The Bane of the Black Sword, by Michael Moorcock

The Bane of the Black Sword, by Michael Moorcock book coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Penguin
Published: 1977
Reviewer Rating: four stars
The Bane of the Black Sword, by Michael Moorcock

Book Review by David L. Felts
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Plenty of people quote the title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel and say, “You can’t go home again.” What they mean is: that home that you remember, the complicated and nostalgic memory of the place where you grew up–or in this case the books you read–isn’t there any more.

I recently revisited Michael Moorcock’s The Bane of the Black Sword. Michael Moorcock’s books–Elric, Corum of the Silver Hand, and the Runestaff books–had a major role in initiating my interest in speculative fiction. Moorcock, Howard, Leiber, Norman, Wagner–these are the first authors I remember reading, and as such they left an indelible impression on my psyche.

Alas, as is often the case, the memory is more enjoyable than the reality. That’s not to say The Bane of the Black Sword is bad, but it certainly didn’t live up to my lofty recollections.

Some series background: Elric is one of the last of a dying race, the Melniboneans; he is also their king. Yet it was Elric who brought down the millennium-old Melnibonean empire after his cousin Yrrkoon usurped the throne. He now wanders the land as a freebooter, reviled by his remaining countrymen and the humans of the Young Kingdoms as well.

Elric also happens to be an albino and sorcerer. His constitution is naturally weak, so much so that he is helpless. He draws his strength from his potions and his magic sword Stormbringer. Stormbringer is no ordinary blade; it has sentience of a type. When it slays, it steals the life force, the soul, from its victim and feeds that energy to Elric. As a result, Elric is almost indestructible in battle, since the more he kills, the stronger he becomes.

Elric travels with a companion by the name of Moonglum, an ugly little man who’s facile with a blade and his wit. Both Elric and Moonglum are manifestations of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, the idea that across the various planes of existence (what Moorcock terms the Multiverse), a constantly manifested incarnation of the Champion and his Companion are doomed to fight for the fates of their worlds. Cool stuff, huh?

Bane of the Black Sword isn’t a novel, it’s really four novellas (novelettes?), three about Elric and Moonglum, and one about Rackhir the Red Archer. It’s the fifth out of six in the Elric saga, setting everything up for the final book, “Stormbringer”. (Interesting to note that Stormbringer was penned in 1965, while BotBS was authored in 1977).

Unfortunately, from my now more mature (ha!) perspective, the problem I had was with how sparse the stories truly are. Moorcock doesn’t go into much detail on some of the truly fun stuff he populates his world with; there’s just barely enough for the reader to get the general gist of what’s going on and no more. The action comes fast and furious, barely glimpsed landmarks flashing past the window as you barrel down the road at 100 miles an hour. And that’s a shame, because the fascinating places Moorcock creates are worth stopping to take a look at.

By the end of the book, I also noticed that Elric, no matter what he’s faced with, has some form of supernatural ally who can help him. This particular convention pops up in a number of places in the series, not just here. God-in-the-machine repeatedly. Not only does Elric have Stormbringer, he also has countless “ancient pacts” with various demons, elementals, demi-gods, and other creatures he can call on. And he does. A lot.

The fact that my memories as a fourteen-year reading these books don’t jibe with my now thirty-eight year old perspective doesn’t lesson the impact these books had. Moorcock, along with a handful of other “New Wave” authors, revived speculative fiction back in the late 60s early 70s. Even today he evinces an originality of idea that’s rarely seen. The writing may be dated, the plots simplistic, and the world-building sparse, but you owe it to yourself to at least give some of Moorcock’s books a chance. They are part of the modern roots of the revitalization of our genre.

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