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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I Blame Michael Moorcock...or Del Rey Give Moorcock the Howard Treatment Part One: The Personal Version

Two weeks ago, Del Rey released the first in a series of books collecting Michael Moorcock's definitive Elric saga. The collection will contain Moorcock's Elric stories in the order they were written/published and contain some great "bonus features" for long time fans of the character. I am one of those long time fans, so much so that I have had trouble deciding whether to write a "personal" essay about the release of the book that focuses on how important Elric/Moorcock is to me, or an article "merely" discussing the release of the new book.

I couldn't decide between the two. So, here is the first of the two essays -- the personal one.

The first words I ever read by Michael Moorcock were, "This is the tale of Elric before he was called Womanslayer, before the final collapse of Melniboné." It was 1983, the Fall semester of my 7th grade year, and a friend of mine and I were in a bit of a competition. I don't know when the "I can find stuff to read and play that you can't" competition with Mark Williams started, but I know that the Elric books were right in the middle of the competition.

By right in the middle, I mean somewhere between the "Christian found the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks" early salvo and the "Sweet Pickles Bus Proliferation" that ended our friendship. If you don't remember the Sweet Pickles Bus, watch the commercial below. The Sweet Pickles commercial starts at about second 20.

Looking at it now, the bus looks kind of creepy as it drives up to the house. But back in the day, ordering about a dozen of these and having them sent to Mark's house seemed like the perfect way to get even with Mark for no longer being my best friend. Boy does that seem petty, but 7th graders aren't known for their mature ability to deal with relationships. I'm pretty sure that Mark and I were single-handedly responsible for a policy change regarding whether kids were allowed to order these themselves over the phone or not. It really got ridiculous, especially on my end, but that is another story.

Returning to the tale at hand, Mark and I both shared a love of role playing games and we were both familiar with the awesome Bill Willingham illustration on the back of the fifth printing of the White Plume Mountain module. The illustration featured this cool looking albino with a black bladed sword, the black so deep it contained stars. It was quite striking to my 7th grade mind, but I had no idea what had inspired this representation of the blade "blackrazor" -- other than the fact that it was an item in the module.

But then Mark walked into our Algebra class with a copy of ELRIC OF MELNIBONE. He had searched high and low for the inspiration behind the Willingham cover, and he found it. He also made sure to show me how he was able to find the work of fantasy, a work much more badass than LORD OF THE RINGS. I immediately rushed out to my local used paperback store and purchased a collection of the entire Elric saga. I was struck by the image of this albino protagonist.

I didn't yet know what an antihero was, nor did I fully comprehend what the Greeks meant by Tragedy. As I read the books, I discovered the meaning of both. It was really remarkable and transformative, but not for the reasons one might expect. Yes, by 7th grade I'd read LORD OF THE RINGS, but other than that book my fantasy exposure was pretty limited. When I thought of fantasy, I thought of the Greek and Egyptian myths, and the stories of Sinbad. I hadn't read C.S. Lewis or Lloyd Alexander, those would come in the next year, my mind was wide open for a definition of what fantasy was. Moorcock provided that definition. Fantasy was social commentary, it was mournful, tragic, and Wagnerian. I loved every minute of it, and I still do.

That's why I'm so excited about the latest Elric release from Del Rey. As they did with Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, they are providing us with the Elric stories in wonderful editions that will let us read the stories in the order they were released. There's even the added bonus of the inclusion of some of Moorcock's defenses of his theories regarding what fantasy should be. The cover of the first edition, as well as the interior, is expertly illustrated by John Picacio. Take a look at the cover and interior below, they are quite excellent.

Excuse me while I sit back and relive the tragic tale of the last emperor of Melnibone.

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