In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revisits the deftly plotted fantasy novels of Michael Moorcock
It’s not as well-known as it should be that C. S. Lewis nominated his fellow Inkling, J. R. R. Tolkien, for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1961, the Chronicles of Narnia author put forward the author of The Lord of the Rings, and his one-time Oxford colleague, for the award. Although the two writers did not see eye to eye when it came to each other’s work, Lewis thought highly enough of Tolkien’s fiction to recommend him for this prestigious honour. However, the Nobel Prize committee rejected the nomination, stating that Tolkien’s work ‘has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality.’
Tens of millions of readers would disagree, but I’ve always found it difficult to enjoy The Lord of the Rings as pure storytelling. As an epic in the tradition of the Nordic and Icelandic sagas it is vast and well-realised, and the world-building – especially when it comes to Tolkien’s métier, languages and philology – is often wonderfully detailed and believable. But the pacing, dramatic tension, and complexity of character have always, at least for me, been sadly lacking.
I love The Lord of the Rings for its influence on a whole raft of later authors such as the king of heroic fantasy, David Gemmell, and that indefinable magical quality (aptly, for a fantasy novel) which the book possesses. But for great fantasy storytelling I have always preferred the pulp tradition that grew out of the 1930s work of Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerian), and continued with writers like C. L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock.
This is by no means an isolated view. Indeed, it was Michael Moorcock who wrote the most famous denunciation of The Lord of the Rings in his essay, ‘Epic Pooh’. Moorcock is often – somewhat lazily – labelled ‘the anti-Tolkien’, but of course it was the cult-like popularity of Tolkien’s work in the 1960s counterculture that helped pave the way for the fantasy boom. And many of Moorcock’s early novels, written rapidly in the 1960s and early 1970s, were high fantasy trilogies which loosely followed the triple-decker publishing model set by The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s (owing to paper shortages after the Second World War, oddly enough: this was the only reason this long novel was initially published in three volumes, reverting to the Victorian model of chopping up a Dickens novel into three chunks for Mudie’s circulating libraries).
Moorcock wrote a number of popular fantasy trilogies like this, churning out many of their constituent novels in as little as three days, among them two enjoyable trilogies about Corum Jhaelen Irsei, a prince inhabiting a world based on Cornish mythology, and including my favourite feline in all of fiction, the little winged black-and-white cat belonging to Corum’s companion, Jhary-a-Conel. Moorcock’s most famous fantasy creation was Elric of Melniboné, an albino warrior conceived as a kind of ‘anti-Conan’ – indeed, an antihero more generally. But my favourite of all of these fantasy series was Moorcock’s four-volume Hawkmoon: The History of the Runestaff (Moorcocks Multiverse), about Dorian Hawkmoon, a Germanic duke of Köln (i.e. Cologne), who fights against the evil empire of Granbretan (i.e. Great Britain), with the help of a number of friends, including the wonderfully named Warrior in Jet and Gold and Huilliam d’Averc, a former nobleman from Granbretan who realigns his moral compass and ends up supporting Dorian Hawkmoon against the evil empire.
In the first novel in the Hawkmoon tetralogy, The Jewel in the Skull (1967), Dorian Hawkmoon is captured by the army of Granbretan after leading a failed rebellion against the empire. He is taken to Londra (London, of course) and the novel’s villain, Baron Meliadus, has a black jewel implanted in Hawkmoon’s head, which – like a miniature video-camera – will relay whatever Hawkmoon sees, so that Granbretan can both keep tabs on him and collect information about its enemies.
I recently read the follow-up trilogy Moorcock wrote in the mid-1970s, The Chronicles of Castle Brass: “Count Brass”, “Quest for Tanelorn”, “Champion of Garathorm”, which revisits Dorian Hawkmoon and many of the other characters from the original quartet (although sadly, my favourite character from the original series, the wine-sodden playwright Elvereza Tozer, didn’t make a reappearance). This trilogy is similarly brimming with original ideas, following but also playing around with the conventions of fantasy fiction, full of vivid imagery and – above all else – great fun. And Jhary’s winged cat even makes an appearance, crossing over from the world of Corum to Dorian Hawkmoon’s world – something made possible by Moorcock’s idea of the Multiverse and the Eternal Champion, which sees many of his heroes essentially as reincarnations of one another.
Is Moorcock’s Hawkmoon: The History of the Runestaff (Moorcocks Multiverse) great literature? No. Nor was it conceived to be: as Moorcock wrote in the 1992 reprint of the Dorian Hawkmoon quartet, the novels were written as entertainment, much like the rock songs Moorcock wrote with bands such as Hawkwind (who, naturally, took their name from Dorian Hawkmoon). As great literature they fall far behind The Lord of the Rings. They’d be just as likely to get turned down by a Nobel committee if put forward as Moorcock’s greatest work. But great storytelling? They deserve all the accolades there are.
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.