In the Genre Giants series, we look at book settings and series old and new, from historic franchises to new series with massive potential! Today, something wicked this way comes. Fantasy’s original dark antihero Elric of Melnibone steps into the spotlight!
“Edgy” is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, usually in a mocking way. These days, self-aware snark is in, largely thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and cult films like Scott Pilgrim that defined modern millennial culture. It also doesn’t help that the early 2000s were filled with unbearably cringy things attempting to be “dark,” which came across more like the Goth Kids from South Park than today’s subject.
And let’s not beat around the bush here…Elric is really edgy, but in a good way. It is at its core, a critique of the classic Tolkienesque good/evil dichotomy that’s dominated the genre for ages. And it’s thanks in large part to Michael Moorcock’s epic that we have books like A Song of Ice and Fire and Black Company taking up space next to Wheel of Time and Lord of the Rings.
Elric is a bad dude. He’d eat the Terminator for breakfast and gives Xenomorphs bowel-evacuating night terrors. He’s basically a sort of wayward Dark Lord, Emperor of a race of cruel, albino creatures drunk on sadism and black magic…
And he’s our hero, if you can even call him that.
Early stories portray him more as a wandering spellsword-for-hire, a melnibonean (think albino Forgotten Realms Drow) travelling the world, often working with rogues and pirates. Known as the “White Wolf,” he bears a wicked, soul-sucking blade, and was basically Geralt from The Witcher series if you took out the gruff Clint Eastwood element and added more haughty, arrogant cruelty. He’s someone who is essentially a villain who tries to do the right thing (sometimes), but depending on the story, it can end up pretty well, dark.
Oh, and did I mention he has a magic, soul-sucking sword of darkness and death called Stormbringer? Because he does, and it looks like this:
Badass, right? There’s more though. For instance, did you know that he basically inspired (or as some claim, “”inspired“”) Geralt from the Witcher series?
While not 100% confirmed, many (Including Moorcock) claim that Geralt is a bit of an Elric rip-off. I mean, I love both series and all, but it’s not like any of the games basically had him look exactly like Elri–Ohhhhhh…well so much for that, then.
In all seriousness, there is a lot of difference between the worlds they both inhabit, and aside from the obligatory Witcher/Elric mention, I don’t want to get into it any further. Geralt of Rivia will get his due time in the spotlight as well, as he is a very important character in his own right. Seriously though, I like both. A lot, in fact. The Witcher has a really neat element of Polish culture and fairy-tale satire, and Elric is really weird and at times downright trippy. The characters and their respective settings have a lot of unique and cool elements.
Speaking of which…
What are the Young Kingdoms Like?
Familiar yet strange. There’s definitely an air of pulp fantasy to it all (fitting, as Elric was originally a pulp hero), but elements of it are tinged with 60’s drug-tinted rock n’ roll weirdness. Especially my introduction to the series, Sailor on the Sea of Fate. It’s a world that can be very grand at times, with sweeping cities and mind-bending cosmic elements. Locales range from the gothic, alien structures of Melnibone, to the more familiar, vaguely-European inns, Middle Eastern cities and other fantasy-esque landscapes. Basically, if you like A Song of Ice and Fire’s world, but want more monsters, magic and fantastical elements somewhat reminiscent of Conan, then Elric’s Young Kingdoms setting is for you. One thing’s for sure though, and that would be this world’s stark contrast to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
The difference between these two settings cannot be overstated. I’ll be diving into Tolkien’s Legendarium later, but for today’s purposes, it’s best to leave you with Moorcock’s views on the setting. Here’s what Moorcock himself thought of Tolkien, and of much ‘epic fantasy” contemporary to him. I don’t agree with a lot of it personally, but I still highly recommend giving Moorcock’s “Epic Pooh” article and his other writings on Tolkien a read. Uncomfortable as some may be with his assessments, there is a grain of truth in Moorcock’s anti-Hobbit rantings. If not with Tolkien’s original intents, then certainly with some interpretations of it, like the “Camp Hobbit” fascists.
So with that established, it’s worth noting that the stories told in this setting are not grand and sweeping in scale, nor are they stories of young boys and destinies and ancient prophecies. They are gritty and mean and shockingly violent, but not without purpose. The goal of Elric was to tell a story where much of the flowery, unrealistic prose of “Epic” fantasy was cast aside for characters that at times, felt uncomfortably real. And that is in essence, what you’ll be getting here. A grimdark world of monsters, magic and the occasional 60’s acid trip.
Also, while I don’t want to reveal too much about the setting and story (It really is one of those things best left unspoiled), I do want to point out here that Moorcock basically invented not only the Multiverse concept, but also the Chaos symbol commonly seen in Warhammer, as well as the Order/Chaos dichotomy that Warhammer pulls a lot from. Basically, if you’re like me and you like bolters and chainswords, you’ll likely dig this setting a lot too. Like, a LOT.
Where do I Start?
You can find the chronological Goodreads reading-list here, though if the weirdness of the setting is your main draw, pick up Sailor on the Sea of Fate first. While I won’t spoil it, I will at least say that if you’re a hyper-fan of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos like I am, you will DIG it if you can handle it. There’s also a French bande dessinée (aka graphic novel) from Titan Comics called The Ruby Throne. There’s an English translation available, and serves as a good intro to the series.
Also, while you wait for your books to arrive from Amazon or the opportunity to buy them from B&N (and hopefully not just get on digital like some uncultured morlock), might I suggest listening to some kickass tunes? While movies, TV and games have been pretty much nonexistent for the series, the heavy metal genre has been unbelievably kind to Moorcock’s fantasy legacy.
Deep Purple’s Stormbringer? That’s about Elric’s sword, my dudes. Diamond Head’s Am I Evil? About Elric. Blind Guardian’s Tanelorn? Same deal. And that’s not even getting into bands like Hawkmoon that are just flat-out named after characters from the same setting.
But yeah, it’s rad. Elric of Melnibone is like heavy metal. Not for everyone, and certainly not for the squeamish. But for my personal tastes, 40K and horror fan that I am, I give this one 10 cursed blades out of 10 and highly recommend the series and setting.