Michael Moorcock’s “The Dreaming City” (1961)

Moorcock’s The Dreaming City is the first short story featuring Elric, his silver-skinned Melnibonean hero.

The story appeared in the wake of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (published between 1954 and 1955) as well as the renaissance of interest in Howard’s Conan tales (from 1932), Leiber’s Fahfrd & Grey Mouser series (from 1939) and Peake’s Gormenghast series (1950 – 1959). Moorcock insists that he was studying Freud, Jung and the gothic novel at the time and incorporated those elements into this tale.

The setting of The Dreaming City is Melnibone, a once-great empire now in terrible decline. Its noble ruling families have abandoned much of the island and retreated to Imrryr, the capitol, where they spent their time in drugged states.

Elric is an interesting character in the way he subverts the typical tropes of the Fantasy hero. Moorcock insists he IS a hero but one who is cynically driven by revenge to commit barbaric acts assisted by sorcery, demons and a vampiric sword. It’s hard not to use the term Byronic when describing Elric. Moorcock goes out of his way to make Elric an unusual and singular Fantasy hero:

Elric was tall, broad-shouldered and slim-hipped. He wore his long hair bunched and pinned at the nape of his neck and, for an obscure reason, affected the dress of a southern barbarian. He had long, knee-length boots of soft doe-leather, a breastplate of strangely wrought silver, a jerkin of chequered blue and white linen, britches of scarlet wool and a cloak of rustling green velvet. At his hip rested his runesword of black iron—the feared Stormbringer, forged by ancient and alien sorcery. His bizarre dress was tasteless and gaudy, and did not match his sensitive face and long-fingered, almost delicate hands, yet he flaunted it since it emphasized the fact that he did not belong in any company—that he was an outsider and an outcast. But, in reality, he had little need to wear such outlandish gear—for his eyes and skin were enough to mark him. Elric, Last Lord of Melniboné, was a pure albino who drew his power from a secret and terrible source.

Instead of saving the damsel and regaining his throne, Elric manages to kill his beloved Cymoril and assist in the ravaging of Imrryr before running away. His black runesword, Stormbringer, vamprically sucks the life from its victims but also energises the congenitally weakened Elric.

After 60 years, it’s difficult to appreciate how fresh and unconventional this story was when first published. Aside from the oddness of Elric, there’s a grim strain of horrific humour that’s almost Pythonesque: heroic characters are described and then swiftly killed (one, Dyvim Tarkan, by falling and breaking his neck), Elric tries to toss Stormbringer into the sea but it refuses to be submerged, characters have names like Tanglebones and Count Smiorgan Baldhead. Elric’s nemesis, Yyrkoon, is in many respects much like him and, in their climactic confrontation at the end of the story, fights Elric with Mournblade, another black runesword (this story is ripe for psychoanalytic analysis).

The Dreaming City also quite epic. There are sword fights, sea battles, elementals and demons as well as dragons. Speaking to his sword at the end of the story, Elric declares the type of character he will be hereafter: “We are two of a kind—produced by an age which has deserted us. Let us give this age cause to hate us!”