Michael Moorcock, “The Weird of the White Wolf” (1977) – People throw the word “epic” around a lot nowadays. As far as I can tell, they mostly mean it to mean “big/good/dominating,” with the implication that those traits can exculpate whatever is being described for also being sloppy, unsophisticated, or gratuitous. At this point, “epic” is also an online cringe-word, something thrown around a lot by corny people (and by people who consider themselves non-corny approximately three-to-five years ago).
Michael Moorcock has had an outsized shaping role on nerd culture (popularizing moody anti-heroic protagonists, introducing the law-chaos dichotomy as an existential principle) but sadly, his idea of “epic” has been drowned out by the more anodyne, commercially-usable meaning we have today. This is a shame, as his “Elric” stories are a pretty good example of the potential of the epic form in contemporary writing.
There’s an irony here, in that the Elric books and this one, “The Weirding of the White Wolf,” in particular lack many of the touches that make something “epic” in contemporary speech: they’re short, 150-200 pages each; they don’t do Campbell-lite character work; world-building is executed in quick, broad strokes, not the exhaustive descriptions of those elements of fictional cultures that coincidentally might feature in a game; exciting stuff happens but it’s not nearly as theatrical or action-packed as something written with an eye towards the contemporary multiplex.
What you have instead is an older type of epic, reframed by Moorcock’s pulp-fantasy/psychedelic aesthetic framework. The world is vast, old, lonely, and while elements of it are in constant flux, it’s basic nature doesn’t change. The hero, Elric, accomplishes big things — he burns down his home city, the dark (former)-imperial capital of Melniboné, accidentally kills his love interest, dallies with royalty and the forces of existential chaos — but we know, at the end of the day, he’s going to pick up his sword and move on, and the world will be the same. Elric will be more or less the same, only more so. That’s a characteristic of epics that some of the contemporary types seem to keep, the main character who becomes more and more their archetype until their achieve apotheosis/die, and it’s often basically the same thing. That’s how things are looking for Elric, as his totemic sword seems to be increasingly directing his actions in this volume, and as it’s hinted that he’ll apotheosize into a Jungian “Eternal Champion.” This is an ambivalent fate, at best.
Done right, the modern epic form accomplishes a sort of rhythm you don’t get anywhere else, worlds away (literally, in many cases) from the psychological realism/interiority of the conventional bourgeois novel form and the assumptions about the world and time that come with it. Falling into that rhythm is a major part of the appeal, along with the sword-and-sorcery stuff. You can see why this sort of fantasy literature accomplished “cross-over” to more of a mass audience — and influenced the sort of art that gets into metal album covers and onto van doors — during the era of the counterculture (in which Moorcock heavily participated), with its mainstreaming of interest in alternate modes of experience. Moorcock does it pretty well. Here’s hoping his sense of “epic” gets out there more. ****’