This is a central, and yet not widely-read work in the Moorcock canon. Released in 1970, it was the work which began to explicitly tie the different heroes of his mythos together and to assemble the genuine cosmology of the titular champion. Despite this, the book itself received a muted reception, and this is in part because of the ways that its themes depart from what readers expected.
By the time he wrote this, Moorcock was already known for his hero-cycles about Elric and Dorian Hawkmoon, and here he added the central character of Erekosë – a character who, unusually, is presented with a framing device. We get the information that the hero is John Daker – a denizen of 20th century London – who has dreams in which he remembers other lives as various heroes, many of which will be recognized by fans of Moorcock’s other works. Interestingly, some of the heroes had not yet appeared in print at the time The Eternal Champion was published, establishing that Moorcock was planning his cosmology out ahead of time with considerable care.
Daker is summoned to another world by a king calling for the long-dead hero Erekosë to rise and save them from evil. While he is not sure if he is really Erekosë – a question that interestingly haunts him through the novel – he feels kinship with the king and his beautiful daughter, and agrees to take up their battle against the inhuman Eldren.
The Eternal Champion is far more thematically and philosophically complex than most other Sword & Sorcery books of the time – or any time, for that matter. It deals with questions of identity and purpose, as well as existential questions about the nature of man. Erekosë doesn’t know for certain who he is, or even if he is on Earth. He wonders if he is in the past or the future, or on some alternate world. He wonders if he is dreaming or insane, and struggles with the morality of the war he finds himself in.
Because while the reader might expect a straightforward narrative about a great hero defending humanity from insensate evil, we soon see it is not that simple. Despite the Eldren being painted as utterly evil by the other humans in the book, we begin to suspect that only blind bigotry drives their crusade, and the behavior of the humans in the war – slaughtering children and raping and murdering women – is meant to turn our stomachs just as it does the hero.
The Eldren themselves are elflike, delicate beings of strange beauty, and Erekosë feels drawn to them, especially after their princess becomes his prisoner and he finds himself questioning what he is doing. We are led along with Erekosë as he becomes disillusioned step by step, as the war progresses. When the Eldren have been driven back to their last stronghold comes the turn which makes this book so unusual, and so hard to like.
Because Erekosë turns. After first simply trying to broker peace between human and Eldren, he then joins them and helps them to fight off the human onslaught. But then the book goes further, and Erekosë decides that there can never be peace while two races exist on the same world. So he organizes a war of extermination against the human race, and wipes them all out, even hunting down survivors who hide in caves to try to escape him.
It is a really bold turn, and I can’t think of another book where the protagonist ends the story by committing genocide, much less genocide against the human race. The reader has followed Erekosë through the story, sympathizing with his doubts and fears, feeling his disillusionment and eventual disgust with the senseless violence of the humans he is in contact with. When he turns on them and helps the Eldren survive, you are totally on board with his decision.
But then the book does not stop, and really drives home the point that while we were willing to allow the genocide of an alien race – however appealing – as sad but regrettable necessity, now we have our faces rubbed in the essential ugliness of it, and the indefensible morality of the decision on either side. Even the Eldren do not agree with his actions, but he will not be stopped, as though he is driven to destroy one race or the other. This remains a fascinating, uncomfortable book, and Erekosë perhaps the most ambiguous incarnation of the Eternal Champion character.