Sunday, November 29, 2009

The History of the Runestaff

by Michael Moorcock

I: The Jewel in the Skull
II: The Mad God’s Amulet
III: The Sword of the Dawn
IV: The Secret of the Runestaff

And there’s the question of format. Not just what to read, but what edition to read; which configuration of a particular text is the most suited to that work’s purpose, while also serving the reader’s specific needs or expectations. Remember, a book is an object - that makes it both a product and a talisman. This is an aura that assimilates both the commercial utility and unit-based functionality of a book with a more ineffable creative quandary. It’s not a question or x or y, but of a point along an x-y axis. This aura is modified by the oftentimes disposability of many commercial products. But what happens when we take a book whose identity, its aura, is stable, something that falls safely within ‘the canon?’ Mark Twain’s ‘the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ for instance? Now, how do we approach ‘Huckleberry Finn’ when read in a hardback Library of America edition, nestled in-between ‘Tom Sawyer,’ ‘Pudd’nhead Wilson,’ and ‘Life on the Mississippi?’ Or, how do we read the same text couched in a lovely, modern cover by an illustrator by Lilli Carre? or marketed as a juvenile classic? Here we see, if not the disposability of a book as a commercial product, but of its chimerical shift. This is a book, one possessing a through-line that reaches straight back to its initial publishing date, and its identity continues to accumulate alongside a multitude of formats.

The Jewel in the Skull

But I don’t want to talk about Mark Twain. I want to talk about pulp science fiction – a naked man with a black jewel encrusted in his forehead lopping off the tentacle of a giant lizard lurching out of a pool of sacrificial blood. Of course, what I want to talk about is Michael Moorcock, and his multi-volume ‘History of the Runestaff.’ Anyone looking to delve into Moorcock’s prodigious body of work is going to hit a wall – and it’s a wall erected by, yep, formatting. Look at sprawl of Moorcock’s work – countless short stories, novels and multi-volume sequences. Not only do novels link together to form larger narratives, such as the case with the individual books of the ‘History of the Runestaff,’ but also entire sequences retell or reimagine other sequences in separate genres involving completely different settings and characters. But whereas a bona-fide ‘classic’ by Mark Twain won’t go out of print anytime soon, Moorcock’s novels are constantly falling back into and out of print every couple years, constituting yet another cycle outside the cyclical narrative of the books themselves. So, we must content with multiple editions of the same book, sometimes compiled into multi-book omnibuses and occasionally even with revised text.

The Realm of the Runestaff

There can be no definitive edition of a Moorcock novel, instead, we are confronted with manifestations, each constituting a link in a larger chain. Each edition has its own, peculiar resonances, and the novels themselves accumulate connotations. We experience Hawkmoon as a series of slim DAW paperbacks on the racks at a grocery store in the sixties, or we come across a hefty omnibus put out by White Wolf Books in the mid-nineties. Maybe we even read the graphic novel published by First Comics in the late-eighties. There is a depth to the book outside of the text itself. This is true to any book, but I would argue this is particularly true for mediums such as speculative fiction as well as poetry wherein books are constantly reformatted and republished. Within a field such as SF or poetry, we are confronted with the narrative of the object assimilated alongside the text.

The pulp format is a brilliant one; it is both modular and disposable and allows a great margin for spontaneity. Moorcock wrote each of ‘the History of the Runestaff’s’ four slim novels in roughly a weekend. He utilizes rough pulp tropes as a springboard for his wild steampunk inventions and alien architecture. The plot is a rote adventure epic on an “…Earth that has grown old, its landscapes mellowing and showing signs of age, its ways becoming whimsical and strange in the manner of a man in his last years.” There’s a fuzzy reality to everything, Moorcock’s willing to stretch credibility if it the creative payoff is worth it – but more importantly, Moorcock never sacrifices the creative integrity of the narrative, even as he sojourns into irreality. The original format of these books, running about two hundred pages each, suggest to the reader how they should be read. Each book is perfect for an afternoon. They were written quickly, and should ideally be consumed quickly.

The Mad God's Amulet

Moorcock inverts the WWII relationship between the British and the Germans, as the novels’ protagonist, Dorian Hawkmoon, is a noble Germanic lord fighting the despotic Granbretan Empire. The Dark Empire, as they have been called, has sent out their nightmarish legions to topple nations, not so much out of political ambition as out of decadent boredom. The armies are separated into orders, each one designated by garish beast-masks. The narrative bends and swerves to allow for breathtaking visual tableaux. Moorcock is one of the few SF novelists whose imaginative prose matches the psychedelic covers adorning his book jackets.

Hawkmoon himself is a rather dull hero, with none of the genocidal angst of Erekose or brooding drug addiction of Elric. Instead, Hawkmoon is relatively simple-minded, primarily concerned with returning to his beloved, Yisselda of the Kamarg, and oftentimes ignoring the wider significance of his actions. The books follow a conventional adventure plot, as Hawkmoon travels to strange cities and accumulates bizarre relics, such as the Red Amulet, the Sword of the Dawn, and eventually the Runestaff itself. But the dullness of Hawkmoon himself is rarely an issue, as Moorcock surrounds him with fascinating companions, such as the diminutive beast-man, Oladahn and the foppish D’Averc. Moorcock never hesitates to move beyond the scope of Hawkmoon himself. The first forty pages of the entire saga follow Count Brass, the Lord Guardian of the beleaguered Kamarg, and later on in the series Moorcock takes extended breaks from the central narrative to further explore the streets of Londra, the baroque capital of the Dark Empire.

The Sword of the Dawn

The saga’s chief antagonist, Baron Meliadus, Grand Constable of the Order of the Wolf, is an intriguing character for all of his unrepentant cruelty. As I’ve discussed in a prior post, Moorcock’s late-sixties Eternal Champion novels excelled at their mix of grotesque imagery and adolescent brooding. While Hawkmoon himself is regrettably bland, Meliadus and the Countess Flana, last surviving blood relative of Huon the King-Emperor, provide an ample amount of angst and pathos in the second half of the series. Huon himself is one of the saga’s highlights – a thousand-year old immortal who floats in a black globe and speaks with the voice of a murdered child. And while Moorcock falls dangerously close to preciousness, I personally enjoyed the encrypted names of his fellow SF writers in the Granbretan’s divine pantheon – Bjrin Adass (Brian Aldiss), the Singing God, and Jeajee Blad (JG Ballard), the Groaning God.

An illustration from James Cawthorn's graphic novel adaptation of 'the Jewel in the Skull.'

But the novels ultimately derive their kinetic energy from the spontaneity of the narrative. Moorcock always maintains a fine economy of prose – he never lingers needlessly on detail, and instead moves along to the next delirious encounter. And that is where we return to format. A walk down the SF & Fantasy aisle of a Barnes & Noble will reveal hefty, 600+ plus page books, themselves only entries in endless fantasy series. The efficiency of Moorcock’s prose is that it never lingers, but allows the book to experiment with successive tableaux. Consider the novel’s final battle, in which almost all of the series’ characters are butchered in dry, unspectacular prose and with little sentiment – they are slaughtered in battle, both heroes and scoundrels. It’s this refusal to fall prey to the easy pomp of heroic fiction, and instead to linger on its ambivalences and tragedy, that causes these books to remain as exciting as they are. A reader who isn’t already engaged with the tropes and traditions of the genre will probably find little to excite them here. The pleasure of early Moorcock is how he flaunts genre but how he works within it. But then again, there is the fetish of genre.

1 comment:

Graeme K Talboys said...

I go back to his work again and again, partly because he packs more into a single, short volume than most latter day fantasy writers manage in their 6000 page multi-volume sagas.