Monday, March 7, 2011

Moorcock's "The Mad God's Amulet"

Tor is re-releasing Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon tetralogy with exquisite illustrations. The first volume, The Jewel in the Skull (see my review of this novel at Hub Magazine: ), and the second, The Mad God’s Amulet, are out. Not only are these editions a thing of beauty, they also have the power (magical power) to carry the reader back to the heady days of pulp fiction, which means, to me, a return to the feelings of my youth and the joy of discovering the multiverse.

Implicit in Moorcock’s multiverse is a metaphysical underpinning that raises these books above the level of pulp fiction and marks them as classics of the fantasy genre. Irrespective of their serious undertone and philosophical themes, however, the genius of these books is that on one level they can be read (perhaps a better word would be experienced) as picaresque pulp fiction, similar to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raphael Sabatini, or Robert E. Howard, while on the other they offer up a meditation or theodicy on the workings of fate and the machinations of modern man. The parallel between the history of twentieth-century Europe and the action evolving within the plot of these novels is thinly veiled, if not explicit. Additionally, the appearance of the Warrior in Jet and Gold, at pivotal moments within the plot, expresses the workings of a power much more potent that any army of Granbretan.

In the first volume we meet Count Brass, ruler of the Kamarg, Dorian Hawkmoon von Köln, a German nobleman, his boon companion, Oladahn, and his love, Yisselda. These characters are the last hold-outs against the forces of the Dark Empire and its vast armies and infernal machines.

The plot of the first novel involves the ingenious plan of Baron Meliadus, commander of the Clan of the Wolf, and general of the armies of the Dark Empire, to employ Hawkmoon to assassinate Count Brass. To facilitate this plan and to control Hawkmoon, he embeds a Black Jewel in Hawkmoon’s skull that has the power to destroy him if he does not do the Baron’s bidding. Eventually, Hawkmoon overcomes the jewel in his skull and defeats Meliadus.

In the first novel we have intimations of the workings of the Runstaff but in the second these themes surface and pre-dominate. Fate (or the Runestaff) reveals itself, although Hawkmoon refuses to acknowledge its power or his role within the multiverse.

Although the second novel, The Mad God’s Amulet, develops the serious themes of the Runestaff, it also reflects a move to pure adventure reminiscent of the novels of Raphael Sabatini with a bit of horror thrown in to season the pot. Where the first novel dealt with great armies moving across large battle fields, the second novel seems more intimate, closer to the Saturday morning adventure serials.

Two early episodes in the second novel demonstrate the workings of the Runestaff and the plight of those who serve it. Hawkmoon and Oladahn on their way home to the Kamarg are ambushed by Huillam D’Averc, the new general sent to find and capture them. D’Averc is a brilliant creation, similar to Doc Holiday but probably modeled on the character, Athos, in Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. D’Aver is ill and his maladies become a running theme throughout the rest of the tetralogy. He is also a romantic, like Athos, whose love (his fate) will eventually lead him to his doom.

In one of the initial scenes of the novel Oldahn is captured by D’Averc and the general uses him to draw Hawkmoon out of hiding. Refusing to be used to betray his friend, Oladahn jumps to his death. However, the Runestaff refuses to allow him to die because he has an essential role to play. Another scene, just as poignant, involves D’Averc. He chases after Hawkmoon in one of the empire’s elaborate ornithopters and crashes. Instead of dying like the pilot, he survives to be found days later, floating in the sea, by Hawkmoon.

These scenes, although perfectly installed in the plot and exciting to read, support a more important apparatus: the overarching plot of the tetralogy. And this is where Moorcock’s genius lies. The novels move like greased lightning with battle scenes equal to anything in Sabatini or Dumas but there is always a sense of control and a reminder that a greater story is running in the back ground.

However, as I said the novel also contains pulp fiction elements that in themselves are highly entertaining. Oldahan and Hawkmoon after escaping D’Averc set sail on the high seas with a dysfunctional crew of dissipate sailors and it is here that they encounter D’Averc, floating alone on a raft, the mad pirates of the Mad God, and Yisselda’s ring, alerting them to the fact that she has been kidnapped and fallen into the hands of the Mad God.

The pirate scenes are worthy of an Errol Flynn movie but they serve to lead us to the horror of the Mad God.

It is probably important to note that there is a certain Gothic quality to Moorcock’s work. In the first novel these elements are illustrated through the descriptions of Londra and the King-Emperor. In the second, the Gothic threads are exposed with the terrifying Mad God and the melodramatic sub-ploy of the hero rescuing the damsel in distress. Contained within the Gothic elements are the mechanical monster of the Wraith-Folk and the Mad God’s beasts.

In the final analysis, no matter the profundity I might find in The Mad God’s Amulet, the novel is fun to read. Moorcock, with a jaundiced eye on prospective critics, wrote of the tetralogy: “As with rock and roll, I was attracted to this form because, originally, it did not absorb the interest of the critics. The books were written in the hope that they would help readers pass their time without feeling they were wasting it, in much the same spirit as I performed on stage.” I must agree that although I find a certain seriousness in the novels, the author did succeed in producing a rollicking good read.

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