Maps of Meaning – Michael Moorcock

When I wrote the introduction to the first entry in the Maps of Meaning column, I used the word “monthly”. Well, it has been two years plus a few days and I am now sitting down to write the second installment in this supposedly “monthly column”. Excuses? Literature is hard? The world burns around us? General procrastination and anxiety? Take your pick. Regardless, I don’t think I’m going to promise any sort of regularity to this column (I mean, come on what was I thinking when I tried to make this a monthly thing?) but I do want to start using it more regularly to look at the ties between literature and metal. Oh, in case you don’t remember (which, considering the two year delay, who can blame you?), the entire purpose of this column is to go deeper into how literature has influenced metal (and, in this case, vice versa) beyond just the usual examples that come to the mind of every metalhead when the two terms are mentioned in the same sentence.

Yeah, OK, we fucking get it.

Nor is the idea of this column to merely shoot off a list of recommendations that all revolve around a certain author or setting and call it a day. This is doubly true for this iteration’s subject, by the way, as a few (really good) lists of bands that evoke or directly reference Michael Moorcock’s literature already exist on this wonderful, broken thing we call The Internet. Oh, that’s right: the subject of this, the second, delayed iteration of Maps of Meaning is Michael Moorcock. If you’re unfamiliar with the name, don’t beat yourself up about it. While Moorcock is incredibly influential and famous, it appears that his name recognition has declined drastically ever since the 90’s. Indeed, much of his sword and sorcery style died in the late 80’s, enjoying its Golden Age sometimes between the mid-70’s and the end of that ill-fated decade. Hmmm, I wonder what other artistic genre was reaching a fever pitch during those years?

The fact that Moorcock and genres like heavy, power, and thrash metal coincided in their ascendancy is probably no mistake. Like the wave of metal that Moorcock is most associated with, the author and his relationship with music actually start in the very late 60’s/early 70’s with what is perhaps Moorcock’s most famous contribution to music: Hawkwind. This relationship started with his contribution to the band’s In Search of Space, passed through the band’s arguably most famous album, Warrior on the Edge of Time, and finally culminated in a live show/retelling of Moorcock’s own literature in the form of The Chronicle of the Black Sword. Ah, The Black Sword! That dastardly weapon appears early in our tale and that is no coincidence. In fact, The Black Sword, a central motif in Moorcock’s giant experiment with motifs and how they work dubbed The Eternal Champion Saga, is also a central motif in music’s relationship with Moorcock’s work.

That work contributed to many of the tropes, aesthetics, and ideas that also informed the styles of metal that I mentioned above. In fact, the point could be made that they both fed from the same sources, instead of one having influenced the other. Which is why it is no coincidence that they both rose and (only somewhat) declined at the same period of time. But before we can get down to that analysis and to looking at how metal communicates with Moorcock’s work, we must first attempt the impossible: succinctly explaining one of the most sprawling, lengthy, and varied work in the history of fantasy and science fiction (and, in fact, one of the major pillars of the oft-misunderstood sci-fantasy sub-genre). This work, although not Moorcock’s only output (check out Behold the Man especially for some excellent, unrelated Moorcock) is the main, and only (to my knowledge) of Moorcock’s works that have influenced metal, certainly to the extent that it has.

So, what is The Eternal Champion Saga?

The End of All Songs – Moorcock’s The Eternal Champion

Put “simply”, The Eternal Champion Saga posits a classic, good vs. evil conflict in the form of Chaos vs. Order but puts an unexpected, anarchist spin on it. These two forces fight for primacy among the multiverse, where endless Earths spin in endless configurations, upon which this conflict is played out with little regard for the lives of petty, mortal races. Both sides are beyond good and evil however, incredibly callous and brutal in their fight for eternal domination. But what if some force out there did want mortal races, and especially humans, to be represented? What if, in fact, that force thought that humans were the knife’s edge which would decide this conflict? In Moorcock’s saga, this conflict is aptly named the Cosmic Balance. It is not exactly neutral but antithetical to both Order’s and Chaos’s attempts at supremacy and, in order to thwart the efforts of both sides, it chooses a Champion to fight for it.

Here is where the genius of Moorcock’s imagination comes in though: doesn’t that sound kind of fucked up for whoever the Balance chooses as its warrior? Unlike many other fantasy series, Moorcock really explores and focuses on the fact that being “the chosen one” is actually a really life-shattering and psychologically terrible fate. This Champion is basically doomed to fight for all of eternity (hence his name), across multiple lifetimes, versions of Earth, and versions of himself. Always battling, always striving, never quite winning, always torn between Chaos and Order and his own life. That is the lot of the Eternal Champion, to never be at peace, to always be hounded by war, across the entire multi-verse.

This is also what gives rise to the many names that come up when you discuss Moorcock: Elric of Melniboné is probably the most famous (and features most heavily in metal) but there’s also Dorian Hawkmoon, Corum, Erekosë, Jerry Cornelius, and many, many more (no, seriously, many more). They each have their own particularities, like villains, lovers, and family, but they also all share certain tropes and marks: there’s usually an enchanted, and sometimes evil, sword. They are all doomed to fight in some way or other, never finding peace. Some of them are great warriors, others more wily and cerebral, but they all find war to be either a necessary evil or something to be despised; it’s a rare incarnation of The Eternal Champion which lusts or loves war. Which is, of course, for an eternal warrior bound to fight forever, the real tragedy of the matter. It is no accident that many of the blades borne by the incarnations of The Eternal Champion drink his very life.

Peeping behind that (very limited, way too short) description of the saga lie the topics which I’d like to investigate during the rest of this post. First will be the whole issue of The Black Sword (Stormbringer, Kanajana, the Cold Sword, the Dragon Sword) and its appeal for metal as a theme. There are many, many tracks by metal bands that either specifically reference The Black Sword in their name or in their lyrics and, oftentimes, both at the same time. Why is The Black Sword so alluring to metal? What is the inherent trope which it represents that draws musicians to it? Secondly, we’ll explore Moorcock’s politics of will, freedom, and individual identity, a sort of Nietzschean anarchism that runs through his books. We’ll also look at how that very same philosophy runs through much of the metal that deals with his work, and beyond it in the genre as a whole. Lastly, we’ll talk about the whole point of The Eternal Champion Saga, its criticism of the romanticizing worship of war and how that fits into metal’s attitude towards the topics of violence, force, and struggle.

Cosmic Balance be with us! We have quite a way to go. Let’s get started.

Stormbringer – Why Does Metal Love The Black Sword?

If you scroll up and check out the excellent post by Ride Into Glory (saved you the scroll), you might start to notice something peculiar; the Black Sword is mentioned many, many times. Twelve, to be exact (an ominous number if there ever was one), more than any other theme or term on any of the albums listed. And there’s more that’s not listed on this post, simply by virtue of when it was written, like “Stormbringer” from Cirith Ungol‘s latest release. This raises three questions: what is the Black Sword? What is the Black Sword’s significance in The Eternal Champion Saga? And what is the Black Sword’s significance for metal when drawing inspiration from Moorcock’s work? Or, put more succinctly, why are so many goddamn metal tracks called “Stormbringer”?

That first question is, naturally, where we should start. As you might have guessed from the list of alternate names I supplied above, the Black Sword is yet another feature of The Eternal Champion which travels with him across the multiverse. To say that it is his sword would be a stretch; in fact, the Black Sword is (spoilers) eventually depicted as an enemy of the Eternal Champion, in The Quest for Tanelorn (1975), the last of Dorian Hakwmoon’s and the book that serves as “the end” for the saga. In fact, it is at best described as “ambivalent” through the entire saga and is a downright enemy in more books than that one. But, in that book, Hawkmoon and Erekosë, with the assistance of some companions, finally find themselves in Tanelorn, the fabled city of peace, a place where the Eternal Champion can rest from his struggles. This is because Tanelorn is singular, literally; it is the only city to exist once in the multiverse, therefore standing above, or to the side, of the conflict between Order and Chaos. And there, the final showdown of the books happens and, lo and behold, the Sword is perhaps the main antagonist which presents itself, there at the end of the Champion’s struggles.

So, the Black Sword. Being a powerful object, like the Eternal Champion himself, the Sword projects versions of itself across the multiverse. Sometimes that version is a black gem (as in Hawkmoon’s case). Sometimes it is even a creature, a demon of sorts. But most often it is a sword. The closer a version of the Sword is to the original, the more powerful it is. Among its more powerful iterations are Stormbringer, its most famous version, Elric’s soul-drinking sword. Indeed, this iconic version of the Black Sword is the most famous one because it is so close to the archetype of the Sword itself; as such, in a brilliant bit of meta-fiction by Moorcock, its metaphors are the most blatant. Where other swords subtly lead the Eternal Champion to combat, by causing him to feel invincible for example, Stormbringer literally drinks the souls of its opponents and will kill Elric himself if he doesn’t continue fighting.

Later, during the final showdown of the series in Tanelorn, the Sword reveals that it has always planned to thwart the Champion, to drink his life, to drive him mad, to use him as a vessel for its own ascendancy after Order and Chaos were defeated. But this is its significance throughout the saga, whether it supposedly serves the Eternal Champion or fights against him. The Black Sword, at the end for sure but also throughout the story, is to serve as another arena for the two themes or struggles that we are about to describe below. First, it is an arena for the Eternal Champion’s most distinctive quality: willpower. There are more powerful entities in The Eternal Champion Saga than him; there are wizards, demons, inventors, and mighty warriors. There are also smarter companions who advise the Eternal Champion and often tell him what to do and where to go. But there is no one more stubborn, more self-assured, and more willful than the Eternal Champion. The Eternal Champion’s purpose is just that: to be eternal.

In resisting the Sword in all its iterations, in trying to use an instrument of war for good even though he knows that is a fruitless effort, the Champion becomes everything that is a champion. But what exactly is being resisted? The Sword supplies that answer as well; while the sword is an object upon which the will of the Champion is tested but it also has a second literary purpose. It is a metaphor, a symbol, an archetype for war itself, for the alluring power of weapons and all that that allure brings. To say that Moorcock is a pacifist would be wrong but he is definitely an author who is critical of the over-reliance on violence and militarism that fantasy and science fiction are rife with. In his Saga, the allure of violence and power is very literally always at hand in the form of a mighty weapon which few can stand against. But using the Sword always has a price; in the end, that price is the Champion’s own sanity and will. It’s not always the Sword itself which is the metaphor for this; Erekosë for example, one of the purest manifestations of the Eternal Champion, destroys his entire planet with his fury and with great weapons of war.

But the Sword is the strongest and most common stand in for war and violence and, by association, with the constant struggle of humanity to resist it. Which is why, of course, it captures metal’s imagination so powerfully. Naturally, part of that allure is just that the Sword is fucking cool, let’s be honest. It is cool; in fact, keeping track of all of the Sword’s iterations and their different roles in the story is one of my favorite things about the saga. But beyond just being cool, the Sword is also the focal point for everything that interests metal in The Eternal Champion Saga. Being such a direct symbol of personal empowerment, a theme already very important to the types of metal we’re talking about here, and the futility of war, another major trope in power and heavy metal, the Black Sword is a natural point for metal to gravitate towards. By looking at those two themes in conjunction with the iconography of the Black Sword, we can understand just why it pulls at metal so powerfully.

So we’re going to do just that.

The Quest for Tanelorn – Moorcock’s Anarchy and Metal’s Personal Empowerment

As he has explicitly said in the past, at the center of Moorcock’s multiverse lies the struggle of an individual to define themselves. This struggle is what philosophy calls “a Nietzschean struggle” as it was the core part of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ethical philosophy. Unlike what edgy teens online might tell you, Nietzsche’s philosophy did not just stop at “nothing matters”. Instead, it went one step further to offer a sort of “positive nihilism”, where the only thing which lends existence meaning is our willpower, our desire to make something which matters. That’s his oft-misunderstood concept of the Übermensch; it is not necessarily a physically strong person (although that factors into it somewhat) and certainly nothing to do with race. Instead, it is a vision of a human as a creature motivated by their will alone, by their desire to bend reality to how they think it should be.

The Eternal Champion is like a microcosm of the challenges and forces that play a part in the life and struggle of an Übermensch, striving to become themselves. On the one hand, he is bound by fate. The Eternal Champion is constantly buffeted by outside forces, be they the machinations of Order and Chaos, the mysterious influence of the Cosmic Balance, the devilish desires of the Black Sword, or the politics which plague the specific version of Earth he finds himself on. These are the contingent forces of the world and society that try to bend Nietzsche’s Übermensch. But on the other hand, the Eternal Champion is an almost singular being; he has the power to decide the conflict between Order and Chaos, to defeat his enemies, to be braver, bolder, and more moral than any of us, to rise above the limitation of being a human and the fears, failings, and self-betrayals which that involves. That is the Übermensch inside of him, that will to know what is right and to do what is right, no matter the cost. No matter the temptation to strike out at your enemies for nothing but revenge or to choose a softer, easier road.

That is the most important point about the Eternal Champion: he is constantly being tempted to lose himself. The Black Sword calls him to war. Order calls him to set things aright and freeze the universe in perfection. Chaos goads him to let go and give in to his personal aggrandizement and power. Even the Cosmic Balance tells him to dedicate himself only to the cause, to the struggle, to being the Soldier of Fate. But the Eternal Champion fights; that is his very definition. He doesn’t just fight his enemies on the field, he also fights them on internal battlefields as he struggles (and struggles, and struggles) to maintain some grasp on who he is, on his morality.

This is the goal of the Übermensch par excellence; the idea is inherently tied to Nietzsche’s conception of ethics “beyond good and evil”. For Nietzsche, morality can never mean subservience to external organizations, like the church or the precepts set forth by literature. Morality is a deeply personal matter, bubbling up from the center of every one of us. Being an Übermensch is exactly defined as listening to that inner core, to our will, and resisting all of those outward institutions. That’s how, unlike what is commonly presented of him, Nietzsche wound up influencing anarchists and other leftists just as much as he did the European right-wing and that’s how the Eternal Champion can be said to be both an anarchist story and a Nietzschean one. The Eternal Champion’s very nature is to resist any outside force and the path they’d like to put him on, instead fighting for the fierce independence not only of himself but of humanity as a whole. That’s why the Saga ends with Hawkmoon and Erekosë defying the Cosmic Balance and setting down their own path.

This is, of course, incredibly relevant to metal, especially to the genres which were forming around the time these books were first gathering readers and fame. What if not the fierce dedication to independence and self-determination lies at the center of heavy, thrash, and power metal? In fact, we’ve already written a deep dive analyzing the ties of these genres to Nietzschean ideas and the problematic themes that sometimes arise from those ties. Throw in big, cool swords, magic, dragons, and many more fantasy tropes and you have yourself one of the main reasons which metal draws so heavily from Moorcock. The essence of his books are simply the essence of metal itself, the rebellion and determination which course through not only the music’s self-empowering sound but also its explicit political and psychological statements.

A great example of this can be found in the lyrics of Cirith Ungol, one of the bands most associated with Elric and Moorcock in metal. In operation since the early 70’s, Elric has graced Cirith Ungol’s album covers and featured in their lyrics extensively. On their latest release, Forever Black, his albino features, his iconic blade, and the crow that sometimes accompanies him are featured smack dab in the middle of the cover. He also enjoys an entire track dedicated to him called, you guessed, it “Stormbringer”. If we look at the lyrics to this track, we’ll find all of the ideas which we referenced above and then some. Much of it is Elric lamenting his unbreakable ties to the terrible Stormbringer, the sword that won’t stop killing, the sword that constantly pushes him to the brink. But what is it that bothers Elric so much about the Sword? It is, of course, that it is evil, but what sort of evil? That evil is the very subversion of Elric’s soul, his will:

Reflected in the stagnant pool, the scars of life well worn
The retribution of that cursed blade, and from our fingers torn
We can’t escape our destiny or from our future borne
Giving up our blackened heart, there’s no one left to mourn

As we finally bring the curtain down and speak our last regrets
Farewell to our conscience, and the soul we never met
We have seen the world stop turning and all the others die
We no longer have humanity to brave the word goodbye

This lamentation of the loss of his very soul is something which runs through the entire story of the Eternal Champion. What’s important here is not only what the Sword forces the Champion to do, although that’s obviously a part of it (seeing as it makes him slay his own loved ones, multiple times). It’s that the Sword forces him to do anything at all, that he is not in control of his actions. For the Übermensch, and for metal, with its emphasis on personal achievement and power, this is the ultimate defeat. It literally robs you of the ability to do any good in this Nietzschean scheme, since doing good is being independent and self-determined. There is no good outside of acting on your own will. This is expressed well on Blessed Black‘s track titled, you guessed it, “Stormbringer”, also from this year. On it, we again see the struggles between the Sword and the Champion play out as the quintessential manifestations of the desire, the need, of the moral individual to be themselves. Indeed, to be anything else is to die, for him:

In darkness
I slumber
Waiting
For the white wolf.
Trap them
Inside
The power
Transferred into you.

Eternal we can wander forever
Together across these lands
An alliance between us
Forged in battle from the souls of the damned

We now
We struggle
For control
will it be you or I
The hunger
Unending
Blood will be spilled by your hand

Stories will be told
Of the days to come
Spread throughout the kingdoms
When we are laid to rest
We will welcome death
As Champion eternal

The Eternal Champion – Moorcock, The Futility of War, and Metal

The above lyrics are especially interesting because they contradict, or at least takes the sting out of, what we just said above. It’s not just the fact that the Eternal Champion gets robbed of his independence that is the matter here; it’s also what he is forced to do when the Sword, or his Fate, take over. This is always bloodshed. Order, Chaos, Balance, Sword, all they want from the Eternal Champion is for him to fight and kill. That is the solution to all of their problems, putting the Eternal Champion at the front of some battle or mystical duel and having him destroy their opponents through sheer force. But the Champion rarely wants to do that or, rather, he wants to do that at first, drunk on his own power. But he quickly realizes that war only begets more war and that fighting is an eternal curse, much like the Sword itself, which will haunt him forever.

Sounds familiar? It should, as this ties into the many metal bands who took an explicitly anti-war stance, first in the 70’s as a response to Vietnam, then in the 80’s in response to Reaganism and American exceptionalism, and all the way to the 90’s and 00’s in response to both the Gulf Wars and the “War on Terror”. From Metallica‘s “One” through Megadeth‘s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying and all the way to System of a Down, metal and anti-war rhetoric have gone hand in hand. Rhetoric which, by the by, explicitly emphasizes self-determination. Moorcock’s fantasy of a warrior who can’t stop fighting even though he wants to, of a soldier who’s personal well being and morality put him in opposition to a war he cannot stop, is a great source of inspiration from which to draw when you’re trying to explain why war is bad. And, indeed, many metal songs shine a light on the tragedy and futility of war.

A great example of how anti-war ideas find themselves expressed in metal through Moorcock’s writing is a band literally called Eternal Champion. On their track titled, you guessed it, “The Cold Sword” (got you), they explore how fighting is the fruitless doom of the Eternal Champion. He cannot escape from it even though it brings him nothing but pain. The specific iteration of the Eternal Champion referenced here is Urlik Skarsol and he bears The Cold Sword, which is one of the Black Sword’s most powerful manifestations. Interestingly enough, Skarsol is one of the only iterations who actively fights against a different iteration of the Eternal Champion. Not much is told to us of Urlik, though he seems to be one of the Champion’s versions most in the thrall of their blade. This makes the lyrics to this track especially pertinent:

“The hilt of the sword and the hand are as one.”
The chalice screams, and demands of me what I loathe
“The blade of the sword has the blood of the Sun.”
Pawn of Fate, your glory and doom are one

A maddened king will lead his men to ruin, the warriors of silver are caught. For their queen, they’ll battle, but they’ve no hope from The Black Sword

Always a price, always a burden. The balance right, the chalice now full. Many names, Fate’s Soldier, I will find Tanelorn!

 

“Your glory and doom are one”. That’s a great line and one which captures the conflicts of the Eternal Champion extremely well. He is a warrior; therefore, war is his glory. But because war is pointless, he loathes it and, even as he loathes it, he is forever bound to it. This tragic tension is one of the most appealing features of Moorcock’s writing and the Saga as a whole. Even though it basically has a “sword and sorcery” feel to it, where adventure, fantasy, and brave deeds rule the day, The Eternal Champion Saga also channels the melancholy of earlier tales, like the always-tragic Arthurian myths, to an extent unparalleled in most fantasy writing. Metal is, of course, also a good home for that sense of melancholy, power and grief running equally in the veins of the genre.

This is where we finally come full circle, the only natural ending for a post about an endlessly reoccurring story and hero. The picture of war that we’ve shown above, indeed the image of war in the Saga itself, is that of a necessity. As we said above, it’s not exactly the violence itself that’s the problem. The problem is when it’s wielded for nothing, for its own sake, with no attention or thought paid to why you fight. Which raises the question: what should the Eternal Champion use violence for? Why, the protection of the same individuality and will based, Nietzschean ethics that we described in the previous chapter! Like a true anarchist, the Eternal Champion believes, exemplifies, and acts according to the principle that if you must fight, if you must kill, you have to do it for a worthy cause and the only worthy cause is not Order or Chaos or the Balance or any other structure or organization but the freedom of every individual to choose what to fight for.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you by now that this idea is also expressed in metal. We can find it everywhere, actually. For example, it runs through Iron Maiden‘s entire career, where their interest in war is almost always through the eyes of the individual fighting through it. We can find it in Lamb of God‘s criticism of the deprivations and cowardice of war. We can find it in Rage Against the Machine‘s vehement outcries against capitalism or The Mars Volta’s environmentalist messages. Over and over again, whether most people who listen to it get it or not, metal preaches rebellion against the powers that be in the name of the empowerment and success of the individual.

But nowhere is this duality, “the glory and the doom” of fighting, of the Eternal Champion himself and all he represents, of Moorcock’s Nietzschean, anarchist call to arms, better captured in music than in Chevalier‘s track titled, you guessed it, “Stormbringer”. I would like to end with this track, and its lyrics, because it perfectly captures everything I’ve tried to show you so far, namely that The Eternal Champion Saga is way more than just brawny dudes with soul-drinking swords (although there’s plenty of that) or “just” a flight of fancy. Rather, it is an exquisitely intricate and complex exploration of the power of the individual, our own responsibility to do and to define what is good, and to stick to that definition no matter what happens or which forces try to steer us from our path. And that, through these ideas and their intricate representation, it has become an influence for metal which has crossed decades, genres, and styles by finding a resonance with the basic ideas that make metal what it is.

And with that, here’s metal:

The hand of justice now strikes
At your false morals and rules
Condemning the Holy Laws
And casting doubt in your mindless slaves

Stormbringer
Hear the thunder roar

Stormbringer
The veils shall now fall

Descends from the blackened skies
Coming to destroy the dogmas built on lies

Sailing free on the seas of fate
Demonized by the royal oppressors
He will never kneel or bow to those
Who aim to rules and govern over others

“I am the freedom you seek, stand up and defy your masters
Who don’t care if you live or die, as long as you won’t question their reign
I strike terror in their hearts, an adversary to their powerhungry games
Tearing down the veil of their ill-fated supremacy”

He summons the storms
To shake the earth
Makes the boundaries shudder and fall
In the end there’ll be nothing left to serve
And you must follow your own destiny

Comments

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.