The Knight of Swords
by Micheal Moorcock
Last week I called Stan Sakai a legend and I stand by that. Today we are talking about someone whom is a greater legend in a lot of ways. Micheal Moorcock, born in 1939 and got his start in the industry at the tender age of 17. Before he even finished high school he was editing pulp magazines. In the 1960s, as the editor of the New Worlds magazine he became a leading figure in New Wave Science Fiction. Like a lot of things in the 1960s, New Wave fiction was incredibly experimental and often started by rejecting the traditional that came before it. In this case New Wave authors rejected a lot of the traditions and starting points of pulp science fiction, seeing it as juvenile, stodgy and poorly written. While I'm personally a fan of a lot of pulp science fiction (Barsoom forever!)... They weren't entirely wrong. Pulp had started at this point to go a bit stale and formulaic, to be honest... Science Fiction needed the kick in the pants. It also brought in a number of new writers, and a good part of that number of those writers were women. While in the United States the New Wave was more diffuse, in the United Kingdom Moorcock used his editorship to build New Worlds into something of a fortress for the movement. To quote Judith Merril, a science fiction writer of the time
"galactic wars went out; drugs came in; there were fewer encounters with aliens, more in the bedroom. Experimentation in prose styles became one of the orders of the day, and the baleful influence of William Burroughs often threatened to gain the upper hand."
It is somewhat ironic to note that today Burroughs is very much considered a pulp writer but such is life. During the 1960s Moorcock would from time to time write under the name James Colvin, which as far as I can determine is the start of his extensive use of the initials JC (you may note that those are also the initials of Jesus Christ,Mr. Moorcock certainly did and even won a Nebula award in a science fiction story about a historical christ of sorts in Behold the Man). Mr. Moorcock would also win awards for literately works he wrote such as Mother London, King of the City (and others you may see in this review series in the future). In short even without his fantasy work, this is a towering titan of a writer, who is still at work today but it is his fantasy work that brings him to this review series today.
In the 1960s and 1970s, fantasy (even more then today) stood under the immense shadow of Professor JRR Tolkien. It was a overarching and far reaching influence in the United States, so imagine the weight of it in the nation of his birth. One where a number of critics, writers and readers could have even attended lectures given by the man. Mr. Moorcock himself had met Professor Tolkien and had mentioned that he found the Professor a likable man, he did not have such kind things to say about Tolkien's work. Calling it infantile, conservative and boring, Mr. Moorcock set out in the 1970s to do what just about every critic of a successful fiction is told to do. He went and wrote his own fantasy. In 1961 an albino, drug addicted, cursed bomb carting an evil soul eating black sword was lobbed into the fantasy genre. As you might have guessed I'm talking about Elric of Menibone, a character and a story that take a hold in fantasy in ways no one would have really guessed when it was published. Elric is a member of an elder race but with none of the grace of Tolkien's elves. He's is frail and must use drugs to maintain his physical health. He is addicted to using the power of his Black Sword Strombringer (a weapon that is frankly more iconic in fantasy then anything Tolkien came up with). He is flawed, Byronic hero with a tendency to get the people closest to him killed. If anything he resembles the bad guys in earlier works more then does the heroes. Elric much like Mr. Moorcock was an intense product and expression of his times and as with the New Wave science fiction... It was needed.
Mr. Moorcock's influence can be felt in American and British fantasy to this very day. If you're a warhammer fan? You have been enjoying the indirect results of his work, as Mr. Moorcock's work often turned around the conflicts of Chaos and Law (Games Workshop even uses the same symbol for Chaos that Mr. Moorcock coined, the 8 pointed arrows). Fictional works within the old warhammer fantasy universe (I'm not discuss this, this is a book review series, not a wargame series) like Malus Darkblade pretty much follow the path that Mr. Moorcock burned into the jungle for them. Along with this Mr. Moorcock helped popularized and expand dark fantasy and other expressions of the genre.
So what is my stance on Mr. Moorcock? I am opposed to many of his criticism on Professor Tolkien and fantasy in general. I am opposed to many of Mr. Moorcock's philosophical and political stances (he describes himself as an anarchist, I have many things to say about anarchy and none of them kind). I will also state that I there are fans of Mr. Moorcock that I absolutely cannot stand, they are type that make a moral stance out of what kind of fantasy writers you like to read, while looking for a boost on their high horses so they decry Tolkien fans as Crypto Fascists. To be blunt, people who say to paraphrase a friend of my “Have no other meaning for the word Fascist expect things I don't like.” I find such things pretentious and frankly tiresome. Tolkien's work is certainly conservative but fascist? This is a man who decried Fascism from day 1, not all right wingers are fascist, ladies and gentlemen anymore then all left wingers are communists. That said I will defend the quality and value of most of Mr. Moorcock's work to the death. Those of us who are fans of science fiction and fantasy owe Mr. Moorcock and his fellows a debt, his experimentation, his willingness to overthrow prior rules in the pursuit of a story and his willingness to tell tragedies helped expand and enrich the genres even to this day and beyond. Now that I've beaten the point into the ground... Let me discuss the actual book.
The Knight of Swords is a book in the Eternal Champion multiverse, basically a heroic character fated to exist in many times and places while waging a war to keep Law and Chaos in balance. Because if one side actually wins out over the other then everything goes batshit and the universe might actually end and we can't have that, all of our stuff is here after all. Elric is the most famous Incarnation of the Eternal Champion but the main character of this story is Corum Jhaelen Irsei, who while not being Elric certainly does rhythm with the albino. Corum is a young noblemen of the Vadhagh, an elder race that once feuded heavily with another race the Nhadragh but has since sunk into … Well I'll be blunt the Vadhagh are sinking into slow extinction. They live in small isolated family (by small I mean in groups of under a dozen) groups in castles with little to no contact with other family groups. Societies don't work this way! I've complained about this before but... Look you got at least have enough mixing that the younger members can find mates otherwise you're going to slowly decline into oblivion. The Vadhagh don't get that chance though, they are messily and violently wiped out by a younger, savage race. The race of humanity or as we're called in the book Mabden. Prince Corum is essentially the last of his race, as his family and every other Vadhagh he can find has been wiped out, victims of the barbarism of a younger race that operates out of hate, fear and the urging of dark powers. Corum tries to fight this tide but pays a heavy cost for it.
Corum starts on a journey of vengeance wanting nothing else but to kill the people who killed his people no matter what it costs him but he's turned aside when he is delivered to a Castle of civilized Mabden to recover. These Mabden had figured out the basics of civilization earlier then most and created a fairly decent society however the castle had been cut off from the rest of it's civilization. It's there he runs into Rhalina, the widowed ruler of the Castle who basically throws herself at Corum within 5 minutes of meeting him. As romances go... It's not one. I'm not terribly fond of Rhalina as a character. Her job seems to basically get kidnapped and held captive to force Corum to go on quests. She also faints a lots. Eowyn, she is not, hell she isn't even Lois Lane in this book. It's when she is kidnapped by a demi-god sorcerer that Corum gets busy with the main quest of the story.
In that quest he'll be sent off to a variety of impossible lands and meet strange barely possible people. This is honestly the part of the book I like best. I have to admit to being a sucker for a quest and Corum's is a dozy, being sent off to confront a god. Given magical artifacts to make up for his injuries at the hand of the previously mentioned savages Corum finds himself confronting a world wracked by a major change. It's a world where one age is ending and another one is beginning and he has to learn why the wheel has turned. In doing so he finds himself being educated as to the nature of the conflict that he has been enlisted to and informed that he's part of it now whether he likes it or not. Corum most certainly does not like it but he does what he needs to.
The story is rather straight forward and somewhat basic by today's standards but told with fantastical settings and peoples to provide the needed dash and color to make this work. Corum himself is fairly understandable character, as a person I certainly prefer him over Elric but he's well... Kinda dry in some respects. I've read the Elric and other books by Micheal Moorcock so I know what's he capable of and honestly that's reflected in my grade. The Knight of Swords gets a C+, better then average and certainly worth reading (at under 200 pages it shouldn't take you long) but compered to his other work? I mean I enjoyed it but the Elric novels took a lot of the same themes and ideas and frankly explored them better and with more depth. Additionally I feel the work hasn't aged very well. I'll admit I'm being biased on that and I intend to come back with some of Mr. Moorcock's better work in the near future.
That said, next week Baker returns with the White Luck Warrior.