The History of the Von Beks

by Arthur B

Reviewing the major works surrounding a surname Michael Moorcock would become obsessed with.
At the start of the 1980s, Michael Moorcock's fortunes were looking down. Massive disruptions to his home life coincided with the setback of Byzantium Endures, the first of the Colonel Pyat books, being rejected by his publishers, who informed him that they really weren't interested in any mainstream novels from him and perhaps would he like to knock off some of that heroic fantasy he does that sells so magnificently well.

Moorcock shrugged and went back to the drawing board, with the result that despite being written after Byzantium Endures, The War Hound and the World's Pain actually got published first. It's the first of a series of novels Moorcock has written about the von Bek family, who he decided to make an utterly central family to the multiverse whose scions popped up absolutely everywhere and who counted several incarnations of the Eternal Champion amongst their ranks.

Thanks to the regular processes of revision he inflicts on his works - truly, Moorcock is the literary George Lucas - Moorcock has retroactively inserted the von Bek name into a range of earlier stories and novels as part of the process of making them the core family of his fiction - including turning the protagonists of The Blood-Red Game and The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius into von Beks. I find this both a self-vandalism of Moorcock's legacy and an utterly pointless exercise, so for the purposes of this review I will not be tackling any of those. (I already covered The Blood-Red Game in any case in an overview of Moorcock's early standalone novels; as for The Pleasure Garden, it's a brief and not very interesting short story which includes an alternate universe version of Hitler for cheap shock value, so I wouldn't say it's especially essential.)

Furthermore, I won't be covering this time around any books Moorcock wrote after The War Hound in which a von Bek plays a prominent role but isn't the main protagonist, or where the books in question are not part of the core von Bek series but are more properly considered parts of other series. For instance, a von Bek appears prominently in The Dragon In the Sword, but John Daker/Erekosë is clearly the protagonist of that one, and likewise whilst the von Beks play an important role in the Second Aether trilogy those books aren't part of the core von Bek series.

Moorcock originally intended to produce a trilogy of major works of heroic fantasy featuring von Beks as protagonists - The War Hound and the World's Pain, The City In the Autumn Stars, and Manfred; or the Gentleman Houri. Only two of these manifested (both of which are reviewed here); Manfred was supposed to be a direct sequel to The City In the Autumn Stars, making use of material which was cut from it (apparently about half the novel was cut back, which is quite alarming considering how amazingly long and overblown it is... but I'll get to that later), but the material is now apparently lost and Moorcock doesn't seriously expect to get around to tracking it down or reconstructing it in his lifetime. However, in between the two novels which did emerge there slipped out a little side dish in the form of The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, a historical novel with no supernatural, fantastic or SF elements which happened to feature a von Bek protagonist and had plentiful connections to the other two books, and which is usually considered to be, if not part of the main von Bek series, at least an interesting appendix to it, so I'll be reviewing that too.

The War Hound and the World's Pain

The first book is presented as the narrative of Graf Ulrich von Bek, delivered on his deathbed in 1680. He begins the narrative by explaining how he had been a mercenary captain in the Thirty Years War, but had deserted his unit one day because he saw signs of the Plague within the ranks and didn't fancy taking any chances. Travelling through a Germany ravaged by religious strife, he passes into a forest and discovers a mysterious (and unnaturally well-maintained) castle, where after making himself at home he makes the acquaintance and falls in love with the mysterious Sabrina, who despite her noble appearance claims to be merely a servant of the castle's master.

That master, as it turns out, is Lucifer.

Just as Ulrich has become thoroughly sick of both the Protestant and Catholic causes in the war, so too has the Devil become weary of the rebellion against Heaven and wants to be reconciled with God. Lucifer's plan is to seek out and acquire the Cure for the World's Pain - also known as the Holy Grail - on the basis that God would almost certainly accept it as a nice reconciliatory present, and so he wants von Bek to go acquire it for him. Since von Bek, on account of his long list of war crimes, is already damned, and Sabrina's soul is also in hock to Lucifer, the rewards of the quest are obvious - but the perils von Bek faces in the mysterious otherworld of the Mittelmarch are dire, for the Dukes of Hell do not approve of Lucifer seeking salvation and will do anything to stop von Bek succeeding.

Since it was written in the immediate wake of Byzantium Endures, it's not surprising that The War Hound and the World's Pain often encompasses similar themes. For instance, Colonel Pyat's damning characteristic is that he is constantly deluding himself about his true nature, and in particular portrays himself as a progressive rationalist when actually he's perpetuating a range of outdated old bigotries (and some brand new delusions of his own creation) for no rational reason. Ulrich, conversely, is a sort of anti-Pyat, in that he completely acknowledges that he's murdered and raped his way across Germany in a career littered with atrocities; this means that he is completely willing to accept that he is damned and motivates him to try and seek the Grail as part of the process of learning to be a decent human being again. In his rejection of religion and his increasing impatience with both God and the Devil's apparent arbitrariness, von Bek embodies the birth of the European age of reason and the beginning of the erosion of religion's overt dominance in European politics and philosophy. Moorcock would continue the theme in The City In the Autumn Stars, which finds the Enlightenment in full swing, and the major von Bek novels arguably represent a mirror image of the Pyat novels, whose protagonist responds to the waning of the colonialist era by embracing a utopian Futurism that rapidly decays into dystopian fascism (or rather, is revealed to have essentially been fascism all along).

It is his refusal to condone, deny or make excuses for what he has done as a soldier which make von Bek a likable character - that and, to be fair, the fact that most of his atrocities take place off-camera before the narrative begins. Likewise, his sidekick Grigory Sedenko is clearly an unrepentant bigot whose narrow-mindedness sorely tests von Bek's patience at points, but even he has some semblance of honour; for instance, when von Bek first encounters Grigory he is being recruited by the villainous Johannes Klosterheim to assassinate the Jews of a particular town, and when Grigory realises he's being hired to murder children and elderly people in their beds rather than facing adult soldiers in honourable combat he is sickened and washes his hands of the job and Klosterheim alike. The point seems to be to evoke an era of unchecked and absolute violence, and also to concoct protagonists suitable for a Luciferian rationalist parody of traditional medieval Grail narratives (giving the hero a solidly grimdark backstory rather than a having the hero represent impossibly pure and virginal ideal, for instance).

Structuring the novel as a Grail quest is no accident, of course, since the idea is that just as the Grail romances were a characteristic literary form of the medieval period, Ulrich's time period witnesses the final definitive break from the medieval worldview that underpinned those romances. For most of the novel, Moorcock is able to pull this off fairly well. The device of the Mittelmarch, an interzone whose hidden entrances and exits can be used to travel between planes of the multiverse, neatly allows Moorcock to throw in the sort of strange wildernesses populated by odd allegorical figures that the Grail stories seem to like so much, and Moorcock is able to maintain the same sort of balance between presenting allegorical morality tales and throwing in really weird stuff which is hard to pin an interpretation on that the better Grail stories offer.

Unfortunately, this is a balance that does not last. Once von Bek and Sedenko manage to meet Philander Groot, a hermit who sets them on the right course, and have their first major fight with Klosterheim, Moorcock seems to have caught sight of the finish line and started sprinting for it at full pelt, pacing be damned. Incidents seem much less developed, the story relies less on allegory and more on characters directly spelling out what lesson the reader is supposed to take for a particular scene, and Moorcock stops trying to make sure that each sequence fits the tone of the narrative. (The bit in the City of the Plague, for instance, half-resembles a picaresque parody and half-resembles some underbaked effort from the Hawkmoon or Corum series.)

The War Hound and the World's Pain unravels towards the end and in doing so reveals the same two-pronged problem which sabotaged the Hawkmoon and Corum series and the later embellishments to the Elric series, as well as afflicting subsequent stabs at heroic fantasy in the 1980s and 1990s. The first aspect of the problem is that as his career progressed Moorcock became increasingly less interested in playing heroic fantasy straight and more interested in using it as a vehicle for allegory, but at the same time didn't trust fantasy readers to understand the allegory unless he was heavy-handed about it; the second aspect is that he was getting less and less interested in doing heroic fantasy at all except as a quick and easy way to crank out stuff that would pay the bills whilst he worked on material he was more interested in.

These two problems, of course, tended to interact; because Moorcock was rushing the process, a lot of the time he ended up botching the allegory, making it even more heavy-handed than usual and also failing to come up with anything particularly interesting for it to say. I find that in Moorcock's heroic fantasy of the late 1960s and 1970s the second problem (rushing the writing process for a quick moneyspinner) is more predominant, which makes sense because he cranked out a ridiculous number of novels in that time, whereas in his material from the 1980s and 1990s the first problem (heavy-handed allegory) comes to the fore more, since at this stage of his career he was writing less heroic fantasy and could concentrate on it a little more when he did.

In fact, The War Hound and the World's Pain provides a model for later allegory-focused fantasies by Moorcock - such as The Fortress of the Pearl, The Revenge of the Rose, and The Dragon In the Sword. It's probably more successful than any of those, at least for its first three quarters, but ultimately it comes unstuck like the rest of them, and I can't help but think that the sloppy conclusion represents an enormous waste of what was a really effective opening.

Multiverse bollocks: Lucifer shows von Bek a Hell which is depicted as "the Realm of Restraint and Bleak Singularity", in contrast with a Heaven which is said to be a place of infinite possibility and have "infinite aspects", according to Lucifer. Under Moorcockian cosmology this would make Hell a realm of Law and Heaven a realm of Chaos.

Sedenko, as a Cossack hailing from near Kiev who is a vocal anti-semite and doesn't have much time for Tartars or anyone else he considers Oriental, has a lot in common with Colonel Pyat. Additionally, at one point von Bek mentions visiting a parallel universe where Carthage prevailed in the Punic Wars against Rome, took over most of Europe, and eventually converted to Judaism and had bands of Rabbinical Knights keeping the peace. This universe seems specifically designed to be Colonel Pyat's idea of Hell, and Sedenko doesn't like it very much at all.

Interestingly, the ruler of the Balance-aligned Valley of the Golden Cloud is none other than Queen Xiombarg, "Xiombarg" being a Chaos God name dating from as far back as Stormbringer, raising the concept that the Chaos Gods are called such purely because of their allegiance rather than their fundamental nature and they can change sides. Likewise, one of the Dukes of Hell is called Arioch, making this yet another appearance of Elric's Chaos patron (and also implying that within Hell itself there is a Law-Chaos axis).

Oh, and of course "Ulrich" is probably meant to make us think of Elric.

The City In the Autumn Stars

The sequel is set in the midst of the age of Enlightenment, and is a mish-mash of literary styles which were common in that era and those which were out of fashion by then. Thus, the allegorical Grail quest narrative is remoulded into a symbolic parable reminiscent of the major Rosicrucian texts (The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz in particular), and that in turn is woven into a long, wordy novel reminiscent of Dumas or picaresques like Barry Lyndon. Apparently, Moorcock wrote it in tandem with the second Colonel Pyat book (The Laughter of Carthage), penning one by day and the other by night; I would guess that this is the night-time one, since although things do get quite heavy towards the end it's on average a bit more lighthearted and less serious than the Pyat material, and since Moorcock has said that getting into Pyat's narrative voice and mindset was kind of an unpleasant experience I can well see why he might want to spend some time with the far more pleasant Manfred von Bek to unwind after a difficult day wrestling with the Colonel.

Manfred is the heir of the von Bek line, and when we catch up with him has spent many a year travelling the world fighting on behalf of the Enlightenment values he holds dear. Having fought alongside George Washington in the Revolutionary War but become disillusioned with the nascent USA over the issues of slavery and their appalling treatment of Native Americans, von Bek returned to Europe just in time to get entangled in the French Revolution, and for a time had high hopes for it. Alas, the Terror is now in full swing and Manfred has sussed that his neck is next up for the guillotine - so at the start of the novel he flees the country, pursued by the Committee of Public Safety hardliner Montsorbier. After an encounter with the mysterious Libussa, Duchess of Crete, Manfred becomes infatuated with her, and as he travels towards his intended destination of Mirenburg in the tiny independent principality of Wäldenstein dearly hopes that he'll find her again. Along the way he encounters the charming rogue balloonist St Odhran, who intends to pull an airship scam on the good people of Mirenburg, and since Manfred by this point has decided to serve his own self-interest for a while he decides to get involved.

Thus, Manfred and St Odhran make bold claims in Mirenburg of their plan to make an advanced airship and use it to travel to (completely imaginary) lost realms found on charts lovingly falsified by St Odhran. Soon enough, they find great interest in their project - especially from parties interested in using the balloon to enter the Mittelmarch. Eventually, Manfred and St Odhran end up unwittingly going on an expedition far more real than the one they had planned, in the company of Libussa and the immortal Klosterheim. They are convinced that von Bek can help them find the Grail in the City of the Autumn Stars - a fantastical alternate universe reflection of Mirenburg located in the Mittelmarch - and whilst he avows ignorance of his family's connection with the Grail they are disinclined to take no for an answer, for the Conjunction of the Million Spheres is coming soon and whosoever possesses the Grail and uses it in an alchemical ritual at the heart of creation during the Conjunction can set the course of the next cycle of the multiverse.

This is yet another Moorcock novel which culminates with a big apocalyptic ritual, like Stormbringer, The Quest for Tanelorn, The Final Programme, The Revenge of the Rose, The Alchemist's Question, The Rituals of Infinity and so on. In general, I find that Moorcock's apocalypses suffer from diminishing returns as his career progresses. The one in Stormbringer is excellent. The ones Jerry Cornelius brings about in his core four novels are also great fun. The one in The Rituals of Infinity is, truth be told, a little messy, but it has its charms. The Quest for Tanelorn one is rubbish, ruined by an excess of heavy-handed allegory tainted by Moorcock's assumption that the reader won't understand any of it and consequent provision of characters to explain all the metaphors as things progress. Those in latter-day Moorcock novels (from the 1980s onwards) tend to waver between that extreme and the opposite problem, whereby the allegory is so muddled and obscure that it becomes tediously oblique, and Moorcock seems to expect the reader to be amazed and blown away by this anyway. (A hope which is in vain, because if the reader doesn't at least partially understand what is going on then they're not going to have much of a reaction to it.)

The City In the Autumn Stars visits both extremes. Some of its themes are transparently obvious, not least because the narration specifically identifies and explains them. (For instance, the gloomy end of the quest is said to reflect a recurring pattern in which a woman places her trust in a man and the man proves unworthy of that trust.) In other respects, the symbolism of the novel is impenetrable unless, I guess, you've read the same alchemical and Rosicrucian sources as Moorcock has. In this respect it compares badly to, say, Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, which incorporates a lot of esoteric material and symbolism but uses it as a means of enriching the story rather than as the sole means of conveying it.

The tale culminates in the alchemical wedding ritual itself, an extremely long process which is essentially one hammer-blow of symbolism after another in which all the characters cease behaving like nuanced human beings and end up acting like esoteric chess pieces instead. After this is an overlong conclusion and epilogue providing some explanations of what just happened and summing up the themes of the novel. Apparently the end result of the ritual is that Manfred no longer believes in gender essentialism or fixed gender roles and appreciates the company of women as social and intellectual and spiritual equals a lot more and can also impersonate Libussa - as she appeared when crossdressing as a man - really well. This abandonment of the received wisdom about gender in Manfred's age might be more impressive had Wollstonecraft not beaten Manfred, Libussa and the others to it (she's specifically cited in the text!), although I suppose you could argue that Manfred rejects essentialism more specifically and thoroughly than Wollstonecraft did.

Whatever the ritual actually accomplishes, the fact is that it is an overlong, tedious, and awkward climax to an overlong, often tedious, and often awkward novel. I'm well aware that Moorcock was trying to ape the literary conventions of past eras with the novel - the problem is that he mashes up a number of different and arguably incompatible genres and doesn't do an especially good job of smoothing over the gaps between them. It is possible to write an excellent Dumas pastiche, people have been producing Grail quest narratives for literally centuries, and I imagine if you really wanted to you could write a decent imitation of The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz; combining these different modes, however, requires going beyond mere pastiche and actually investing some hard and diligent work in addressing the incompatibilities between those approaches. That work is perhaps the sort of thing best left for second drafts, once you've actually got the material on paper and can work out where the cracks are, and if The City In the Autumn Stars was the beneficiary of a second draft I would be rather surprised - it has the energetic but inconsistent nature that many of Moorcock's other "knock out a first draft and call it finished" works like the Hawkmoon stuff has.

Like Hawkmoon, it isn't entirely without its pleasures. The City itself contains some memorable characters, including Reynard the Fox as a gangland kingpin. The airship scam segments are fun, but perhaps I would be less well-disposed towards them if I hadn't enjoyed the Pyat series; I suspect many readers will find the early portions of the novel to take a tediously long time to get to the actual plot, and there's parts where I am entirely willing to agree with them. It's not that the early parts of the novel are entirely without purpose - Manfred meets most of the major players in the rest of the story at that stage and his early interactions with them gives important context - but it certainly gives the impression of purposelessness, and by the time you get to the end of the book you may not care. Those fond of the picaresque first half may not be so keen on the fantastical second half, those intent on fantasy may find the first half a chore, and even if you like both halves you may find the conclusion incoherent. Between this and The Laughter of Carthage, only one of them enjoys the full benefit of Moorcock's talents, and it ain't this one.

Multiverse bollocks: The airship scam is, of course, reminiscent of Colonel Pyat's engineering activities in his own series. In addition, Manfred's dream sequences have the same feverish quality to them (and in at least one occasion the same slips into other languages) as Pyat's episodes of delirium; in the midst of the big ritual, Manfred starts talking about metal in his womb, the subject of one of Pyat's obsessions.

Libussa's alchemical plan to merge with Manfred and become a hermaphroditic Antichrist is strikingly similar to the conclusion of The Final Programme. The dissolution of gender boundaries within Manfred that results from the botched ritual is reminiscent of the unusual qualities revealed in Jerry Cornelius at the end of A Cure for Cancer. The crucifixion aspects to the ritual and, of course, the preoccupation with alchemy recalls The Alchemist's Question. Libussa as a philosophical martyr let down by her followers recalls Una Persson in The Entropy Tango.

The Sword of Paracelsus given to Manfred by Lucifer has a mystic eagle bound within it, making it perhaps a cousin of Stormbringer. Moreover, the general idea of a big ritual to set the course of the next cosmic cycle is reminiscent of Elric's aims at the conclusion of Stormbringer, as well as the overall theme of the standalone novel The Rituals of Infinity (indeed, the lines of light which interconnect the Autumn Stars during the ritual are reminiscent of the roads between the worlds that form at the end of that).

The concept of the Conjunction of the Million Spheres previously popped up in The Quest for Tanelorn.

The Brothel In Rosenstrasse

Between the two main novels of the sequence Moorcock issued a side story in the form of The Brothel In Rosenstrasse. Though not part of the planned trilogy, it at least has more connections with the other novels than a character who happens to be called von Bek; in particular, it has the setting of Mirenburg, first developed here, which was extrapolated upon in both a realistic and an allegorical manner in The City In the Autumn Stars. Our narrator this time is Rickard von Bek, a younger son of the family with absolutely no responsibilities and a fair amount of spare cash. Thus, he makes his home not in the von Bek lands in Germany (administered by his elder brother), but in glorious Mirenburg, which so far has managed to avoid absorption into Germany on the one hand or Austria-Hungary on the other. In 1896, that finely-judged balancing act eventually collapses, civil war breaks out, and with Austria-Hungary backing one faction over another the end result is gruesomely inevitable. Von Bek makes no tangible or useful contribution to this state of affairs, and indeed doesn't really pay attention to any of the impending signs of crisis: for his part, he is besotted with Alexandra, a sexually voracious sixteen-year-old and cousin of Mirenburg's Prince whom von Bek has taken pleasure in debauching.

Eager for new erotic adventures, Alexandra convinces von Bek to take her to the titular brothel in Rosenstrasse, the domain of the formidable Frau Schmetterling, where the pair make exhaustive use of the women on offer. As von Bek becomes entangled with the dominatrix Clara and Alexandra begins a passionate affair with another visitor, the journalist Lady Diana (much to the rage of Diana's lover Princess Poliakoff), the much-rumoured war kicks off, and soon enough for the sake of safety and company von Bek and Alexandra end up living in the brothel. As Mirenburg fights a siege against modernity, von Bek fights his own siege against reality; it is clear his dalliance with Alexandra is doomed and his dream of spiriting her away to Paris to marry her under an assumed identity is a mere fantasy, and equally clear that he knows this intellectually but emotionally refuses to engage with this point. Ultimately, von Bek is left adrift and alone, and some 40 years later is penning his autobiographical account of the brothel whilst in the grip of illness, dementia, and perhaps a pinch of syphilis on the side.

Like the Between the Wars series, which Moorcock was writing at the same time, this is a realistic story with no supernatural elements told by an unreliable narrator who I think we are meant to take as being an utterly reprehensible human being. (Von Bek even mentions meeting an infamous con artist by the name of Pyat...) Certainly, Rickard's attitude to sex becomes increasingly alarming as the novel progresses. Clara and other grown women are able to hold his attention momentarily, but it's clear both from his interactions with Alexandra and with his anecdotes of past sexual adventures that his real passion is for children; he tells a story about how he lavished a child beggar and her father with gifts and money in order to obtain the use of her sexually for a week, and he consistently thinks of Alexandra as a child and worries about what will happen when he can no longer do that.

The choice of Alexandra's age as 16 seems to have been very deliberate on Moorcock's part. It's an age which is within age of consent in many jurisdictions (including the UK at the time of writing), but equally it isn't in others - including Mirenburg, which it should be remembered is the capital of an imaginary country. The effect of this is that when you kick off the novel you don't know whether or not von Bek's extensively described fucking of Alexandra is illegal or not within the fiction, and so you're going to tend to respond to this relationship between a 16 year old and a somewhat older man based on your own personal mores without being prompted one way or the other by any knowledge of Mirenburg's laws (though you may well find your response shaped by the laws you grew up with). For my part, I read Alexandra as being at an age where it isn't unnatural or shocking for her to have sexual fantasies, but at the same time it still feels alarming for her to be with someone who's clearly got a decade or two of experience on her, views her as a child, and seems intent on keeping her as a child. (To underscore the point, Rickard thinks of her as "My lascivious child, my dreaming daughter-wife" at one point, and goodness do I wish those particular words had never been assembled in that particular order. Ick.)

Despite all this, by the end of the novel we're put in a position where we are asked to feel sorry for von Bek, as Alexandra abandons him and everyone else drifts away due to his inability to form a lasting connection to anyone else, and I genuinely don't know how to take that. It could be a deal like the Pyat novels where the narrator's attempts to justify or excuse their behaviour are meant to be obviously hollow and insufficient next to the enormity of what they have done, except von Bek doesn't really make any effort to justify himself or make excuses, and indeed never hints that he considers himself to have behaved inappropriately. Possibly this is the point - the idea being that von Bek has grown up in a bubble of privilege so extreme that he never has to question his own behaviour. On the other hand, I see little reason to mourn the bursting of that bubble.

It's also difficult to overlook the fact that this book would have been prepared in the run-up to Moorcock tackling The Laughter of Carthage, the second Pyat novel, assuming work hadn't started on it already. In that volume, the loathesome protagonist begins a deeply alarming relationship with an even younger girl than Alexandra, who he tries to turn into a little copy of his childhood friend Esme. In this context it's hard not to see The Brothel In Rosenstrasse as a dry run for this plot thread in the Pyat sequence - or perhaps an attempt to get something analagous out, since Moorcock's experience with the American edition of Byzantium Endures may have hampered his confidence in getting an uncensored version of the Pyat series out. In this case, though, it exonerates Moorcock's decision to make Pyat such an outrageously over-the-top character in order to make it unambiguously clear to the reader that you are not meant to agree with or sympathise with him, since the more subtle take Moorcock runs with here (assuming, of course, that he didn't genuinely intend for us to sympathise with von Bek) just ends up feeling like a creepy eulogy to banging sixteen year olds and a lament that said sixteen year olds tend to grow up and go away.

Ultimately, whilst the novel does as a whole present a charming evocation of Mirenburg and engages with some of Moorcock's perennial themes (cities and their distinct spirits, warfare as an eraser of societies and subcultures, etc.), it's the sexual content that overwhelms everything, and specifically the fact that the novel boils down to a dying old man's ornate masturbatory fantasies about his past. And the thing about ornate masturbatory fantasies is that if you don't share the fantasist's enthusiasm for the activities in question, they invariably end up looking either deeply silly or kind of disturbing. Since in this case the masturbatory fantasy is "fucking a child", we're looking at the "disturbing" end of the spectrum, and not in a way which really benefits any broader point the novel was trying to make. According to Moorcock, it's meant to be a story about "the emptiness of erotomania" (fair enough, Mike, but you don't need to have the protagonist be a pedophile as well as an erotomaniac) "and was strongly based on earlier experience of my own" (uuuuuh, no comment).

Multiverse bollocks: As mentioned, von Bek namedrops Colonel Pyat as an infamous con artist, tying this one in with the Between the Wars series. The ex-butcher who serves as the brothel's chef is called Ulric, which may be a callback both to The Warhound and the World's Pain and the Elric stories. Clara is sometimes referred to as Rose, for no reason which is properly explained but which represents one of the first uses of a name which would come to feature prominently in Moorcock's fiction over the coming years (we have already seen one example of this in the Elric novel The Revenge of the Rose).

The Picky Buyer's Guide

Remains the same as it was at the end of the Pyat article, I'm afraid. Although the Mittelmarch stuff might be very significant to Moorcock's subsequent highly metaphysical works, I can't in good conscience recommend that anyone sit through the entirety of any of these books. The War Hound and the World's Pain and The Brothel In Rosenstrasse are probably the most interesting, but at the same time their flaws are just too stark for me to overlook.

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Comments (go to latest) at 01:41 on 2013-06-16
I have no idea if it's a reference or just a coincidence (not being familiar with either story) but "Frau Schmetterling" could be translated as "Madame Butterfly".
Arthur B at 01:56 on 2013-06-16
It's almost certainly a deliberate reference, Moorcock generally doesn't name his characters by accident.
Michal at 04:34 on 2013-06-16
I'm pretty sure he named Prince Gaynor the Damned by accident.
James D at 08:45 on 2013-06-16
So Arthur, it looks like you're getting pretty close to finishing with this whole Moorcock thing. I've found the series very informative and have even made a few purchases based on it. A question: given what's left of Moorcock's work, do you foresee your buyer's guide being expanded by future articles?
Arthur B at 10:32 on 2013-06-16
Not a clue, we've actually hit the limit of the Moorcock stuff I've previously read so it's all uncharted waters from here.
James D at 23:24 on 2013-06-16
After glancing at Moorcock's bibliography, it seems like the only major area you haven't touched yet is the "Second Ether Sequence" from the 90s. The bit I've read about it makes it seem really bad, especially considering the publisher's description starts out: "In an alternate postbellum American South, where the social roles of blacks and whites are reversed..."

Arthur B at 08:20 on 2013-06-17
Apparently the Second Aether books also culminated with an apocalypse intended to be one of several endings to the Eternal Champion sequence, which given that the previous example of such a thing in Moorcock's fiction is The Quest for Tanelorn is a bad sign.

The other stuff I have incoming is as follows:

- Mother London and King of the City, two books which tend to get props from mainstream critical sources.

- Silverheart, a collaboration(ish - but I'll get into that in the actual review) with Storm Constantine.

- The trilogy kicked off by The Dreamthief's Daughter, a latter-day Elric series (bad sign) that taking The Fortress of the Pearl as its inspiration (not a bad sign as such but not one that inspires confidence) delves deep into the metaphysics of the multiverse (very bad sign), involves a huge pile of references and cameos from other incarnations of the Eternal Champion (extremely bad sign), and culminates with an apocalypse intended to be one of several endings to the Eternal Champion sequence (catastrophically bad sign).

- His Doctor Who tie-in novel.

- A look at miscellaneous short stories as collected in Earl Aubec, one of the few Moorcock short story collections out there that tries to offer an expansive collection of works that don't fit into other series.

- Possibly as part of the previous, a quick look at Sojan, a sword and planet saga Moorcock penned when he was 18.

- A look at Wizardry and Wild Romance, a book-length expansion of Epic Pooh in which Moorcock offered a critical view of heroic fantasy and urged readers to be similarly discerning and critical. (Which I guess counts as an official endorsement of the Picky Buyer's Guide approach.)
James D at 09:56 on 2013-06-17
So mostly just odds and ends, then. You know, I think it's really a shame that Moorcock stopped writing fun adventure stories in favor of seemingly endless attempts at wearyingly pithy novels. By far my favorite books of his are the fun ones where the "message" doesn't seem to be a conscious goal, but rather something that arises organically from the narrative itself, like in The Warlord of the Air and The Ice Schooner.

It seems like at some point in the 70s or 80s he just started looking down on fun and decided it was beneath him, except now and then when bills were due and he was short a few bucks. Did he get so sick of seeing so many second-rate sword and sorcery imitators that he wanted nothing more to do with the genre or anything like it? Did he crave mainstream acceptance as a Serious Author of Real Literature? Or was the style he was best at just rooted too deeply in youthful energy and angst that growing older killed most of the things that made him good in the first place? These aren't rhetorical questions, I'd really like to know.
Arthur B at 10:55 on 2013-06-17
I think it gets more pronounced from the 1970s and 1980s onwards because at that point his range of interests became more focused. In the 1960s there was a whole mess of stuff he was interested in but in the 1970s I get the impression that he got very focused on the Jerry Cornelius stuff and Dancers at the End of Time stuff, then from the 80s until the middle of last decade he had the Colonel Pyat material weighing on him more or less constantly.

For what it's worth, I like the core Cornelius/Dancers stuff and the Pyat books a lot, and I think all of them have a lot of fun to offer, but they certainly don't scratch the same itch as Moorcock's fantasy does and his attempts to inject some literariness into his fantasy have been alarmingly hit and miss.
James D at 20:56 on 2013-06-17
Good point, I can imagine the Colonel Pyat novels especially would take up a lot of time and energy. For my part I respect them, but they're just really not my thing. Still, one must ask: if he wasn't at all interested in writing action-packed fantasy anymore, why did he keep doing it? Just to make money? If so, why didn't he at least put a little effort into it? As your articles have demonstrated, his bibliography is an absolute minefield. I wonder if he flat-out resented his need to rely on Elric-type stuff to make a living as a writer and half-assed it for that reason, just like millions of other people who hate their jobs but can't find a better way to make a living.
Arthur B at 01:11 on 2013-06-18
Still, one must ask: if he wasn't at all interested in writing action-packed fantasy anymore, why did he keep doing it? Just to make money?

He has more or less directly said this.

If so, why didn't he at least put a little effort into it?

Because that would defeat the purpose of knocking out a quick book in a few days in order to earn some quick cash, and because he knew the fandom would eat up any fantasy he produced regardless of quality? (See: continuing accolades for Hawkmoon and Corum despite all reason and good taste.)
James D at 06:27 on 2013-06-18
OK, so it was just for a quick buck then. I guess I expected more from Moorcock. Not that there's anything wrong with making money by writing, just that I thought he'd have more pride in his work. He clearly takes writing seriously, and takes himself as a writer seriously too, so I guess I just have to scratch my head over why he'd attach his name to such obviously poor material. I realize he wanted to make the money quickly so he could pay the bills and get back to more time-consuming and less marketable work that really interested him, but was it really too much trouble to invest a little more time in these things? Sorry to harp on this, I'm not trying to be a pain in the ass, it just really baffles and irritates me that he'd shit on his legacy in such a way.

Also, it'd be one thing if he had segregated things nicely; I'd have no problem ignoring the Hawkmoon and Corum series and sticking to the stuff where he actually tried, but as you know he added tons of shit to otherwise good series that were over and done with decades before. I stumbled upon an Elric book in a store a few weeks ago, and was about to buy it until I checked your guide on my phone and realized that The Revenge of the Rose was NOT in fact one of the highlights of the series. Without your guide (and a smartphone to check it), I'd have wasted money buying it, wasted time reading it, and maybe even wasted my chance at enjoying the good Elric material if I ended up thinking TRotR was representative of the whole.

Basically what I'm saying is, can you please go back in time and act as Moorcock's literary conscience for the last 40 years or so? It'd make reading his books much more convenient for me.
Arthur B at 08:39 on 2013-06-18
Without your guide (and a smartphone to check it), I'd have wasted money buying it, wasted time reading it, and maybe even wasted my chance at enjoying the good Elric material if I ended up thinking TRotR was representative of the whole.

Glad to be of use. at 05:28 on 2013-06-21
I remember I tried to read Moorcock's books in his suggested reading order, and these books were first. They looked kind of interesting before I noticed the historico-wanky writing style and laughable attempt at exploring "serious themes", and was like "ha ha no." Thanks for this guide. Without it, I'd be wading through Hawkmoon and Legends from the End of Time and all that crap.
Arthur B at 08:32 on 2013-06-21

The reading order presented for the 1990s omnibus editions was just bizarre. No Elric until volume 8, and then you have to wade through to volume 12 to get to the second half of the saga? A Jerry Cornelius short story anthology as volume 9 but no omnibus of the core novels? (OK, I understand that there were rights issues there, but without the core Cornelius books I don't see how the omnibus series could have claimed to cover the full Eternal Champion saga.) Von Bek, of all characters, as the first to be introduced? Yeah, on balance it was a mess.
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