One face in a thousand

In Rhetorics of Fantasy, her important structural taxonomy of fantasy literature, Farah Mendlesohn identifies four key types of fantasy, defined by the way that they relate the fantastical to the prosaic. The first and most widely used is the ‘portal-quest fantasy’, in which the protagonists either pass through some kind of portal from the primary world, as in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, or set out on a quest from a carefully constructed secondary-world articulation of the everyday, as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. This type of fantasy narrative, in its overall schema, and also in many of the further particulars Mendlesohn explores in her monograph, bears a close structural relationship to the monomyth of the heroic quest, as described by Joseph Campbell in his influential work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. At its simplest this can be summed up as an excursion from the everyday world familiar to the reader or listener into a domain of supernatural wonders, by a hero figure who is able to disburse remedies or boons on his return (and in the archetypal myths it is always ‘his’ return).

Most of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series of books takes the form of the ‘portal-quest fantasy’. He rarely pays close attention to the kind of detailed world-building that characterises the ‘immersive fantasy’, and his protagonists nearly always set out from some established ‘norm’ to correct a wrong or avert a danger. That his narratives should endlessly repeat Campbell’s monomyth is appropriate enough, as Moorcock’s key fantastical conceit of the ‘eternal champion’ is directly inspired by Campbell’s notion of a ‘hero with a thousand faces’. Each of the many heroes in Moorcock’s vast novel cycle is an aspect of one figure, a ‘paladin of balance’ who exists in all ages, across the many parallel worlds of the multiverse, to intervene in the all-encompassing cosmic conflict between Law and Chaos. Like a celestial thermostat or an inter-planar gyroscope, the Eternal Champion is induced to emerge and to intervene whenever one of those two structuring principles is in danger of overwhelming the other.

Corum Jhaelen Irsei is one aspect of the Eternal Champion, and the subject of two trilogies of Moorcock’s down-and-dirty, pulpy-yet-smart sword-and-sorcery novels. These stories are rarely constructed with great care or detailed planning, but spring fully formed from Moorcock’s febrile imagination and leap into lurid unreality at the touch of his fingers on the typewriter keyboard. They are not intended to be read with great care or reverence, and they are written with visceral, improvisational aplomb, in much the way that a blues rock guitarist grinds out a solo from their repertoire of licks and riffs. However, as the opening paragraphs of this discussion may suggest, a great deal of preparatory thought and off-stage erudition informs the seemingly casual execution of the published texts.

Corum and his world are unusual in Moorcock’s oeuvre in having a linguistic wellspring in the primary world. As he tells it, on a typically rainy British holiday, he found himself in a house in Cornwall on whose shelves he found a book on the Cornish language; as he read, names began to arrange themselves in his mind, until he had the beginnings of a new Eternal Champion. As well as a distinct Brithonic tinge to the names of people and places, there is more than a nod to Celtic and Arthurian mythology in the stories’ geography; at one point Corum appears to sojourn in the primary world, perhaps sometime in the eighteenth century, during which episode an educated Cornish woman identifies him confidently as an ‘elf’.

I have just re-read the first trilogy in which Corum appeared, known as the ‘Swords Trilogy’, bound-up under the title Corum into one volume of the now out-of-print omnibus series The Tale of the Eternal Champion. These three short novels were published in the early seventies, some time before Moorcock had begun to be recognised as a literary figure of merit. They were written to entertain, and to sell rapidly in volume, with probably little expectation that they would remain in print or be remembered fifty years later. Whether they should be preserved as great literary monuments is questionable, but for me they are still of great value, both as undemanding entertainments, and as components of Moorcock’s great narrative cycle, which taken as a whole I would argue is one of the most significant literary achievements of the twentieth century in the English language. Corum is briefly joined in this series by two other incarnations of the Eternal Champion, Elric and Erekosë. An uncharitable commentator might wonder what the point of that is, given that Moorcock was essentially writing the same character and the same story over and over again. But of course, though the lines may look the same, Moorcock colours them in differently every time, and I think the important question his approach raises is this: what writer of narrative fiction can claim to be doing anything more?

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