Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Prince of Ruins: Upon Finishing Elric

(Disclaimer: this one is pretty long, but includes the inkling of a short story)

"I used to rule the world,
Seas would rise when I gave the word.
Now in the morning I sleep alone,
Sweep the streets I used to own…"
--Coldplay "When I Ruled the World"

            I do a great deal of reading before my shifts at my part time job. The Muzak channel most often played at the restaurant I work for is Family Favorites, whose scant selection of bottom forty eighties songs and Justin Bieber can be heard before Alex or Mike changes it to the Greek channel. At the end of my final semester of my BA, when the reward for finishing Dan Simmons' Ilium and Olympos was more reading, I finally began the first Ballentine Books (yeah, no relation) version of Elric: Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné. The series starts off with The Stealer of Souls. I sat shivering in a chair as the A/C returns pumped cold air by the front door with my book before me when an effeminate voice came over the Muzak. My head snapped up. I could hardly believe my ears.
            I had just finished "The Dreaming City", where the Prince of Ruins gains the title itself, sacking his homeland to rescue his beloved cousin and betrothed. How the mighty do fall. Proud, shining Imryrr, brought down by the very man trying to save her, a tall, effeminate man with pale skin and milk-white hair, lean and sick looking with strange red eyes. The albino lay on the deck of a reaver ship, clutching a black sword to him, hanging on for dear life, and wishing he would just die.
            The song was about Elric.
            Well, I very much doubt Coldplay would agree or even know what I was talking about. But as I sat there, really listening to the song for the first time, though I'd probably heard it a thousand times before, I realized that the song immortalized an elegiac motif in popular culture much the same way Michael Moorcock has done with Elric, sealing the genre and the character forever in subjugated popular culture genre whose denizens probably spend more time in front of a computer than anywhere else and favor thick framed glasses and Final Fantasy VII tattoos.
            "When I Ruled the World" is about a figure whose own power is his undoing. The fictional reality of the song involves a country whose love for their new king is blinding and the king himself is unaware of his fallibility, "The minute I held the key, next the walls had closed on me. And I discovered that my castle stands on pillars of salt and pillars of sand." Throughout the fictional reality of Elric and the Young Kingdoms, empires rise and empires fall, none so great as Melniboné, the Dragon Empire with her sorcerer kings. She ruled the face of Primal Earth for ten thousand years, doubtless warring with and eventually conquering Brian Lumley's Theemedra, adding her and her pantheon of Gods to the multiverse. Melniboné had grown vain and decadent, comfortable in her cruelty and complacent in her stability. Then rises this prince, this sickly prince whose vitality and sanity are both in question and who may yet doom Melniboné with his ideas. But it is not his ideas which threaten the Dragon Empire. It is Elric's own selfishness that drives him from Melniboné to seek knowledge of the world, and it is his selfishness that brings him back to claim the Ruby Throne and save his fiancé and cousin. Only he does not come in peace. Self preservation is the name of the game for the last emperor of Melniboné. Many fall to the Black Sword, Stormbringer, and ever had Stormbringer served itself. Elric's betrothed and beloved cousin, Cymoril, dies on the Black Sword. Elric consumes the very thing he is trying to save, and when escape is impossible, he sacrifices the lives of those who helped him sack his homeland. Elric escapes with his life. Like the novels and short stories that comprise the Chronicle of the Black Sword and Elric's legacy, despair riddles the song and there is little hope to be redeemed for past mistakes.
            "When I Ruled the World" symbolizes little else for me outside of Elric. To me the song is about Elric himself and the elegiac atmosphere of the stories. Throughout the song there is something like harmonized moaning that, taken away from the tempo and rhythm of the song, would make quite a choir of sufferers. Listening only to the tune one might think it was a love song. The lyrics are not dark, but they present the listener with little reason to hope and very much to grieve.  
            Elric carries the death of Cymoril and the fall of his empire with him for the rest of his life. As Elric tries to get back to the person he was before the sacking of Imryrr in The Revenge of the Rose, the last novel in the Ballentine Books collection, the song shifts its meaning a little for me. I have heard it many times over the past year and two months with relish, knowing that it reminds me of the "thin white duke" (David Bowie, I hope, will forgive our appropriation of the title), and I tend to remember him with fondness.
            The end of "When I Ruled the World" finds the despot contemplating his after life with no small amount of apprehension, "For some reason I can't explain, I know Saint Peter won't call my name." Elric fears neither death nor Hell, as we see in his contempt for his patron diety, Arioch, in Revenge of the Rose. However, his present life holds no meaning for him either. He is a despot, a prince of ruins. Moonglum, one of my favorite characters who seems to get stuck in Tanelorn a lot, often recalls that Elric is frivolous with wealth and resources and links it to his insouciance, born of a soul with very little interest in material things. What is the point? Knowing the fragility of all wealth and the meaninglessness of the acquisition of wealth, we can expect little else from the albino, whose own wealth and empire he helped to destroy. The irony is that Elric came to realize that the foundations of all empires are built of salt and sand and are at their centers fundamentally decadent, as are "all empires who gloried in gold or conquest or those other ambitions which can never be satisfied but must forever be fed," (Moorcock 9).
            Elric looks back on his life with increasing regret. He misses his homeland and his kinsmen, though each time Elric encounters an old acquaintance or a cast off revenant or refugee, he regrets it, especially when he meets a cousin of his in "Black Petals" (2007). The Revenge of the Rose in particular emulates the atmosphere of "When I Ruled the World". Moorcock repeatedly narrates Elric elegiacally, often in italics, "There were times when Elric left his friend Moonglum in Tanelorn and ranged the whole world to find a land which seemed enough like his own that he might wish to settle there, but no such land as Melniboné could be a tenth its rival in any place the new mortals might dwell," (Moorcock Swords and Roses 8). Elric, like the despot of Coldplay's only good song, has nowhere to go where he will be comfortable. Likewise, his own empire once controlled the factions now called the Young Kingdoms. Elric is considered a legend but also a betrayer. No one, with the exception of Moonglum, can trust him for long. Since the Black Sword must be sated, many of those who ally themselves with the albino find themselves betrayed if not by Elric then certainly by Stormbringer itself, such as the adventurer captain in "The Jade Man's Eyes".
            As I sit here, listening to the song again, remembering the exact lyrics for posterity, I find myself imagining Elric, perpetually with his back to me while Imryrr smokes and smolders in the back drop. Elric is master of it all: despair, regret, dependence and dark fate. Coldplay may not have meant the song for Elric, but his legacy is such that whether or not it was intended, "When I Ruled the World" is the eulogy for the Prince of Ruins.

He used to rule the world. Seas would rise when he gave the word. Now in the morning he sleeps alone, sweeps the streets he used to own…

Upon Finishing Elric: Revisited

            At the time of my completion of The Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné volume five, I had thought the series finished. Elric turned his back on myself and Neil Gaiman at the end of Elric: In the Dream Realms. I felt like he was truly gone. "The Portrait in Ivory"  left such a definitive close upon my mind, and Neil Gaiman honored the Prince of Ruins with "One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock" (read originally in Smoke and Mirrors). So, the eulogy was read. Now to get on with the business of wondering what the world would be like without the albino.
            Today I finished Swords and Roses, released at the very close of 2010. Today I do not feel any sense of closure. Where once I could see no light in the future silhouetting a tall figure in snappy armor, now I know that there was no reason for my depression anyway. Elric will never really go away. His destiny, so cruelly revealed at the end of Stormbringer, will continue to haunt him as Moorcock invents more adventures for him and his short, if somewhat neglected, friend, Moonglum. He, aspect of the Eternal Champion, shall never rest. For the Prince of Ruins, it is the worst possible fate. For readers, it is a dream come true.
            Readers will always return to familiar ground, searching for that feeling they found so comforting their first time reading through a certain setting, just as our champion will always search for his homeland in far-away places. As long as there are readers, there will be Elric. Is this a bad thing? Is this a destructive desire for both author and genre? As a writer, I imagine the pressure must surely be on. As a reader, I could not imagine a more perfect future. Even if Michael Moorcock leaves Elric to his fate, others will rise to the task. Elric will never be reincarnated by another author, but his legacy will be revived again and again. So many tortured souls owe their existance to the albino. Every outcast, every wayward warrior, every character who has ever been forced to live a life they'd rather be rid of: Drizzt Do'Urden; Alfred of the Sartan (The Death Gate Cycle); Jonmarc Vahanian (Chronicles of the Necromancer); Titus Crow of Brian Lumley's invention; my beloved Vlad Dracula; my own characters, Zennith Shadowblast--my Elric tribute; No Heart, borrowed Lord of the Shadow Realm; Victor Malace of Ramsgate's Black Guard. For many years I searched for the roots of these characters and their common pain, the father of all literature's suffering. At last, after twelve years of writing and twenty years of reading, I found him, staring up at me through the glass case at the UT San Antonio library. He said, "I have always been here."
            I believed him, and though I always detected a hint of unwillingness, Elric has been a steady companion of mine these last fourteen months. I am not sure he enjoyed being shoved into a backpack or oversized purse to be called upon for my amusement. I am not certain he was comfortable bearing forth all his secrets and being forced to relive all of his mistakes. But I needed him, and like the selfish act that brought him to destroy his own city, I drag him along anyway. If Moorcock should chose to give him life again, I would gladly walk beside him, for better or worse.
            I was depressed to say the least at the end of In the Dream Realms. I was reminded of what I was losing as Gaiman's Elric left his young self to his future: that the fictional reality is brief and only gives the illusion of substance, but like Elric's own necessary herbs and drugs, it is vital to my existence. I feared that he had turned his back for good. At the close of "The Black Petals" as Elric looks into the jungle as if seeing a familiar sight, I know now that he was never destined to leave for long. Always will he lift his crimson eyes, offering his message of stoic determination with a hint of insouciance.
            Elric, though a destructive force of his own, stands as a testament to inner strength. His moments of weakness, when even his friends cannot guess his next move, are loaded with suspense and as a reader I am left wondering if even I should trust him. We watch him closely, his friends and I, but when he is needed, called upon, his Melnibonéan instincts will play out in uncanny ways. He is the first onto the field, and the last to leave it. He is our greatest fear and our only salvation. The paradoxes are what make him real. In life we are given few choices that we can make with absolute certainty. Bound by Chaos, we are always simultaneously creating and destroying with our decisions, leaving our realities changed forever. Elric, in many ways, has helped me make peace with that.
            As always, one book must end before another can begin. As I move into the midst of the wild Empire of Granbretan and join forces with Hawkmoon, I walk beside Elric for what must be the last time for a long while, if ever again...

            He was riding horseback when I came upon him, dressed in the light armor of the Dragon Riders and clothed in green and jet and gold, stooped slightly in the saddle as if under some unseen weight. Moonglum, ever at his side unless whiling away the hours in peaceful Tanelorn, rode beside him. On Elric's right hip, plainly visible, sat Stormbringer, the Black Sword, sheathed in a scabbard lined with red velvet. It seemed to sense me and I heard a lilting titter in the back of my mind. The albino seemed to brighten a little as he approached, his milk-white hair fluttering in the breeze, his cheeks barely flushed in the sun. Moonglum kicked his pony up and cantered to where I stood, thumb stuck out.
            "I'll give you a ride, lady," the short, red headed man of Elwher said, dismounting in the grass. We embraced as only close friends do, quickly and eagerly. I then held him at arm's length, smiling into eyes only just above my own. The field we stood in was lush from the spring rains. The sky shone a clear, cloudless blue with touches of pink and yellow, the sun beginning to droop in the west.
            "My thanks," I said, "It is good to see you, friend Moonglum. I feared you had stayed behind."
            "Not this time, lady," Moonglum replied.  I pushed my black broad-brimmed hat back to gaze at Elric, the last prince of Melniboné. The albino's lips seemed to curl in the semblance of a smile.
            "The distance I need to travel is short. We should arrive at my destination ere long. Perhaps my lords would walk with me a ways?"
            Elric said nothing, but he dismounted and took up a position on my left, Moonglum on my right, leading their horses by their reins It was some minutes of awkward walking before he spoke.
            "You travel a hard road, lady, with no mount. There are brigands roaming the country side," he said reproachfully.
            "I have no fear of brigands."
            He smiled slightly wider, "Of course not. You will be here only a short time. The rest of us must dwell here and undertake all of life's perils."
            "I undertake perils as well, only they are more conventional perils," I said defensively, "Such as paying my bills."
            "Such perils I hope to avoid," Moonglum said, patting his hip pocket, "I find that accruing such weighty responsibilities gives me all the more reason to travel. I'll keep my coin in my purse if nobody minds."
            "Agreed," I laughed. We lapsed back into silence. I felt a slight weight on my shoulders. Elric, his smile now genuine and friendly, pulled me roughly to his side and as quickly let me go. I put one arm around his waist and the other on Moonglum's shoulder.
            "So boys," I said, "Another adventure is upon you?"
            "Aye," Elric said, "As one ends, another begins."
            "For me as well," I said, noticing the weight of my two trusty blades strapped to either hip, "I go to join the army of Kamarg. I heard there is quite a story to be told there."
            "Perhaps, though I have never heard of that country," Elric said flatly.
            Ever were thou encouraging, my lord.
            I played it off. His arm still draped across my shoulders, I could tell he was avoiding my gaze. I knew he brooded, and often his world-weary eyes seemed to search for something in the distance that only he could see. But this was different. This time it seemed purposeful.
            "Something troubling you, my lord?" I asked.
            "Nothing," he said without pause, his eyes never leaving the horizon. The sun was dropping, and it seemed at our present pace we would not reach our destination by evening. I could see in the distance, seemingly just over the next rise, the spires of a small city, shining in white. Though I did not know the name, it seemed vital that all of us should arrive on schedule. I glanced at Moonglum, and the short man of Elwher was just as lost in his thoughts as the tall albino. I gave him a squeeze, and the poor guy went so far as to lean his head upon my shoulder. I sensed his pain, both of theirs, and knew not the cause.
            "You are not sad to be going?" Moonglum asked.
            "Sad to be--of course I'm sad," I said in some incredulity, "I'm always sad when I leave you two."
            "Especially Moonglum," the short one said. It was really more of a statement than a question. Elric raised an eyebrow.
            Oh really, sir?
            "Especially Moonglum,"     
            I winked at Elric. His expression softened somewhat, and a wry smile touched the corners of his mouth. We lapsed back into uncomfortable silence. I glanced repeatedly at their two stoic expressions, wondering what I had done wrong. I opened my mouth to speak, but the albino's words stopped me.
            "Will you come back?" he asked.
            "Of course," I said, trying to keep the emotion from my voice, "I always come back. But you have to promise that you'll  be here when I return."
            "I cannot promise that," Elric said, "The future is a devious thing, as you are so fond of reminding me. I do not know where my fate leads me. It could be that we part for the last time."
            "You always say that," I retorted, "And you are always here when I come looking for you. I daresay I do not force you into an unkeepable promise."
            Elric turned a slight smile to me and unflinchingly crushed me in a short hug. I could not help but laugh at him. He was so serious and remote. He always seemed hundreds of miles away. Yet when I needed him, he was always there, always waiting for me patiently beside a dry river bed or on a deserted plane, immaculately dressed and seated on horseback.
            "Well, and you are here at last. Come, our adventures begin anew," he would say with a bow, before heading off in a direction seemingly chosen at random. I would follow unquestioningly. If we got separated, we always met again, as we were now, before I took  my leave of him.
            Now a small town came into our sights. I sighed.
            "I guess this is good-bye, boys," I said.
            "Are you sure you won't come with us?" Moonglum asked, "Is their situation in Kamarg so ill that they must call you away again?"
            "From what I understand, its desperate," I said, stopping. Elric's arm slipped from my shoulder and he turned away. I could no longer hold any glimmer of bravado. His turned back did not strengthen my resolve, but only heightened my desire to stay.
            "We must go where Fate commands us," I said, laying my palms out to him placatingly.
            "Now that I do not believe," he said, spinning around and grabbing me by the shoulders. His grip was not hard, but neither was it relenting, "We are not the toys of Fate. We are masters of our own will, and no power is higher."
            I stared up at him in surprise and sudden fear. His eyes blazed under a tangle of white hair. His mouth was set in a firm frown, much the way my father's looks when there is a singular point that he wishes to make. I said nothing and nodded vigorously that I suddenly and without question agreed with him.
            He released his grip on my arms but did not let me go. Again I was crushed to the light plate armor he wore, a symbol of his heritage, like his fine features and the ugly sword that murmured from his slight waist. His sudden displays of emotion always made me anxious after watching him go through our adventures as the picture of insouciance. Aware that I was not breathing, Elric relaxed and knelt before me in the grass.
            "Good-bye then, my lady," he said softly, "Time and space mean very little to adventurers such as ourselves. So long as you live, I will be here."
            I stared at him for a long moment, unhappy but not crying. I could not cry. There is no crying in Melniboné, I knew, and there was no reason to cry. I smiled and bent to kiss the Prince of Ruins on his bony cheek. I received something like one in return.
            I turned to Moonglum and embraced him again, "And you, sir?"
            "And I? I shall always be here," he said. He returned my hug with vigor, and when we parted, Elric had already mounted his horse.
            "Farewell, Prince Elric," I said, waving.
            "Fare thee well, my lady," Elric said.
            Moonglum put his heels to his horse's flanks and charged off across the plain. Elric, the Prince of Ruins, lingered only a second, but no more. Howling a Melnibonéan battle cry, his horse leapt after Moonglum, and suddenly they were gone again, a splash of Elwher Red in the sunset and a screaming outcast, his white hair streaming behind him in the wind...

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