“Bound by hell-forged chains and fate-haunted circumstance. Well, then—let it be thus so—and men will have cause to tremble and flee when they hear the names of Elric of Melinbone and Stormbringer, his sword. We are two of a kind—produced by an age which has deserted us. Let us give this age cause to hate us!”
― Michael Moorcock, Elric: The Stealer of Souls
Elric is another character I first encountered in that old D&D Deities and Demi-gods. I must admit that I am not a huge fan of Michael Moorcock, and yet his most popular creation is seared into the fabric of fantasy literature and even into my brain. Elric, the restless Emperor of a decadent, the albino swordsman and sorceror whose genetic defects leave him nearly crippled without drugs or magic. Elric wielder of the evil, soul-drinking sword Stormbringer, itself one of the most Iconic weapons in fantasy fiction. Elric, whose complexity as a character often defies categorization, perhaps even by his creator.
As an iconic character Elric’s influence can be seen in Sephiroth from Final Fantasy and Geralt from the Witcher series, as well as a host of written works.
In appearance Elric is fairly unique. He is both elfin and demonic, beautiful and broken, his exquisite pedigree and his awful weakness are immediately apparent and easy to visualize. In fantasy canon, Elric is certainly not the manliest of leading men with no hint of a broad chest, powerful physique, or square jaw. He is exotic and unusual, his appearance working to prepare the reader for his unique personality and story.
In terms of power, Elric is off the charts. He is among the most best swordsmen in the world and also among the best sorcerors. He is the ruler of a powerful empire. He consorts with Daemons, Gods, and powerful spirits, many of whom are bound to serve him through ancient pacts. His sword drinks the souls his enemies and gifts Elric with some of their strength, increasing as he kills. When he is at the top of his game, Elric seems invincible, and yet if one catches him without his herbs or sword, his is frail and as weak as a kitten. He sets the standard for many modern characters in this regard.
Elric’s intelligence and curiosity, along with his defiance of conventional morality are also traits that have been passed on to modern Fantasy.
Mentally, Elric is an extremely complex character. He battles with ennui. He feels out of place in his world, rejected in his own society because he is not their ideal Emperor and feared in the young kingdoms because of his birthright and the fact that he tends to be the harbinger of ill omen. He is curious and compassionate. He perpetrates brutal massacres. He is passionate, doomed, and more than a little unbalanced. Interestingly, if you are willing to engage in a little dirty rhetoric, you can argue that Elric belongs as a hero or an anti-hero, is tragic or triumphant, or is his own beast entirely.
Many people would scoff at the notion that Elric is a true, classical hero. He follows the standard hero of the monomyth pattern fairly closely, leaving the comforts of home, heeding the call to adventure, and ushering in a new age. He may not follow conventional morality, but he is the most compassionate and curious of his kind and acts consistently within his own understandable morality, at least until the sword drives him mad with bloodlust. In this he seems quite close to some Norse and Celtic heroes, particularly Cu Chulainn. You know, the type of heroes that you want on your side of the battle, but would avoid making eye contact with if you met them on the street.
Elric is often presented as an anti-hero by critics and readers. He certainly laughs in the face of conventional heroic qualities. He does whatever he wants most of the time, often causing great damage to the world around him. he revels in sex and drugs and strange magics. Yeah, pretty easy to see why this label is applied to him.
You could even argue that Elric is a reader identification hero. Despite his power, he is a sad and vulnerable man who often feels like he does not belong in the world around him. We see the young kingdoms through his eyes, cynical and yet not blind to the fantastical. This is an attitude that many young fantasy fans can identify with. At times he even seems caught between youthful idealism and cynical adulthood, crushed by the burdens and expectations of an uncaring world and yet defiant still. Themes of alienation resonate with a culture of outsiders.
Moorcock himself once noted that Elric was a “doomed hero”, a tragically ill-fated man who struggles against his own destiny in the vein of ancient heroes like Gilgamesh or Lancelot, whose efforts are ruined despite their power. This fits Elric well, although he does not aspire to greatness or even good, and often seems to just wander into adventure, much like Conan, but with worse luck.
In fact, an astute reader can approach Elric from almost any philosophical angle and find purchase, something to define him in the way you want to see him. Maybe it is because his creator keeps coming back to the character, adding new stories decades after killing him off. Or perhaps the character was always thus, as defiant of our desires to define him as he is of his of the mantles he was born with. Elric is an intricate character, powerful and yet frail, heroic and and yet amoral, and always without a doubt, interesting and conflicted. The most enduring legacy of Elric is his complexity, a complexity which blooms to its fullest in a unique and interesting fantasy world.