Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Being a fan of genre fiction is not easy. You have expectations that are set against you right from the start and it is easy to understand why. Explaining to people why someone like Moorcock is good not an easy task, especially once you get into the bit about summoning demons and dragons. People turn off around then and it isn't hard to see why.
There is a large culture in the fantasy community of people that argue about who is stronger than who, and what this spell would do in this situation if this other spell was cast at the same time. Basically, people talk shit instead of getting at the themes.
Reading, my friends, is not for pure escape. Never forget that.
In fact, Moorcock shows us this. He does this by combining a few different kinds of philosophies and challenging the readers sensibilities with them.
On one end, the character of Elric is a thoughtful man whose judgements and sense of morals seem rather Kantian. Elric is not concerned with the matter of ethics in a sense that may come off as completely ethical. The instance in which he allows for the torture of an intruder to get information is brutal. However, what makes this effective is that, in this instance, we see that Elric does this because he feels it will better help his people and that it is his duty as emperor to keep his people safe, even if he is, by and large, a different and strange emperor.
This too is Kantian. Elric is not driven by a desire to simply please himself, but by one to do his duty and do it morally. He feels guilt and sympathy and remorse, decidedly negative emotions that keep him from pursuing whatever he fancies.
It is when, later, that Elric decides to act more in favor of personal pleasure than a duty to his people that we see things go amiss. The forces of chaos are summoned, but even they are not exactly what one would expect. The demon Aroich is not fickle or insane only a trickster.
It is interesting to note that there is a struggle against nihilism as well. Elric rages and fights to be his own master, even disobeying powerful forces of chaos in order to demonstrate that he himself is his own master. This struggle against fate, this desire to prove that we are ourselves and masters of our own destiny is at once personal and profound.
Perhaps there is good reason for people to be skeptical of genre fiction, but there is also damn good reason to find it as beautiful and touching and life affirming as anything else.
In the end, it's all about people. All about humans, and what is more important than that struggle to understand ourselves, our world, and then to do something about it?
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