Review- Moorcock, “The Sailor on the Seas of Fate”


Michael Moorcock, “The Sailor on the Seas of Fate” (1976) – This is pretty solid “van art fantasy,” to use Garrett’s felicitous phrase. It’s the second book of the adventures of Elric of Melniboné, who Moorcock — the great lefty fantasy writer, perhaps now most famous for an essay shitting on a range of genre favorites from Tolkien to Heinlein to Watership Down (for some reason) as closet Tory-fascists — created to break with the stereotypes of fantasy heroes, but who wound up the model of a type in his own right. Instead of being buff, bluff, forthright, sure of himself, and basically good (in spite of the bad things he does), in the model of a Conan or an Aragorn, Elric is slight, decadent, ironic, full of self-doubt, and only learned to be good to spite his family and society, the saturninely evil Melniboné. This eventually became the model for many identical anti-heroic sword-slingers and the underground societies that bred them (the Drow, popular villains/antiheroes of late 90s/early 00s DnD branded fantasy, come to mind), which is now roughly as common as the sunnier kind of high fantasy hero.

In this installment, Elric, cast out of Melniboné for reasons I can’t really remember from the first one but which boil down to “wouldn’t be evil,” is wandering around, getting into adventures. He winds up on some weird boat that travels amongst planes of reality and different times. Instead of the romanticism- (and medievalism)-tinged descriptions of wandering through various European-ish countrysides you get in Tolkien and his interlocutors, you get similar wanderings but with a sort of psychedelic-inspired palate. This gets into the actual action of the series, as well, as Elric has to do Steven-Universe-style body-melds with some other swordsmen to beat some evil wizards who are also buildings, and is followed around by an ominous horse. He makes various deals with devils, some of them good, some of them tragic necessities, all bound together in the kind of universalism that the sorts of dudes who paint people with swords and chainmail onto the panels of their vans can agree on. That might sound like a dig and maybe it is a little, but I can also appreciate it as an interesting historical artifact.

The story is pretty all right if you like fantasy. One major thing Moorcock does differently from his bete noir, Tolkien, is that he doesn’t write as long. That said, from my perspective, well after Moorcock’s work has been enshrined in the SF/F canon (and, more importantly, worked into the games and movies that really propagate a SF/F’s writer’s aesthetics much farther than their books generally can), the differences between him and the fantasy writers he slammed don’t seem that big. I think there’s a continuum between the sorts of writers who seek out that space, the hero’s journey through worlds dissimilar to our own in the way fantasy generally is — less organized, lonelier (though fantasy gaming has kind of disrupted both of those traits) — that makes itself felt, no matter what else they may disagree on, politically or aesthetically. ****

Review- Moorcock, “The Sailor on the Seas of Fate”

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