Michael Moorcock

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.

Book Diary: Michael Moorcock – The Sword of the Dawn

The Sword of the Dawn (Hawkmoon: The History…Third volume in The History of the Runestaff, and the one I liked best so far. There are some scenes that take place in Londra, giving us a closer look at the inner workings of the Granbretan court that allow Moorcock to go really over the top with the decadence and present readers with the kind of concise but colourful imagery that they have become accustomed to for this series. Here, everyone is at everybody else’s throat, the society only held together by the centuries-old monarch, a wizened figure in a glass globe with the mellifluous voice of a youth. Bizarre inventions abound, and almost before we notice, Moorcock takes us and his protagonists off to America – a place which on the far future / alternative world (it is still not clear which, but I’m increasingly leaning towards it being both) of The History of the Runestaff seems almost like a different planet. The series comes closest to an Edgar-Rice-Borroughs-style planetary romance here, but it is like a story outline by Burroughs as penned by Clark Ashton Smith. Moorcock lets his imagination go totally over the top here, and it’s really astonishing just how much weirdness you can pack in about 150 pages of pulp plot.

Like in the first two volumes, this third one describes the first half of a journey that will be concluded in the fourth novel which is also the series finale – I rather like the symmetry at work here, and suspect that if one took the trouble one might find a lot of correspondences between various characters and places in these novels. And other novels by Moorcock, too, as his whole vast Eternal Champion series is based on correspondences, on repetition and variation. It has been said of that series that it is basically the same novel, written over and over again, and there certainly is something to that – but I do not think that this shows a failing of Moorcock’s inventiveness, quite to the contrary: Given that endless repetition, the echoing of the same fate through times and worlds is precisely what the series is about, it’s a monument to Moorcock’s virtuosity how he has managed to keep this central subject fresh and interesting (at least for the most part) over so many novels. The History of the Runestaff, while still light on Eternal Champion mythology shows a kind of foreshadowing of this in the way it tells very familiar adventure stories but in the telling twists and turns them into something very bizarre and uniquely Moorcockian.

Book Diary: Michael Moorcock – The Mad God’s Amulet

The Mad God's Amulet (Hawkmoon: The History…The second volume in Michael Moorcock’s History of the Runestaff tetralogy. After we followed our hero Dorian Hawkmoon of Köln from the Camargue to Persia (or rather, this series’ twisted versions of those places) in The Jewel in the Skull, The Mad God’s Amulet, in a neat bit of symmetry, takes us from Persia back to the Camargue, thus making the first half of the tetralogy a closed circle.

In fact, The Mad God’s Amulet does read more like the second half of The Jewel in the Skull than a novel by itself (something that will be repeated for volume 3 and 4 of the series), so generally we get more of the same of what Moorcock served up in the earlier volume, and just as tasty a dish: Again a conventional quest adventure (this time even including a damsel in distress) is embellished and garlanded by the products of Moorcock’s fertile bizarre imagination until it is barely recognisable. I doubt there was any Fantasy author writing at the time who would have been Moorcock’s rival for the sheer audacity of his vision- what other writer would  have dared to send his protagonists into battle riding scarlet flamingoes and gotten away with it? There are not many who could pull that off today, and those that might have likely all been influenced by Moorcock in one way or another. (I can’t help the impression that there is a strong influence of the History of the Runestaff in particular on Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadow of the Apt series with it’s mixture of science and magic, its ruthless evil Empire and the distortion of its personnel through masks / insect kinship.)

And like in the previous novel, it are those imaginative flourishes, those over-the-top inventions that range from the sleekly elegant to the outlandisly garish, but that always shimmer darkly with a sensuous decadence that make The Mad God’s Amulet into something special. Supposedly Moorcock churned the Eternal Champion books out at an insane rate at the time (up to one novel per day (!)) in order to finance New Worlds, the avantgarde SF magazine he was editing – and if that is true then it really is a marvel how he managed to transform his pulpy narrative into something so rich and strange. Either way, this is both fascinating and highly entertaining stuff, and I’m starting to understand again why I used to be such a huge fan of Moorcock’s work as a teenager.

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.

(more…)