When I was a kid, all my friends read Michael Moorcock’s sprawling Eternal Champion series. Endlessly resurrected and reincarnated, the Eternal Champion exists to right the balance between Law and Chaos. According to Moorcock in the introduction to the 1994 edition of the novel, The Eternal Champion:
I use the ideas of Law and Chaos precisely because I am suspicious of simplistic notions of good and evil. In my multiverse, Law and Chaos are both legitimate ways of interpreting and defining experience. Ideally, the Cosmic Balance keeps both sides in equilibrium. By playing “the Game of Time”… the various participants maintain that equilibrium. When the scales tip too far toward Law we move toward rigid orthodoxy and social sterility, a form of decadence. When Chaos is uppermost we move too far towards undisciplined and destructive creativity.
Seemingly deep stuff for teenagers to be reading, but I think it was part of the series’ appeal. Teenagers are constantly pushing boundaries and trying to get a grip on right and wrong. I think many of them are as suspicious of supposedly “simplistic notions of good and evil” as Moorcock was. It appeared to be presenting a more nuanced way of looking at the world.
Most of the guys (and it was all guys) I knew who read swords & sorcery back in the 1970s and early ’80s were SF/F geeks, potheads, or metalheads and there was a lot of overlap amongst those groups. In my experience, gaming had a lot to do with bringing those tribes together and we all loved Moorcock’s stories and heroes.
Most preferred the morose albino, Elric, of doomed Melniboné. Dressed in black armor, wielding the evil soul-drinking sword Stormbringer, and riding a dragon — I totally get it. A few liked Dorian Hawkmoon von Koln and his adventures across post-apocalyptic Europe and America better. Personally, I did and still do enjoy the two trilogies about Corum Jhaelen Irsei, last of the Vadhagh. Steeped in Irish myth and a gloomy Celtic miasma, I think they’re the most intense and beautiful books in the series.
Whichever champion we liked best didn’t matter, though. Everybody seemed to read every book they could get their hands on. I remember the giddy excitement when my buddy Alex and I finally found copies of Count Brass, The Champion of Garathorm, and The Quest for Tanelorn in a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan. Moorcock’s books — moody heroes, thrilling action, and gaudy, often grotesque, worlds — seemed perfectly written to a teenage male audience.
Moorcock’s heroes are rebels and dreamers, unsuited to the worlds they live in. They experience big, explosive emotions and wreak terrible destruction on their enemies. Whether they want to or not, they lead lives of great danger and adventure. Even if they don’t always get to keep it, they all seem to win the love of the most beautiful women in the world. Oh, and the fate of creation always hangs on their shoulders. What they do makes or breaks whole dimensions of the multiverse.
These books, much more than The Lord of the Rings, were the common text my friends and I drew on when we first started roleplaying in the late ’70s. Many worlds were destroyed a la Moorcock in the basement during those heady early days of gaming on my block. There are no long books in the series. All are short, sharp shocks of sword & sorcery action, filled with fantastic creatures (Quick – what’s your favorite Moorcock creation? The Grahluks and the Elenoins? The giant flamingos? Whiskers?) and mindblowing battles raging across time and space. Who wants to put some heir on the throne when you can summon up gods and demons and change the destiny of the universe?
Moorcock started dreaming up the Eternal Champion stories and heroes when he himself was still a teenager. Erekosë, protagonist of The Eternal Champion, first materialized on the page in the mid-’50s. In 1962, The Eternal Champion was published as a novella for the magazine Science Fantasy and was brought to novel-length in 1970.
As often as I’ve gone back to Elric, Corum, and Hawkmoon, The Eternal Champion is one novel in the series I hadn’t touched since first reading it nearly thirty-five years ago. Seeing the dynamic Boris cover a few days ago while scanning the ‘net was enough to make me dust off the (unread) omnibus edition of the Erekosë stories put out by White Wolf twenty years ago as part of their fifteen volume Eternal Champion series.
As a novel, The Eternal Champion is a bit thin. John Daker is an academic in our world who dreams of voices calling him Erekosë and begging his help. Eventually he is transported to another place and learns that in ancient times Erekosë saved humanity from the devilish Eldren, a race inimical to mankind’s mere existence.
I looked up. I stood before them in the flesh. I was their god and I had returned.
“I have come,” I said. “I am here, King Rigenos. I have left nothing worthwhile behind me, but do not let me regret that leaving.”
“You will not regret it, Champion.” He was pale, exhilarated, smiling. I looked at Iolinda, who dropped her eyes modestly and then, as if against her will, raised them again to regard me. I turned to the dais on my right.
“My sword,” I said, reaching for it.
I heard King Rigenos sigh with satisfaction.
“They are doomed now, the dogs,” he said.
The minor characters never take on more than a dimension or two. King Rigenos is a gentleman, until he talks of the Eldren, and his daughter, Iolinda, is beautiful. There’s the distrustful Captain Katorn and the friendly Count Roldero. On the other side is the noble Eldren lord, Arjav, and his enchanting sister, Ermizhad. They each have a role in the script, a specific part to play in the unfolding drama set before the once and future hero, Erekosë.
The only solution, claims the king and his advisors, is a final one. The Eldren, the Hounds of Evil, must be wiped away from the face of the world. But all, as one may expect, is not what it seems.
There are very few surprises in The Eternal Champion and Moorcock admits it’s “not one of his ambitious books.” Perhaps it isn’t, but it does lay the foundation stones for much of what would come later in books like the Elric novel, Stormbringer, and the Corum novel, The Queen of Swords. The endless and connected worlds of the multiverse are introduced in this novel, as are some of the many identities of the Champion. That Erekosë and all his other incarnations are fated to battle forever is also hinted at.
Moorcock describes this novel as “the shout of a young man who finds the world is a more complicated place than he imagined and feels, therefore, betrayed.” That seems a perfect description of The Eternal Champion. Erekosë, from the moment he arrives in the other universe, is ready to lead humanity into genocidal war against its implacable foe and swears an oath to do so.
He can remember, if not clearly, that he has fought for such high stakes before, and knows in his heart he will do so again. If humanity is to survive on this world, he must abide by his oath. In the end, he cannot.
As much as he says he is suspect of simple notions of good and evil, Moorcock had little trouble depicting both Eldren and humans in very simple ways. It’s the weakest part of The Eternal Champion, making Erekosë’s actions foreseeable. The Eldren are so noble they have deliberately handicapped themselves in the war against humanity in order to hold true to promises they made themselves ages earlier. Humans have no compunction against deceiving the Eldren and breaching all rules of honor in order to kill them. The Eldren are elegant and immortal, while humans fight each other endlessly and practice slavery. There is absolutely no nuance to this presentation of Good Guys and Bad Guys.
This is not a great book by any measure. Erekosë doesn’t have much depth and the plot is simple and predictable. It is, however, an important book. As Moorcock notes in the introduction to the White Wolf omnibus Elric: Song of the Black Sword, when he started writing S&S in the late fifties and early sixties, he was the only one doing so. Howard existed in limited releases from small presses and Leiber had stopped writing Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.
Moorcock’s heroes — Erekosë being no exception — are the antithesis of the brawny barbarian warrior. They are sensitive, possessing a deep humanity and empathy. While they will wade through gore if they must, they do so reluctantly and never without a soul-rending awareness of the cost. Moorcock is wary of heroes and the propaganda purposes for which they can be exploited. His explorations of that theme, starting in The Eternal Champion and continuing through many of the stories, is an important element in the evolution of heroic fiction.
If you’re looking to start Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series, I wouldn’t start with The Eternal Champion. I’d go with the Elric or Corum books. There’s more to them and their heroes. The inventiveness hinted at in The Eternal Champion is cranked up by a factor of twenty or so in those series. But if you like them, I’d say you need to come to this one eventually, if only to see how it all started.