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The Fine Art of Dreamthieving

white wolf head 80.jpgMichael Moorcock’s latest, and last, fantasy trilogy winds different strands of his fiction together intointertwining, virtually meta-fictional narratives reflecting on mythic and heroic archetypes and the power of stories to create new realities.  If you like Moorcock, you will enjoy these books.  If you don’t like Moorcock, they probably won’t change your mind.  And if you’ve never read Moorcock, these could be a magnificent introduction to his writing or they could completely turn you off; maybe both.  Either way, they are heady stuff.

Having taken a long hiatus from reading Moorcock’s fiction
after a youthful overdose in the 1980’s, I picked up The Dreamthief’s
Daughter: A Tale of the Albino
last summer.  The book is set primarily in WWII Europe, casting villains Prince
Gaynor and Klosterheim in jackboots and swastikas and setting them against
three albino heroes: Ulric Von Bek, descendent of a family fated to retrieve
and protect the Holy Grail; the dreamthief’s daughter Oona; and, perhaps
Moorcock’s most famous character, Prince Elric of Melnibon√©, whose black sword
Stormbringer devours souls and sustains his vitality.  Elric enters these stories as incarnations of his dream-self,
thus preserving the continuity of the original Elric storyline. Other favorite
Moorcock characters provide supporting cast or back-story. As a particular fan
of Elric’s and Von Bek’s adventures, I was interested in how Moorcock would
combine these different worlds.  With
Nazis and heroes contending for powerful relics, Moorcock reinvents the winning
“Indiana Jones” formula, mixing in swords and sorcery to create a very
entertaining novel.  He also brings
considerable historical knowledge to bear, having written somberly about the
Blitz in Mother
(1988).  The
strength of this first novel encouraged me to read the other two.

Middle March 250.jpg

The Skrayling Tree: The Albino in America, was my
least favorite book of the three.  Set
mostly in a mythical North America inspired by Longfellow’s “The Song of
Hiawatha” and other imaginative pseudo-histories, the setting was not as
compelling to me; I did not relate to this vision of America.  Told through three separate narratives from
Oona, Elric and Ulric’s perspectives, the novel compromised organic plot and
character development in favor of a tripartite structure.  The inevitability inherent in this structure
made me impatient for the resolution that would finally bring all three
characters together. 

Fortunately, the third novel The White Wolf’s Son: The
Albino Underground
, returns to a European setting and a less rigid format.
The author briefly introduces himself as a narrator of Elric’s story in the
novel’s second act, but he mostly favors the perspective of a young girl,
Oonagh Von Bek (granddaughter of Oona and great-granddaughter of Elric) as she
travels from modern-day England into possible Europes both past and present.  The novel begins with conventions familiar
to fairy stories: mysterious visitations; a secret world underground; a talking
fox conversant with Voltaire and Montaigne. 
But as the book progresses, it becomes darker as the various characters
finally enter Granbretan, a looking-glass British Empire that rules Europe
under a corrupt, fascist terror state. 
In this series, Moorcock examines the evil of unrestrained Law more than
the dangers of Chaos.  I found this
final novel’s resolution more emotionally satisfying than the second’s –
perhaps because the narrative mostly stays with young Oonagh, unwillingly
caught up in the inevitable apocalypse.

Moorcock’s metaphysical themes are extrapolated from his
previous fantasy and science fiction. 
The Eternal Struggle, the Balance between Law and Chaos, the nature of
Time, Fate and the importance of individual choices are developed more
explicitly, while the relationship between his different fantasy worlds, their
Champions and their symbols of power (the Black Sword, the Grail, the Stone the
Runestaff) are further clarified. His trilogy seems intended to evoke the
stereotypes of fantasy novels.  With
each novel featuring three principle characters, being subdivided into three
books, and some quasi-magical numerological incantations (“nine by nine and
three by three”) it is hard not notice these tropes, which would sometimes
throw me out of the story.  Moorcock
counters this by having his characters philosophize within the story itself,
thereby drawing the reader back into the narrative.  As a former philosophy major, I have to admit I’m a sucker for
metaphysical speculation.

However, I wonder if someone who has never read any Michael
Moorcock would find these novels overly complicated and inaccessible.  The “trilogy” is more thematically than narratively
connected; each novel stands alone as a story and doesn’t require knowledge of
the previous books.  But the books’
richness and complexity rely very much on the history of the other fantasy
novels that Moorcock has written. 
Despite his pooh-poohing
of Tolkien
, Moorcock has created a universe (or Multiverse) with as
much mythological depth as Middle-Earth, culling some 45 years of his own
writing for these novels’ characters, settings and themes.   The self-reflective philosophizing, so very
prominent in this series, might also alienate the average reader of fantasy
novels.  Moorcock presents an overtly
cataclysmic battle between heroes and villains, but he does it with a
self-awareness that denies the pure escapism usually sought in fantasy.


David Ferris is not an albino, nor does he have any albino
ancestry.  He lives in Toronto but
fosters an active imagination of living elsewhere, of sleeping, dreaming, and
writing more and of fewer breakfast meetings and less phone answering.

8 replies »

  1. Hi Dave,
    I like me some pure escapism! However, I am curious about the metaphysical speculation you allude to. What kinds of issues does Moorcock ruminate on?
    Thanks for an intriguing review.


  2. Hi Weed,
    Most of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy novels include metaphysical statements of one form or another, and this last series even more so. He describes the universe (or multiverse, as he calls it, including many possible alternate universes) in terms of a struggle between the fundamental forces of Law/Order and Chaos/Entropy. He often personalizes those forces as deities (i.e. Duke Arioch of Hell is Elric’s patron and a god of Chaos) but he also posits these as fundamental tensions that provide the impetus/condition for life. Thus, we need some chaos/creativity/freedom for life/existence, but never absolutely. Likewise for law/boundaries/restrictions which provide a focus for otherwise unbridled energies.
    Metaphysics can be very abstract, but Moorcock always focuses on how this relates to the human condition. But perhaps it is easiest to give some examples of statements made by Prince Lobkowitz in The While Wolf’s Son:
    “Throughout the multiverse, intellegent, imaginative beings ascribe differing powers and forms to thse symbols… The cups, the swords, the rocks, are merely the more familiar forms we choose. Manipulation through representation is the quest of every alchemist…”
    “We ourselves are manifestations of those conditions. That’s perhaps why we exist at all. Through our stories, which are formed from our desitres and fears, we create order and ensure our own existence.”
    “For if you abolish time, you abolish all that makes you a living creature, as opposed to an atomic particle, which has no history but is re-created over and over again.”
    There is much more like this and I have to admit, if you aren’t partial to this then it can get pretty tiresome.


  3. >Moorcock presents an overtly cataclysmic battle between heroes and villains, but he does it with a self-awareness that denies the pure escapism usually sought in fantasy.
    The subject of escapism has been bouncing around in my head a bit lately, which might be odd considering that I’ve recently been reading an author (Ramsey Campbell) who doesn’t really allow escapism at all.
    But back to Moorcock first. I think it’s been a long, long while — maybe 15 years — since I’ve read anything by Moorcock (5 or 6 Elric novels — probably not in order — plus Behold the Man). I also remember writing a short story about Elric winding up in our world and having to take a job as a flight attendant (don’t remember where I put that thing). At that time I don’t think I was smart enough to consider what amounted to escapism, but looking back on it now, yep, that probably wasn’t escapism.
    Another example I’ve seen, in recent years, of a fantastic environment (some might say more fantastic than Moorcock’s, yet seemingly more contained at the same time) with a deficit of escapism is a series by China Mieville: Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council. Playing either a central, or at least an important role is the city-state of New Crobuzon (which, as a setting, already strays from the rural fantasy mentioned in the Epic Pooh essay). New Crobuzon has been described as a variant of a Dickensesque or a Victorian type cityscape where magic exists out in the open along with a citizenry made up of many fantastical species and races of people. It might look escapist on the surface, but factors blocking that potential “escape” are things like crushing poverty, racism, exploitation, varying levels of the criminal element, seedy underworlds, and a fascist government — along with the expected opposition groups — on top of it all. And many of those negatives are integrated into the fantastical environment (a notable example is how gruesome kinds of sorcery are used to mete out punishment in the city-state’s justice system).
    And you’ll have to pardon me, because a thought is forming in my head as I write this. (You’ve probably seen me do something like this before.)
    Looking at Moorcock’s and Mieville’s brands of fantasy I get the impression, with the fantasy settings they use, that there’s initially “room to roam,” just as there might be with other fantasy stories. But eventually you’re gathered back in — sort of a sense of…
    “Oh no, they found me!”
    And you were doing so well, weren’t you? You thought you were going to get to dance with the fairies and elves, right? But you’re not. (I know, I’m getting into rambly mode.)
    Constrast that with Ramsey Campbell. He often sets his stories in either physically or emotionally/psychologically gritty urban environments like Liverpool, its surrounding areas, or other places (which, again, runs counter to the typical rural fantasy, although a somewhat menacing rural enviroment can be found in his novel Ancient Images). While Campbell’s settings aren’t typically fantastical — although he is recognized as a fantasy writer, and a very good one — he does use fantastical elements such as hauntings and occult activities. At rare times, he does make the supernatural elements the overwhelming force, but I really think he’s at his best when the supernatural baddies are either scratching ineffectually in the background or providing the subtle nudge to move things into a bad state here in our real world. And while those supernatural forces might be weak on one level, it seems like they’re successful in corralling us in the horror of the everyday, exposing us to human crappiness at its worst.
    And by “human crappiness,” I don’t necessarily mean over violence and perversion. Some of the most infuriating or depressing behavior from the “bad guys” in Campbell’s stories is all perfectl legal stuff.
    As I wrote to somebody else recently…
    I think I’ve reached a point in reading Ramsey Campbell’s fiction that I’m about to start praying for the appearance of bloodthirsty vampires, charging werewolves, serial-killer clowns with spider legs growing out of them, or even undead pedophiles, because then Ramsey Campbell’s characters would finally be within their legal rights to physically defend themselves.
    Yeah, the really frustrating thing is that the human baddies in some of those stories can push past your limits of decency — while still staying firmly inside of whatever their levels of decency are — do things that are perfectly legal, and STILL unleash a campaign of destruction. And the baddies may not even be aware they’re doing it. They may even think they’re doing you a favor.
    “Oh? Really? What was that snippy little comment you made in The Influence? So you think it’s important to teach people to read so that unemployed people will have something to do and keep out of mischief? You really think so? And what about illiterates? Will they get to keep their jobs?
    Pardon me while I channel my rage toward caving in a vampire’s skull with this crowbar.”
    “But you can’t kill a vampire with a crowbar.”
    “Watch me. Hey, you. Fang face, come here.”
    “I vant to suck… OW!”

    So, yeah, that’s kind of what Campbell’s “inescapable” stories feel like. In fact, they’re a pretty good definition of the opposite of escapism.
    I used the word “corralled” a while ago. (Or “… corralling us in the horror of the everyday …”) And that’s kind of the feel Campbell’s stories cultivate — there’s not much room to move around.
    And if I could apply ranching terminology to the feel of Moorcock’s and Mieville’s stories, maybe the reader would feel more like “free range” livestock. Not penned in, in other words. Of course, Moorcock and Mieville have better cattle herders on their payroll.
    “Oh no, they found me!”
    Something like that.

    Alright, did I ramble too much?:-)


  4. actually, ISICIWOOMM–can i call you ISICIWOOMM?–i think your rambling was pretty neat. the whole idea of escapist and inescapable fantasy is really interesting.
    if we still had an open guest slot, i’d totally pester you to write about this. you could call it “oh no, they found me!” which is great. except, you already have written an article here in the comments.


  5. I over-dosed on Moorcock back in the mid-1980’s as a highschool student, but you make me consider revisiting his books. It seemed like he went through a phase of trying too hard to merge different series’ storylines into his many-heroes theme, and often it felt rushed and really forced. Ironically, my favorite of his isn’t part of his Albino-hero theme, but an old book in the vein of classic SF-adventure called “Warlords of the Air” or something like that.


  6. Hello Dr.O,
    You will be pleased to know that Oswald Bastable (member of the League of Temporal Adventurers) appears as a supporting character in The Dreamthief’s Daughter and The White Wolf’s Son – especially in the latter. There is also a dystopian steam-punk aesthetic to Granbretan’s Dark Empire in that final book.
    (I didn’t think about it before, but in retrospect I can see how the technology and settings of The Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan, and The Steel Tsar would be considered steam-punk.)


  7. Carol Borden said:
    >if we still had an open guest slot, i’d totally pester you to write about this. you could call it “oh no, they found me!” which is great. except, you already have written an article here in the comments.
    Maybe I could be like a tagger commentator. My tag would be whatever article-length comment I wrote.
    But the tag would be different every time. Sad.
    On the bright side, that’d make it harder for the police to determine when I’d vandalized other people’s websites.
    Things are looking up!:-P


  8. Steamed punks are gluten-free too. Just don’t eat the digestive parts because they may have eaten pizza or donuts shortly before harvesting.


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