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!
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!
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.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
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.