Moorcock-ups from the Eternal Champion
Saturday, September 12, 2009
posted by Al Harron
Nick Owchar has been on quite a roll lately. His latest adventure is an interview with Michael Moorcock, one of those great-bearded fantasy authors who are rarely shy to share their opinions on the state of the world and the genre in which they write.
Michael Moorcock is quite the controversial figure when it comes to his critical assessment of science fiction and fantasy. His infamous essay “Epic Pooh” scandalized the fantasy reader’s world with its savaging of The Lord of the Rings, just as “Starship Stormtroopers” outraged fans of Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers. Most pertinently to the site, his thoughts on Robert E. Howard are fraught with misreadings and downright inaccuracies. It’s been alleged that he’s somewhat “mellowed” in this later period in his life in regards to Howard, but one wouldn’t know that from recent thoughts on his part.
Moorcock’s study of fantastic literature Wizardry & Wild Romance is pretty effective at what it does: stir things up, and encourage people to look at fantasy differently. Back when I first read it as a lad, I was even taken in by some of his arguments: I suppose many fantasy fans go through a “rebel against Tolkien” phase, and I was certainly rather persuaded by it. However, looking back on the book slightly older, I cannot help but feel swindled. For one thing, Moorcock suffers the inability to fact-check–or at least, the refusal to let facts get in the way of opinion–that S.T. Joshi and Stephen King also suffer: things like the fact Cross Plains is a town, not a “remote village,” and that Howard was a financially successful writer, quite contrary to Moorcock’s assertions. Wizardry is riddled with such baffling factual errors, giving rise to ultimately skewed opinions: a more devastating analysis of the book, and Moorcock’s views on Howard in general can be found in “I Suppose We Must Respect Him,” Rob Roehm’s article in The Cimmerian V4N2.
However, any thoughts that Moorcock has acknowledged the latest developments in Howardian studies since Dark Valley Destiny are dispelled when reading the introduction to Two-Gun Bob: A Centennial Study of Robert E. Howard, which makes Arnie Fenner’s introduction to …And Their Memory Was a Bitter Tree look well-considered and back-handed-criticism free.
True, his stories were usually pretty simple, pretty repetitive, and his characters not exactly complex. He and his fellow pulp writers reacted negatively to the rise of modernism and were conservative by nature, even reactionary…
Frankly, Conan isn’t someone I’d like to know too well, and even Solomon Kane, who is relatively complex for a Howard protagonist, wouldn’t make the best companion unless you were facing lurid supernatural dangers in a gloomy forest, and I find the romanticisation of Celtic “barbarians” a bit daft, all in all…
As a teenager, I loved the Conan stories, even though I didn’t like Conan much… not having much of a conventional education, I simply didn’t know what was “good” fiction and what was “bad…”
I suppose we must respect him.
- Michael Moorcock, “Robert E. Howard: A Texan Master”
Yeah, that’s really going to sell a newcomer to Howard, calling his stories “simple, repetitive, with non-complex characters” and subtly alluding that Conan is “bad fiction” before almost begrudgingly admitting “I suppose we must respect him.” Moorcock doesn’t appear to even be aware of, much less have read, the likes of The Dark Barbarian, Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, or even the Del Rey Conan collections with the accompanying essays from Patrice Louinet. He doesn’t appear to have picked up a single Howard book since the 1970s. Even so, Two-Gun Bob was years ago: surely Moorcock’s learned a bit since then?
Nick Owchar: A “better psychic time” — that seems to be the case for Solomon Kane, a fantastic Howard character. He finally has a movie coming, directed by Michael J. Bassett (just interviewed at Comic Con). When I heard about that, I thought, “It’s about time.” Why do you feel “it’s about time” for Elric?
Michael Moorcock: We’re winning wars and wondering why it doesn’t feel like victory. Losing certainty in our assumed national virtues. Staring at Chaos and hoping we can find a way to support Law. Pulling hope out of despair. We’re in a reflective mood and questioning our values now, I think. Kane was, if you like, Howard’s most reflective character. Elric began to question his forefathers, knowing they put him on a road that was no longer right for the nation. Kane is about changing values and the end of empire. Elric never is quite certain what he’s done or why. I think we’re probably wondering about such things a bit at the moment, too.
I find it quite amusing that Moorcock considers Kane one of Howard’s most reflective characters, when he’s probably one of the least. Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Conan, even Steve Costigan spend more time questioning themselves and philosophizing over the nature of the cosmos than that relentless human bloodhound of the Lord. Kane rarely questions his resolve, or even ponders why he feels his relentless urge to travel the world: he merely considers it God’s Will and leaves it at that. The most reflecting Kane ever does is his gradual tolerance of N’Longa’s sorcery as a tool for good instead of the black devilry he associates his blood-brother’s ju-ju with.
It’s also rather absurd for Moorcock to contend that Kane was about “changing values and the end of empire.” What on earth? Changing values, certainly, but end of empire? According to Howard’s notes, Solomon Kane was dated 1580. Kane roamed the earth in the time of Elizabeth: practically the foundation of the British Empire! The latter half of the 16th century was the beginning of a veritable age of empires as European naval powers scrambled for prime real estate in the Americas and Africa: the Dutch and the Portuguese warred in every sea in the world; the newly-unified Spain conquered Central America in their Siglo de Oro; the Ottomans were threatening to engulf Europe; France was starting the road to its Colonial Empire; Akbar the Great led the Mughals to glory in India; even the Danes spread to India, the Caribbean and Africa. Which empire’s end is Moorcock talking about, the Incas?
In the new anthology, a brief introduction to a short story about Elric says that he was created as a response to Howard’s Conan. Is that how one of your most famous characters came about?
Not exactly. When asked to write the original stories — which I accepted as a working commission like any other job in those days — I decided to try to do something a bit different, especially from the Conan stories, which were the benchmark in those days. There was very little “fantasy” — Tolkien was still regarded as a bit marginal, like Morrison or E.R. Eddison, and I didn’t want to write like him, either. There’s a touch of Peake there, but I was a great admirer of a 1930s pulp character called Zenith the Albino, and I was working on a study of the 19th century Gothic novel, publishing bits of it in Science Fantasy, which the editor consciously modeled on Weird Tales and consciously tried to make as literary as possible. (I was the rough end, paid two guineas a word while Ballard and Aldiss were long-established enough to get two pounds, ten shillings!)
I pinched many of the aspects of Zenith and married them to characteristics found in such classics as Charles Maturin’s “Melmoth the Wanderer” and so on. Americans like Poul Anderson were my main contemporary influence. The character was infused, of course, with my own teenage angst (I was 19 when he came into existence and 21 when he first appeared in print) and my own attitudes and complexes, so he quickly turned into the character who became so popular and influential. A version of myself. I wanted him to be popular, of course, so didn’t forget the bits about Freud and Jung in that study (part of which saw print as the study “Wizardry and Wild Romance”).
That’s a rather different account of Elric’s creation than the one in his official site’s FAQ:
Elric is the antithesis of R.E.H.’s Conan. He wanted a character that was the direct opposite of what was found in sword & sorcery/fantasy books of the time.
It seems that Moorcock is trying to avoid Howard as much as possible. This is most evident in this response:
This sounds like Babel’s Red Army has been moved from 1920s Poland to contemporary Vietnam. Is Babel someone you admire? What other writers do you consider influential?
Babel is a great short story writer. It’s his economy I admire. Other writers who have influenced me include a bunch of U.S. and U.K. pulp writers and children’s writers like E. Nesbit and Richmal Crompton. P.G. Wodehouse was a huge influence on me when I was younger, as were Edgar Rice Burroughs and George Bernard Shaw. Dickens. Stevenson. Camus, Sartre, Cendrars. George Meredith. Balzac. Aldous Huxley. Mervyn Peake. Elizabeth Bowen. Angus Wilson. Elizabeth Taylor. The list, of course, is endless. I read almost no f or sf, these days, except that which people ask me to read. I’ve never, for instance, read Bowen’s ghost stories or Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
I had initially thought Moorcock was holding Elizabeth Taylor the actress as a greater literary influence than Howard, but Rusty Burke pointed out to me that there was an obscure writer of that name. Considering the type of fiction “the other Elizabeth Taylor” wrote, however, it barely matters which Taylor Moorcock mentions, since one’s work bears about as much similarity that could be a perceptible influence to Moorcock’s writings as the other. It seems typically hypocritical of Moorcock to omit Howard from a list of literary influence, considering he claims that Howard’s writing “changed his life” in his introduction to Two-Gun Bob.
Soon, as one would expect, discussion moves to Tolkien.
You mention Tolkien, and the early 2000s were dominated by the enormous success of Peter Jackson’s films. I know you’re not a fan of Tolkien, but hasn’t he — and Jackson’s versions of his stories — been very good for the fantasy market reaching a wider audience?
To be honest, all I’ve seen is one dull movie after another. I slept through much of the Tolkien stuff (as I did through “2001,” for that matter) and haven’t seen many of the others.
Yet again Moorcock contradicts himself, as in his 2004 update of Wizardry & Wild Romance, he claimed to have found Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy watchable, rather than sleep-inducing, and considers them superior to the book. One wonders if he’s even aware of his chronic self-contradictions.
Moorcock is representative of a certain group of anti-Tolkien fantasy authors, joined by the likes of Richard K. Morgan, who our own Brian Murphy takes to task over Morgan’s rather myopic and prosaic criticism of Tolkien’s work. What’s ironic is that two of Morgan’s great objects of admiration–Karl Edward Wagner and Poul Anderson–all spoke favorably of Tolkien. Wagner’s introduction to John the Balladeer said that “J.R.R. Tolkien brilliantly created a modern British myth cycle…” and Anderson’s “Awakening the Elves” (Meditations on Middle-Earth) is nothing short of an 11-page panegyric to Tolkien. In the same book, Michael Swanwick and George R. R. Martin also go to great lengths in expression of their admiration.
I’m a big fan of Moorcock’s work: Corum, Gloriana and Behold the Man are fine additions to the pantheon of speculative fiction. Elric is one of the great fantasy icons of the 20th century, “Kings in Darkness” one of the best Sword-and-Sorcery short stories I’ve read from a living author, and Stormbringer one of the true greats of the genre. Unfortunately, his opinions on fantasy fiction, especially the work of Howard and Tolkien, are generally based on flawed premises and out-of-date information. I could at least respect his opinions, if they were not so wildly inconsistent and inaccurate. My love affair with Wizardry & Wild Romance ended swiftly after I actually did a bit of research and reading on my own: generally not a good sign when it comes to critical work. Unless you can be consistent and work with current facts, Mr. Moorcock, I would prefer that you stick with writing fantasy fiction, as opposed to critiquing it.
However, it’s not all bad. Moorcock at least introduced me to the idea that not all opinions are created equal, and that when one makes certain claims and presents an air of authority, one has to be prepared for their criticisms to stand up to scrutiny. Even so, his overall opinion of Howard is more positive than negative, and Wizardry & Wild Romance would at least expose people to Howard and other Sword-and-Sorcery authors: for that reason, I suppose we must respect him.