I’m not very old but I sometimes feel that way. I first started reading fantasy in the mid to late 70s. And it’s hard now, even for me, to fully connect with just how little fantasy there was around. Well, fantasy as we recognize (and endlessly debate) the commercial genre now at any rate. Of course there were your Lovecrafts and your Dunsanys and your Leibers and your so ons and so forths but I was a sheltered and naïve child and I lived in a small East coast town surrounded on three sides by water which had one not very adventurous bookshop and a library full of Jean Plaidy novels, guides to farming antiques and tide tables. Terry Brooks and Ray Feist might have been causing seismic shifts in publishing in the USA but the post-Tolkien tsunami had yet to hit our shores.
Of course it’s possible that you and I could look back on my earlier reading (Biggles, Willard Price’s ‘Adventure’ books and the Hardy Boys) and find not too much reality and quite a lot of quite possibly lurid fantasy. But that’s another blog post. Which I shall never write.
So around about 1976 one of my older brothers told me to read The Hobbit. (The other one was in his room playing a bizarre mélange of, had I bothered to ask, The Meters, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Commander Cody and Toots and the Maytals catastrophically loud – if only I had learnt from them both). I read it. Again and again. And then in 1978 I won a £5 book token and bought a three volume set of Lord of the Rings. I was off. Hello Fantasy with a capital F.
So having had my mind comprehensively blown by Tolkien’s Old School mix of misty pasts, ancient dooms, looming towers and small-fellow sentimentality where was I to turn next? Remember what we are dealing with here. A stupid boy, no internet, an unadventurous bookshop and a possibly bewildered library. It wasn’t looking good. I took another look at the bookshop. There were a few SF novels in there. And, in amongst them, three or four very thin white spines with the word ‘Granada’ at the bottom, a strange title in the middle and the name ‘Michael Moorcock’ at the top. I pulled one off the shelf (and please don’t ask me which one it was I can’t remember) and took a look at the front. It probably had a psychedelic bad dream for a cover. And I bought it. And I read it. And then I went back and bought the others. And then I kept on going back and pestered them to order more and more Moorcock. It was an addiction. And it took me through most of the 80s and into the rest of the burgeoning fantasy genre.
Here was fantasy that shouted, shrieked and laughed. And it was fantasy that felt like it had at least been written when I was alive. I may not, surrounded by the Good Life and water on three sides, have known much about what was happening when I was alive (What was New Worlds? Never mind Punk, who were Hawkwind? What were drugs?), but this did at least feel a lot more ‘now’ than Tolkien (for all that I adored the epic Professor). Here was fantasy that did away with comfortable notions of Good and Evil and messed your young mind with the possibilities of Order (good? You sure?) and Chaos (evil? You think?). Here was fantasy that might have been set in a world that dreamed of our world, fantasy where Gods were mad and heroes were demonic. Where empires ossified and history lied. Where swords from your worst nightmare stole souls. And kept you alive.
It was (excuse my French but there really is no other phrase) a total mind fuck.
Where to start? Hard to avoid Elric as a first point of call. The brooding albino prince of a faded ancient empire and Stormbringer the howling sentient sword that he needs to live and that will shape his destiny.
But then there’s Dorian Hawkmoon who must travel across an old and dreaming earth in search of the Runestaff.
Or how about Corum, Prince of the Scarlet Robe? Last of the Vadhagh, driven half mad by his torments and facing the fury of the Chaos Lords.
Or how about Erekose? Or Jerry Cornelius? Or Von Bek? Or Earl Aubec? The Eternal Champion has many, many guises. Or perhaps you’d like a swift turn around the floor with The Dancers at the End of Time?
There is so much invention in these pages, such wonderful characters, such visions of faded grandeur and fresh terrors. And it’s all done with wit, verve and economy. For all the richness, Moorcock is a master at hinting at things lost or yet to be discovered. These books are a true partnership with the reader; your own imagination is given room to flex its muscles. Nearly all these epic visions are encompassed in books that rarely break the 200 page mark. Even an omnibus of the tales rarely matches a modern doorstep of fantasy fiction. These are swift and nimble tales and all the better for it. He builds worlds in your head not on the page.
Moorcock’s imagination is second to none, his intellect playful and encouraging. He is the perfect companion. And he showed me what else Fantasy could be.