Micheal Moorcock was a young man of 22, with his career just starting to take off, when he published the very first story about Elric of Melnibone in Science Fantasy in June of 1961. He had been selling fiction for almost 4 years at that point, and was beginning to make a name for himself. Elric would really put him on the map, and become his best-known and most enduring creation.
Elric was conceived of as a kind of anti-Conan, and the world he inhabited was originally thought of as a kind of anti-Middle-Earth. Where Conan was strong, Elric was unable to so much as walk without special drugs. Conan was a barbarian of no history or lineage, while Elric was the 428th emperor of the fading empire of Melnibone. Conan’s culture was barbaric, Elric’s was decadent and cruel. Conan was a thief, Elric was born rich. Conan feared magic, Elric was a sorcerer who summoned elementals and demons.
And the world he inhabited was intended as a kind of backlash against Middle-Earth, and thus came out rather Lovecraftian. In the world of Tolkien, the world had declined from a golden era, and magic and wonder faded more and more as the years passed. In Elric’s world, magic had been fading for millennia, but that was a good thing, as magic was depicted as a terrible, inhuman power that either killed men, drove them mad, or enslaved them. Elric never wanted to resort to sorcery, and used it only when he had to, and there was always a price to pay.
“The Dreaming City” was a novella or novelette, longer than a short story, and structured like a novel even if it was short. It is unusual in that it depicted what was later seen as the climactic battle between Elric and his cousin/nemesis Yrkoon, and Elric’s complicity in the invasion and destruction of his home. Elric has been away from the city of Imrryr for many years, but now he has heard that his cousin has usurped his throne and imprisoned his lover, Cymoril.
Without an army of his own, Elric cannot hope to defeat Yrkoon and rescue Cymoril, so he makes a bargain with the sea-raider captains of the Young Kingdoms: he will lead them through the sea-maze that guards the city if they will help him. Thus, in order to serve his own purposes, Elric is willing to oversee the destruction of his race.
Because that’s another difference between Elric and Conan – Conan is human, while Elric is not. The Melniboneans are human-like, but they are creatures of Chaos. An older race of magic and cruelty. Once they ruled the world, but now they are reduced to decadent, apathetic remnants, hiding on their fortress island. The parallels with the British Empire, coming from a British author, are impossible to ignore.
What is remarkable about the story is just how bitter and bleak it is. It begins with an exiled emperor leading a coup against his own people with the help of foreign mercenaries paid with the promise of plunder, but then everything goes utterly and completely wrong. The city is taken, and Elric confronts his cousin. But while Yrkoon is slain, Elric’s cursed nature takes a terrible toll for his victory. His soul-eating runesword, Stormbringer, devours the soul of his lover Cymoril, leaving Elric in despair. Then, as the fleet escapes from the island, the Melnibonean dragons swoop down on them. Elric’s friends and allies are consumed by fire even as he himself uses magic to propel his ship to safety.
So by the end, Elric has accomplished almost nothing that he set out to do. He defeats his enemy, but his people are slain or scattered, his home destroyed, his lover is worse than dead, and his allies are left behind, cursing his name as they are slaughtered. The whole thing is subsumed in this operatic outpouring of tragedy that was quite unlike the Sword & Sorcery of the day. Moorcock took the vibrant, dreamlike prose and violence of the genre and did something very different with it.
Because he was 20 when he invented Elric, the character bears an unmistakable stamp of late adolescence. Elric is a loner, separated from those around him by his melancholy and his brooding. No one among his own people understands him, and he roams the world alone and apart. He repudiates the ways and practices of his own people, and resents when he is forced to use them to achieve his ends. He is fated to be a hero, even though he resents this as well, and fights against it, just wanting to be left alone. He is every rootless, post high-school boy who feels like he is “different” and wants to go his own way, whatever that means. The sexual symbolism of Stormbringer – the sword he depends on and cannot get rid of, though he hates how it keeps sticking into other people as if it had a mind of its own – is a little too on the nose to examine closely.
“The Dreaming City” was the beginning of a long career of adding to the Elric Mythos, as well as the connected “Eternal Champion” books. None of this went very far at improving the essential character. Moorcock later filled out his original run of stories and novellas into a series of books that covered Elric’s life from youth to death, and the whole became rather bloated and self-important. Moorcock’s sometimes brilliant prose and relentless imagination allowed him to get away with a lot, but the character of Elric did not really hold up well as the center of a long-form story. As the anti-hero of a novella he worked, as a world-bestriding hero he became tiresome.
Yet the mark made on the Sword & Sorcery genre remains indelible. Moorcock’s dramatic, vivid world had a huge impact on the later fantasy genre in the 70s and 80s, with his plethora of monsters, demons, and gods inspiring so much of what we think of as fantasy in books, games, and movies. The albino, outcast, brooding prince with his evil sword is such a strong archetype it seems impossible that there was ever a time without him. Whatever came after, “The Dreaming City” remains a landmark in the world of fantasy fiction.