In works of fiction, especially fantasy and romance novels, the old maxim "nice guys finish last" is usually reworked to "nice guys just aren't as interesting". While it's true that the really diabolical characters are fun to read about, they're usually too one-dimensional to become an enduring character. No, since the early days of storytelling, the characters that have made reader's hearts beat a little faster have been those bearing the scars of a tragic past.
Preferably he or she should exude the type of sadness that only comes from being the cause of one's own misery. They should never sit and think but always brood, lurking in a shadowy part of the room where the occasional flicker of light from a nearby candle or fire can throw their face into momentary, stark relief or give a glimpse of eyes that send shivers down spines. Ideally they are loners who eschew the company of others on the grounds that being cursed as they are, all who they dare to love, or even have a casual drink with, will die in their arms.
It was the 19th century Gothic novel where these characters pushed their masses of dark hair, and smoldering good looks into the forefront – Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights fame being the Platonic ideal – and they have been brooding their way into the hearts of millions ever since. Unfortunately the line between archetype and cliché is a thin one, and an endless supply of tall, dark, and morose characters can start to wear on you no matter how attractively they are packaged. So when Michael Moorcock first introduced the character of Elric, the brooding, sickly, and cursed albino scion of Emperors from the lost kingdom of Melniboné, novelty alone made him interesting. Bone white skin, long flowing white hair, and pink eyes may not sound immediately romantic, but make him tall and thin and clad entirely in black and have his sickly body sustained by the souls his sword, Stormbringer, steals as it slays, and that puts an entirely new complexion, so to speak, on the matter.
Since his first appearance in the 1960s Elric has been popping up in comics, graphic novels, magazines, and books. As Moorcock primarily wrote the Elric stories with the magazine market in mind, most of them were short stories or novellas. A new series, Chronicles Of The Last Emperor Of Melniboné, has gathered together not only the tales of Elric, but all of Moorcock's work that intersects with Elric and his world. In volume three of the series, Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress, two interconnected story arcs have been gathered together. The three novellas that make up the title series, The Sleeping Sorceress, are set in the mortal realms, The Young Kingdoms, with Elric in the familiar guise of a soldier of fortune. The second series originally written in 1972, Elric Of Melniboné, is a prequel that details events that took place when Elric was still Emperor and how he came to be in possession of Stormbringer, his fearsome runesword.
The three parts of The Sleeping Sorceress detail Elric's attempts to track down an evil sorcerer named Theleb K'aarna before the sorcerer tracks down Elric. Jealous of a queen's unrequited love for Elric, Theleb hopes that by destroying the albino he will win the heart of the woman who spurned him. While Elric doesn't really have a problem with dying – in fact there are days he would quite welcome what he hopes would be the lovely embrace of oblivion – he knows that Theleb K'aarna won't be satisfied with only killing Elric, but will seek further vengeance by harming those few Elric loves.
As Elric and his companion Moonglum seek out the evil one, they meet up with an unexpected ally, the beautiful Empress of the Dawn, Myshella. Although a longtime enemy of Melniboné – she serves the gods of Law while those of Melniboné served Chaos – she turns to Elric for help to free her from an enchantment she has been placed under by Theleb K'aarna. Her body has been forced into an almost eternal sleep, and although she is able to resist and appear to Elric in his thoughts for now, soon she will succumb to the curse and die.
Moonglum and Elric are able to successfully revive her and with Myshella's aid defeat Theleb not just once but twice over the course of the three books. Unfortunately the last battle, which Theleb still manages to escape alive, costs Myshella her life. When Elric first set eyes on her he had been struck by her uncanny resemblance to the lost love of his life, Cymoril, and all his old guilt and remorse had been brought to the surface. Worst of all was the fact that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't resist loving Myshella. Her death only further convinces him that there is a doom upon his head that ensures any who he loves, or who love him, will die a violent and needless death.
Was there ever a time when Elric wasn't a tragic and doom laden figure? In answer to that question Moorcock takes us back in time to when Elric still sat upon the Ruby Throne as Emperor of Melniboné. The only child of the previous Emperor, not only was he born weak and sickly, his birth killed his mother. Needing special herbs and medicines to maintain his strength, he, unlike previous Emperors, spends a great deal of time studying the ancient tomes that have been collected in the nation's libraries. The world is changing outside of the island on which Melniboné is located as mortal men, recent arrivals to the world, are gaining in strength and gradually building kingdoms that might soon threaten the ancient land's existence.
In Elric Of Melniboné, Elric's most immediate threat lies much closer to home, as his cousin Yrkoon makes no secret of his disdain for his sickly relative and ambition to usurp him. Complicating matters, Elric tends to agree with Yrkoon's assessment that he would be a better Emperor of Melniboné than Elric, and he also happens to be in love with Cymoril, Yrkoon's sister. Ironically Yrkoon points to his own survival as an example of Elric's unfitness to be Emperor. For what occupant of the Ruby Throne worth his salt would let someone like him live?
Yet we see in these stories an Elric whose life has not yet been burdened by the death of those he loves, and he is happy in the company of his true love, even if he is not content with the cruelty of his people. His studies, which have made him a far more potent sorcerer then any Emperor before his time, have also caused him to question the use of violence and power as a means of exerting control over others. Wouldn't it be better to co-exist with the people of the Young Kingdoms, mortals, than engage in a neverending struggle with them to control the world?
After defeating his cousin's attempts to overthrow him, and in the process claiming the runesword Stormbringer, he returns to Melniboné determined to travel among humans for a year so that he might begin to understand them better. Thinking Yrkoon thoroughly cowed after his second defeat, he not only allows him to live on, but appoints him regent for the year he will be absent. Cymoril begs him not, fearing, rightly so of course, that her brother is even more dangerous now that he has been humiliated. Elric in his pride disagrees, and of course dooms them all; his beloved Cymoril, the Empire, and him. The first two to their death and destruction, and he to a life spent seeking out the means to forget, even if only for the shortest of times, the sorrows that plague him.
The stories in Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress have all been released before, but these new editions being published as part of the series Chronicles Of The Lost Emperor Of Melniboné represent an opportunity for those who have never experienced Elric, or the writing of Michael Moorcock for that matter, to do so in a convenient and elegantly packaged manner. The books also contain some fascinating extras, and in this edition they include examples of the original art work that accompanied previous publications of these stories, essays by Moorcock on the nature of fantasy and the Spanish hero El Cid, and the introduction to the graphic novel version of Elric Of Melniboné.
The stories as they appear in this book are the definitive editions, with any edits that magazines or other publications might have made restored by Moorcock. The illustrations by Steve Ellis, which are superb black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings, are all new for this publication and are a wonderful compliment to the text. Reading these stories in their new surroundings means even those of us who have followed Elric for years will feel like we are coming to him fresh. They not only still have the power to entertain and move, they will also give you plenty to think about. That's the real difference between Elric and other heroes, not his lack of pigmentation or the color of his eyes.