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Book Review: Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock

: Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock
Michael Moorcock is a self-professed Tolkien separatist. In his essay Epic Pooh, he accuses The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s other works of glorifying war, preaching “cowardly self-protection,” avoiding the subject of death, and forcing a happy ending upon the reader (as summed up by Wikipedia).

“I met Tolkien on his home ground in Oxford. I really don’t have much to say, except I was a little embarrassed, having written to Tolkien to tell him I was collecting all his books and then discovering I didn’t like them very much.”

Also, he proudly confessed “I think of myself as a bad writer with big ideas, but I’d rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas”

In this light, it became a desperate necessity for me to read Elric of Melnibone (the first book in Moorcock’s epic fantasy series) and check out what exactly was he trying to prove.

In my humble opinion, Moorcock has been true to his word. He is indeed “… a bad writer with big ideas…”

The story

Elric is an albino emperor of a race of dragon lords. Even with his sorceries, he seems a weakling and his cousin Yyrkoon attempts to usurp power from him. The attempt fails and the villain is imprisoned, but he escapes from prison and flees to a distant land and abducts Elric’s beloved — Cymoril. To reach him and rescue his love, Elric needs to seek help from the manipulative chaos lords, use sorceries, travel to the netherworld and most importantly, requires a ship that can travel over land and sea. What happens next?

What’s good

The underdeveloped yet innovative concepts: A mirror that can steal memories, a ship that can travel over land and sea, and swords that can exert their own will deserve mention. The gods, including the chaos lord, are intriguing.

The story is descent enough and it is certainly not a LoTR clone. It could have reached epic proportions in more mature hands. Elric of Melnibone is a fairly fast and action packed tale. The author has enough sense to wrap up the story in 200 pages.

What’s not so good

The writing is juvenile at best. The dialogues are a joke. The characters are one dimensional and underdeveloped. The world building is highly flawed. The plot lacks depth.

The protagonist is weak (that was deliberate though) and unlikable. The villain seems weaker and not up to the job. The female lead is rather boring.

Too simplistic to be iconic

Perhaps it is. Compared to GRR Matrin and Tolkien, Elric seems to be kindergarten stuff. However, the first book isn’t the entire series. I am going to read the next books in the series and also The History of the Runestaff. It is widely regarded that Moorcock’s later writings have more subtlety, better prose and improved insights. It is undeniable that he influenced a generation of writers and that must be for a reason.

To sum up, Elric, unlike The Hobbit or LoTR, is not a work of art. Tolkiens’s philological scholarship, his deep knowledge of mythology, and his world-building skills are virtually non-existent in Moorcock’s saga and it doesn’t look like the later books would match up to Tolkien’s high standards. However, a reader of the genre cannot afford to miss the Elric series simply because of its cult status and atypical approach. It least Moorcock dared to step out of Tolkien’s long shadow and that in itself is an achievement.

: Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock

18 thoughts on “Book Review: Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock

  1. it sounds intriguing, many fantasy books seemed to have been birthed from reading Tolkien and it is a challenge sometimes to try not to see the similarities so perhaps one day when I get back into a phantasy fase I will seek it out.

    • Yep, it’s certainly worth a read as a cult fantasy book and you won’t find many similarities with LoTR. I don’t find Tolkien inspired fantasies too clichéd though. The Sword of Shannara is a foremost example.

      • I dabble in such fantasy fare, all of Tolkien’s stuff and the Wheel of Time but Terry Goodkind pushed me over the edge I couldn’t get on with his style. I’ll keep my eye out for this though, I say eye…I wish I was a pirate with an eye patch but I’m not part of that exclusive club so I suppose both will have to do.

        • Abandoning reason and words of wisdom, I have bought the first book of Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth. I found out there was a TV series called Legend of the Seeker based on the novels; the trailer got me excited and under it’s bad influence, I got myself a copy of the book. Looks like I could use a pirate eye patch too, which could have helped me to miss the trailer and consequently save a few bucks.

          The Wheel of Time seems too big a series to finish. I could complete just the first two books. Where do you stand?

          • I managed the wizard’s First Rule which had some good parts, book two was pretty much the same book and halfway through book three I just gave in, they just weren’t that readable and I did start to notice many ideas that had been done in other books.

            The Wheel of Time on the other hand is more readable, plenty of plot threads and i enjoyed it on the whole, although in book 10 nothing happens and there is a whole plot arc for one character based around corporal punishment but overall a good read, if you don’t mind quite a lot of similar secondary characters. it is a world i will happily go back to knowing the final outcome though.

  2. The cover itself is fantastic and makes the book reading in a way. I’m intrigued that it was originally published in an edited version and under a different title. I wonder what that’s all about (not so much the edited version but the different title is not so common).

    • I believe the other title for this novel was The Dreaming City. Yeah, it’s quite uncommon for a book to have two different titles. I recently found out that Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling time travel novel Outlander too has a different UK title — Cross Stitch. May be that’s a country specific marketing strategy.

  3. It’s easy to look back and say this, kind of like looking back on Picasso’s early cubist period. It may seem one way now, but back then it was a pivotal work in the fantasy genre. A true turning point. Moorcock is famous for not being a Tolkien fan. Tolkien is famous for not being a Shakespeare fan. I truly going to be a rebel, and admit to being a fan of all three!

  4. It would appear that you are one who indeed enjoys the sweet ending, the glory of War, and how beautiful you are in your little world where you never have to face death. To be serious the man, Michael Moorcock has over 80 books published with his most recent just this past 2015. He is partially responsible for steam punk and the multiverse. What are you maybe in your 20s? You have a lot to learn little man. It’s a shame what you have said gets to live on.

  5. In all sincerity, the worst writing ever produced by MM is magnitudes in front of the “know your place” classist propaganda churned out by the Tolkien.

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