Book Diary: Michael Moorcock – The Runestaff

The Runestaff (Hawkmoon: The History of the…The fourth and final volume of The History of the Runestaff. This is mostly a parallel narrative, chronicling the further adventures of Dorian Hawkmoon (the hero) in America in one thread and showing how Baron Meliadus (the villain) makes a bid for power in the centre of the Granbretan Empire, until both threads converge in an epic battle where the final confrontation takes place. There is little doubt of course that the hero will prevail in the end, but even so, the ending is not entirely happy – the final image of the novel is that of a woman weeping…

The Runestaff pretty much continues in the same vein as the previous three instalments of the series, and everything I said about those applies to this novel as well. One thing that is not so much fundamentally different but more in the foreground than in previous volumes is Moorcock satirizing British society of the 1960s, like in this passage where he lists

“… the terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan – Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl, Rhunga, who were said to have ruled the land before the Tragic Millennium – Chirshil, the Howling God; Bjrin Adass, the Singing God; Jeajee Blad, the Groaning God; Jh’Im Slas, the Weeping God and Aral Vilsn, the Roaring God, Supreme God, father of Skvese and Blansacredid the Gods of Doom and Chaos.”

I admit that I didn’t get most of the references here on my own (only Churchill and Harold Wilson, to my embarrassment) but he is poking fun at various politicians and other public figures of the period the novel was originally written in – Wikipedia  has the details, if you’re curious. I would not be at all surprised if there were more, less obvious satiric references to all kinds of British customs – the wearing of masks, for example, and the pathological fright of all Granbretans to take them off and show their faces is almost certainly a comment on the famous “stiff upper lip.”

Moorcock deftly mixes satire, grotesque and tragedy here, and all by using a pulp adventure plot as his vessel. Like the other novels in The History of the Runestaff tetralogy, this concluding volume never aims to be anything but fun and entertainment, but like the rest of the series succeeds in that without insulting the reader’s intelligence, because it never relies simply on repeating familiar clichés but uses them to do all kinds of interesting things and thus ensuring that the novels are still fun even if read with a somewhat more sophisticated attitudes decades after one first devoured them as a teenager.

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2 comments

  1. OK, so having read through your posts on all these books the general conclusion seems to be that they’re fascinating and clever, but completely mad (scarlet flamingos as battle steeds, for example?). There seems to have been a definite psychedelic strain in 1960s/70s sci-fi, speaking as someone who came along afterwards and obviously missed all the fun. That’s part of the sensation I had reading Moorcock before, as a child of the grey, sober, serious ’80s: that the books were immensely influenced by the out-there spirit of their time, as well as having the very vivid fantastical elements suitable to the genre. The result felt incredibly bizarre. But maybe one day I should just go along and enjoy the ride. There are certainly things you’ve described here that sound wonderful: the depiction of the Granbretan court you mentioned in one of the earlier books, for example, with the monarch trapped in a glass globe. Wonderful!

  2. Hehe, yes, that sums things up pretty nicely – I guess how much one likes those novels depends to a very large part on whether one has a penchant for the bizarre and the groteque. I for one like an over the top imagination and just love all the insanity here, but your mileage may of course vary. 😉

    If I were to recommend a Moorcock novel to you, it would probably be Gloriana in which he presents another alternative British Empire, but this time an Elizabethian one. The novel is currently out of print but should be re-released (like the Runestaff tetralogy was) as part of the Michael Moorcock Collection of e-books SFGateway is bringing out.It’s no less bizarre than The History of Runestaff but significantly more mature in subject matter and treatment. Plus, it has (if I remember correctly, that is) swashbuckling!

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