Written by Dave Ritzlin
Heroic fantasy has always been a popular lyrical subject for heavy metal bands, and it’s not hard to see why. Heavy metal simply isn’t normal. You just can’t write powerful, dynamic compositions and have the vocalist sing about mundane things such as walking the dog or taking out the trash (unless by “trash” you mean “posers”). There are many different approaches a band can take to penning lyrics of the fantastic. Some are inspired by mythology or films, while others create their own stories. Some look to literature for inspiration. Those that do usually find it in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian, or Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné.
Michael Moorcock was born in London in 1939. He was probably the first prominent author of fantasy and science fiction to have a connection with hard rock music. He penned lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult and Hawkwind, as well as performing live with the latter. He still joins Hawkwind members on stage today, even at the age of 79! Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s he wrote a massive amount of novels and short stories. Of all his accomplishments, his stories of Elric are what he is best known for.
Myriad influences led to the creation of Moorcock’s popular antihero. One idea was to make him as different from Conan as possible. Conan wins the crown of Aquilonia by his own hand, while Elric abdicates the emperorship of Melniboné. The Cimmerian distrusts magic and wizardry, while Elric is a sorcerer who makes pacts with Lords of Chaos. Conan’s physical strength and prowess are unmatched, whereas Elric is a sickly albino whose thews are not mighty. In order to avoid becoming an invalid, he relies on potions and herbs (and his magic sword Stormbringer) for strength.
Stormbringer is both a blessing and a curse for the Melnibonéan. The perilous runeblade does not merely slay its victims, but drinks their souls. The black blade transfers the essence of the doomed ones to Elric, temporarily empowering him. However, Stormbringer is sentient, with a will stronger than that of its wielder. Once drawn, it must drink, even if that means taking the lives of Elric’s companions and loved ones.
I don’t think I need to explain why metalheads find Elric appealing. A magic soul-stealing sword with a will of its own? That’s just cool as hell. Much cooler than a hairy midget that lives in a hole in the ground. Of course, Moorcock designed Stormbringer to be a metaphor for the destructive effects of addiction. He had a knack for adding deeper meaning to his tales without losing sight of the fact that a story must be entertaining first and foremost.
The overarching concept of the Elric series (and Moorcock’s other sword and sorcery characters) is the struggle between the powers of Law and Chaos. If either side becomes dominant, it would spell disaster for the Multiverse (a system which encompasses all known planes and dimensions). It is the duty of a force known as the Cosmic Balance to prevent either side from gaining the upper hand. Elric, as an incarnation of the Eternal Champion, is used by the Balance to thwart the Lords of Chaos. Other aspects of the Champion (such as Hawkmoon, Corum, etc.) fight the battle in their own respective times and dimensions.
Those of you who are intrigued by all this and want to start reading the stories may be wondering where to start. The publishing history of Elric (like many fantasy series) is a bit complicated. The saga began with five short stories in the early ‘60s, followed by four linked novellas. All appeared in Science Fantasy magazine. The five shorts (“The Dreaming City,” “While the Gods Laugh,” “The Stealer of Souls,” “Kings in Darkness,” and “The Flamebringers”) were collected in a book entitled The Stealer of Souls. The four novellas (“Dead God’s Homecoming,” “Black Sword’s Brothers,” “Sad Giant’s Shield,” and “Doomed Lord’s Passing”) were packaged together as the novel Stormbringer. These early works are the best of the series, so for those who just want a taste, these are the ones to get. There are a couple different releases that contain both the shorts and the novel (one is entitled Stormbringer, and there are two others with the title Elric: The Stealer of Souls—I said this was complicated), so if you come across one of those, you can get the best stuff all at once.
Even though Stormbringer was undeniably the conclusion to the Elric series (it’s probably the most apocalyptic fantasy novel there is), in the ‘70s Moorcock continued to write stories of the character taking place earlier in the chronology. Eventually the saga was expanded to six books, which were published in paperback by DAW Books in 1976 and ’77. The books are:
- Elric of Melniboné
- The Sailor on the Seas of Fate
- The Weird of the White Wolf (contains “The Dreaming City” and “While the Gods Laugh”)
- The Vanishing Tower
- The Bane of the Black Sword (contains “The Stealer of Souls,” “Kings in Darkness” and “The Flamebringers”)
If you want the complete saga (complete at the time it was published, that is), look for these. Most readers of Ride Into Glory will want the ones from DAW with Michael Whelan cover art, as Cirith Ungol used them for all their album covers. Unfortunately these versions have become a bit pricey lately if you look for them online. More reasonably priced copies should turn up at used book stores, though. The series was reprinted in the ‘80s and ‘90s by Berkley/Ace with new cover art by Robert Gould. These aren’t as cool, but they’re much more affordable.
A seventh Elric book, Elric at the End of Time, appeared in the mid-‘80s, but this odd collection is only for die-hard fanatics. Elric only appears in two tales in this book. The title story is a crossover with Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time series. If you haven’t read that series, this story will make absolutely no sense. The other story with Elric, “The Last Enchantment” was written before Stormbringer but went unpublished. It was intended to be the final Elric story. The bulk of the book is taken up by stories Moorcock wrote as a teenager about Sojan the Swordsman, a character inspired by John Carter of Mars.
Moorcock has returned to the character several times since the completion of the six (or seven) book saga, starting with 1989’s The Fortress of the Pearl. It’s the only one of the “new” Elric books I’ve read, and I can’t recommend it, as it’s rather dull. It actually made me lose interest in Elric for ten years! Still, I mention it so completionists are aware there’s still more out there.
Once you’ve finished with Elric, if you’re still hungry for more of Moorcock’s brand of sword and sorcery, turn your attention toward the other incarnations of the Eternal Champion: Hawkmoon, Corum, John Daker, and von Bek. You can read each character’s series in any order you choose (for the most part).
After Elric, the second-best known incarnation of the Champion is Dorian Hawkmoon von Köln. Hawkmoon is a German duke in a post-apocalyptic future world to which magic has returned. He is the sworn enemy of the insane and tyrannical Dark Empire of Granbreton, who desire to conquer, enslave and destroy Europe and the rest of the world. The four Hawkmoon novels, collectively known as The History of the Runestaff, are:
- The Jewel in the Skull
- The Mad God’s Amulet
- The Sword of the Dawn
- The Runestaff
The adventures of Hawkmoon are continued in The Chronicles of Castle Brass, a trilogy which serves as the conclusion to the entire Eternal Champion saga (inasmuch as something eternal can be concluded). Save these for last.
- Count Brass
- The Champion of Garathorm
- The Quest for Tanelorn
Corum, like Elric, is a prince of an elder race learned in mystical arts. The Lords of Chaos deem the time of Corum’s race, the Vadhagh, to be at its end, and raise a new race, the Mabden (humans), to eliminate them. The Corum series consists of two trilogies of novels known as The Swords Trilogy and The Chronicles of Corum.
The Swords Trilogy:
- The Knight of the Swords
- The Queen of the Swords
- The King of the Swords
The Chronicles of Corum:
- The Bull and the Spear
- The Oak and the Ram
- The Sword and the Stallion
Of all the incarnations, John Daker is the least enviable, for he can remember all of his other lives! Maddened by agonizing memories of bizarre worlds, the Cosmic Balance thrusts him into various dimensions of the Multiverse against his will. The concept was interesting but unfortunately underused, as Moorcock only wrote three novels about the character: The Eternal Champion (where he is known as Erekosё), Phoenix in Obsidian (alternate title: The Silver Warriors), and The Dragon in the Sword. I suggest avoiding Dragon in the Sword, as it’s boring, convoluted, and gives away the ending of the Corum series.
Ulrich von Bek is a commander during the Thirty Years’ War. He only appeared in one novel, The War Hound and the World’s Pain. Howie Bentley (Cauldron Born and Briton Rites guitarist) wrote a detailed review of it here. Moorcock wrote some novels featuring von Bek’s descendants, but they weren’t exactly sword and sorcery.
Additional Reading: The Broken Sword
It would be negligent of me if I concluded this piece without mentioning one of Moorcock’s biggest influences. The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson is the tale of Scafloc, a viking’s son who is switched at birth with a changeling and raised by elves. The titular sword is Tyrfing, a legendary weapon with runes carved into its black blade. Powerful yet dangerous, Tyrfing has a tendency to turn upon its wielder (sound familiar?). The weapon is necessary for Scafloc to lead the elves to victory in their war against the trolls, who are commanded by his changeling half-brother Valgard. A number of people consider The Broken Sword to be the greatest fantasy novel of all time, Michael Moorcock (and myself) included.
Dave Ritzlin is an author and publisher of fantasy fiction. He is the editor of the Swords of Steel anthology series, which contains sword and sorcery stories by members of heavy metal bands such as Manilla Road, Bal-Sagoth, Eternal Champion, Cauldron Born, Slough Feg, Nocturnus, and many others. To read one of his stories for free, sign up for the newsletter at DMRBooks.com. When it comes to music, he holds German melodic speed/power metal and Manowar above all else.
Moorcock in Music
Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion novels have been a source of inspiration for many a band. Ranging from rock to power metal to the underbelly of the underground, Elric and friends have influenced a myriad bands across a wide span of genres. We’ve compiled a lengthy playlist with songs about the Moorcock’s multiverse. There are tracks from as old as 1980 all the way to the present age. The fact that there are three songs about the multiverse from the first few months of 2019 alone speaks volumes to the long lasting impact of Michael Moorcock’s writing. In order to prevent the playlist from becoming too repetitive, we’ve limited it to just two songs per band. You can find the descriptions for each of the songs and bands in the playlist below.
The Dreamers: Hard and Prog Rock
Space rock giants Hawkwind and Michael Moorcock go way back, when in the 70’s and 80’s the writer provided lyrics for a lot of songs, as well as the inspiration for even more. This song is about Moonglum, Elric’s companion in his ventures to the Young Kingdoms, and probably the only person who managed to become close friend with the Dragon Prince.
In 1985 Hawkwind released The Chronicle of the Black Sword, an album inspired by the Elric Saga. The album tour included a memorable live in Hammersmith Odeon when Michael Moorcock himself appeared on stage, reciting excerpts from the books. This song is about Straasha, the King of Oceans and Sea Elementals.
Continuing the tradition of hanging with rock musicians, Michael Moorcock co-wrote the lyrics for “Black Blade” with Blue Oyster Cult’s vocalist/ guitarist Eric Bloom. Story goes that Bloom send to Moorcock a fan letter and the writer got in touch with him and started provide lyrics to other B.O.C. song. Black Blade is written from Elric’s point of view, and is of course about Stormbringer.
Stuart Smith rose to fame for being the guitarist of 70’s glam rock band Sweet. Mentored by the great Ritchie Blackmore, Smith left England for the US, where he founded numerous bands and released lots of successful records , amongst those the 1999’s Heaven and Earth, where we can find the instrumental bluesy Road to Melniboné.
The Stormbringers: Trad/Epic/Power Metal
Borrowed Time, Diamond Head’s successor to monumental Lighting to the Nations, hasn’t exactly received a warm welcome by the fans of the band, since the NWOBHM decided to take a more 70s hard rock approach with their music. Still that sound works very well on the title track, where the lyrics are from the perspective of Elric self reflecting on his choices.
In the vast ocean that is NWOBHM, Wolfbane contributed 2 drops of singles, and total of 6 songs, that were later rereleased as a compilation by Shadow Kingdom records. The band played a Sabbathical heavy metal, with occasional mythical references like this song here, Elric of Melnibone which describes the Eternal Champion.
Tygers of Pan Tang are famous for many different reasons: NWOBHM favorites who gifted metal fans with their first 3 classic albums , the band that John Sykes of Thin Lizzy and Whitesnake fame started his career but also, having a name with direct connection to the Elric Mythos. The band took its name from the wizards of the autocratic island kingdom of Pan Tang who kept tigers as their pets.
One of the earliest American metal bands who dabbled with mythological and the fantastical themes, Cirith Ungol recorded “Nadsokor” for their 3rd album One Foot in Hell in 1986. The song’s galloping rhythm and the no-frill riffs, will characterize US traditional metal for almost 35 years.The lyrics are about Elric’s endeavours in Nadsokor, one of the first cities of the Young Kingdoms the Dragonprince visited in his journeys, and what he saw and experienced there changed him forever.
During the 90s, traditional metal has left the media spotlight, but strong underground acts like Stormbringer continued to emerge. The band played USPM influenced by Jag Panzer and Omen, while they exclusively write lyrics about the Eternal Champion Saga. The band released a great (and extremely expensive) demo called Stealer of Souls in 1993, while the following year they released their S/T EP, where this song is taken from. Our second song from the obscure Stormbringer is from Stealer of Souls and is titled “Tanelorn”. Tanelorn, a place of peace, is the legendary city fabled to lie at the center of each dimension of the multiverse
Lost in time, a USPM gem which features one of the best high pitch vocalist of the scene, Apollo Ra released only two demos, the latter of which was reissued by No Remorse Records in 2015. The song takes its title from the 5th Book of the Elric’s Saga, probably the most important part in shaping Elric’s character.
Before Gatekeeper and Traveler, vocalist Jean Pierre Abboud used to sing for NWOTHM band Borrowed Time. Prior to the release of their only album in 2013, the band released a compilation called Arcane Metal Arts which collects their demo and EP up to that point and “Sailor on the Seas of Fate” was part of the bands first demo. The songs has an enchanting acoustic intro, followed up by Manilla Road like riffs which create one of the best songs in the bands brief history. The song is about the 2nd book of Elric’s Saga, and the moment the character realises the role of Eternal Champion in the Multiverse.
Formed by ex-members of Borrowed time, Prelude to Ruin made an indie split record of 2018 with the song The Weird of the White Wolf, named after the third book of the Elric’s Saga. The band plays an uptempo melodic speed metal with many influences of european power metal.
Hammerfall’s legacy and career as european power metal masters started in the late 90s and continue to this day. The title track of their second album is not about the eternal champion saga per se, although the lyric “Stormbringer led us into the unknown” is a direct reference to the Black Sword.
Since their early career, Blind Guardian establish themselves as the “bards” of metal, with dozens of references to fantasy novels. “Fast to Madness” from sophomore album Follow the Blind is a fast pace melodic speed metal about Elric of Melnibone and especially his relation to the sword Stormbringer.
Taken from the album Somewhere Far Beyond from Bind Guardian’s golden 90s era, the anthemic song features the “father of EUPM” Kai Hansen. Tanelorn is the fabled city of balance that exist in each and every dimension of the Multiverse, and for many of Moorcock’s characters, it represents a place akin to heaven.
Well into their 4th album titled Emperor of the Black Runes, Domine continued their tradition of writing about Michael Moorcocks stories and characters, though this time they chose prince Corum for the song’s lyrical setting and his endless thirst for revenge against the gods.
While most power metal bands of europe in the 90s were experimenting with new genres and approaches, Domine resisted that urge and stayed true to their musical path. A mid tempo, epic song with a chilling intro, “The Chronicles Of The Black Sword” is Domine’s declaration of love for the works of Michael Moorcock. The lyrics are about the symbiotic relationship between the Black Sword and Elric.
Formed in the late ‘90s, when the NWOTHM burst was nothing but a burning desire, Skelator stuck to the traditional sound of the USPM and released a series of amazing albums like 2010’s Death to All Nations and 2012’s Agents of Power, both highly recommended. Agents of Power is a concept album set in the world of Young Kingdoms and follows the adventures of Elric the Dragon Prince and his Black Sword. The sound is a USPM approach and a twist of Domine’s operatic approach, filled with either ripping speed or epicly commanding riffs, while singer Jason Conde-Houston unfurls a flabbergasting vocal performance throughout the album.
From the frozen steppes of Siberia, come the power metallers Blacksword who released a the album The Sword Accurst in 2010. Their music is influenced mostly by the American power metal, although some bits and pieces of 90’s EUPM are in the mix as well. Since 2005 when the band was called “Stormbringer”, they changed a lot of the members, until recently when the band announced a new lineup and released a new single.
Hailing from Greece, Battleroar are one of the country’s premier epic metal bands. “Dyvim Tvar” is a song off their 2005 sophomore album Age of Chaos. Rather than discuss one of the champions or the black blades, Battleroar opted to highlight one of the coolest side characters of the entire series – Dyvim Tvar the Dragon Master of Imrryr and one of Elric’s most loyal friends. The song details the mythical beasts of destruction featured in the series as much as it details their master.
Taken from Battleroar’s self titled debut album of 2003, Mourning Sword is an epic song with slow-cooking, morose riffs which progressively evolves to ferocious headbanger, led by Marco “Dexter” Concoreggi’s wonderful vocal performance. The lyrics present the motifs of Stormbringer, written from the Black Sword’s point of view.
Italian epic metallers Darking were formed a couple of years after the departure of guitarist Agostino Carpo from Domine, so it is only natural to bring some of the Moorcock obsession along with him. “Stormbringer” is a shorter rendition of Domine’s “Stormbringer, the Black Sword” which was written for 1989’s demo while Carpo was still in the band, a song that was later be altered and released as “The Chronicles of the Black Sword” on Domine’s debut album.
Continuing the Italian tradition of Moorcock fascination and epic metal, Assedium’s “Messenger of Chaos” is dedicated to the Dragonprince himself. In their fleeting career, the band released two albums Rise of the Warlords and Fighting for the Flame in the classic epic style of Omen and Manilla Road.
Cauldron Born’s Born of the Cauldron is one of the best progpower albums released during the sterile decade of 90s. “The Sword’s Lament” features an abundance of creative riffs by Howie Bentley, while Danny White gives a dramatic and skillful vocal performance. The song is about the many incarnations of the Black Sword which appears in various mythologies. The lyrics of the song are adapted as a poem titled “The Song of Ageless Armory”by Howie Bentley and published in the anthology called Devil’s Armory.
And now for something completely different in progressive thrashers Mekong Delta long history. Taken from their 1987 debut album, Heroes grief is an almost space rock track, with a slow, hazy and psychedelic atmosphere.The song itself is about the grief Elric felt after the loss of his loved ones.
Eternal Champion’s closing instrumental song of their Armor of Ire album is a reference to the “Shade Gate”, a portal that Yyrkoon flees to the realms of Infinite Hells, where after the pursuit of Elric, the two cousins find and claim Stormbringer and Mournblade.
One of the fastest songs that can found in Eternal Champion’s amazing debut album, Armor of Ire. “The Cold Sword” is a manifestation of the Black Sword that accompanies each Eternal Champion, in this case The Lord of the Southern Ice – Urlik Skarsol, from the Phoenix in Obsidian novel, the second book of Erekosë series.
While we mentioned that we just wanted to keep it to 2 songs maximum per band, we decided to make an exception for Eternal Champion since the quality of the music speaks for itself and “Shade Gate” is merely an instrumental. “Retaliator” starts with the ominous and atmospheric intro “Ride For Revenge“ and the horses canter slowly gives way to the galloping rhythm of the “Retaliator’s” searing riff. Singer Jason Tarpey narrates the story of Corum Jhaelen Irsei, and his quest for revenge against the forces of Chaos.
Smoulder are a relative newcomer to the scene, having released their debut album just last month. Staying true to Time of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring’s motif of absolutely badass women, Ilian of Garathorm is about one of the very few female incarnations of the Eternal Champion. The song itself is a mighty epic metal anthem that lives up to its fantastic lyrics. The chorus on this one is unforgettable!
Italy’s Doomsword are known for their crushing and heavy brand of epic metal that takes a massive dose of influence from the likes of Bathory and Solstice. “Return to Imrryr”, a song from the band’s self titled debut album, is about Elric’s return to his utopian homeland. Knowing that the fate of the Eternal Champion is a grim one, this isn’t a particularly joyful return to say the very least…
Grand Magus from Sweden released Triumph and Power in 2014 in their accustomed heavy/doom style, where featured song Steel versus Steel was released. The song is about Stormbringer’s hunger and Elric’s willingness to succumb to the Black Sword’s Will.
Italian Doomsters Kröwnn released their first demo “Hyborian Age” in 2013, where one can find “The Melnibonean” in its track list. In the spirit of Cathedral and similar traditional bands of the genre, Kröwnn utilise samples to enhance the sullen atmosphere of the song which is about Elric’s return to Imrryr and the tragic aftermath of his actions.
Following their 2 Ep releases, Chevalier released this year their first album titled “Destiny Calls” with the intention and capability to end 2019’s AOTY year in the top spots. For those who missed Rhandghar’s review, Chevalier play melodic old school speed metal with Ms. Emma Grönqvist on the vocals.
The Soulstealers: Extreme metal
Blending the realms of black metal and traditional heavy metal, we have Slovenia’s Vigilance. The band’s latest album, Enter the Endless Abyss, came out just last month and features the Moorcock themed “Stormblade”. The title of the song itself is an amalgamation of the two black blades featured in the Elric saga, Stormbringer and Mournblade. As you could probably guess, the song itself deals with the soulstealing nature of these two blades.
Sacramentum was a Swedish band that released 3 albums and an EP during the 90s. While all their released were in the spectrum of extreme metal, their sound varies from thrash/death to blackened death. Overlord is part of the melodic death metal phase of the band, and lyrically is about the island of Pan Tang, a young kingdom that tried to imitate Melnibone and worships the Chaos Gods. It is here where Elric will meet one of his greatest adversaries, Jagreen Lern.
Gothenburg scene’s melodic death metal pioneers At The Gates, released their 1991 demo Gardens Of Grief which the last song is tilted “City Of Screaming Statues” in reference to Hwamgaarl, the capital of the Island of Pan Tang. The Screaming Statues was result of the horrific punishment that awaited the enemies of the Lords, and the final fate of the island’s recusants.
Grotesque were one of the first death metal acts out of Sweden. Despite never releasing a proper album, their demos and EP are extremely high quality and the historical importance of this band to Sweden’s extreme metal scene cannot be understated. “Incantation” ties together the band’s satanic lyrics with those of the Elric universe specifically. “Master, invoke thee, lord of chaos. Here is a soul for thee to claim” is a reference to both Satan and to Arioch, Elric’s Patron God of Chaos.
Mournblade was a project by members of the Hellenic black metal scene who released their one and only self titled album in 2001. The song “Ο Αιώνιος Πρόμαχος” which translates to “Eternal Champion” is about the moment Elric, Erekosë, Hawkmoon, and Corum realise that they are incarnations of the same person, in book Three of Elric’s Saga, Traveller at the Seas of Fate.
Summoning are recognized just as much for their signature brand of epic and atmospheric black metal as they are for their love of fantasy. While most of their lyrics deal with Tolkien’s universe, Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame draws heavy influence from Moorcock. According to this 2002 interview in Eternity Magazine, Summoning used Moorcock’s themes to direct the album cover (which features a dragon with the Melnibonéan capital of Imrryr in the background) as well as select lyrics such as the chorus of “Farewell”. What better song to end this article on?
Michael Moorcock & the Deep Fix – The New Worlds Fair
While not related to the multiverse, we’d be remiss not to mention Moorcock’s own attempt at music. He proved to be a very multitalented artist when in 1975 he released “The New World’s Fair” featuring Hawkwind’s Dave Brock and guitarist Snowy White of Thin Lizzy and Pink Floyd fame. The band’s name “Deep Fix” was the title of collection of short stories by Moorcock, under the pen name James Colvin, as well as the fictional band of Jerry Cornelius in many of the writer’s stories. Though it’s quite hard to categorize it musically, the album has doses of art and glam rock, as well some hard rock elements, something that can be described as Hawkwind and BOC meets David Bowie .