Heroes have always been of a singular nature. Dating back to the times of the heroes as depicted by Homer in his Odyssey the hero has stood alone in the world, either through choice or circumstances. Yet what has really distinguished the iconic hero from the rest of us mere mortals has been the ability to reduce the world down to a single focus. Nothing or nobody else matters aside from their quest. Be it a one off rescue of a maiden in distress or a life guided by vengeance for something that took place centuries ago they let nothing interfere with their "destiny".
While this ability to focus can be seen as admirable, taken from another perspective it can also be seen as a form of narrow-mindedness that leaves them with a very limited perspective on the world. Their world is black and white with no room for anything that doesn't fit into the parameters that they have devised for themselves. Anyone who does not support them wholeheartedly is against them, and there is never any question in their minds as to the justice of their mission.
Heroic fiction/fantasy genre of sword and sorcery have fit each other like a glove since the days of pulp fiction magazines. Stalwart heroes like Robert E. Howard's Conan The Barbarian piled bodies around them as they cut a swath through the pages of cheap magazine serials and ten cent pocket books. However, the last 40 years have seen some authors in this genre begin to emulate the rise of the anti-hero in other forms of writing. These heroes are beset with doubts while the purity of their mission and motivations are open to doubt.
One of the leading proponents of this new style of heroic writing has been Michael Moorcock and his famous character Elric of Melnibone – the albino prince who is the sole survivor of a royal dynasty sworn to serve the lords of Chaos. Yet, while Elric is his best known character, a new collection of Moorcock's stories, Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn, published by Random House Canada, shows that Moorcock has always had more than one sword in his arsenal. (It turns out that this is the second in a series of four books – Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnione – being published by the Random House Imprint Del Rey Books gathering together all of Moorcock's short fiction.)
In To Rescue Tanelorn the editors have gone back as far as 1962 for the first story, the novella version of "The Eternal Champion", and continued on down through the years until reaching "The Roaming Forrest" published in 2006. Each of the stories, whether featuring Elric or one of Moorcock's other "heroes", is not only a well told adventure story, but goes some distance in redefining the idea of the hero.
As far back as "The Eternal Champion," Moorcock was already showing his willingness to break the mould that so many other heroic stories had been cast from. Erekose is called from our plane of existence into another world where humanity is locked in a desperate struggle with creatures referred to as "The Hounds of Evil". As the story progresses though, Erekose discovers that the so-called "Hounds" have never instigated war between the two species, and in actual fact possess the means to have obliterated humanity generations ago, but have refrained from using them in the hopes that somehow peace can be won.
Unfortunately, humanity's leaders are unwilling to see beyond their blind hatred and aren't about to listen to reason. Erekose himself is held by a vow to protect humanity and oppose its enemies and is initially helpless to prevent the slaughter of the world's other inhabitants. Eventually he is forced into making a decision about where his loyalties truly lie, with humanity or with justice. For no matter what the people who summoned him might say, the one is not necessarily the same as the other.
Of course any collection of Moorcock's work will feature plenty of stories with the original anti-hero of sword and sorcery – Elric of Melnibone. The albino prince, who depends on a soul-stealing rune sword to maintain his life force, is the only survivor of his once proud kingdom and roams the world, and its many parallel planes of existence, looking for answers about the origins of his people. He knows that at some point they entered into a pact with the Lords Of Chaos – who compete with the forces of Law to control the world – and that resulted in their gradual decline into decadence and eventual extinction.
As a result of the pact he is able to call upon various demons of Chaos to come to his protection in times of need, and wreck horrible havoc upon his enemies. Unfortunately he also seems cursed to bring about the death of those closest to him, and anyone unfortunate enough to ally themselves with Elric usually dies a horrible death. Couple that with his need to kill people and steal their souls at regular intervals in order to stay alive, and he ends up not being the most pleasant of companions.
Moorcock's characters drift back and forth through what he terms the "multiverse". So if you're reading a story set in our world and happen to stumble across someone who reminds you of Elric or another character you ran into somewhere else, it's because they all exist in one form or another in the various dimensions. Sometimes they are buried deep within layers of another character, but there will be the smallest of clues that will give them away.
Michael Moorcock was one of the first writers in the sword and sorcery genre to dare and tamper with the sacred icon of the hero and make him fallible. Even more extraordinary is the fact that he was able to do this while never forgetting that he was also responsible for writing exciting and interesting adventure stories. Elric: To Rescue Tanelorn, the second instalment of four in the Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melnibone, is a wonderful collection featuring some of Moorcock's most memorable characters and provides all the proof anybody would need that this man is one of the great fantasy writers of ours or any time.