Michael 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 Melniboné, 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
London (1988). The
strength of this first novel encouraged me to read the other two.
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
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
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.
Categories: Guest Star