Book Review: Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress - Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone Book 3
In works of fiction, especially fantasy and romance novels, the old maxim of nice guys finishing last receives a reworking to "nice guys just aren't as interesting". While its true that the really evil characters have diabolic natures that make them fun to read about they're usually too one dimensional to to make and enduring character from. No, since the earliest day's of story telling, the characters that have made reader's hearts of both genders beat a little faster have been those bearing the scars of a tragic past.
Preferably he, or she, should exude the type of sadness that only comes from being the cause of their own misery. They should never simply sit and think, but always brood - lurking in a shadowy part of the room where the occasional flicker of light from a nearby candle or fire can throw their face into momentary, stark, relief or give a glimpse of eyes that send shivers down spines. Ideally they are of course loners who eschew the company of others on the grounds that being cursed as they are, all who they dare to love, or even have a casual drink with, will die in their arms.
It was the 19th century gothic novel where these characters pushed their masses of dark hair, and smouldering good looks into the forefront - Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights fame being the Platonic ideal - and they have been brooding their way into the hearts of millions ever since. Unfortunately the line between archetype and cliche is a thin one, and an endless supply of tall, dark, and morose characters can start to wear on you no matter how attractively they are packaged. So when Michael Moorcock first introduced the character of Elric, the brooding, sickly, and cursed albino scion of Emperors from the lost kingdom of Melnibone, novelty alone made him interesting. Bone white skin, long flowing white hair, and pink eyes may not sound immediately romantic, but make him tall and thin and clothe him entirely in black and have his sickly body sustained by the souls his sword, Stormbringer, steals as it slays, and that puts an entirely new complexion, so to speak, on the matter.
Since his first appearance in the 1960's Elric has been popping up in everything from comics, graphic novels, magazines, to books. As Moorcock primarily wrote the Elric stories with the magazine market in mind, most of them were of short story or novella length. A new series, Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone, has gathered together not only the tales of Elric, but all of Moorcock's work that intersects with Elric and his world. In volume three of the series,Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress, being released by Random House Canada on November 25th/08, two interconnected series of stories have been gathered together. The three novellas that make up the title series, The Sleeping Sorceress are set in the mortal realms, The Young Kingdoms, with Elric in his familiar guise of a soldier of fortune. The second series, originally written in 1972, Elric Of Melnibone, is a prequel that details events that took place when Elric was still Emperor and how he came to be in possession of Stormbringer, his fearsome runesword.
The three parts of The Sleeping Sorceress detail Elric's attempts to track down an evil sorcerer named Theleb K'aarna before he can find him. Jealous of a queen's unrequited love for Elric, Theleb hopes that by destroying the albino he will win the heart of the woman who spurned him. While Elric doesn't really have a problem with dying, in fact there are days he would quite welcome what he hopes would be the lovely embrace of oblivion, he knows that Theleb K'aarna won't be satisfied with only killing Elric, but will seek further vengeance by harming those few Elric loves.
As Elric and his companion Moonglum seek out the evil one they meet up with an unexpected ally, the beautiful Empress of the Dawn, Myshella. Although a long time enemy of Melnibone, she serves the gods of Law while those of Melnibone served Chaos, it is Elric she turns to for help to free her from an enchantment that Theleb K'aarna has placed her under. Her body has been forced into an almost eternal sleep, and although she is able to resist and appear to Elric in his thoughts for now, soon she will succumb to the curse and die.
Moonglum and Elric are able to successfully revive her and with Myshella's aid defeat Theleb not just once but twice over the course of the three books. Unfortunately the last battle, from which Theleb still manages to escape alive, costs Myshella her life. When Elric first set eyes on her he had been struck by her uncanny resemblance to the lost love of his life, Cymoril, and all his old guilt and remorse had been brought to the surface. Worst of all was the fact that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't resist loving Myshella. Her death only further convinces him that there is a doom upon his head that ensures any who he loves, or who love him, will die a violent and needless death.
Was there ever a time when Elric wasn't a tragic and doom laden figure? In answer to that question Moorcock takes us back in time to when Elric still sat upon the Ruby Throne as Emperor of Melnibone. The only child of the previous Emperor, not only was he born weak and sickly, his birth killed his mother. Needing special herbs and medicines to maintain his strength, he, unlike previous Emperors, spends a great deal of time studying the ancient tomes that have been collected in the nation's libraries. The world is changing outside of the island on which Melnibone is located as mortal men, recent arrivals to the world, are gaining in strength and gradually building kingdoms that might soon threaten the ancient land's existence.
However, in Elric Of Melnibone Elric's most immediate threat lies much closer to home, as his cousin Yrkoon makes no secret of his disdain for his sickly relative and ambition to usurp him. Complicating matters is that one, Elric tends to agree with Yrkoon's assessment that he would be a better Emperor of Melnibone than Elric, and two that Elric is in love with Cymoril, Yrkoon's sister. Ironically Yrkoon points to his own survival as an example of Elric's unfitness to be Emperor. For what occupant of the Ruby Throne worth his salt would let someone like him live?
Yet, we see in these stories an Elric whose life has not yet been burdened by the death of those he loves, and he is happy in the company of his true love, even if he is not content with the cruelty of his people. His studies, which have made him a far more potent sorcerer then any Emperor before his time, have also caused him to question the use of violence and power as a means of exerting control over others. Wouldn't it be better to co-exist with the people of the Young Kingdoms, mortals, then engage in a never ending struggle with them to see who would control the world?
After defeating his cousin's attempts to overthrow him, and in the process claiming the runesword Stormbringer, he returns to Melnibone determined to travel among humans for a year so that he might begin to understand them better. Thinking Yrkoon thoroughly cowed after his second defeat, he not only allows him to live on, but appoints him regent for the year he will be absent. Cymoril begs him not, fearing, rightly so of course, that her brother is even more dangerous now that he has been humiliated. Elric in his pride disagrees, and of course dooms them all; his beloved Cymoril, the Empire, and him. The first two to their death and destruction, and he to a life spent seeking out the means to forget, even if only for the shortest of times, the sorrows that plague him.
The stories in Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress have all been released before, but these new editions being published as part of the series Chronicles Of The Lost Emperor Of Melnibone represent an opportunity for those who have never experienced Elric, or the writing of Michael Moorcock for that matter, to do so in a convenient and elegantly packaged manner. The books also contain some fascinating extras, and in this edition they include; examples of the original art work that accompanied previous publications of these stories, essays by Moorcock on the nature of fantasy and comparing Elric to the Spanish hero El Cid, and the introduction to the graphic novel version of Elric Of Melnibone.
The stories as they appear in this book are the definitive editions, with any edits that magazines or other publications might have made in the name of space restrictions, or whatever, restored by Moorcock. The illustrations by Steve Ellis, which are superb black and white pen and ink drawings, are all new for this publication and are a wonderful compliment to the text. Reading these stories in their new surroundings means even those of us who have followed Elric for years, will feel like we are coming to him fresh. They not only still have the power to entertain and move, they will also give you plenty to think about. That's the real difference between Elric and other heroes, not his lack of pigmentation or the colour of his eyes.