I do a great deal of reading before my shifts at my part time job. The Muzak channel most often played at the restaurant I work for is Family Favorites, whose scant selection of bottom forty eighties songs and Justin Bieber can be heard before Alex or Mike changes it to the Greek channel. At the end of my final semester of my BA, when the reward for finishing Dan Simmons’ Ilium and Olympos was more reading, I finally began the first Ballentine Books (yeah, no relation) version of Elric: Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné. The series starts off with The Stealer of Souls. I sat shivering in a chair as the A/C returns pumped cold air by the front door with my book before me when an effeminate voice came over the Muzak. My head snapped up. I could hardly believe my ears. I had just finished “The Dreaming City”, where the Prince of Ruins gains the title itself, sacking his homeland to rescue his beloved cousin and betrothed. How the mighty do fall. Proud, shining Imryrr, brought down by the very man trying to save her, a tall, effeminate man with pale skin and milk-white hair, lean and sick looking with strange red eyes. The albino lay on the deck of a reaver ship, clutching a black sword to him, hanging on for dear life, and wishing all the while that he were dead.
The song was about Elric.
Well, I very much doubt Coldplay would agree, or even know what I was talking about. But as I sat there, really listening to the song for the first time, though I’d probably heard it a thousand times before, I realized that the song immortalized an elegiac motif in popular culture much the same way Michael Moorcock has done with Elric, sealing the genre and the character forever in subjugated popular culture genre whose denizens probably spend more time in front of a computer than anywhere else and favor thick framed glasses..
“When I Ruled the World” is about a figure whose own power is his undoing. The fictional reality of the song involves a country whose love for their new king is blinding and the king himself is unaware of his fallibility, “The minute I held the key, next the walls had closed on me. And I discovered that my castle stands on pillars of salt and pillars of sand.” Throughout the fictional reality of Elric and the Young Kingdoms, empires rise and empires fall, none so great as Melniboné, the Dragon Empire with her sorcerer kings. She ruled the face of Primal Earth for ten thousand years, doubtless warring with–and eventually conquering–Brian Lumley’s Theemedra. Melniboné had grown vain and decadent, comfortable in her cruelty and complacent in her stability. Then rises this prince, this sickly prince whose vitality and sanity are both in question and who may yet doom Melniboné with his ideas. But it is not his ideas which threaten the Dragon Empire. It is Elric’s own selfishness that drives him from Melniboné to seek knowledge of the world, and it is his selfishness that brings him back to claim the Ruby Throne and save his fiancé and cousin. Only he does not come in peace. Self-preservation is the name of the game for the last emperor of Melniboné. Many fall to the Black Sword, Stormbringer. Elric’s betrothed and beloved cousin, Cymoril, dies on the Black Sword. Elric consumes the very thing he is trying to save, and when escape is impossible, he sacrifices the lives of those who helped him sack his homeland. Elric escapes with his life. Like the novels and short stories that comprise the Chronicle of the Black Sword and Elric’s legacy, there is little hope to be redeemed for past mistakes.
To me the song is about Elric himself and the elegiac atmosphere of the stories. Throughout the song there is something like harmonized moaning that, taken away from the tempo and rhythm of the song, would make quite a choir of sufferers. Listening only to the tune one might think it was a love song. The lyrics are not dark, but they present the listener with little reason to hope and very much to grieve.
Elric carries the death of Cymoril and the fall of his empire with him for the rest of his life. As Elric tries to get back to the person he was before the sacking of Imryrr in The Revenge of the Rose, the last novel in the Ballentine Books collection, the song shifts its meaning a little for me. I have heard it many times over the past year and two months with relish, knowing that it reminds me of the “thin white duke” (David Bowie, I hope, will forgive our appropriation of the title). For my part I remember him with fondness.
The end of “When I Ruled the World” finds the despot contemplating his after life with no small amount of apprehension, “For some reason I can’t explain, I know Saint Peter won’t call my name.” Elric fears neither death nor Hell, as we see in his contempt for his patron deity, Arioch, in Revenge of the Rose. However, his present life holds no meaning for him either. He is a despot, a prince of ruins. Moonglum recalls that Elric is frivolous with wealth and resources and links it to his insouciance, born of a soul with very little interest in material things. What is the point? Knowing the fragility of all wealth and the meaninglessness of the acquisition of wealth, we can expect little else from the albino, whose own wealth and empire he helped to destroy. The irony is that Elric came to realize that the foundations of all empires are built of salt and sand and are at their centers fundamentally decadent, as are “all empires who gloried in gold or conquest or those other ambitions which can never be satisfied but must forever be fed,” (Moorcock 9).
Elric looks back on his life with increasing regret. He misses his homeland and his kinsmen, though each time Elric encounters an old acquaintance or a cast off revenant or refugee, he regrets it, especially when he meets a cousin of his in “Black Petals” (2007). The Revenge of the Rose in particular emulates the atmosphere of “When I Ruled the World”. Moorcock repeatedly narrates Elric elegiacally, often in italics, “There were times when Elric left his friend Moonglum in Tanelorn and ranged the whole world to find a land which seemed enough like his own that he might wish to settle there, but no such land as Melniboné could be a tenth its rival in any place the new mortals might dwell,” (Moorcock Swords and Roses 8). Elric, like the despot of Coldplay’s only good song, has nowhere to go where he will be comfortable. Likewise, his own empire once controlled the factions now called the Young Kingdoms. Elric is considered a legend but also a betrayer. No one, with the exception of Moonglum, can trust him for long. Since the Black Sword must be sated, many of those who ally themselves with the albino find themselves betrayed if not by Elric then certainly by Stormbringer itself, such as the adventurer captain in “The Jade Man’s Eyes”.
As I sit here, listening to the song again, remembering the exact lyrics for posterity, I find myself imagining Elric, perpetually with his back to me while Imryrr smokes and smolders in the back drop. Elric is master of it all: despair, regret, dependence and dark fate. Coldplay may not have meant the song for Elric, but his legacy is such that whether or not it was intended, “When I Ruled the World” is the eulogy for the Prince of Ruins.
He used to rule the world. Seas would rise when he gave the word. Now in the morning he sleeps alone, sweeps the streets he used to own…
Upon Finishing Elric: Revisited
At the time of my completion of The Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné volume five, I had thought the series finished. Elric turned his back on mysel–and Neil Gaiman at the end of Elric: In the Dream Realms–I felt like he was truly gone. “The Portrait in Ivory” left such a definitive close upon my mind, and Neil Gaiman honored the Prince of Ruins with “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock” (read originally in Smoke and Mirrors). So, the eulogy was read. Now to get on with the business of wondering what the world will be like without the albino.
Today I finished Swords and Roses, released at the very close of 2010. Today I do not feel any sense of closure. Where once I could see no light in the future silhouetting a tall figure in snappy armor, now I know that there was no reason for my depression anyway. Elric will never really go away. His destiny, so cruelly revealed at the end of Stormbringer, will continue to haunt him as Moorcock invents more adventures for him and his short, if somewhat neglected, friend, Moonglum. He, aspect of the Eternal Champion, shall never rest. For the Prince of Ruins, it is the worst possible fate. For readers, it is a dream come true.
Readers will always return to familiar ground, searching for that feeling they found so comforting their first time reading through a certain setting, just as our champion will always search for his homeland in far-away places. As long as there are readers, there will be Elric. So many tortured souls owe their existence to the albino. Every outcast, every wayward warrior, every character who has ever been forced to live a life they’d rather be rid of: Drizzt Do’Urden; Alfred of the Sartan (The Death Gate Cycle); Jonmarc Vahanian (Chronicles of the Necromancer); Titus Crow of Brian Lumley’s invention; my beloved Vlad Dracula; my own characters, Zennith Shadowblast–my Elric tribute; Victor Malace of Ramsgate’s Black Guard. For many years I searched for the roots of these characters and their common pain, the father of all literature’s suffering. At last, after twelve years of writing and twenty years of reading, I found him, staring up at me through the glass case at the UT San Antonio library. He said, “I have always been here.”
I believed him, and though I always detected a hint of unwillingness, Elric has been a steady companion of mine these last fourteen months. I am not sure he enjoyed being shoved into a backpack or oversized purse to be called upon for my amusement. I am not certain he was comfortable bearing forth all his secrets and being forced to relive all of his mistakes. But I needed him, and like the selfish act that brought him to destroy his own city, I drag him along anyway. If Moorcock should chose to give him life again, I would gladly walk beside him, for better or worse.
I was depressed to say the least at the end of In the Dream Realms. I was reminded of what I was losing as Gaiman’s Elric left his young self to his future: that the fictional reality is brief and only gives the illusion of substance, but like Elric’s own necessary herbs and drugs, it is vital to my existence. I feared that he had turned his back for good. At the close of “The Black Petals” as Elric looks into the jungle as if seeing a familiar sight, I know now that he was never destined to leave for long. Always will he lift his crimson eyes, offering his message of stoic determination with a hint of insouciance.
Elric, though a destructive force of his own, stands as a testament to inner strength. His moments of weakness, when even his friends cannot guess his next move, are loaded with suspense and as a reader I am left wondering if even I should trust him. We watch him closely, his friends and I, but when he is needed, his Melnibonéan instincts will play out in uncanny ways. He is the first onto the field, and the last to leave it. He is our greatest fear and our only salvation. The paradoxes are what make him real. In life we are given few choices that we can make with absolute certainty. Bound by Chaos, we are always simultaneously creating and destroying with our decisions, leaving our realities changed forever.
As always, one book must end before another can begin. As I move into the midst of the wild Empire of Granbretan and join forces with Hawkmoon, I walk beside Elric for what must be the last time for a long while, if ever again…