Elric of Melnibone’: Rockin’ Year Sixty!

The High Fantasy Track at Dragon Con 2021 opened its virtual programming on YouTube Thursday at 11:30AM with a retrospective on Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone’ series which celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year. Moderator Van Allen Plexico welcomed Joe Crowe, Rick Klaw, and Gary Mitchell (of Dragon Con’s American Sci Fi Track) to the panel for a look back at this important, and influential, fantasy character.

The conversation began with a basic question: who is Elric of Melnibone’?  The panelists all described Elric as the prototypical antihero. A protagonist who is both good and bad, victim and perpetrator. He is the last emperor of a “not quite human race” that enjoys being mean to everyone else. In the case of Elric however, you’ve got an emperor who is pondering the question of why he doesn’t want to be quite as fierce as those he rules!

Rick Klaw, who enjoys the distinction of having worked with Moorcock, sees the Elric stories as a kind of “anti-Lord of the Rings.” Moorcock claimed that Tolkien had no influence upon his stories. Moreover, he explicitly wanted it known that this is not quest literature. The reader doesn’t have to follow any order. Each Elric novel is a free standing, and self-contained story. Beyond structure, the subject matter and tone of Moorcock’s work stand in contrast to that of Tolkien.  Klaw described the Elric stories as darker and bleaker than most fantasy. This character is driven both physically and spiritually by demons.

Originally charged with writing a story in the tradition of Howard’s Conan, Elric became in Mitchell’s view not just the anti-Lord of the Rings, it became the anti-Conan as well. Elric is a physically weak character. He’s a magician, by nature a frail albino, and the only reason he’s able to fight and defeat these bad guys is that he finds a sentient, evil sword. While benefitting mightily from the sword, he simultaneously wants to control and limit the damage it does. So we have a complex character, operating across a bleak landscape, who is fundamentally bad and who constantly makes the wrong decisions. His redemption comes from running into, and dealing with, “badder dudes.” Despite all of this, readers like him.

Moorcock published an important science fiction magazine entitled New Worlds, and to fund it he wrote Elric stories. The first appeared in 1961 and Elric novels have been in continuous print since 1971. Print adaptations, graphic novels and special issues continue to appear. Given this long publication run, Elric of Melnibone’ has been very influential across genres and media having an impact on everything from Dungeons & Dragons to the music of Blue Oyster Cult.

The longevity, and the resulting influence Elric has had across popular culture, poses a problem when considering the possibility of moving the character to film. According to Klaw, Elric has been so influential that if you tried to adapt him and make an Elric movie people would think it’s not original. Mitchell concurred pointing out that Elric is “the guy everyone ripped off.”  In his view, a director (like Peter Jackson) who knows the material and has a passion for it would be essential to the success of any such endeavor.

Gary Mitchell summed up the theme of the panel when offering an answer to Plexico’s question about appeal, especially in light of the fact that readers can find other more “attractive” fantasy heroes. He declared that Elric’s popularity is based upon “simple purity.”  Elric of Melnibone’ is a “doomed hero trying to make his way in the world.”  He is an “out of place dude just trying to survive” and who among us hasn’t felt that way at some point in our lives?  The panel is available at the Dragon Con High Fantasy YouTube channel.

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