J.G. Keely's Reviews > The Bane of the Black Sword

The Bane of the Black Sword by Michael Moorcock
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Jan 17, 2012

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bookshelves: fantasy, uk-and-ireland, reviewed, sword-and-sorcery
Read from January 15 to 17, 2012

There 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.

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