The History of the Runestaff: Fantasy Masterworks
(Gollancz, £7.99, 645 pages, paperback, first published 1992, this
edition published 10 April 2003.)
This is a collection of Moorcock's series of four mid-1960s novels,
The Jewel in the Skull, The Mad God's Amulet, The Sword
of the Dawn and The Runestaff, originally collected in 1992
as Hawkmoon and now repackaged as part of Gollancz' Fantasy
Masterworks series. It comes with a foreword to the 1992 edition
by the author which aims to lower the reader's expectations: he modestly
dismisses any idea that there is a "sophisticated political message
in the book" and claims merely that "the books were written
in the hope that they would help readers pass their time without feeling
they were wasting it".
Well, it's a bit better than that. Our hero, Dorian Hawkmoon, Duke
of Köln, is captured by the evil forces of Granbretan who implant a
sinister jewel in his skull; he is liberated by the friendly rulers
of Kamarg, and finds himself to be an incarnation of the Eternal Champion,
charged with finding and implementing the will of the Runestaff, a magical
item which preserves the Equilibrium (between what and what? Never mind).
Along the way he has to collect two more magical items, the Red Amulet
held by a mad god and the Sword of the Dawn, winning many battles in
which he is (of course) hopelessly outnumbered, but helped by loyal
companions, by mysterious allies who arrive in the nick of time, and
by dissension in the ranks of his foes.
Moorcock chose a German hero and British villains, "consciously
at odds with the jingoism of the day". The setting is basically
our geographical Europe, Middle East and North America, augmented by
a couple of long bridges to the Crimea and across the English Channel,
but far in our future, centuries after the "death and malformation"
brought by the "poisons" of the "Tragic Millennium".
Swords and armour are popular; so are "baroque" flame-lances,
ornithopters and magic. However electricity and feminism seem to be
Perhaps fantasy novels set in a recognisable version of our own familiar
geography tend to be more successful than those which try inventing
a completely new setting. Compare for instance the altered Spain of
Guy Gavriel Kay's Al-Rassan, the converted France of Jacqueline Carey's
Kushiel trilogy or indeed the Mediterranean of the Aeneid, with
the forgettable, if carefully mapped, landscapes of Shannara, the Belgariad
or Robert Jordan. There are exceptions of course -- Tolkien being the
most obvious, though for him the culture and geography of Middle Earth
were a lifetime's work. And there is another alternative, best exemplified
these days by Terry Pratchett, of not working too hard on the specifics
of the map in the hope that other elements of the story will carry the
reader along and someone else may come along to try and draw the map
for you. I guess that not thinking too hard about the landscape can
free up the creative mind to work on other aspects.
What makes the History of the Runestaff a little more
than just another quest narrative is that, unlike Frodo and Aeneas,
who accept their destiny without doubting the motivations of those who
have sent them, Hawkmoon actively tries to run away from his mission
in order to get back to the woman he loves, and makes it clear that
he is acting largely out of self-interest when inevitably compelled
to return. In return, the quest itself turns out to be less about the
ultimate defeat of evil and the victory of good than the restoration
of the Equilibrium. Hawkmoon, much to his annoyance, is frequently ordered
around by the mysterious Warrior in Jet and Gold and his brother who
have a habit of appearing out of nowhere to deliver commands on behalf
of the Runestaff, and one comes to sympathise with his frustration.
One aspect of the Hawkmoon stories which has dated badly over the last
four decades is the treatment of women. The evil Baron Meliadus is served
by naked girl-slaves because "he allowed no men into his tower
for fear of treachery" -- a rather odd rationale which presupposes
that women are incapable of treachery, especially when nude. The beautiful
yet innocent Yisselda of Kamarg is saved from Meliadus' attempt at rape,
and is thenceforth the object of his plots; she falls at one point into
the hands of the Mad God of Ukrania, whose greatest perversion appears
to be that he turns women into warriors (using of course the Amulet).
Yisselda does achieve a small triumph for her gender in the end by fighting
in the final battle, but in the meantime we have encountered the temptress
Flana Mikosevaar of Granbretan, who isn't much interested in the male
realm of politics as long as she can continue to play female games of
seduction. I can't imagine a mature fantasy novelist -- a category which
undoubtedly includes Michael Moorcock -- writing such stuff today.
However, apart from that it's well worth the ride. The four books mesh
efficiently into a single extended narrative. Mutant flamingos, lost
temples, hidden desert citadels, sanguinary pirate cults, brutal warriors,
treacherous courtiers, chivalry and poetry, all helped this reader at
least to pass the time without feeling I was wasting it. I did wince
at a gratuitous throwaway reference towards the end to Churchill, Harold
Wilson and the Beatles (and perhaps also J.G. Ballard and Jim Sallis?)
as ancient deities of Granbretan, but I suppose the author is allowed
his little bit of fun. This is the 36th in the series of Gollancz Fantasy
Masterworks and a worthy addition to the bookshelf.
Review by Nicholas Whyte.
Elsewhere in infinity