28 Jul 2005

Stories don't care what they wear

I'm currently reading Michael Moorcock's London Bone. This is a collection of short stories, at the more literary end of the scale. I'm a huge fan of Michael Moorcock. It seems to me that modern fantasy fiction has been hidebound by slavish devotion to all things Tolkien. Sure, LOTR is a great book, but it is not the wellspring from which all fantasy comes. Even if you set aside all the pre 20th century stuff that can meaningfully be called fantasy, there are still several important pillars. Beside Tolkien you must surely put Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, Robert E. Howard's Conan and, yes, Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion.

If you haven't read any of the Eternal Champion series, here's a brief and inaccurate synopsis. The central premise is the Multiverse. Think of it as an infinite series of universes, all linked. There some archetypes of note here. Although I have read a lot of the series, I probably have not identified them all, but they include The Champion, The Villain, The Quest Object, The Eternal City. Although most of the archetypes will always be present in an Eternal Champion story, the specific instance of them (apologies for digressing into programmer-speak) will be different. This means that in one story, the champion will be Von Bek. In another, Elric or Hawkmoon. While these are separate characters they are also, in a very real sense, one.

I didn't intend to write here about fantasy in general or the Eternal Champion series in particular. I really wanted to mention a couple of things. One - Moorcock writes both what can only be called pulp fantasy and far more literary undertakings. He goes everywhere, and he's won a lot of awards. There aren't many writers who are capable in so many different genres. Dan Simmons is one, So's Michael Chabon. I believe Stephen King is too, although he's not recognised nearly enough for his mainstream literature.

So here's Moorcock, in a book clearly marketed toward that unreliable genre known as Literature, where most stories seem to be about middle aged college professors having affairs. And halfway through one story (The Clapham Antichrist), with a single word, he links it back into his multiverse. It turns out that not only is the protagonist an incarnation of the Eternal Champion, he's related to a family with a long history in the Eternal Champion series.

I don't know why I should be so impressed by this. After all, the division between high literature and so-called low fantasy is completely arbitrary. Perhaps I'm a snob. But in linking this story with the Eternal Champion series, Moorcock has reminded us that it really doesn't matter if your story is about a man with a big axe or a college professor with an unbelievable secret. All that matters is that the story is well told. And if you want stories well told, start with Michael Moorcock.

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