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…”
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?
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 G.RR 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.