Friday, February 6, 2015

Halfway between Hyperborea and the Haight - Michael Moorcock's Corum

Michael Moorcock's early swords and sorcery novels - like the Swords Of Corum trilogy - were written quickly and with a market in mind. But they were also the output of a polymath - a writer, editor, musician and critic - with a restless and prolific muse.

It's no surprise then that the Corum stories are a strange and uneven mix of fantasy formula and genre transgression. Or that the reader's own engagement and interest will vary from chapter to chapter, as Moorcock spins the tale this way and that. 

Swords.. compiles the first three slim-line Corum novels - The Knight, Queen and King Of The Swords - into a 500 page epic better suited to contemporary tastes. It chronicles the quest of the maimed, orphaned and inhuman Prince Corum for revenge against the human barbarians who cast him out of his kingdom and the gods of Chaos who drove them to war.

Corum's tragic backstory is par for the course for a Moorcock protagonist, as is his tour of multiple planes of existence and the strange and troubling powers at his command. In this case, it's an artificial eye and hand belonging to lost gods, which can summon vanquished adversaries to fight his opponents (this has to stop to this by book three, as it all too readily becomes the solution to every problem). 

He's not a particularly cheerful character, but he lacks the excessive grimness of Elric, Moorcock's best remembered protagonist, and his motivations (revenge and love) offer simple points of identification.

Corum, ah um...

For me, it's the cosmic plane-hopping and underlying struggle between Law and Chaos that provide the Corum books with both their strengths and shortcomings. 

On the one hand (six fingered, jeweled, taken from a forgotten deity) it allows Moorcock to give his Conan meets Dali riffing full reign. Deserts of blood, lakes of souls, fields of fire, damned princes and egotistical arch-demons abound. And against this psychedelic backdrop, his characters are always happy to take five from peril to briefly ponder the nature of reality, creativity and free will.  

Let's remind ourselves that this mash-up of old school weird fiction with 60's counter-culture helped to extend the possibilities of fantasy fiction and maintain a space beyond the shadow of Tolkien. It's hugely significant that alternative voices didn't just survive beyond the reach of Middle Earth, but thrived in parallel with it.

And Corum, Elric et al have had an equally interesting second legacy in their influence on role-playing and war-gaming - see the alignment system and multi-dimensional cosmology of Dungeons & Dragons, for instance. Or the Moorcock-lite ontology that underpins pretty much anything Games Workshop have ever done.

Corum vs The Blue Meanies

On the other hand, this protean backdrop promotes inconsistency of tone and enables a lack of quality control. While one-note realist fantasy frequently bores, a surrealist approach relies on every new rabbit taken from the hat having the desired effect. Compared to most genre work, Moorcock is trying to do something fundamentally more difficult, at speed, while still working within the same pulp constraints. 

More often than not he manages it - and kudos to him - but occasionally the scenes are a bit melting-clock, a trifle animated Yellow Submarine. Especially from the vantage point of almost fifty years of cock-snooking at the hippy aesthetic. And in a universe where anything goes, it's hard to make the resolution of any plot point wholly convincing.

The Corum novels are not Moorcock's best, then. But they do make for an interesting, occasionally dazzling read halfway between Hyperborea and the Haight. And you can feel the rules of the genre being re-written under your feet as you turn the pages. 

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