When it comes to fantasy literature, almost everyone knows The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. But Michael Moorcock’s The Elric Saga is a majorly important series; even if you’ve never heard of it, The Elric Saga has had a major influence on books you read and games you play. Launched 60 years ago this month with the novella The Dreaming City, the series continues to fascinate readers.
London-born Moorcock got interested in writing and literature at a young age. By his late teens, he was an editor of the weekly magazine Tarzan Adventures and publishing his own stories in its pages. By 18, he was working on novel-length projects while writing and editing for other outlets. In June of 1961, Moorcock published The Dreaming City in Science Fantasy No. 47. The novella introduced the world to his unusual protagonist, Elric of Melniboné.
Elric was the complete opposite of other fantasy or sword and sorcery protagonists that were popular at the time. Whereas Conan was brawny and Aragorn was the noble romantic hero, Elric was a tortured soul whose body was wracked by physical ailments. He was described as thin, even frail, with long white hair, and he looked markedly different from other heroes due to his albinism and red eyes. Despite his frailty, Elric used magic and herb lore to overcome his physical weakness. When he found the sword Stormbringer, Elric discovered that it made it him strong and healthy; however, it exacted a huge price. According to the stories, Stormbringer itself was a Chaos demon in the form of a black sword, and to lend that strength to Elric, it had to consume the souls of its victims.
The weighty backstory brought a complexity and tragic nature to Elric. Even if he undertook an objective with the best of intentions, the constant threat of Stormbringer would lead things to ruin, even costing the lives of people close to Elric. That running thread made Elric markedly different, and the story’s influence would creep into other media, like the story of the Black Knight and the Ebony Blade in Marvel Comics, or the frail but powerful sorcerer Raistlin in the massive series of Dragonlance novels.
Moorcock’s general philosophy was influential as well. He was one of the first writers to regularly invoke the concept of the Multiverse, an idea that’s now standard in science fiction and fantasy. He was concerned with ongoing struggle between Law (Order) and Chaos. But perhaps one of his most interesting notions was his idea of an Eternal Champion, an agent of Balance that tries to keep the opposing forces of Law and Chaos from gaining too much of an advantage, a state of affairs that would end existence. Elric is one aspect of the champion, but is merely one of over 40 protagonists fulfilling the same function across the width and breadth of Moorcock’s fiction. One of Moorcock’s Champions might exist in pre-history or somewhere in space, but they all fight for Balance across his dozens of novels and short stories. The interconnected nature of his fiction recalls not only the comic book universes, but the work of later writers like Stephen King, the sum of whose works rotate around his Dark Tower.
The Elric Saga is certainly Moorcock’s most famous work, with the nine novels and novellas spanning 30 years of his career, from 1961 to 1991. He’s written a variety of other series, the majority of which tie back to the notion of the Eternal Champion, starting with the novel of that name from 1970. Elric has been adapted into a variety of other media, including comics and video games, but film and television have eluded him. That may be changing, as Glen Mazzara (one-time The Walking Dead showrunner) and Vaun Wilmott (Star Trek: Discovery) are developing an Elric TV series. Mazzara has expressed some frustration that some executives think Elric is too much like The Witcher when Elric predates that series by more than 30 years.
While Elric might not be the most famous fantasy hero in the conventional sense, the series is hugely influential and still widely read, with a new hardcover printing due in December. Moorcock is still writing, with 2015’s The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars positioned as the beginning of a new series. Last year, Moorcock said, “part of me expects to go on forever” before adding “Like some of my characters.” Maybe the Champion isn’t the only thing in this saga that’s Eternal.
Featured image: T Studio / Shutterstock
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