Friday, January 12, 2018

Vintage Fantasy: “The Eternal Champion”

One of my goals for 2018 is to explore more vintage fantasy, so I’m kicking off the New Year with a review of The Eternal Champion, one of the lesser known novels from British author Michael Moorcock.

Michael Moorcock is one of the godfathers of fantasy fiction. He found fame in the 1960s as part of a new, grittier wave of fantasy authors who focused on more complex themes than the struggle between good and evil inherent in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (which was published in the 1940s and 1950s). Moorcock’s writing was influenced by that of Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others, and it’s not hard to notice similarities between Moorcock’s works and the tales of John Carter of Mars. Many of Moorcock’s stories would fall within the “Sword and Sorcery” wing of the fantasy genre, and he has filled its ranks with classics. As I think about his works, I’m struck by how much they have influenced modern fantasy fiction, as well as my own writing.

Moorcock’s most famous protagonist is Elric of Melniboné, an antihero who is the melancholy ruler of a doomed empire and the wielder of the sentient sword Stormbringer. But Elric is just one incarnation of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, a warrior who has had many names throughout many worlds, destined to fight in epic conflicts until the end of time. Another incarnation of Moorcock’s tragic hero is the warrior Erekosë, and The Eternal Champion is the beginning of his tale.

Erekosë, like Elric of Melniboné, are both incarnations of the Eternal Champion
From the first few pages it is easy to recognize the influence Edgar Rice Burroughs had on Moorcock’s writing. Like John Carter, protagonist John Daker is a man of our world whisked into another to become that world’s savior. It begins in the twentieth century where Daker is having dreams of living other lives under different names. Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, von Beck, and Erekosë. Through those dreams, he is summoned to an Earth of a different age, awaking in the tomb of the ancient warrior Erekosë, the Defender of Humanity. 

Erekosë’s summoner is King Rigenos of Necranal and his beautiful daughter Iolinda. They have drawn him back from the dead to help humanity defeat the Eldren, an alien race cohabiting their world whom Rigenos refers to as the “Hounds of Evil.” Rigenos wants to rid the world of the Eldren, and he wants Erekosë to lead the armies that will bring about their extinction.

Perhaps fittingly, King Rigenos’ Necranal has a fifteenth century feel, in the worst European sense. The humans engage in slavery and sail tall ships to other continents, where they threaten the indigenous population. And soon, Erekosë begins to wonder if he is fighting for the wrong side. If this sounds a bit familiar, it’s because it’s reminiscent of James Cameron’s Avatar, and I’d be surprised if The Eternal Champion or similar tales did not influence Cameron’s creation. Of course, Avatar’s themes of genocide and conquest are firmly rooted in history, which undoubtedly was an inspiration for all these tales.

Like many of Moorcock’s protagonists, Erekosë is part hero, part antihero, and his choices often lead to tragedy. But few things are black and white in Moorcock’s stories, which makes them richer and more complex than novels that mimic the tales Tolkien wove. In a sense, Moorcock was a predecessor to George R.R. Martin, who began publishing his stories about a decade later. 

One final plus of Moorcock’s early fiction is that the stories are fairly short. The Eternal Champion clocks in at a mere 232 pages, which seems like a breath of fresh air given how long so many fantasy novels tend to be. Overall, The Eternal Champion is a quick, thought-provoking story that plays an important role in the mythology Moorcock has created. Fans of Moorcock’s other works, or of vintage fantasy in general, should find it a thoroughly satisfying read.

1 comment:

Richard Campbell said...

The problem I always had with the "Eternal Champion" is that it felt like Moorcock basically came up with it in response to complaints about similarities between Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, von Bek, Erekosë, and also Jerry Cornelius, Jherek Carnelian, and several others.

"You thought I was writing all these characters the same way because I was a hack, but it was all part of my master plan! WHAHAHA!"