Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Michael Moorcock, Corum (1972) FMW 30

Despite being spread over three slim novels, the plot that drives this trilogy of novels featuring Corum, a maimed incarnation of Michael Moorcock's enduring Multiverse protagonist, the Eternal Champion, is relatively straightforward.

Prince Corum Jhaelen Irsei of the Vadhagh leaves the Castle Erorn at the bidding of his father, Prince Khlonskey in search of news of the welfare of the rest of his race in order that the latter may pass into the Chamber of Vapours and die by his own hand in the full knowledge of the fate of his race.

Corum has travelled but a little way on his quest before encountering a Mabden horde making haste towards his hereditary home, little knowing that they have already destroyed the majority of his race and are set upon razing his family pile and the inhabitants thereof in a similar manner.

Corum is captured byone of the Pony Tribes' leaders, Glandyth-a-Krae and tortured and maimed (losing his left hand and right eye) prior to being saved by an aspect of Lord Arkyn, Lord of Law. At this point, the focus of the narrative broadens and the motive force behind the Mabden's destructive campaign is revealed as being the manifestation of a realignment of the balance of Law and Chaos within the Fifteen Planes as the latter begins to best the former.

Furnished with the arcane powers of the Hand of Kwll and Eye of Rhynn allowing him to summon emissaries from other planes, Corum is tasked with overthrowing Arioch, the Prince of the Swords, Xiombard, the Queen of the Swords, and finally Mabelode, the King of the Swords.

For this reader, however, the Corum trilogy's core is philosophical rather than narrative. In a very real sense, Corum - and by extension, the figure of the Eternal Champion of which he is but a single facet - are bit players in a much larger narrative that takes place outside of the contexts of the novel as the universe's gods struggle with oneanother 'offstage', an enduring contest in which they are little more than pawns, or as Xiombard puts it "we must use mortals for ends we cannot ourselves achieve". (p. 266)

The purity of Corum's quest to avenge his family and race - seldom a pure motive - is debased in his own mind by the acts that he is compelled to undertake, and the innocents slain by the godly appendages that have been grafted on to him by his patron: "Too many crimes have been committed so that that vengeance might be won! Too many unfortunates have suffered frightful fates! Will the Vadhagh name be recalled with love - or muttered in hatred?" (p. 128).

Furthermore, the agents of Chaos seem less demonic, and their motives less abhorrent, When Corum encounters them in person. He is struck by the fact that Arioch, for example, appears to bear "no malice towards the Vadhagh. He cared for them no more no less than he cared for the Mabden parasites feeding off his body. He was merely wiping his palette clean of old colours as a painter will before he begins a fresh canvas. All the agony and misery he and his had suffered was on behalf of the whim of a careless god who only occasionally turned his attentions to the world that he had been given to rule". (p. 133). This is a perception that the Chaos gods themselves are only too quick to support: 'Arioch spoke reasonably to Corum in a low, hypnotic voice. "You see, friend Corum, these Fifteen Planes were stagnating. What did you Vadhagh and the rest do? Nothing. You hardly moved from your cities and your castles. Nature gave birth to poppies and daisies. The Lords of Law made sure that all was properly ordered. Nothing was happening at all. We have brought so much more to your world, my brother Mabelode and my sister Xiombarg."' (p. 134)

Standing apart from the forces of both Law and Chaos is the Nameless Force (p. 265), possibly a supreme being of some order who has set the forces of a Cosmic Balance in sway, and yet who seems to have no control over it - or perhaps no desire to control it. It is a moot point whether the contemplation of balance and the consquences of its disruption denude the series of suspense, or augment it. I tend to favour the latter as a function of the struggle of the protagonists rather than the mechanical pre-ordained destinies of the elect, but it is far from taxing to construct a reading wherein the former is encapsulated by the latter.

One of the irresistable charms of Moorcock's Multiverse is the pleasure that the reader may take from encoutering aspects of the Eternal Champion and his Companion in novel in new settings and combinations. The metrosexual dandy Jerry Cornelius, for example, plays a major role in the sequence as the equally fastidious Jhary-a-Conel, first appearing in the second work in the trilogy, The Queen of the Swords. As Jhary explains to a bemused Corum, who has no knowledge of his other aspects in this incarnation, "sometimes we are the same creature - or, at least, aspects of the same creature[...] I have been called Timeras and Shalenak. Sometimes I am the hero, but more often than not I am the companion to a hero". (p. 160). Elric and Erekosë also appear in the work, ultimately combining with Corum to form a fascinating gestalt entity, although through their shared histories Corum is forced to acknowledge the possibility that 'it was his fate to experience an eternity of battle, of death, of misery' (p. 312), 'the fate of the Eternal Champion' (p. 331). In conference with Elric, Corum concludes near the end of the work that "we are both doomed to play a role in constant struggle between the Lords of the Higher Worlds - and we shall never understand why that struggle takes place, why it is eternal. We fight, we suffer agonies of mind and soul, but we are never sure that our suffering is worthwhile" (p. 356)

Such revelations can, perhaps unsurprisingly, provoke somewhat morose outbursts within the sequence's protagonists. Lady Jane Pentallyon, appearing late in the trilogy in a decidely Earth-like setting (contemporary crusading is mentioned at one point, p. 334) declaims "the more one discovers the less point there seems in life at all" (p. 338)

However, the conclusion of the trilogy is more redemptive than that which precedes it may have led the reader to predict it would be. Reclaiming his hand, the god Kwll tosses off the observation "do you know that you dream of these gods - that you are stronger than they - that when you are fearful, why then you bring fearsome gods upon yourselves? Is this not evident to you?" (p. 379). It may also be more realistic that we might have expected; Jhary observes: "there are many legends which say the past was perfect or that the future will be perfect. I have seen many pasts and may futures. None of them were perfect" (p. 386)

"Do not despair entirely of this world... New gods can always be created" (p. 393)

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