What I’m Reading: Michael Moorcock – The Jewel in the Skull

This one, even more so than last year’s re-reading of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series, was a real trip down Memory Lane for me. I think I must have been about 13-14 years old when I read my first work by Michael Moorcock (an Elric novella in an anthology edited by Lin Carter). I suppose I must have been very susceptible for tragic anti-heroes as a teenager because I was very enthusiastic about the story and immediately began to get and read (it’s hard to imagine for me today, but back in those days I didn’t have a TBR shelf) everything by Michael Moorcock I could get my hands on. As I didn’t read English at the time, and the selection of available SFF books was rather slim at the time, rather than starting with the Elric books, my first Moorcock novels were his History of the Runestaff tetralogy, of which this is the first volume.

Returning to a book one has loved as a kid or a teenager always bears the risk of ending up shattering some fond memories when it turns that the characters once dear to one’s hear are insufferably clichéd, the plot one used to follow with bated breath ludicrously unlikely and the writing once admired unbearingly wooden. So I started this re-read with some trepidation, but soon could lay my fears to rest and let myself be carried along by a novel which turned out to be pretty good even beyond the rose-coloured haze of nostalgic recollection.

Although I have to say that I enjoyed different things this time round – when I read this and the suceeding novels as a teenager, it was mainly the mystery of the Runestaff and the tragic fate of the melancholy hero that held my interest. These days, I am finding the plot rather predictable and not quite as keen on emo characters (not that we had that term back then) as I used to be. But what I enjoy and even admire is the sheer fertility of Moorcock’s imagination, the bizarre world he imagines and the even bizarrer creatures he populates it with.

The History of the Runestaff for the most part takes place in what is either a far future or a very weird alternate version of Europe (it’s never really clear which) where in a nice inversion Great Britain (called Granbretan here) is a Nazi-like aggressor that is set to conquer the world while the resistance against them is led by the German Duke Hawkmoon of Köln. The Jewel in the Skull, like all novels in the series, is quite slim by today’s standards (it was first published in 1967), probably as long as the prologue in Brandon Sanderson’s most recent Stormlight Archive novel. This means that the novel is moving at a very brisk pace, there is no dallying for lengthy descriptions of scenery, architecture or clothing here – and it is not at all necessary either, as Moorcock does an excellent job of evoking atmosphere with just a few strokes of his literary brush. There is no lack in action either, the plot moves fast but never breathlessly so, sending our hero from London to France to Persia on a quest to get rid of the title-giving jewel implanted in his skull by the evil forces of Granbretan. The only thing that seems to get somewhat short shrift is character – it has to be said that everyone here is pretty flat and there’s not really any development either. But that might very well have been Moorcock’s intention – The History of the Runestaff is part of the larger Eternal Champion series, and that concerns itself by definition with archetypes rather than characters. But the novel really does very well without them – there is not much depth to it (unlike some of Moorcock’s other works), but The Jewel in the Skull is a highly entertaining adventure novel that I do not regret re-reading and whose sequels I’m undoubtedly going to tackle very soon.

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2 comments

  1. You’re having a real Moorcock moment, aren’t you? 🙂 I have to say that I have *very* mixed feelings about him, because I dipped into a couple of his books as a teenager and found them extremely weird (Behold the Man is the one I remember as being particularly strange, although it might not be all that odd by his standards). But the concept of this series sounds rather good, and of course I’m always up for a bit of adventure. Though obviously I can’t condone your teenage susceptibility to tragic heroes *ahem*.

    My one concern is that you mention the characters being a bit flat… But I’m going to read your reviews about the rest of the series and see whether the element of adventure makes it irresistible nevertheless. 🙂 I really should try Moorcock again at some point, anyway. Shouldn’t I?

  2. Well, the whole tetralogy is about 600 pages altogether, that is considerably less than a single volume of most Fantasys series out there these days, so reading them all in pretty much one go is not as impressive as it may sound. 😛

    Moorcock of course has had a very long and very productive writing career; the Runestaff books he wrote very early on and mostly to make money, characters in his later books tend to have more depth. But for what he’s doing in these novels, the archetype approach works pretty well, I think, anything more involved would probably just bogged things down.

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