Friday, February 1, 2013

The Elric Saga: Tragedy or Comedy?

"Tragedy is when something bad happens to you. Comedy is when you expected a different result."
--Lawrence McDonnell

"You will find little that's cuddly in these books and they probably fail to offer the consolations found in most heroic fantasy, since they're essentially tragedies and Elric is often described as an anti-hero." 
--Michael Moorcock, Introduction to Elric: The Song of the Black Sword. 

I just finished re-reading the two omnibuses, Elric: The Song of the Black Sword and Elric: The Stealer of Souls.  I first read these when I was a teenager. Back then I thought Elric was better than the Lord of the Rings, Conan, and even Drizzt DoUrden. Moorcock's writing style captured my imagination. It still does for the most part (though I found reading Revenge of the Rose a chore).

Yet time, and perhaps reading many other books, has tempered my enthusiasm. Back then I thought Elric was a tragic figure (but cool!) Now I view him as more comedic. The saga, at first read, does have all of the trappings of a tragedy. Elric is given plenty of opportunities to avert disaster, but then doesn't, often making the problem. All of this culminates in the end of the world and Elric's death.

Okay, maybe not "ha ha" funny. But comedies can often address serious matters. In Dante's Divine Comedy, for example, Hell is terrifying, but Purgatory is hilarious as Dante reluctantly gets purged of his sins. The best stand up comedians often address serious issues.

As for Elric: He's more of a comedic figure because often acts so stupid. I'd give him a wisdom of 5.

Did Elric really expect his cousin, Yyrkoon, who'd been trying to kill him since page 1, to just abdicate the throne when Elric returned from his year long quest to find his humanity? Come'on. Get real.

What did he expect when he abdicated the throne to his cousin Yyrkoon, who'd been trying to kill him since page one and then try to get it back? What was he thinking when he found Stormbringer and continued using it? "Oh, its okay, its just forged from Chaos and my family has been dealing with the Lords of Chaos for years, it won't harm me?"

Yes, I know that Elric of Melnibone and most of the Saga was written out of chronological order, beginning with the short story "The Dreaming City," where Elric leads an army to destroy Imrryr and save his lover, Cymoril. This story, among others, became compiled with the final tale, Stormbringer, back in 1965. So yes, after 1965, most readers of later Elric tales would know what to expect. Moorcock essentially was writing prequels. In D&D terms, I want to give Elric a wisdom of 5, because with all of his magical abilities, intelligence, and Stormbringer he is so overly trusting of the people and demons around him. Vengeance drives him at times to self-destruction--and the destruction of those around him.

Which begs me to question: after his reputation spread through the Young Kingdoms, why would anybody want to be associated with him? He destroyed his own kingdom sending his own people into exile, killed his cousin, and he wields a sword that steals souls. But no, time and again these card stock characters make a deal with Elric (usually out of vengeance) and then end up on his blade. Next!

Still, when I read the Saga straight through, taking all the existentialism in one dose, there were times when I could not help but laugh. In the first omnibus, I count at least three times where Elric just gives up and wants to die. But then some supernatural being comes to his aid and says: "Oh no! Not yet! There's a plan for you!" Deus ex machina baby! But the hero really doesn't want to be saved--that's funny!

In Stormbringer, the Dead God Darnizhaan reveals to Elric: "You, your ancestors, these men of the new races even, you are nothing but a prelude to history... There is nothing, Elric-- no past, present, or future. We do not exist, any of us!" He goes on to say that Stormbringer and his brother, Mournblade, are meant to destroy everybody. And Elric should have understood this meaning. Perhaps Darnizhaan should have been more diplomatic and not have stolen Elric's lover, Zarozinia. But Elric with all of his brooding philosophical prowess, just furrows his brow "in a vain attempt to understand the situation." (That quote is from the Simpsons, he actually just shakes his head). Wisdom 5.

In stories like "To Save Tanelorn," or "The Sailor on the Seas of Fate",  Elric encounters other incarnations of himself/the Eternal Champion. And every time, he's like: "How is this possible? What are you doing here?" And the answer is: "Well, there's a cosmic game at play and we don't know the rules, and its just supposed to happen. So just go with it." "But maybe I don't want to." "Well, too bad." And then Elric laments his fate.

He's always lamenting his fate. He's like a proto-Goth. At some point it just becomes laughable--but he's got Stormbringer, so I wouldn't laugh in his face. Speaking of which...

 Even Stormbringer itself understands the comedy as the Saga comes to a close:

The entity that was Stormbringer, last manifestation of Chaos which would remain with this new world as it grew, looked down on the corpse of Elric of Melnibone and smiled. 

"Farewell, friend. I was a thousand times more evil than thou!" 

And then it leapt from the Earth and went spearing upwards, its wild voice laughing mockery at the Cosmic Balance; filling the universe with its unholy joy. 

Why is it crooked? It's the design
on the front of a T-shirt.


  1. I read the Elric series when I was really young, before I was a teenager to define "really young".

    Just last week, I found them in a box and started re-reading them.


  2. I hope I didn't spoil any surprises for you.

    But please let me know what you think when you're done with them.

  3. No worries about the spoilers. Even though I was young when I first read them, I still remember the stories. ;]

  4. Very good quote that one at the top there, I'll remember it.

    I've always felt that something awful and something funny are never really that far apart. My beloved comedians; Bill Burr, Patrice O'neal and Jack Dee are all foolish, miserable bastards at heart and openly admitted to being pieces of shit.

    I was read Stormbringer as a child, but I read Elric of Melniboné while my brother and I were trekking round the Apls, during which we get lost daily, climbed 3000 metres the up wrong mountain, didn't eat for two days, and almost froze to death.

    Still one of the funniest memories I'll ever have.


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