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


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)

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

  1. Loren, have you read, and,if so, what are your thoughts on the later Elric novels, The Dreamthief’s Daughter, The White Wolf’s Son, and the Skraeyling Tree?

    • They are really good. But much more complex and difficult to read. But they are actually my favorite elric novels. The concept is a little diffrent. Elric travels to our universe or one very close to ours. It’s called the dreamquest trilogy. Via the dreamcouches of immyr elric travels through the history of our world. The first one is set during worldwar two. The second one shortly after that in nativ american territory. But there are also dragons.

      • I’ve still to read the “DreamQuest” or MoonbeamRoad” novels of Elric, as well as Pearl & Rose. To what I’ve heard of the DreamQuest books as you’ve put it, I dare say they do sound exiting for any ammateur fan than just a bloody Tv adaption of the said content. (Yeah as you may tell, I’m sick of film adaptions of literature ’cause it’s just all we get nowadays.) Anyways I now have the entire Elric saga in my collection apart from “Elric At The End Of Time”.

    • I read the 5-volume series back in the early 80s. Pearl and Rose much later. Yes, they are optional; the remaining five are an epic set. But with that said, reading them integrated into the series may well improve the epic nature of the story.

  2. No, I would insist on them as part of the canon, especially since I think they are very good. This is how I’d rank the series. 2 and 6 are in the top half.

    Book 8: Stormbringer
    Book 2: The Fortress of the Pearl
    Book 1: Elric of Melnibone
    Book 5: The Sleeping Sorceress
    Book 7: The Bane of the Black Sword
    Book 6: The Revenge of the Rose
    Book 4: The Weird of the White Wolf
    Book 3: The Sailor on the Seas of Fate

  3. This is awesome! I’m going through it again and had originally read Fortress and Revenge of the Rose out of order when they were originally printed.

  4. Thanks for this, otherwise I would have read them out of order. Actually, I already mistakenly skipped “The Fortress of the Pearl” because the “Elric Saga Part 1” was published before 1989 and had thus gone straight from Book 1 to Books 3 and 4. Anyway, it’s “not too late” to correct it thanks to this info.

  5. I was reading this epic saga chronolically (though I missed out Fortress Of The Pearl & Revenge Of The Rose), and to my surprise I choked up a tear reading Stormbringer when Elric revisits his old room for the last time. Very, VERY few times will a book have an emotional impact on me.

  6. What happened to bk 9. Elric at the end of time 1983… wasn’t Elric a part of The Eternal Champion …several characters but one and the same guided by Ariok through different realms , times and reality’s…I’m not convinced Moorcock had anything to do with later novels

    • I didn’t know that. Thanks. I first read the series in the early 80’s. My friend owned the books. I reread his every couple of years for years until he moved to Hawaii and now I’m finally trying to get a full set for myself. It’s pretty confusing to know exactly which books are part of the series. I’ve seen full sets for sale online, but they’re more expensive so I’m piecing them together. I also thank you for your diligence in putting together the list. It’s interesting, and helpful. This go around, I’ve read Elric of Melnibone, Sailor on the Seas of Fate (out of order) and now I’m in the Fortress of the Pearl. I love these books. I’ve always wished it could become cinematic somehow, but it would probably lose the magic.

  7. I’m super confused now! I’ve just read Elric of Melnibone, a collection ordered by Moorcock which goes:
    1. Elric of Melnibone
    2. The Fortress of the Pearl
    3. The Sailor on the Seas of Fate
    4. The Dreaming City
    5. While the Gods Laugh
    6. The Singing Citadel

    The last three seem to be very different books to the ones you suggested.

  8. Thank you, I’ve been having trouble deciding how to approach the work, so this is great help. Just two questions:

    I understand The Sailor on the Seas of Fate is a crossover with Moorcock’s other books in his Eternal Champion meta-series? I’m asking because the kind of maniac to read all of those before it.

    If I just wanted to dip my toe in and as much it pains to admit it, having some context for that silly crossover in Marvel’s 70’s Conan comics, would it be possible to read Dreaming City and then skip to Sleeping Sorceress/Bane of the Sword before coming back and reading the whole series much later?

    • The crossover is told from elrics point of view. He doesn’t know any of the other heroes and the concepts involved so you learn all of that together with elric. It’s not a crossover where one part of the story is told in one book and another part in another book. It’s the same story told form two different points of view. And I would actually recomend to read the elric point of view first.

  9. I tryed to start chronologically but couldn’t get into it. I still really dislike the elric of melnibone novel. Then I started in publication order and also failed to complete a story. I finally started with stormbringer because everyone said it was the best. I loved it and that’s what got me hooked on michael moorcock. Later I reread the whole elric saga in publication order and liked most of it. My favorites are stormbringer, revenge of the rose and sailers on the seas of faith. (Edited, pleas delete older version)

  10. First I’ve not read all the books in the saga nor the one’s in question below. I don’t think there are any spoilers below, but beware.

    So, where do the books The Dreamthief’s Daughter, Destiny’s Brother, The White Wolf’s Son, The Skrayling Tree, and Elric at the End of Time belong in the chronological Elric Saga [universe]?

    Is Destiny’s Brother and The Skrayling Tree the same book under different titles?

    I’ve heard that The Dreamthief’s Daughter and The White Wolf’s Son occur in succession to Stormbringer, but I’ve heard that The White Wolf’s Son happens during Elric’s dream in Stormbringer. So chronologically does The White Wolf’s Son belong before or after The Dreamthief’s Daughter?

    Then where does that leave Destiny’s Brother and The Skrayling Tree?

    Also, I’ve heard that Elric at the End of Time belongs between The Sailor On The Seas of Fate and The Weird of the White Wolf, but also that it could loosely fit anywhere. So, where does it go?

    So, the even bigger question is are these stories so untied to the other books of the Elric Saga that they could fit anywhere in-between as stories that just occurred at some point and “when” doesn’t really matter? Has anyone read them and found any relation, references, or hints that would place these anywhere specific in the Saga?

  11. I started reading these in the order you recommend. I just want to point out, though, that your post here contains HUUUUUUGE spoilers… not a good thing for people who have never read them, who are, I assume, the intended audience for this post.

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