I can pinpoint exactly when I first came across Elric, the doomed albino sorcerer-king of Melniboné. I was a freshman in high school, and there, among the rest of the science-fiction and fantasy books in the school library were two collections of Michael Moorcock’s most famous creation. In retrospect, that is probably the best and worst time to be exposed to that particular character.
Elric is brooding and introspective, at the same time sickened by the traditions he stems from while simultaneously a product of them. Unlike other pulp heroes, who conquer and strive for a kingdom of their own, Elric is born into nobility and abdicates that responsibility. He is the product of a decadent race in their twilight years, having gone from a world-spanning kingdom to being reduced to a single island. He spends as much time entreating sorcerous entities as he does battling them, and his patron God is one of the Princes of Chaos, Arioch, who takes a very active hand in Elric’s fate. Far from a pillar of athleticism, Elric is dependent on certain herbs at first to maintain his strength, without which he is nearly helpless. Eventually, he gains the semi-sentient sword Stormbringer, which has two rather unsavory characteristics: it enjoys eating souls and it has the propensity for killing people Elric cares about.
In other words, in any other book, he’d probably end up as a sympathetic villain. However, Moorcock bestows an intrinsic humanity to this otherwise inhuman character that draws readers in. Elric questions the status quo, makes facepalmingly bad decisions (sure, give the throne to your cousin who only recently tried to get you killed), and betrays or kills anyone that is close to him. The fact that Elric is intrinsically doomed and flawed does not detract from his character. It is the very fact that he is flawed but strives anyway that provides much of the impetus of the book and encourages the reader to stay with him through his adventures.
It is perhaps too pat to say that Elric is a photo negative of another great pulp character, Conan. Where Conan is a barbarian, Elric is the very product of civilization. Where Conan conquers a kingdom, Elric abdicates. Where Conan is, ultimately, only reliant on his own natural skills and abilities, Elric is dependent on herbs, sorcery, and his vampiric black blade, Stormbringer. Whereas Conan eschews the gods, Elric is dependent on his. Elric’s stories,too, tend toward a greater scope than that of Robert E. Howard’s most famous creation. Elric is never after a single treasure, and his goals typically transcend simple survival. Both Elric and Conan, however, are explorers of their fantastic worlds, and both allowed their creators to craft vivid settings for their characters to interact with.
Elric is also the most famous incarnation of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, the concept that the same soul can be born multiple times and throughout the multiverse, always fated to fight for the balance between Law and Chaos. Moorcock’s introduction of a multiverse also lent itself to the interesting condition where Elric would find himself fighting shoulder to shoulder with other incarnations of himself, though his memory of such adventures would often fade once they were concluded. In fact, it is easy to point to Moorcock’s division of Law and Chaos (which are very much not the same as Good and Evil) and find echoes of it throughout pop culture, be it Roger Zelazny’s CHRONICLES OF AMBER or Game Workshop’s Warhammer setting.
While Elric came sometime after the golden age of pulp, it is impossible to ignore the impact of Moorcock’s writing on future generations of fantasy writers. And while he bridges sword and sorcery and high fantasy (with some definite dark fantasy in the mix), it is easy to see why Elric has maintained his lasting appeal with fantasy fans.