Micheal Moorcock released his novella “The Dreaming City” in 1962, though as he says he created Elric when he was 20, that means he was working on it as far back as 1959. What followed was a series of novellas through the next three years to fill out the story of his hero’s tragic life and death. However, perhaps with the realization that he had killed the proverbial golden goose, he later went back and expanded on those tales, filling them out into full-length novels or else incorporating them in with new material to make longer-form works.
In 1972 DAW published Elric of Melnibone as the first volume of the saga, though it contained all-new material. It was a kind of prequel to the then-existing Elric continuity, showing Elric before he gained his legendary runesword and embarked on his self-imposed exile from his homeland. It shows us the beginnings of things that were already part of the character when he first appeared ten years before – the rivalry with his cousin Yrkoon, his dissatisfaction with the life he had been born into, the connection with the Chaos Lord Arioch, and most importantly the obtaining of Stormbringer – the enchanted sword that defined the rest of his life.
It’s always a bit of a stretch going back and filling in backstory, because some things don’t need to be shown, and just become tedious when they are. However, Moorcock’s world is so vivid and strange that there is plenty left to show, and he really digs in on the setting and makes it more defined and detailed. It is cool to see the decadent Melnibonean society, and I wish he had really gone deeper into that and made it more of a court drama as well as an adventure story. The book is only 60,000 words or so, and so there is a lot more space he could have used.
The book does a good job of showing us Elric’s character. His boredom and ennui, as well as the blindness to others’ desires and the egotism that will prove his fatal flaws throughout his story. Elric always underestimates what other people will do for their own goals, and he tends to ascribe his own broody overthinking to others, and thus is surprised when they act decisively. Elric only acts unilaterally when he is emotional, and thus he invariably makes terrible decisions on the spur of the moment. It shows that Moorcock really understood his hero, and more importantly understood what made him flawed. Elric is courageous, cruel, self-centered, and alternately either impulsive or hesitant.
Many of these traits are ones common to Sword & Sorcery heroes, and so it is interesting that Moorcock grasps that these are actually very dangerous characteristics. In many ways the Elric tales are an experiment depicting what would happen if the typical fantasy hero was not always right, and made decisions that went badly again and again. Often superhuman pulp characters like Sherlock Holmes, Batman, or Dirty Harry get away with things only because they are never wrong: they never accuse the wrong person, follow the wrong clue, or kill a bystander because they misjudged something. The world makes them always right in the end.
But Elric is not, in fact he is wrong more often than not. He makes decisions that seem right, or at least necessary in the moment, but then they turn out to have consequences he did not expect, or could not have foreseen. Here we see him summon and bind himself to Arioch, one of the Dukes of Hell and an essentially Satan-like figure, because he feels he has no other way to save his cousin and lover, Cymoril. He does not even pay for that in this book, but if you have read the rest of his saga the meeting is fraught, because we know how much that allegiance costs him later.
So the book is a really good prequel, and if it is your first experience with Elric, then you will get a good grounding that will lead you through the rest of the stories, some of which were written long before this was published. Moorcock is one of the rare authors who took a series of novellas, chopped it up and stitched in new material, and made it work as a whole. I don’t think the Elric saga necessarily needed to go on this long to accomplish what it set out to do, but if it had to get longer, then at least it was still good.