Monday, May 24, 2010

Elric and Art

I wanted to call this blog posting "Elric and Art: Writing, Publishing, Business, and the Evolution of the Artist". What you get is this.

When I read the AD&D Deities & Demigods book, lo these many years ago, I fell in love with the idea of Elric. I'll leave it at that.

So about 10 years ago or so, I finally picked up a big (500+ page) collection of stories called Elric: Song of the Black Sword by White Wolf Publishing. It contains the stories: (1) Elric of Melnibone, (2) The Fortress of the Pearl, (3) The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, (4) The Dreaming City, (5) While the Gods Laugh, and (6) The Singing Citadel. "Spectacular!" I thought to myself, "I'll get a nice big heaping stack of Elric to fill in my previous lack."

And I started reading it, and I found it to be abominable. I'm nearly obsessive-compulsive about finishing stuff, but I almost gave up on this book and just ditched it numerous times. I couldn't believe how bad I was finding the writing, the characters; the sense of pacing was mind-bogglingly awful.

If you're a fan of Elric, bear with me for a bit. Numerous spoilers follow the asterisks!

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Here's some more of my experience in reading the Song of the Black Sword collection. The freaking story went nowhere for hundreds and hundreds of pages. The writing seemed to slog on saying nothing about the main character. It seemed like it avoided saying anything of substance about the artifact-sword Stormbringer? Combat description is surprisingly lacking. There's an epic save-the-multiverse adventure that pops out of nowhere, and then is forgotten-as-a-dream afterward. Freaking yucko. I'm thinking, "Where's Moonglum and Yyrkoon and Theleb K'aarna and Cymoril and the Dragons of Melnibone?" All these epic characters I hear about are appearing nowhere in the book.

Finally, after slogging through 425 pages of this stuff, Elric's arch-enemy Yyrkoon and life-love Cymoril finally appear. And ten pages later they're both dead! And ten pages after that, Melnibone is entirely destroyed. WTF!!?!, I say. Why did you waste all my time like that, to almost immediately throw away the star villain, etc.!?

Even more spoilers coming up!

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So in the last few months I started to do a bit more literary research on the matter. This was partly due to James Mal's recent posts about Conan & Elric, about which a lot of people seemed genuinely excited. Then I also picked the recent graphic novel, Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer, by Michael Moorcock, working with my all-time comic favorite Walt Simonson, and found it to be absolutely excellent. "How could this be?", I started asking myself.

So here's the deal in a nutshell: The stories in Song of the Black Sword are presented in a different order than they were originally published. Moorcock's first story was "The Dreaming City" (4th in this book), followed by other stuff; later on he started writing prequels. In Song you get these stories re-ordered to in-story chronological order, which was how I experienced them.

Let's unwind this and imagine that I'd instead encountered them in publishing order. The first Elric tale was a short story in Science Fantasy magazine (1961), and it's only 28 pages long. In it, Elric storms his ancient homeland, kills his cousins Yyrkoon and Cymoril (the latter by mistake), fights the ships and Dragons of Melnibone, and razes the whole thing to the ground. I'm sure Moorcock was very glad to get this publication. I think if you came to this fresh and without other preconceived notions, you'd find it to be intense, fast-paced, and overflowing with lots of exciting ideas.

This was sufficiently popular that other short stories were commissioned. In the second one ("While the Gods Laugh", 5th in this book, very near the end; 32 pages long) the sidekick Moonglum is introduced -- coming out of nowhere, but very much a nice complement to Elric's character. "The Singing Citadel" is another adventure like that, but published much later (29 pages long) -- it's last in my collection, and frustratingly ends with the biggest "tune-in-next-time" cliffhanger of any story in the book. (This final kick-in-the-nuts being the last straw for me putting up with any more Elric stories, I thought.)

So after that time (publication-wise), Moorcock wrote more stories, and the popularity allowed them to grow in size to novelettes and novellas. After nine such stories, the saga of Elric came to and end as he killed his patron god Arioch and himself (or so I hear).

But that wouldn't be the end of it! There was sufficient interest and audience demand that more Elric stories could still be sold. So now Moorcock started churning out prequels in the time before the first story, "The Dreaming City". And he was able to expand the scope to full novels. (The recent graphic novel is in fact a prequel-to-those-prequels.)

Big paragraph coming -- Here are some of the ramifications of that. (1) Moorcock's writing style had to "fatten up", with his former quick, fast-paced style needing to evolve to fill up entire novels. (2) Nothing of importance could really happen in the prequels, because the fates of Elric, Yyrkoon, Cymoril, etc., were all fixed in the "future". Thus you get stuff like the save-the-multiverse crossover adventure ("Sailor on the Seas of Fate") that Elric then magically forgets, so as to explain why he never thinks about those momentous events later in continuity. (3) The explanations and introductions for things are all in the wrong place; to Moorcock's readers at the time, they already knew everything about the sword Stormbringer by the time the prequel "Elric of Melnibone" (1st in my book) was written, so the author would have no need to repeat that information (but leaving me in the dark for most of the book). (4) Minor characters are cannibalized; what I saw as a character developed over hundreds of pages and then disposed of as an afterthought (the sea-captain Count Smiorgan) was really just a minor casualty in the 1st-written story, but brought back and developed as a great friend of Elric's in the prequels (so as to have some connection with those earlier stories). (5) Elric's personality arc makes no sense; fundamentally, Moorcock himself lightened in tone over time. In the first-published stories, Elric is a legitimate, total badass -- a cold killer and destroyer, never looking back. Later he had regrets and became a deeper, "torn" antihero; even a caring figure, but cursed to doom those around him. But this makes no sense in chronological order, as he starts out caring, suddenly turns into an ice-cold motherfucker after the middle of the book, and then inexplicably starts being surprised at having regrets near the end.

A side observation: If you read the work in chronological order, it's interesting to see that the whole "Stormbringer lends strength by sucking out souls" bit was not in the original stories; that evolved later. It's clear that to begin with, Elric expected to gain strength and power as soon as he drew the sword out of its scabbard (e.g., p. 468). It seems like there's one single sentence in the original story, which I read as a linguistic flourish, that later got transformed into literal fact (p. 433: "Elric hacked a blood-drenched path through those who attempted to halt him and men fell back, screaming horribly as the runesword drank their souls"; compare to p. 436: "Then Yyrkoon laughed one final cackling shriek and his black soul went howling down to hell.") Or maybe some of this got re-written at a later date; it feels pretty inconsistent.

Here are some lessons I think we can take from this.
  1. Prequels fucking suck. They can't have any real tension, because all the main characters are immune to death or destruction due to the already-established future. In some sense they have to be for "lower stakes" (or some kind of faux-dream-stakes; see above) so the characters aren't jaded and unimpressed by the time they get to the "real" adventure. They tend to cannibalize characters for the "Look! If you loved Captain Smiorgan, here he is again!" factor. Small stuff will get bloated in importance as every thread of relation gets sucked on in this way. Probably some other stuff I can't think of right now.
  2. Artists' best stuff tends to be their early stuff. Not strictly all the time, but frequently this is the case. When the artist is young and radical and unforgiving and with nothing to lose and the sharp edges not-yet-rounded-off, they'll probably be generating their most unique work. Or as I tell all my artist friends, "Your very best stuff will go almost entirely unnoticed."
  3. You should read/watch stuff in order of publication. The tone of the developing artist gives a much deeper "throughline" than any attempt at high-concept continuity. As a corollary: Once the author changes (either in personality or through actual replacement), quit the series in question; it's over.
  4. Business corrupts art. Again, not every single time -- but much of the time. It's an inescapable fact that lots of art will go rotten due to business concerns. For Moorcock, the novel-length publications were fundamentally antithetical to his best writing style. But, it's how the industry best sold books, so he had to do it.
Consider some other artwork series that suffer in similar ways. Think to when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, and then due to reader demand had to write more stories with him; so, "retcon"ing him back to life. Think about how the big comic-book companies have no real equity whatsoever (they don't own real estate, or printing presses, or retail stores, or long-term contracts with the creators) except for the copyright to some fictional characters; and so in the same way, anyone who dies is legally/economically required to be brought back to life, or the board members could be liable to shareholder action for not fully exploiting the value of the company's assets.

Think about how great Isaac Asimov's short stories are, and how absolutely shitty his full-length novels are -- he only ever had a single "event" in any of his stories, whether short or long, and in the latter case merely became bloated with do-nothing page-fillers. (He admitted once that he wrote all of his stories in one sitting start-to-end without any draft or structure planning.) But novels were a better sales-channel than short stories, which were his "real" art form.

Think about when I was young and fell in love with, and was deeply moved by, Walt Simonson's run on the Mighty Thor comic; and how stupid it was to stick with the series for the atrocious years after he left. Or how shit-tastic Lost got after the first season. Or how the thing that freaked me the most when I saw Marina Abramović at the MOMA today (as I write this) was her very first work.

Finally, think about what it's like to be a young kid watching Star Wars today. It must be the exact same experience that I had with Elric. It has prequels made out-of-chronology order. The prequels freaking suck; they're bloated and the tempo is awful and they emphasize all the wrong things that will be minor throwaway stuff in later films; characters get their memories wiped to explain outrageous ignorance in the later work. The new films are made (and old ones hacked up) by a similarly bloated, blasted, uncaring old George Lucas who kind of doesn't give a shit anymore. People will fob off the prequels on you first and none of the themes or tones will make any sense. But it made a shitload of money, so you can just suck it.

I don't think you can say that my reaction to the Star Wars prequels is just me wishing things were the same as when I was a kid. I got to experience the exact same out-of-order thing with the Elric story compilation, and I could tell that it reeked when I read it that way. But after the fact, if I strip away the prequel garbage and read the earliest story later on as an adult with fresh eyes for the first time, I can still find it to be intense, exciting, meaningful, and worthwhile on its own.

In "Appendix N" to the DMG by Gary Gygax, he lists Stealer of Souls (a collection of the first five Elric novelettes) and Stormbringer (collecting the next four novellas). I'll probably dig up some more of those stories at some point, to find out exactly what happened to Elric later in time.

24 comments:

  1. Great post Delta. Growing up I read a lot of post-D&D fantasy, and only recently realized how lacking my own basis was in the stuff that originally inspired the game. In the past year or so I've been reading L. Sprague de Camp, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, and Poul Anderson. As an amusing aside, I'm so used to getting my fiction from Amazon these days that this was a real lesson in the true value of my local library. So many of these authors are painfully out of print and are very hard to find on Amazon, but my library consistently comes through with just about every book I've wanted.

    Anyway, I too tried to tackle some Elric, and I think what my library had was a more recent publishing as well. I think it was Elric: The Stealer of Souls, whcih I'm not sure is the same volume mentioned in Appendix N. I think I got maybe 20 pages in before I just couldn't read it any more. It's possible I was reading later stuff, I can't seem to tell from the Amazon description, but it could also be that Moorcock just isn't quite on par with the other authors I've listed above. Most of the other books I've picked up since last summer have always drawn me right in, and usually left me wanting more.

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  2. The "Lensman" books by E.E. "Doc" Smith are another case of publication order trumping "chronological" order. Anyone reading that series should start with "Galactic Patrol", and could probably skip "Triplanetary" and "First Lensman" altogether.

    But I digress. One of the key points in this post to which I heartily agree is *PREQUELS SUCK*.

    Why do they suck? Because your narrative is completely bound to a predetermined ending/outcome. How far can you actually ride a horse that's hobbled so completely?

    Even if you go the route of "Everything you thought you knew about what the prequel precedes is wrong!" approach, I'll give you kudos for thinking outside the box, but now you've scuppered the source material that everybody liked in the first place. Nice going, George...

    I read the Elric books a while ago, but don't rightly remember what order I got them in. The bits I remember the best are the crazy, gotterdammerung bits toward the end of the story arc that were the obvious precursors to most of Games Workshop's Chaos fluff.

    I never really dug Moorcock that much. His first Jerry Cornelius novel was the first and only book I ever hurled across the room in disgust.

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  3. I agree with the previous commenters. Awesome post.

    But I'm curious: Has anyone ever seen a prequel that was any good? Because I can't think of a single one, ever, but my knowledge of such things is hardly encyclopedic.

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  4. Nice article :)

    Probably you've read it already but here's a nice article by Moorcock about how he wrote


    @Delta: I sent you an email a few days ago. did you get it?

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  5. Or one can do what Lucas did with his prequels and ignore the continuity glitches. But then you just look like a fool.

    For instance, in ESB, puppet Yoda (as opposed to CGI Yoda), tells Luke that a Jedi only uses the Force for "knowledge and defense, never for attack." In the prequels, the Jedi seem somewhat "proactive."

    But, yes, I agree, prequels + money suck. I persevered through and read the bloody Elric novels. I still like Elric but, like you, I found the stories that work. :)

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  6. Yes, yes, yes.

    I’ve never understood how anyone could ever disagree that publication order is the best order to read any works. (Well, order written would be better, but that is often harder to discover, and thankfully order published is usually close enough.)

    I don’t think that prequels have to suck, but those are the reasons they usually do. Someone should take that as a guide to buck the trend.

    The thing I remember most from the Elric tales: Really loving Moorcock’s “voice” in the first tale and how quickly it disappeared.

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  8. You are going to find this is true for just about all pulp authors (see also Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, etc). They were writing short stories for magazines. These stories were never designed to be read together.

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  9. Ideally the Elric Saga should be read in order and when I was growing up there were 6 paperbacks that made it quite easy

    1 - Elric of Melnibone
    2 - Sailor on the Seas of Fate
    3 - Weird of the White Wolf
    4 - The Vanishing Tower
    5 - Bane of the Black Sword
    6 - Stormbringer

    As you noticed, the White Wolf Omnibus you have has prequel 'filler' like Fortress of the Pearl (skip that entirely) but does contain the first 3 books as well.

    You might consider getting White Wolf's second half of the Elric saga, Elric: The Stealer of Souls. At the end it has a handy reader's guide that helps break down all the various Elric releases.

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  10. I disagree in so many ways that I don't know where to start, so I won't say much. I'd end up writing way too much defending something that clearly isn't your style of fiction. Which is fine. We all have different tastes.

    I thought that volume was fantastic. You might enjoy the new Del Rey releases better that present the originals in the order in which they came out.

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  11. Allow me to disagree with "prequels suck". And my counter-example will be Conan: The first Conan story written is the second-to-last Conan story in internal chronological story.

    Prequels certainly can be crap. But 90% of everything is crap.

    OTOH, I would heartily agree with the principle "always read in publication order". No matter what the author may say later in life, the works were designed to be read in publication order. (Narnia is the classic example of screwing things up by rearranging the narrative into internal chronological order. Although I can't blame C.S. Lewis for that: His heirs are the idiots who decided that telling a young boy he could read the books in whatever order he wanted to constituted an authorial demand that the series should be re-arranged.)

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  12. Actually, the Elric Saga was the first fantasy I'd ever read, so I was sucked right in. I was energized by imagining what was in the book was as illustrated in Deities & Demigods.

    I read them out of order, just 70s era paperbacks found on a used book store rack. Sometimes I'd find something else by him, like Mad God's Amulet, or some such. And sometimes I'd strike gold and find an Elric novel.

    Moorcock dismisses his work from that era, now considers himself a serious artist. Problem is, his new stuff is boring and incomprehensible -- with the exception of Making of a Sorcerer. That rocked!

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  13. The only thing I would like to add is that prequels suck only if the only thing enjoyable about the text is the story; if it's a pleasure to read it in itself (e.g. Gene Wolf, not that I know if he wrote any prequels or not), prequels can be ok also.

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  14. I loved the Elric books, when I was a teenager back in the 80s. I read the six slim paperbacks JD mentioned, then devoured much of Moorcock's other work.

    I recently picked up the recent Elric: Stealer of Souls compilation. In the second story, the clunky prose made me stop reading.

    Anthony wrote:
    "For instance, in ESB, puppet Yoda (as opposed to CGI Yoda), tells Luke that a Jedi only uses the Force for "knowledge and defense, never for attack." In the prequels, the Jedi seem somewhat "proactive.""

    To be fair, Yoda could have learned a lesson from that, and how badly it worked out for the Jedi.

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  15. I read all the paperbacks listed by JD and as serial short stories I always found them excellent. I own the volume you have posted as well as the 2nd tome of this 'double omnibus edition' and find them both brilliant for what they are: a more or less chronological compilation of the Elric stories. I don't have to be sold on pacing or development...I already know how the story unfolds. I just want to have everything in two neat volumes for ease of reading/perusal.

    I don't find all the "filler" volumes terrible. I recall reading the Fortress of the Pearl for the first time and still found Moorcock's dark humor enough to make me laugh out loud from the opening chapters. However, some stories are better written (i.e. "more fun for me") than others. Of all those little paperbacks, the one I've read the most often, and enjoyed the most, has probably been Elric of Melnibone...NOT the first stories written by Moorcock if I recall (and thus the earliest "prequel" of the bunch).

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  16. Capitalist thought (nothing wrong with democracy mind you) will always try to justify the corrupting nature of unbrindled capitalism but Gilbert Chesterton got it right and the proof is in the pudding.

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  17. Tsojcanth: Hadn't seen that article before -- Very interesting to see Moorcock would write once, immediately send to publisher, never re-read anything once he'd typed it. (Also, I just got around to replying to your email.)

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  18. i am also a firm proponent of #3, so i spent a good deal of time trying to track down a copy of "Stealer of Souls," to no avail. Funny to find your post today since over the weekend I found an old copy of "Weird of the White Wolf" and broke down and got that. The first story in the collection is obviously a bridging story, glue for this over-arching saga created after the fact, and I absolutely hated it in many of the ways you describe hating the stuff you were reading. Now I've reached "The Dreaming City" and things have improved immensely! In short, I'm in complete accord with your analysis.

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  19. I just wanted to say that I have the book you're referencing, but it wasn't my introduction to Moorcock. My father had the first couple of books in the series, and they're much better than the gigantic, bloated omnibus edition that crams everything Moorcock has ever written into one big, oddly paced book.

    Just for what it's worth, you know. Also, I support what JD said. The paperbacks really are much better.

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  20. Yeah, actually since I wrote that post I searched out and procured the 2001 Gollancz Fantsay Masterworks edition that includes everything in "Stormbringer" and "Stealer of Souls" (i.e., the earliest stories). Must say that's a much better read -- not high literature, but a fast-paced adventure story that really stuck with me afterwards (surprisingly dark ending). My girlfriend actually finished reading it just the other night and said the same.

    Got it from Amazon, here.

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  21. Think about how great Isaac Asimov's short stories are, and how absolutely shitty his full-length novels are

    That seems a little harsh on The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun.

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  22. I had an interesting experience with this when I learned that nowadays, collections of the Narnia series are in chronological, not publication, order, so they start with "The Magician's Nephew" and, I think, "A Horse and his Boy," and so on. Of course, this is absolutely terrible. Other qualms about the Narnia series aside (such as the dreadfully tedious, preachy "Last Battle"), "The Magician's Nephew" (actually my second-favorite of the series) is only really effective when read after "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." My fiance, who encountered the books in chronological, rather than publication, order, had a totally different experience of them than I did.

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    1. Thanks for telling me that, wow! I am similarly bewildered trying to wrap my head around what that experience must be like. Not to have "Lion, Witch, Wardrobe" first seems insane. Great example I didn't know about.

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