprisingly unoffending poetry), what sets Howard apart is his pure storytelling. His sense of pacing is admirable, often cutting out unnecessary scenes that other writers would not have realized were redundant. The stories flow along, drawing equally from the verisimilitude of historic tales and the archetypal form of the adventure story.
He moves fluidly through themes and styles, combining romance, war stories, supernatural horror, political thriller, and treasure hunting all in one story, maintaining a lilting, surprising pace without losing the story's center. His stories as a whole also work to build a grander world, much of it left for the reader to complete between hints and loose threads. There is a definite sense of historical discovery in this style, and the first three Howard stories give us Conan as a king, as an untried youth, and as a wary reaver.
Read a hundred pages of Conan and you will get a picture of a whole life, a man in different stages, changed by the world. We also get a glimpse of that world, and understanding of its places and ways without being explicitly told what they are. Compare this to almost any other fantasy writer, and they will come up short.
A hundred pages of Tolkien, Jordan, Goodkind, or Wolfe, and you haven't even left the protagonist's home. You won't get a view of the world, nor character growth. You might read a thousand pages of a fantasy series and see less growth than you would in a few Conan stories.
My question has always been: what do we gain from those thousands of extra pages? A more exciting story? A more complex world? A deeper character? Sadly, the answer is often no. Few authors seem to have taken Howard's lesson that saying more isn't as easy as simply writing more.
But then, Howard set the bar pretty high. There's nothing wrong with pulp, because pulp is written for an audience. Too often, these days, one seems to find authors obsessed with a kind of 'pure' writing that refuses to bow to any audience, editor, or sense of fun, and all you're really left with is pretension.
Pulp often gets a bad rap--the unshy way that it approaches sex, race, and politics can make a modern reader feel awkward, but at least these stories are actually, in a very real way, confronting and exploring those issues--and forcing us to do so, as well. Though the next two volumes of Conan stories never quite reach the vivacious heights of these early outings, I have to say: for all his flaws, it's still hard to find a fantasy writer who can better Howard.
Picked this up because it was a cheap binding of many of Howard's Conan stories. I've since gotten the much more thorough and accurate Del Rey collectPicked this up because it was a cheap binding of many of Howard's Conan stories. I've since gotten the much more thorough and accurate Del Rey collection, which I suggest highly. This edition doesn't include any of the stories De Camp altered and finished, publishing them under Howard's name posthumously, so one need not worry about bowdlerization or other tampering.
Curiously, this edition was published in Thailand, which is likely cheaper, but I wonder if they are also profiting by the fact that in most countries besides America, Howard's stories recently entered the public domain, which isn't likely to happen here as long as the Mickey Mouse Laws keep getting passed.
What marks this book as particularly cheap are the slapdash illustrations, one of which is featured on the cover in blotchy color. If this is the same John Ridgway who made a name for himself in 2000AD, Hellblazer, and Judge Dredd, I'm at a loss to explain the sad quality of the art here. There are occasionally signs of quality in the hatching or backgrounds, but for the most part the drawings are indistinct, lacking in chiaroscuro dynamic, and the anatomy is flat and ungainly. Perhaps it was a rush job, perhaps Ridgway is suffering from a recent hand injury--or perhaps the publishers decided it would be cheaper to publish his roughs rather than pay for completed pieces.
Still, it's this sort of thing that makes me wish the publishers had asked me. I may not have name recognition or much of a portfolio, but I can't help but feel I could have improved on this book. I was reading a few stories in here, but now that I've found my Del Rey, I think I'll switch to that.