In his dedication at the beginning of Elric of Melniboné, Michael Moorcock acknowledges thanks to Poul Anderson for his Three Hearts and Three Lions. As we saw in our look at that book, Anderson used the theme of Law vs. Chaos, which Moorcock echoed in his Eternal Champion stories; but it seems to me that there is another thematic link. Anderson also liked to use the theme of a hero compelled to act against his deepest desires because of honor and duty; and Elric has found himself in just such a position.
Betrayed by his cousin, Prince Yyrkoom, Elric has escaped certain death through the aid of the powerful water elementals who once served his father. But Elric’s triumph is short-lived as Yyrkoom escapes, taking his sister, Elric’s lover Cymoril, with him.
In desperation, Elric turns to his family’s ancient lorebooks and summons Aricoh, the Lord of Chaos, one of the Higher Gods his ancestors once served – a feat of sorcery which even Yyrkoom has been unable to perform. (Then again, Yyrkoom doesn’t really come off as bright enough to remember how many consonants are in his own name),
In exchange for Elric’s vow of fealty, Aricoh tells Elric where Yyrkoom may be found and how to reach him. Elric doesn’t like submitting himself to the will of Chaos; Arioch represents his people’s dark past which he has been trying to reform. But what choice does he have?
His choices are going to get even worse.
Yyrkoom has holed up in a grubby little city straddling a river between two backwater little kingdoms. It’s out of the way, and no one pays much attention to it. This latter fact is helped by the Mirror of Memory, a magical artifact Yyrkoom has acquired. It’s a huge mirror which steals the memories of any being, man or beast, who gazes into it. He has had the mirror mounted on tall pillars so that anyone sailing into the city’s harbor has to look at it. In this way Yyrkoom has kept his location a secret and has also been accumulating a navy comprised of seized merchant ships and their amnesiac crews, retrained to serve him; which he intends to sail against the Dragon Isle of Melniboné. And since Elric’s fleets are scattered all over the world searching for him, the city of Imrryr, Melniboné’s capitol, will be defenseless. Insert maniacal laugh.
And why shouldn’t he laugh? Just this morning he has succeeded in raising a demon who showed him how to reach the dimensional plane where lies his greatest prize: Sormbringer and Mournblade, the twin Black Swords of Chaos once wielded by the Lords of Melniboné in millennia past. With those two swords, no one will be able to stop him! Mwah hah ha!
Yes, he’s a bit unhinged by this point. Hanging around demons will do that to a guy. His sister tells him he’s mad, but what does a girl know. She also tells him that Elric will come to rescue her.
Cymoril strikes me as something of a disappointing character. She’s Elric’s love, but we see precious little of her; and most of her time on-stage is spent passively moping and waiting to be rescued. Now granted, this is the Pulp Fantasy genre, but Dejah Thoris had a lot more gumption than this girl.
But she is right about Elric; he is outside the city gates at this moment with an army. Arioch has warned him about the Magic Mirror, and so instead of approaching the city by sea, he sailed his ship across the land. (It’s a magic ship, okay?) Now Elric has summoned Flame Elementals to set fire to the city.
Yyrkoom orders the Mirror to be turned to face the attackers. This will affect his own forces as well, but he doesn’t care; they’re expendable anyway. Elric is prepared for this possibility as well. He has had the helms of his soldiers outfitted with opaque shields to protect them from the Mirror’s effects, and he has brought along a special group of auxiliaries, veteran soldiers who had been disabled in battle. These were mentioned earlier, but Moorcock was coy about the nature of their disability. The astute reader has probably guessed it, though; these men are blind. As soon as Elric sees the Mirror beginning to rotate in their direction, he orders his men to pull down their visors and fall back to let the sightless troops do the fighting.
Yyrkoom has one last trick up his sleeve. He sends a minion up to the Magic Mirror to destroy it. As the Mirror breaks, it releases all the stored up memories, overwhelming everyone in the immediate vicinity. Only Elric’s tremendous strength of will enables him to keep his own sanity. Most of the men of both armies die from the psychic shock, and most of the remainder are driven mad.
Elric’s friend, Dyvin Tvar is among the handful of survivors, and together they proceed to Yyrkoon’s dwelling. They find Cymoril, but she is in a bad state. Yyrkoom has placed an enchantment of eternal sleep upon her. Through strength of will she has stayed awake long enough to warn Elric that her brother has fled through the Shade Gate to the otherworldly plane in which the Swords of Chaos have been secreted. Then she klunks out.
This puts Elirc in a worse position than ever. Only Yyrkoon can release Cymoril from the spell. But how can he follow the traitorous creep? Arioch again insinuates himself into the picture to give Elric more advice. The Lord of Chaos has kept the Shade Gate open so that Elric can also access the other plane; and he tells Elric that he must find the two rune swords of his ancestors before his cousin does. If Yyrkoom acquires the swords, he will truly be invincible and Melniboné will fall before him.
Once again, Elric has no choice. He tells Dyvin Tvar to take Cymoril back home. He will follow Yyrkoon, and return when and if he can.
The world beyond the Shade Gate is a darksome, lifeless place, demolished long ago by a titanic battle between the Lords of Order and the Lords of Chaos. Elric wonders if this place is underground in an enormous cavern -- for he can see no sky, only darkness – or if he has actually gone far into the future after the stars have gone cold. It doesn’t really matter which.
The plane is not uninhabited, though. Elric meets a bowman clad in red calling himself Rackhir. He is one of the Warrior Priests of the distant land of Phum and until fairly recently he served the Lords of Chaos. But when he turned against them, they exiled him to this dreary place. The two men hit it off; (Elric being careful not to mention his current patron), and Elric promises to bring Rackhir back to their own world with him if he gets the chance.
It’s kind of late in the story for Moorcock to be introducing a new sidekick, but that’s essentially what Rackhir becomes; he accompanies Elric in many of the later Elric stories. And I have to say, he makes a better sidekick than Dyvin Tvar. Sorry, Tvar, you’re just too somber and Elric is a gloom twinkie to begin with.
There is a city nearby, inhabited by people who, for some reason or other, have like Rackhir been exiled to this plane, along with various demons who come and go. The two are attacked by several such demons, sent by Yyrkoom. Elric and his new friend defeat them with the aid of an old man named Nuin Who Knew All.
Nuin is another one of those almost throwaway bits of invention that makes Moorcock’s world so rich. Once he had been a foolish sage who wished to know everything. He made a pact with Orland of the Staff, evidently a god of some sort, and gained his wish. And ever since, he’s been trying to forget. He remembers very little of what he once knew, and every time he uses a bit of information it seems to fade from his mind; so he has hopes that someday he will know nothing and be free to leave this plane. But he still knows enough to recognize Elric’s name and to give him directions to find the Two Swords.
Elric and Rackhir make a perilous journey through and underneath a sinister swamp, eventually ending up at the entrance to the Pulsing Cavern, a weird chamber that seems to be composed of living flesh and which can only be entered through a sphincter-like opening; (thank you very much for that imagery, Michael Moorcock). Yyrkoon has preceded Elric here, but the two swords are suspended over his head and he hasn’t yet figured out how to get them down.
It’s because the swords were waiting for Elric to show up. Well, maybe not Elric specifically; just an opponent. The swords are sentient; and they’ve been waiting millennia for a chance to fight. As soon as Elric enters the fleshly chamber, one of the swords appears in his hand, and the other in Yyrkoon’s.
The swords were singing. Their voices were faint but could be heard quite plainly. Elric lifted the huge blade easily and turned it this way and that, admiring its alien beauty.The battle which follows is fierce, because Elric deeply desires to kill his cousin, and Yyrkoon fights back with no less fervor. But as the fight goes on, Elric realizes that the sword wants to kill his opponent even more. The Black Swords of Chaos feed off the souls of those they slay, and both Strombringer and Mournblade are long overdue for a snack.
‘Stormbringer,’ he said.
Then he felt afraid.
It was suddenly as if he had been born again and that this runesword was born with him. It was as if they had never been separate.
And the sword moaned sweetly and settled even more smoothly into his grasp.
‘Stormbringer!’ yelled Elric and he leapt at his cousin.
Elric realizes that he is not wielding the sword as much as he is following the sword as it guides his arm. This kind of freaks him out, and he tries to wrest control of the situation. He still wants to kill Yyrkoon, but not for the sport of some demonic ironmongery.
But the sword has something to offer him as well. It feeds energy into Elric’s arm, magical strength. All his life Elric has been dependent on drugs to mitigate his feeble health and keep him alive. With Strombringer, he need never be weak again. The only price would be that Elric would have to let it feed.
This is not a price Elric likes; but he needs Stormbringer right now or else it’s brother Mournblade will feed on his own soul and pass the energy on to his enemy. He must accept the runeblade’s bargain.
‘You shall not be my master,’ Elric insists, and the sword seems to acquiesce. Elric disarms his cousin, but refuses to slay him.
Elric said: ‘We are victims, cousin, of a conspiracy – a game played by gods, demons and sentient swerds. They wish one of us dead. I suspect they wish you dead more than they wish me dead. And that is the reason why I shall not slay you here.’Now that the adrenaline has worn off, and the sword lies quiet in his scabbard, Elric can feel some sympathy, even pity for the pathetic wretch his cousin has become. But now both he and Yyrkoon, joined now by Rackhir, who has promised to share Elric’s fate for good or ill, are trapped in the Pulsing Cave.
Elric once more calls upon Aricoch. The Chaos Lord congratulates him on winning the sword, but asks why he spared his cousin’s life.
‘Let us say he must remain alive in order to wake Cymoril,’ Elric replies. Arioch smiles, and Elric realizes that the Chaos Lord was expecting him to forget that little point. Elric goes on to request that his patron take him, Yyrkoon and Rackhir back to Melniboné. Aricoch at first refuses; Rackhir is a traitor as far as the Lords of Chaos are concerned, and has been exiled to this realm as punishment. Elric insists: ‘He comes back with me… Or I do not take the sword with me.’
This is a calculated gamble. Elric guesses that Aricoh wants the runeblade returned to the mortal plane and that this can only be accomplished by a mortal champion; that is why Elric has been manipulated into this situation.
‘You are clever, Elric of Melniboné… And you are a fitting servant of Chaos.” Aricoch decides that punishing the Priest of Phum is not all that important after all. He takes Elric and his companions back to Melniboné.
And what then? Elric has defeated the usurper, regained his throne and rescued his love. Yyrkoon fulfills his agreement and releases his sister from her enchantment. Elric has tamed the Black Sword of Chaos. He should live happily ever after, right?
Yet Elric is still restless. He is not ready to sit back on the Ruby Throne. He still wants to reform his country, and to that end he wants to spend a year travelling to see the other nations and how they govern themselves. After a year, he promises Cymoril, he will return and settle down. Is that his only reason? Perhaps not, but if not he won’t admit it to himself. He asks if she will accompany him and Rackhir on this new adventure, but she refuses. Melniboné is her home.
But who will rule Melniboné in Elric’s absence? He suggests that Cymoril rule as empress until he returns to marry her, but she refuses. Dyvin Tvar has no desire for that kind of power. The most suitable candidate for regent, ironically, is Yyrkoom. Elric believes that his cousin has learned humility, and can be trusted with the position.
It will end badly; this the chronicle assures us. The actions Elric has taken, even those with the best intentions, will lead irrevocably to doom, for himself and for Melniboné. He still owes a debt to the Lord of Chaos; and the sword he has gained isn’t nearly as tame as he thinks it is.
For the time being, however, he is ready to set out on a new adventure.