Thursday, April 12, 2007

Classics of the genre, pt. 4

While Edgar Rice Burroughs can be credited with the creation of the fantasy genre through his character Conan's exploits, after Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, fantasy writers had to come up with more than just swordplay and raw, near-minimalist storytelling techniques to capture the suddenly more sophisticated audience. Tolkien's emphasis on world creation, detailed narrative, and subtle characterizations (at least, by comparison to what had come before) forced writers to develop intricate backstories and motivations for their characters and histories/cosmologies for their settings if they wanted to attract readers whetted on LOTR.

Michael Moorcock became one of the most original purveyors of what came to be known as "sword and sorcery" fantasy following Tolkien's re-imagining of the genre. His notion of an "Eternal Champion", forever battling forces far more powerful than s/he in order to achieve both internal and external peace, allowed Moorcock to play with many different time periods and settings throughout his career. Even though most of Moorcock's protagonists are indeed male, as have been the vast majority of fantasy main characters, he did make room for the occasional strong female as well.

Although Tolkien populated his near-Christian world with many types of beings, the main emphasis of conflict in his Middle-earth was that between good and evil. In Moorcock's books, set in an infinite number of universes--essentially alternate histories and futures of our earth--he termed the "multiverse", the overarching conceptual struggle is instead that of Law against Chaos, with gods and men fighting for one, the other, or for the "Cosmic Balance" that requires both (or neither) to exist in equal measure. Too much Chaos and you get a virtually psychedelic instability to the landscape; too much Law and you get a permanent and unceasing sterility.

Of all the characters Moorcock used over the decades, one stands pre-eminent:
Elric of Melniboné, and it has been his fight to destroy both the Lords of Law and Chaos for the Balance that has endured in the literature. Moorcock is still living, but he has stated publicly that he has retired from writing Eternal Champion books. All of his work, however, rewards reading, as almost all of his writing includes the concept of the Eternal Champion woven somewhere in the plot. The high drama of a character slated to struggle forever just to find peace--in whichever incarnation Moorcock uses--arouses both our interest and our sympathy, since it is only in the briefest moments that it is glimpsed by the Champion.

The publisher, White Wolf, gathered most of the Eternal Champion stories in a series of reprints in the 1990s. Start at the
beginning to see how the Champion caused his own condemnation.

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