Elric Among the Nazis

Last year Gollancz announced it was going to be making all of Michael Moorcock’s genre work available both in print and in ebook form. It was exciting news for me. Moorcock was my gateway drug to genre fantasy more than 40 years ago. I own most of his stuff in paperback but the books are scattered hither and yon about the world and quite frankly you can’t beat ebooks for convenience, particularly when you’re a long term expat like me.

Recently the first books in the new Michael Moorcock Library rolled off the digital presses (or whatever) and I was delighted to note a completely new (to me) cycle of Elric tales called the Moonbeam Roads. Turns out they were not quite new– Daughter of Dreams looks like it’s a retitled version of the The Dreamthief’s Daughter but that was OK by me. I never got a chance to read it when it first came out because it was not released in the UK. As a bonus the new version comes with an introduction from both John Clute and Mr Moorcock himself. How could I resist?

Anyway, off to Amazon I go, and download the book and into the prose I leap. It’s in first person, which is unusual for an Elric book, and that first person is not Elric, nor is the setting The Young Kingdoms. The narrator is Ulric Von Bek, descendant of that Von Bek who told the tale of The Warhound and the World’s Pain and the setting is our own dear earth sometime between the World Wars. I am not too bothered because I am familiar with Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythology and the way his multiversal mythos all interlinks and hey, I like the man’s prose.

The story starts with a shuffling slowness but is nonetheless engrossing. We meet Von Bek’s cousin, Gaynor, another name familiar to people who sail around the multiverse on a regular basis. Gaynor is one of Moorcock’s more entertaining recurring villains. In this particular volume he is working for the Nazis, and in search of both the Holy Grail and the Black Sword. Von Bek’s family as it turns out are guardians of the Grail and as it happens our hero is in possession of a black sword that bears more than a passing resemblance to Stormbringer. Soon Von Bek is having visions of white hares, other worlds and an albino who looks not unlike a certain proud prince of ruins. He’s abducted by Nazis, thrown into a concentration camp, and finally escapes Gaynor’s clutches with the aid of a couple of otherworldly travellers. We’re about a third of the way through the book now though and still no Elric. I am starting to feel a little mis-sold.

Still we’re also running through the Mittel Marches, the fantasy worlds that intersect with our own in the multiverse, being pursued by Nazis through a strange tunnel world occupied by one of those idealised philosopher races Mr Moorcock likes so much. I’m not unhappy with the book so much as confused by the non-arrival of the putative star. It’s all a bit like that Steven Seagal/Kurt Russell movie where Mr Seagal gets killed in the opening fifteen minutes and you spend the rest of the movie wondering whether he’s going to reappear because his name is above the credits. (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. Incidentally it’s my favourite Steven Seagal movie.)

After some more adventures, Elric finally manifests himself by taking possession of Von Bek’s body and we have two facets of the Eternal Champion for the price of one. We also have Elric’s alien consciousness mediated by the human, first person voice of Von Bek, which is a first as far as I can recall.

The plot kicks into gear and I am sure long term Moorcock readers will be unsurprised to learn that Tanelorn is under threat, this time by Miggea, the mad duchess of Law. It’s all part of the same vast universal conflict that the struggle with the Nazis is in our world. There’s much toing and froing, chasing after Gaynor and being chased by him. There’s dragons, there’s colossal world-shaking feats of sorcery and there’s sword fights. There’s a confrontation between Elric and the leaders of the Nazi party. I don’t want to say too much else for fear of spoilers. Oh OK then– here’s one– the Nazis don’t win.

You’ve probably noticed a supercilious tone to this review. I’m not exactly sure where it’s coming from. I enjoyed Daughter of Dreams greatly. The set-pieces, like the dragon flight over Europe, are great. And Elric when he finally arrives is as full of star quality as ever. The writing is very, very good indeed.

And yet, I was left partially unsatisfied or at least uneasy. Part of it is that in places the first person narration slows things down without saying anything particularly interesting. It becomes an excuse for Von Bek to philosophise about Nazism and the banality of evil. Part of it I think is that setting Elric among the Nazis feels a bit blasphemous. Conflating concentration camps and cosmic sorcery leaves me uneasy.

It’s the sort of transgressive thing that many people love but the truth is Daughter of Dreams is a romp, and a romp through the ruins of Auschwitz seems to me a very odd thing. Moorcock does some very nice things with the imagery, including commenting on its influence on his own fiction, but in the end of the mixture of real world horrors with heavy metal, sword and sorcery imagery did not quite gel, for me at least.

As always though Moorcock is never less than interesting and the best bits of the book are very good indeed. It’s not my favourite Elric book but it is a good one.

8 Replies to “Elric Among the Nazis”

  1. I think this is symptomatic of Moorcock in some ways. He would have been writing Pyat, I guess – and what we might call literary fiction – around the same time. The depth and complexity of Elric compared to many of its peers always suggested an author with ambitions in that direction, and I personally think the Pyat novels are genuinely brilliant, but I can see how it would sit strangely if some of that tendency found its way very literally into Elric.

    1. I know what you’re saying, Matt. I love all of Moorcock’s work but I kind of grew up with him in real-time. Reading this and a lot of his later work I can’t help but wonder what the 12 year old, heavy metal lovin’, sword and sorcery readin’ me who first got into his stuff would have thought if this had been my first or even second encounter with Moorcock :).

      1. Yeah, such is the nature of discovery. If you ask people which is their favourite album by a band they like, responses will skew heavily towards either the first album they heard, or the first album which came out after they’d first encountered that band (i.e. the first album they were able to appreciate as new, ‘in real-time’ as you say), but of course what that means is people discovering any given band at those different times have quite different views of them, and are potentially quite different kinds of people. It’s fascinating stuff, really. I first encountered Michael Moorcock as a 12 or 13 year old also – however, this would by then have been the mid-90s. In fact, I distinctly remember buying Elric of Melniboné while popping out from the local Games Workshop where I otherwise spent the rest of the day gaming! Some of the older gamers in that crowd had mentioned Elric, and a few of them were roleplaying with the (by then long out of print) GW-published Stormbringer. I knew absolutely nothing about Elric but heard the name persistently over a few weeks and pounced as soon as I saw it on an actual book in a bookshop. Given the debt GW obviously owed to Moorcock, there’s an element of reverse discovery to that already, and of course Elric of Melniboné is a funny book anyway in being chronologically the first though, as I only realised later, not the first story written by any stretch.

        The opening of Elric of Melniboné remains, I think, my favourite opening to any book I’ve ever read. In fact, I’m not even sure I appreciated at the time just how great it was, or what an effect it had on me. If anything, it was when re-reading it in my early twenties that I elevated it to that favoured status. (I realised this again recently, when re-reading it yet again ahead of blogging about influences and such.) Funny thing was, after that re-reading in my early twenties, I went out and bought one of the Fantasy Masterworks trade paperbacks of the Elric stuff and that, like parts of Elric of Melniboné, left me not quite as impressed as I’d remembered being as a teenager. The ideas, the imagery – and most of all, simply the prose – remained astonishing; some of the narratives had not worn particularly well. They seemed a big quest-y, in a way I found I’d unexpectedly outgrown.

        So a few more years pass, and for whatever reason Michael Moorcock continues to intrigue me as a writer, so I thought I’d try firstly Gloriana, and then the Pyat books. Both (or all) of which absolutely stunned me – quite, quite brilliant. But would they have had that effect if I’d been looking for another hit of Elric? No, probably not – and in some ways, re-reading the Elric stuff and seeing things in it that now didn’t quite captivate me in the same way probably prepared me for Moorcock’s later stuff, and for liking the ways in which they were different. I have to be somewhat in awe of authors who can be rediscovered like that – not just found to be doing the same old thing I always loved, but doing something else I can love, in a different way. I think Moorcock’s a fairly classic example of the complex and fascinating relationship between authors and their long-time readers, and more ambitious than most authors of such longevity. More ambitious for his readership too, perhaps.

        1. I think Moorcock is basically unclassifiable in a world that thrives on categories. I am as guilty as the next man of wanting my favourite authors to keep giving me the stuff I liked when I first encountered their work and Moorcock has never been afraid to just up sticks and go somewhere else. This means I have parted ways with his work for long periods but I always come back to it and I always find something it it. I am not sure whether his versatility has been a good thing or a bad thing in terms of his career. I mentioned his name in a writer’s forum not so long ago and all I got were blank looks and porn jokes. One thing that is always there in his early work and bears very careful study is an absolute mastery of structure. This is a very under-rated gift among writers but an essential one.

  2. The only book I’ve read by Moorcock is The Eternal Champion. I’ve no idea if it’s typical of his writing, and it was long enough ago that I don’t remember much of it other than not being very impressed. I’ve still got it lying around, so I’ll try it again over the next couple of days. Generally though I tend to like the same sword and sorcery stuff you’ve talked about before, so it may just be that Moorcock is more variable than most authors.

    1. He’s not just variable, Gavin, he’s absolutely protean :). He writes in an enormous variety of styles and genres. If it’s sword and sorcery you’re looking for I recommend the early stuff –Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer are the place to start. In the UK at least they are conveniently available as a double volume called Elric in the Fantasy Masterworks series. I’m also very fond of the Hawkmoon books which are brilliant pulp-action science fantasy.

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