The Eternal Whiner

Let no one be deceived by my last essay into thinking I have less than great respect for the fiction writing of Michael Moorcock. It is the essays of Michael Moorcock I despise.

There are several Moorcock books I like, and, indeed, like a great deal. He is an author that is almost good enough to write pulp like Robert E Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The idea of Elric is a cunning inversion of all the tropes and stereotypes of Robert E Howard’s Conan. Conan is a healthy barbarian who is basically decent and never complains, whereas Elric is a sickly and overcivilized albino who is basically decadent and never stops whining. The idea of the antibarbarian is a stroke of genius. It is very witty. I wish I had come up with the concept.

He then invented the multiverse — a wonderful word — and used it as the backdrop and an excuse to tell what is basically the same story with the same few cast of characters over and over again: the eternally whiny hero fighting for a cause that is pointless or fighting for hopes that will betray him, leading followers he will betray, his stalwart companion, a girl named Una, who is his incestuous lover, the evil brother who has her drugged or enchanted who is his incestuous rival … The Eternal Whiner stories is an elegant cheat, a solution to the writer’s dilemma of how to give the readers something that is fresh-and-new while somehow being more of what the readers like in your last book.

It is all very clever and imaginative on the surface, full of sound and fury, and indulges in profound ideas like the idea that fear (represented by a black vampire sword or a black jewel in the skull) is a bad thing.

And who does not like the masked and insane lords of Grenbretan (Great Britain) marching on an ancient bridge that spans the Channel, their mechanical ornithopters met by knights on giant flamingos from the marshes of Kamarg (Camargue)?

Michael Moorcock writes light, escapist fare that has nothing whatever to say about real problems in real life.

Deep he is not.

Even the ‘conflict’ between Law and Chaos is a rather unimaginative way to exemplify the ‘Happy Medium’ proposed by Aristotle, and promote nothing in excess.

Of course, I just read the passage in G.K. Chesterton’s ORTHODOXY dismissing the gray and watery blandness of pagan moderation, which forms so unsuccessful a contrast with the vividness and adventure of Christian lauds of virtue and condemnations of vice.

I put the word ‘conflict’ in scare quotes because I can bring to mind nothing in the text of any of the dozen or two novels of Moorcock’s that I read and enjoyed that had anything about law or chaos in the plot itself, or had anything to do with the characters. The two sides of the so called cosmic conflict could have been called ‘The Blue Faction’ and ‘The Green Faction’ without any loss in meaning.

Let us contrast this with a Hawkmoon or Elric book if, for example, Mike Flynn, the author of WRECK OF THE RIVER OF STARS, had written it. You would have had at least four main characters who sought and stood for four different worldviews: a tyrant, representing Law in the extreme; a policeman representing Law in moderation; a rebel or freedom-fighter or lovable rogue representing chaos in moderation; an anarchist or madman representing chaos in the extreme. The conflict of the plot would of necessity be the two moderate characters overcoming their loyalty to the meaningless banners of law and chaos, seeing that the true conflict is between moderation and extremism, and the mild and moderate gray-colored heroes would eventually overcome the unbalanced fanatics.

But there would have been no great matter to it. A triumph of the bland compromise contains nothing much of adventure or romance. I put it to any of my fellow fans of Moorcock–can you remember a single thing, a name or a striking image, regarding the Lords of Balance, who form the dead center of the Eye of the Hurricane in the midst of the eternal and eternally pointless war between Law and Chaos?

This could have been a matter as interesting, say, as John Carter, warlord of Mars, wrestling a white ape or combating the Yellow Men of the North Pole. It would not have any deep or significant meaning, such as we see surrounding Frodo’s struggle to destroy the ring which is his uncle’s treasure. It would not have any deep meaning at all, because no writer, not even the accomplished Mike Flynn, can draw deep water from a shallow pond.

The archetypes of law and chaos are shallow: they are abstractions tying together groups of otherwise unrelated phenomena. There is nothing much to say about Law and Chaos in the abstract precisely because they rely on a blurry definition of the terms (tyranny, for example, is lawlessness, unbound political power; only a shallow man calls this an extreme or overdose of lawfulness).

For Moorcock to criticize Tolkien is profoundly ungrateful. No one would have read a single word of Moorcock’s fantasy books had Tolkien not written Lord of the Rings, because, without Lord of the Rings, there is no modern fantasy movement, no Lin Carter, nothing along these lines. You would have E.R. Eddison (but out of print) and a few oddities like Lord Dunsany or David Lindsay (also out of print). You would not have any audience for Elric stories, or, rather, the audience would have been roughly the same size as H.P. Lovecraft’s audience in his lifetime.

And, as I said, Michael Moorcock is not as deep as Mike Flynn. Perhaps he has depths to his writing on other books I have not read. My reading is confined to his juvenile fare, books about Elric and Hawkmoon and Corum and Bastable. I appreciate them for what they are: light escapist fare written for teens, full of blood and thunder and woebegone posturing, kind of a comic book version of Wagner, but without the thought and artistry of a real comic book, written by someone like Jack Kirby.

For the author of this light fluff to take himself seriously as a man of letters is mildly comical. I have read issues of MACHINE MAN by Jack Kirby that address more deep and serious issues in a more deep and serious way than the entire Eternal Champion oeuvre combined.

For the author of this light fluff to set himself above Tolkien and pretend to look down dismissively is beyond comical and into the grotesque. It is like the moment you realize that the joker pretending to babble like an insane man for your amusement is not a joker at all, but is insane, and will never escape from the trap of his own cracked brain, and you swallow in sorrow a laugh that in that moment turns bitter in your throat. You grow pale with pity as you realize the buffoon is serious.