Stormbringer = Tolkien’s Long Defeat + Noah’s Flood

eldic

It strikes me that the Elric saga crosses the long defeat theme of Middle-Earth with the nihilism of Noah’s flood. Whether or not this was Moorcock’s intention, I’ve no idea, but it practically leaps from the pages in the final novel Stormbringer.

(1) The Long Defeat. The premise is that Elric is fighting the forces of Chaos, even though his people have been the agents of Chaos. The Melniboneans in this sense are a bit like Tolkien’s elves, a high race tied to that which they are fighting against, and doomed to pass so that men can take over in a more manageable age. The One Ring was pure evil, but the elves’ magic depended on it. As Galadriel says to Frodo, his quest to destroy the Ring is, from her point of view, “the footstep of doom”:

“If you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.”

Galadriel even wishes that the One Ring had been lost and never found, so that it wouldn’t have to be destroyed. Its existence enables the elves to work their enchantments (by their lesser rings of power) and keep alive the pocket-paradises of Lothlorien, Rivendell, and the Grey Havens.

The Melniboneans are likewise a race for whom magic is innate, though unlike the elves, they tend to be evil like the forces of Chaos they serve.

“Elric’s people were neither true men nor true members of the ancient races who had come before men. They were an intermediary type and Elric was half-consciously aware of this; aware that he was the last of an inbred line who had, without effort, used Chaos-given sorcery as others used their earthly skills — for convenience. His race had been of Chaos, having no need of self-control or the self-restrictions of the new races who had emerged with the Age of the Young Kingdoms.”

Moorcock describes the Melniboneans and their sorcery as “an older cleaner sort of evil” contrasted with “the perverted upstart” sorcerers of Pan Tang who are now seeking to emulate Melnibone without understanding how, and thus threaten the world’s stability. Elric, on the other hand, is an exceptional Melnibonean, striving for a world in which justice and Law can be possible, and as such he becomes the agent of Chaos who will defeat the forces of Chaos and ensure his own downfall.

“Elric knew that in reality, Chaos was the real harbinger of stagnation, for though it changed constantly, it never progressed. In his heart he yearned for this state, for he had many loyalties to the lords of Chaos and his own folk of Melnibone had worked, since their inception, to further the aims of Chaos. But now Chaos must make war on Chaos; Elric must turn against those he had once been loyal to, using weapons forged by chaotic forces to defeat those selfsame forces in this time of change.”

Elric’s purpose in wielding Stormbringer is thus somewhat like Frodo’s mission to destroy the One Ring. Both will defeat evil, but in the process cause the passing of gifted races who made amazing things possible on earth. Both create the basis for a new age — a historical age in which humanity will have more of a fighting chance, without entities like Sauron and demons like Arioch.

(2) Complete Destruction. In Elric’s world, however, the new age of history won’t emerge gradually like it does out of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age. After Elric defeats Chaos (or even if Chaos wins) he must destroy the world so humanity can start over with a clean slate. Things are so bad that a purging is required, the equivalent of Noah’s flood. Elric’s world is fated to lose no matter what. Everything he has ever known — his fallen empire, the newer kingdoms, his wife Zarozinia who impaled herself on Stormbringer after being warped by Chaos into a huge worm from the neck down, all his friends and enemies and loves — will be wiped away and forgotten. It’s just a question of whether or not Chaos will continue dominating in the new age. Thanks to Elric, order and justice will rise from the ash, and chaos and evil will become at least manageable.

I almost never compare fantasies to Tolkien unless negatively, to describe how lazy and unoriginal they are. The Elric saga is an exception. Here the Tolkien vibes are strong and in a good way. Which is ironic considering Moorcock’s vocal disdain for The Lord of the Rings. Maybe he took more from Middle-Earth than he realized.

How to Read the Elric Saga (Publication Order vs. Chronology, Part II)

stormbringer

In the ongoing debate about prequels, I have said that publication order is almost always preferable to narrative chronological order. Prequels are usually bad starting points, but there are exceptions, and the Elric saga is one of them. In this case you should definitely not follow the publication order. Here are my reasons.

1. All over the map. That’s where you’d be. Moorcock didn’t write a trilogy or two, followed by a few prequels. He wrote every bloody thing out of sequence, starting with stories that would comprise book 4, ending with book 6, and blitzing around in-between:

Book 4: The Weird of the White Wolf (1961)
Book 7: The Bane of the Black Sword (1962)
Book 8: Stormbringer (1963)

Book 5: The Sleeping Sorceress (1970)
Book 1: Elric of Melnibone (1972)
Book 3: The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976)

Book 2: The Fortress of the Pearl (1989)
Book 6: The Revenge of the Rose (1991)

That’s a mess. I can understand why a literary analyst or a die-hard fan might want to follow this order to get the full effect of Moorcock’s evolution as a writer. The ’60s books are nihilistic products of an angry man in his 20s involved in bad love affairs. The ’70s stories are more polished and their cynicism less raw. The latter-day Moorcock of books 2 and 6 show a sophistication rarely seen in the pulp-fantasy genre. Publication order would admittedly minimize the schizophrenic feel of this, but strangely enough, the schizophrenic feel is much the series’ point. Depending on situation, Elric is more control of himself or in thrall to the homicidal urges of his sword. He takes drugs too, and in a way the saga feels like it’s on drugs. It reads naturally when it’s all over the map like this in tone, but not with a butchered chronology.

2. The Problem of The White Wolf. If I had started with Weird of the White Wolf, I would have gone no further. Not because of the stark nihilism (that part is great), but because the stories are so woefully underdeveloped. Elric’s momentous return and destruction of his city reads like a footnote, glossed over in 60 pages, and the characters of Yyrkoon and Cymoril are mere ciphers. Cymoril wakes from her enchanted sleep and is immediately impaled on Elric’s sword. She and Yyrkoon speak — literally, I kid you not — a single line of dialogue each before dying. Elric of Melnibone, on the other hand, is a perfect entry. It doesn’t read like a prequel at all; the characters are lively depicted and the world takes you right in. I realize why fans cherish Weird of the White Wolf: in 1961 the stories offered an unprecedented vision of a tragic anti-hero, a demonic sword that is a character as much as Elric, and classic scenes like the dragon attack on the fleeing ships. As magazine short-stories they were surely impressive. But Moorcock should have fleshed them out later, when repacking his saga in novel format. Read in chronological sequence, Weird of the White Wolf is underwhelming. Read first, it could kill your interest in the saga altogether.

3. The Final Act. You have to end with Stormbringer. Its devastating bleakness remains unrivaled, and the more you read about Elric beforehand the greater the payoff. Hell comes to earth and warps everything — the land, seas, air, and all lifeforms including people who turn so hideous they kill themselves — that Elric has no choice but to destroy the world, and himself. It’s the novel to end all novels (certainly one of the best fantasy novels of all time), and any prequel after this would seem trivial. Or put it this way: if you actually read Stormbringer third in the series, you will need to get a huge distance before continuing with any of the five “prequels”. It’s just too dramatically traumatizing to fall anywhere but last.

The Upshot

The Elric Saga is an exception to the rule of publication order. Follow this chronological order. It pays dividends.

Book 1: Elric of Melnibone (1972)
Book 2: The Fortress of the Pearl (1989)
Book 3: The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976)
Book 4: The Weird of the White Wolf (1961)
Book 5: The Sleeping Sorceress (1970)
Book 6: The Revenge of the Rose (1991)
Book 7: The Bane of the Black Sword (1962)
Book 8: Stormbringer (1963)

The Vanishing Jesus: Reality Checks

reality checkI know considerably less about Jesus and early Christianity than I did 20 years ago. Here are five reasons why.

1. Ted Weeden: “Kenneth Bailey’s Theory of Oral Tradition: A Theory Contested by its Evidence”, JSHJ 7 (2009): 3-43. As my first major reality check this essay places at the top. It was published in 2009, but I saw the arguments gestating on the Crosstalk mailing list years before. Weeden proved — the word is not too strong — that we cannot rely on oral models to show that Jesus’ words (or even their “gist”) have been fairly preserved in the gospels. Anecdotal evidence of Mediterranean village life doesn’t reflect an “informally controlled oral tradition” in the way Kenneth Bailey thinks. Communities keep their stories alive not to preserve facts but to validate their values and social identities which are always in flux. It’s true that such stories show patterns of oral tradition, but that tradition has vast amounts of flexibility, variation, and mutation.

2. Mark Goodacre: The Case Against Q, 2002. I was hostile to this book until I allowed myself to process it on a second pass. I always liked Q, or the idea of it — a hidden gospel hinting at more primitive ideas — and Goodacre was an unwelcome intrusion to say the least. But I’d had nagging doubts too. As an undergrad back in ’91 I remember being taught the way Luke faithfully preserved Q’s social concerns whereas Matthew spiritualized them away (“blessed are the poor” –> “blessed are the poor in spirit”) while being told in same breath that Luke had a social agenda for the poor and outcasts. Today in retrospect it actually stuns me how flimsy the basis for Q is. Its defenders have manufactured problems where none exist. For me, giving up Q was painful. It made the criterion of multiple attestation much harder to satisfy, and it removed what I thought was a reliable window into the years before 70 AD.

3. William Arnal: The Symbolic Jesus, 2005. This reality check is different. It’s not about what we can know about Jesus, rather what we should be aware of in ourselves. You would think that Jesus’ “Jewishness” is a trivial fact, but it’s become something of a scholarly holy symbol. In the hands of evangelicals it can reinforce supersessionism in the name of fighting it. (Tom Wright thinks that Christianity’s DNA is so Jewish that it can’t possibly be supersessionist, yet his readings of the NT are often precisely that.) Even in more benign hands, Jesus’ Jewishness is a talisman — brandished to make us feel good about ourselves and ascribe badness to others. I admit I used to be guilty of this in criticizing members of the Jesus Seminar. While Crossan and his ilk are hard to take seriously, it’s cheap to imply (as I did) that they operate out of an implied anti-Jewish framework. The days of Nazi scholarship are long past, and we don’t need to push Jewishness as a hot-button item. As I see it, Arnal extends Schweitzer’s lesson: even as an apocalyptic alien, Jesus can say a lot about us without our knowing it. We use his Jewishness to mask Christian superiority and fabricate offense in others.

4. John Meier: A Marginal Jew (Vol 5): Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, 2016. For me this was The Case Against Q all over again. For years I’d been nursing doubts about parable authenticity, and Meier shows (with astonishing ease) that there is no warrant for treating them as the guaranteed “voice” of Jesus. Many of the stories probably don’t originate with him. Perhaps a meager four: the Mustard Seed, the Great Supper, the Talents, and the Wicked Tenants. All others — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. The dominant view is a house of cards: only circular reasoning and wishful thinking justifies the pride of place which has been given to the parables.

5. Richard Carrier: On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt, 2014. Mythicists take a pounding for good reason, but here at last is a decent argument that Jesus didn’t exist. I’m not ultimately persuaded by it; I still think a historical Jesus best explains the early Christian movement. But Carrier at least demolishes the confidence we might have in a historical Jesus. He shows how embarrassingly limited, if not useless, the classic criteria are, and refutes many bad arguments for a historical Jesus (the Josephus passage being one, as an obvious forgery). By Carrier’s weighing of the evidence, the likelihood of Jesus having existed is at worst .008%, and at best 32%. The way he arrives at these numbers can be disputed, but he makes a reasonable case that Jesus began as a heavenly wish-fantasy and was later historicized in the gospels.

Out of Line: Release Order vs. Chronology

Novel and film prequels are a bone of contention, and in most cases I advise reading/watching them in release order rather than chronological. Prequels build on foundations as much as sequels do, and they usually aren’t designed to be jumping-on points. They flesh out mysteries and can easily spoil those mysteries when taken out of turn.

Publishers are clueless

narniaThe Chronicles of Narnia are exhibit-A. In recent years the seven books have been published as a single volume which favors their chronological order — The Magician’s Nephew placed first instead of sixth, and The Horse and His Boy third instead of fifth. That reordering slaughters the reading experience. The Lion, the Witch, and Wardrobe has to be the first book, because it allows you to take in the wonder of Narnia as first seen through the eyes of young Lucy. Reading The Magician’s Nephew beforehand not only spoils where the wardrobe came from, it gives you a more esoteric introduction to Narnia (the creation of the world). It also rather kills the enigma of the Professor to know everything about Digory’s backstory in advance.

Repositioning The Horse and His Boy is even worse. To read it right after Lion and before Caspian disrupts the unity of the first four books — Lion, Caspian, Voyage, and Chair — which are portal fantasies focusing on the trials of kids from our world. The Horse and His Boy is about natives of Aslan’s world, set during the epilogue-era of Lion, granted, but in which Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are entirely incidental characters. The story of Shasta and Aravis stands apart — and with a more “realistic” and cultural feel — from the portal fantasies of the first four books.

The question of reading order has been debated for other series, like Anne McCaffrey’s. Many fans take the sensible view that Dragonflight (1968), Dragonquest (1971), and The White Dragon (1978) are proper stepping stones into Pern. Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (1983) is a prequel set in the time of a plague mentioned in the original trilogy, and Dragonsdawn (1988) goes back to the earliest days when the planet was first colonized. All the Weyrs of Pern (1991) then returns to the present, right after the time of the original trilogy. There are those who swear by reading Dragonsdawn and Moreta first, but the problems are equivalent to those of The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy.

The film industry is no better

godfatherAnd to think I almost purchased this: The Godfather trilogy in a repackaged format (called the Coppola Restoration) in which the first two films are pieced together chronologically. The incompetence of such a re-edit is staggering. The flashback scenes of the second film (with Robert DeNiro as the young Vito Corleone) carry the force they do precisely on the strength of what has been seen in the first film. Without exposure to Marlon Barndo’s performance as Don Corleone, DeNiro’s younger version is barely interesting. On top of that, when stripped of its flashbacks, the second film loses its intended contrasts between the father and son who is now on his own rise to power in the cutthroat scandals of Nevada.

Then there is Star Wars, which I admit is a problematic example. The prequels are so bad that they arguably shouldn’t be watched at all. But there are fans, and George Lucas himself, who insist those prequels should be watched first. Advice doesn’t get any worse, and I’m not just talking about the spoiler that Vader is Luke’s father. As I said, Episodes I-III are so shitty that if you watch them first, you may have no desire to even get to the good trilogy. But even on the generous assumption of redeeming value, Episodes I-III are a poor entry point. They were designed to show the tragic backstory of Darth Vader and how the Republic fell. We care about Anakin’s younger self only because we know what he will become; the dynamics of the Republic are interesting since we’ve already felt the boot of the coming empire.

The rare exception

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and in the next post, I’ll explain why Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga should not be read in publication order, but rather in the chronological order I’ve just finished criticizing.

The Return of NT Wrong

ntwrong-christian-fistRemember the days of NT Wrong and his fisting obsessions? Well, he’s back, and with a whole carnival to ram up our posteriors. It’s a great assemblage and feels fine indeed.

He cites one of my posts:

“Loren Rosson has a post on what must be one of the longest footnotes in John Meier’s Marginal Jew series: a 1500-word critique of Richard Rohrbaugh’s interpretation of Jesus’ parable of The Talents. So Loren’s basically written an even longer footnote on a long footnote. At issue is whether Jesus’ version of the parable, before its retelling in Matthew and Luke, presents the Master as oppressive or good in the way he treats the third slave. Rohrbaugh, a prominent member of the Context Group, interprets Jesus as opposing the elite systems of exploitation. Maybe. But I wonder whether Jesus, whose proclaimed Kingdom of God did not so much oppose as mimic the prevailing systems of power, was really so opposed to the elite in his society. Or did he, albeit with a slight apocalyptic flavor, desire a bit of that elite power for himself?”

I agree that Jesus wanted his own dominion (in the new age) to supplant the old powers. People who protest injustices often have their own power agendas, and Jesus was hardly exempt from this. When he thought about the end times, he promised his disciples authority and dominion: “In the new world, when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne, and you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt 19:28/Lk 22:29-30). This wasn’t a vision to eradicate power, but rather (as James Crossley calls it) a changing of the guard to at least (hopefully) keep that power under some discipline and divine steering.

The point, however, is that the desire for one’s own dominion doesn’t change the fact that people like Jesus are fervently opposed to the elites they want to supplant. So I can’t see Rohrbaugh’s reading of the Talents falling on this particular criticism.

Be sure to read through the whole carnival. Our fisting friend linked to a lot of good posts.