Cursed Anti-Hero Carries Byronic Burden in Symbolic Sword! Or, Five Questions for Michael Moorcock

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Michael Moorcock is one of the basic architects of the crumbling Piranesi-like structure that is my brain. As a teenager I was a major major Elric fan. Give a skinny albino nobleman a massive black parasitic sword, and there is really nothing I don’t want to know about what happens next. During that period of my life I was not absolutely 100% certain that I was not an incarnation of the Eternal Champion. (I am certain now.)

Moorcock — along with Fritz Leiber — was also the writer who introduced me to the ridiculously powerful things that happen when you put a sophisticated, contemporary literary vocabulary at the service of a blackly grim high-fantasy imagination.

Now I’m an ‘adult,’ and all these things are still true, and Moorcock is still writing at a blistering pace. He is a giant of the genre in every possible sense. He is also one of the most astute critical observers of the history and future of fantasy as a genre. The Best of Michael Moorcock is a new anthology that runs the length and breadth of Moorcock’s wildly diverse work. On the occasion of its publication, he answered five questions for Nerd World — indeed he took them gratifyingly seriously and lavished an amazing amount of attention on them. Among other things he addresses the origin of Elric in great detail. Read on.

1. This interview is a propos of the publication of The Best of Michael Moorcock. Did you have final cut on this? Do you consider these stories to be your best? If not, what stories would you have picked?

I had nothing to do with the selection. I didn’t think I was the best person to judge what was my best. I might have left out “Behold the Man,” since it’s so often reprinted, and maybe put in a story from Legends from the End of Time, maybe the third story from that book. Can’t remember the title. “Pale Roses”? Or is it in there? Haven’t got a copy handy. [It is in there, as the first story – ed.]

2. Your best-known creation is probably Elric of Melniboné. Does it surprise you, how famous he became? Did you know it was going to happen when you created him? How do you feel about his popularity?

I wrote the first Elric stories for Ted Carnell’s Science Fantasy magazine, which he consciously ran as an homage to Weird Tales, with more literary aspirations. He published a lot of Ballard’s best stories in there, as well as Aldiss’s and so on. Originally, I understood him to want some stories in the Howard tradition but once we’d got that straightened out I offered him a character I’d been planning to write for a while. I was writing a lot of criticism of fantasy fiction at the time, analyzing the Jungian and Freudian elements in the Gothic novel, dealing with the roots of fantasy fiction in the decadent romances of the Peninsula and with various mythologies influencing 19th century poets.

Anyway, I put a lot of these elements into the first Elric story I wrote. It could have been a disaster, but luckily we were all obsessed, in those days, with packing narratives with as much content as possible, while leaving out conventional rationales, so I was ready to go, as it were! Fast narrative packed with Gothic motifs — cursed anti-hero carries Byronic burden in symbolic sword! To my surprise, they were extremely popular, so I wrote two more, really thinking that would be the end of it. Then came demands for more. Well, we all know that happy story. I wrote the first book as a series of connected short stories and then, because Science Fantasy didn’t carry serials as such I wrote the novel in four parts, each part more or less complete in itself. That was Stormbringer. In which I killed off Elric because Carnell had decided to give up the editorial reins to do a series of anthologies and Science Fantasy, with New Worlds, was sold to another publisher. And by then I knew I was to become editor of New Worlds and a guy called Kyril Bonfiglioli, art dealer, Olympic fencer, gourmet and bon vivant, was to edit Science Fantasy. He loathed Lovecraft, sword and sorcery and even Mervyn Peake — ‘all vewy well, Mike, if you like youh darhness uttah!’ — and he swore to have nothing like Elric in his magazine.

Which was okay with me because I was by then obsessed with New Worlds and our intention to take the vital elements and conventions of science fiction into what we call ‘literary fiction’. There were several different threads running at the time which were grouped under the general heading of sf ‘New Wave’. I was already looking for a character who could do for the mid- to late-20th century what I’d done with Elric — that is, deal with 20th century mythology of all kinds. So, by 1965 I’d written the first Jerry Cornelius novel, based on the early chapters of the first Elric story, “The Dreaming City.” I was trying to transform Elric so that I could deal with contemporary issues, the one thing at the time I didn’t think could be done by heroic fantasy.

I love Elric. I still write Elric stories. I enjoy his fame. How many authors can stand side by side with a character he created dancing in the strobes beside him on a stage in an auditorium packed with people and perform their stories with a rock and roll band? He’s taken me to some great places.

3. Your work is extraordinarily diverse in terms of genre. What do you think are the common threads that run through it? [In retrospect I cringe horribly at this high-school-English-ish question. Too late. – ed.]

A hatred of injustice both in political and personal terms; a sense that you have to help create your own justice, little by little, as best you can. A suspicion of big ideas, I suppose, whether they come from Bolsheviks or Bushoviks. I’m very idealistic and have considerable faith in individuals. I hate empires and my work is full of my own experience, watching the British Empire collapse and, to my intense disappointment, the American Empire grow. The difference is that America has a constitution which can take her back to her ideals (OK, this is being written over July 4 weekend) and doesn’t need to crumble. My delight at the crumbling of the Empire and the growing of a new society with a soundtrack by Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent has to show in my writing.

My Pyat books are about all the elements which went into the rise of the Nazi Party and the horror that was the Holocaust. No fantasy, except in the protagonist’s mind. Mother London, another non-fantasy, celebrates ‘ordinary’ individuals who create the voice of the city. An old-fashioned populist, really. But a lot of my other stuff reflects my enjoyment of absurdism, another strain in English popular culture, with the Goons, Monty Python and so on. I’d guess many of us were fans of Ronald Firbank, Beckett and so on. Pinter certainly was. Absurdism mixes well with Chaos Theory.

4. I’m a big fan of “Epic Pooh,” your famous essay about the nostalgic, sentimental strain in contemporary fantasy. How do you feel about “Epic Pooh” now, in the post-Harry Potter era? Have things gotten better? Worse?

Both, of course. ‘Fantasy’ has absorbed quite a few genres, including the Romance novel, which has never been closer to its Gothic roots! The old historical romance has been grafted onto the horror novel and grafted onto the teen-angst story and grafted… Well, I’ve seen how the Western did that, to a large degree, with the popular themes of the 30s and 40s. Ultimately you get Abbott and Costello meet The Yodelling Wolfman. I think the generic stuff is going that way but I suspect that which referred less to genre but created its own forms (or at least no longer familiar forms) will survive. Little Women is still alive. My guess is (though I’ve never read it) is that Harry Potter will take his place between Dorothy of Oz or Oswald Bastable…or other enduring childrens’ books. I don’t think things have changed except that the ‘Fantasy’ novel has come to mean a kind of book written for non-adults or adults who like to read children’s fiction. It’s about as non confrontational, in literary terms, as the Harlequin genre. Overall, the genre has become more bland rather than less, though there are some books in, say, the ‘New Weird’ category which are excellent.

5. I’m going to pluck a phrase — not at random — from another interview you gave: “When I first started reading Mandelbrot it was as if someone had handed me a map of my own mind.” This is not a connection I would have made on my own, but I’m fascinated/thrilled by it. Can you say more about Moorcock and Mandelbrot?

You could argue that I invented the multiverse and the eternal champion as a hedge against the heat death of the universe and the other stuff associated with the Big Bang Theory. I liked the idea of eternal replication.

A map of the multiverse; a map of my own mind. Mandelbrot enabled me to bring logic, as opposed to instinct, to my theories. These are, of course, only theories, not beliefs. This is particularly true of late Elric novels, such as The White Wolf’s Son, and fairly recent novels, which don’t really fall into any category, such as The War Among the Angels (of which “Colour,” in the Best of… is an example). I could always ‘see’ the multiverse, but I had no frame for it. Before Mandelbrot it was infinite, structurally invisible. After Mandelbrot it was only quasi-infinite, structurally clear. It had mathematics and could be replicated, at least in a computer or on a blackboard. I proposed that the same object (or world) could exist either ‘up-scale’ (too large for us to see as we are too dense for them to see).

To travel between these worlds one would have to be able to shift one’s mass up and down scale (this has by now become sf logic, of course) and the risk of being in the same place at the same time would not be great because the differences between the scales are so minimal that what you said and did wouldn’t make a difference. You would have to move millions of multiverses over to find any significant change.