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.