Violence and the Sword and Sorcery subgenre of Fantasy (or Fantasy in general) go together like goblins and orcs. You can almost take it as a given that some character in a Fantasy story is going to pack a sword and, at some point, that sword is going to be drawn and stabbed into some guard, monster or foot soldier. Tolkien has the butchery of countless orcs, Conan racks up an impressive body count in every story and even C.S. Lewis’s Christian-inspired heroes don’t turn the other cheek when it’s time for battle. Now, I don’t think that violence — by itself — is a bad thing. There’s an appeal to heroes who can swing swords and hack off heads. It establishes awe and gets across the fact that these are dangerous people in a dangerous world. But I do think violence without consequences is problematic and, despite how fun these early fantasy stories are, that’s what they have. However, I just finished the last of five books by British author Michael Moorcock about Elric of Melnibone and everyone’s favorite albino anti-hero proves that Fantasy stories can still have all the fantastic lands, weird monsters and pulse-pounding action that we enjoy — and yet take a more intelligent stance on violence.
Elric himself seems like an archetypical anti-hero. He’s the albino scion to a decadent empire that spurns his kingdom, ends up with a magic, super-powered demonic sword called Stormbringer and adventures around a medieval world. He becomes friends with a variety of characters, mostly a mischievous thief named Moonglum and gets involved with all sorts of adventures. Moorcock’s prose is occasionally lacking — with pseudo-medieval dialogue that can feel silly and monsters that get too little description — but he also has an enormous amount of imagination. Elric deals with elementals, demons and all sorts of other weird creatures while he becomes a pawn between the demonic Gods of Chaos and the brutal Gods of Law. The stories often have fantastic climaxes, like one where Elric takes on a fantasy version of Genghis Kahn with dragons — and the bizarre, fallen civilization of Melnibone is creepy and cool. They’re fun fantasy stories and while their portrayal of women and People of Color is far from great, Moorcock is about a thousand times better than Robert E. Howard (then again, that isn’t much of an achievement).
But Moorcock’s imagination — and relevancy — reaches it zenith in the apocalyptic conclusion, the final novel in the sequence which is entitled Stormbringer. This story has the forces of Chaos completely conquer the world. Elric’s job is to end and then restart the world, putting away the magic and giving way to a world of Law –which is implied to be our world. As Elric and his allies battle against Chaos, Elric has to rely more and more on his enchanted sword, Stormbringer. But here’s the thing: Stormbringer itself is evil. It loves killing and soon Elric himself becomes a puppet of the blade. Stormbringer even cuts down Elric’s friends and allies, causing collateral damage, much to the despair of everyone. In one sequence, it kills one of their allies and Moonglum just murders a moping giant because he needs some kind of enemy’s death to justify losing their friend. It’s pretty shocking stuff for what started as a seemingly cool Fantasy story about a pale-faced swordsman hacking up monsters.
I think it’s no coincidence that Moorcock wrote Elric during the late Sixties and Seventies. Besides the trippy visuals and mysticism, there’s the idea that violence itself poisons everything around it and that people may be tools to their weapons and to fate. I don’t want to spoil the ending of Stormbringer, but I will say that its world-ending in the proper way. Elric’s evil sword Stormbringer isn’t exactly subtle, but I can definitely see a link between Moorcock’s violence and the more nuanced hacking and slashing to be found in modern fantasy. Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin don’t have that many magic swords, but violence in their stories is usually messy, hurts the innocent and has consequences. I think we can all thank Elric and Michael Moorcock for that.