The Dreaming City (60th Anniversary Edition) by Michael Moorcock
(Jayde Design, 2021)
Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
In the June 1961 edition of Science Fantasy magazine a story appeared which would change the shape of modern fantasy. On the suggestion of the magazine’s editor John “Ted” Carnell, Moorcock, who had already submitted a few sf stories to him, wrote a fantasy tale “as far from Conan or hobbit holes as I could make it.” This was the first appearance of the doomed albino Elric and his hell-blade “Stormbringer”.
Like many, I picked up on the Elric stories when they were published in book form a few years later, and watched Moorcock’s saga of the “Eternal Champion” and the timeless struggle between Law and Chaos grow. Elric is the creation of a young man at the beginning of a time of great and significant social change, and Elric himself, though a rebel against the confines of the “Bright Empire of Melniboné”, (and the essentially conservative structures of fantasy as devised by Tolkien) at this point hardly knows or understands the point of his rebellion. By the end of the story, all he has done is add more betrayals and slayings to his score, and perhaps come to some glimmering realisation of his true relationship with the blade he bears. But readers are left wanting more; and more they got.
Publisher John Davey in his Editor’s Afterword writes of the “raw, youthful exuberance” of these early fantasies. Elric is the rock and roll hero, the discontented glowing youth, long-haired, “tasteless and gaudy” in dress, “an outsider and an outcast” who it seems will plough his own furrow to disaster. In disowning “Imrryr the Beautiful”, where “the Dragon Masters and their ladies and their special slaves dreamed drug induced dreams of grandeur and incredible horror”, Elric perhaps reflected a certain necessary dismissal of contemporary society but perhaps also the touch of pomposity inherent in many 60s rock-star heroes. When he brings the towers of Imrryr crashing down, his immediate reaction is that he has destroyed a part of himself, a beauty that can never be replaced: “a greater sadness overwhelmed him as a tower, as delicate and as beautiful as fine lace, cracked and toppled with flames leaping about it.”
It’s Moorcock’s achievement that he has made this baroque anti-hero a symbol of the ambivalence of the age which spawned him. Elric can’t help but return, partly because there is a solid fanbase for the guilt-wracked albino, partly because his search for a moral basis for existence is our search, and partly because the “drug-induced dreams” of Imrryr and the decadent empire of Melniboné have continued to be potent metaphors for the world we live in. This 60th anniversary edition has been revised by the author and the revisions are interesting. Some are changes of adjectives or adjustments of the flow of sentences; there is the occasional change of spelling of a neologism. But there are also some insertions into the earlier, introductory parts of the text which incorporate additions and developments in subsequent stories throughout the series; hints that Moorcock will be adding more to the already extensive backstory of his hero. Elric, we read, has been assiduously studying the enigma of human morality, and he has come across a place where Melnibonéan atrocities have sent him back determined to extinguish the legacy of his line…
We learn no more. This “anniversary edition” ends, as does the original story, with Elric vowing to “give this age cause to hate us as we wander its young lands and new-formed seas!”, and the saga of Elric, one aspect of the “Eternal Champion”, stretches out before us. It is thus, essentially a celebration and a souvenir, but a welcome one. It will appeal to those who know Elric, but the curious, especially those wanting to explore what it was like to have discovered something new in fantasy, should be rewarded too.