The Dreamthief's Daughter
by Michael Moorcock
(Earthlight, £16.99, 342 pages, hardback; published 19 February 2001. Mass market paperback, £6.99, published 4 February 2002.)
In pre-WWII Germany, with the Nazis on the ascendant, Count Ulric von Bek is one of the many who look upon developments with dismay -- but a largely passive dismay, for fear of the bully-boys. He is not allowed to continue thus, however, for the Nazis, in the person of his cousin Prince Gaynor von Minct, seek the ancestral sword of the von Bek family, Ravenbrand, as well as the Holy Grail, also entrusted to the family but reputedly lost by von Bek's mad father. Von Bek contacts the Resistance, and, with the enigmatic Herr El and the lovely wildling Oona, who is like himself an albino, makes plans to retain the status quo. Another albino appears frequently to von Bek in dreams and visions -- a berserk-seeming figure who has a savage cast to him.
Before much can come of any Resistance schemes, Gaynor has von Bek thrown into a concentration camp where, despite physical torture, he declines to reveal the location of Ravenbrand. At length, as he nears death, the albino of his dreams appears magically with Oona and an enigmatic British agent, Oswald Bastable, to free him. They flee to Hameln where, à la Pied Piper, von Bek splits open a rock using the regained Ravenbrand and they enter a subterranean realm, Mu-Ooria, populated by the mentally superhuman Off-Moo. Here they are pursued by Gaynor and his Nazi demon sidekick Klosterheim.
And here, too, the mysterious dream albino -- who is of course Elric of Melniboné -- gains a greater reality, in due course managing to combine himself with von Bek so that the two become one. The dual entity returns to Tanelorn, where as Elric it discovers that Gaynor has ambitions far beyond the mundane ones of the Nazis: through forming a duplicitous alliance with the Goddess of Law, Miggea, Gaynor hopes to overthrow Chaos and gain the rule of all the multiverse. Elric, as an arch-prince of Chaos, must resist him.
The remainder of this tale twines its way absorbingly through various aspects of the multiverse -- Moorcock's great conceptual creation, the myriad related worlds in which stories are eternally played and replayed, with archetypes as the puppets of unknown puppeteers. In the end, of course, the balance between Chaos and Law is restored, at least for now.
The novel has essentially four parts (although divided into three): von Bek's time in pre-War Germany; his and Oona's adventures in Mu-Ooria; the adventures of Elric and of the dual Elric/von Bek entity in and around Tanelorn; and the long, complex final section in which Elric, von Bek and the ever-resourceful Oona -- who is Elric's daughter by the dreamthief Oone, and with whom von Bek, despite an uneasy sensation of incest (for he and Elric are alter egos), falls in love -- journey between the worlds and bring a resolution to the main conflict while also, in the conflict of this world, bringing a resolution of sorts by turning the tide of the Battle of Britain back against the Luftwaffe.
The four sections succeed to greater and lesser (mostly greater) extents. The Mu-Ooria sequences, with their Edgar Rice Burroughsian ambience, in the telling hark back even further, to the sort of 19th- or even 18th-century otherworld fantasy in which the otherworld itself is deemed to be of such marvel that the reader is intended to be entertained by somewhat painstaking, plodding accounts of the geography and populace rather than any plot advancement. There are longueurs here and also a sense of alienation on the writer's part, as if Moorcock recognized while writing them that the sequences were failing to lift off the ground but could not abandon them because this section of the book is integral to the rest.
That rest, by contrast, in general sings. Von Bek's experiences in Nazi Germany, and his growing knowledge that he is part of a greater mystery, are as gripping as any World War II adventure story. The sequences where Elric and later the dual entity must quest, with Moonglum, through the bleak and alien world into which the goddess Miggea has transplanted Tanelorn, like an orchid into a desert, are superbly conceived High Fantasy and eerily evoke the dream-sense; while the long concluding section -- with the small exception of the clumsily handled, contrived-seeming sequence in which a dragon-mounted Elric and von Bek attack the advancing waves of Luftwaffe, thereby giving rise to the legend of the Dragons of Wessex -- demonstrates why Moorcock possesses the towering status he does in any consideration of the history of fantasy. In this final section he is creating new structures of fantasy, rather than recrudescing the old -- a rare achievement, alas, in the modern genre.
Of great interest throughout is the question of identity and the workings, through the nature of the multiverse, of not just the multiplicity of a single identity but the coalescing into a single identity of a multiplicity; one has the sensation, reading this book, of this going on all the time in a kind of endless flow, as reality itself shifts and twists -- rather like an analogy of the impermanent alliances the villain Gaynor forges with the different gods. Von Bek is at one and the same time both Elric and not-Elric, and duality that persists even once their two identities have fused. (The same obviously is true of Elric, who is both von Bek and not-von Bek.) Elric's sword Stormbringer and the von Bek family's sword Ravenbrand have a single identity, even though they are physically twain and remain so, even when in proximity. Oona is both a daughter and a lover to the double identity that is Elric-von Bek. Gaynor is at one and the same time a human being and an eternal Evil Principle. There are other examples.
That this is in fact a true nature of reality is plausible in a post-Heisenberg frame of reference (whose analogue might be Chaos, by contrast with Newtonian-style Law), which sees identity as a transient property, dependent upon, among other factors, the act of perception. It is pleasing to see such notions worked out in a novel of, ostensibly, High Fantasy -- not a subgenre noted for its deployment of scientific thinking, and indeed generally marked by antiscientism.
This is also an intensely political novel. Time and again Moorcock explores the motivations behind the parasitic quest of tyrants for power and their obsessional need to stamp order (Law) on that which should not be ordered -- to wit, humanity. The relevance of this is obvious when Nazism is the despotism under consideration; but there are not so subtly encoded references to other, more recent, "democratic despots" of the Right. The name of the Goddess of Law, Miggea, seems a clear anagrammatic reference to Margaret Thatcher, a political figure who while in power earned the public hatred (or fear) of many surprisingly disparate creators. Here, for example, is Moorcock's description of the world Miggea and her rule of Law have created:
Miggea's was no ordinary desert. It was all that remained of a world destroyed by Law. Barren. No hawks soared in the pale blue sky. Not an insect. Not a reptile. No water. No lichen. No plants of any kind. Just tall spikes of crystallized ash and limestone, crumbling and turned into crazy shapes by the wind, like so many grotesque gravestones.
Later Herr El (aka Prince Lobkowitz), in talking of the rise of the Nazis but also of any regime of obdurate Law, however convivial its veneer -- any regime that pretends the solutions to complex problems are simple, and then imposes through the use of power or force those simple, but (or hence) profoundly wrong solutions on the world -- is the mouthpiece for a sideswipe at Thatcher's American counterpart:
They are the worst kind of self-deceiving cowards and everything they build is a ramshackle sham. They have the taste of the worst Hollywood producers and the egos of the worst Hollywood actors. We have come to an ironic moment in history, I think, when actors and entertainers determine the fate of the real world.
Moorcock's contempt for the politicians of Law is of course allowed to be seen more naked when the subjects under consideration are safely distant in history, like the Nazis and (in brief references) the Stalinist despots of Soviet Russia. Late in the book there is a long and hilariously -- though darkly, bitterly -- satirical scene in which a disguised von Bek, inadvertently thrust into a car with Rudolf Hess, must listen to an interminable outflow of arrant, antiscientific, credulously ignorant nonsense from the Deputy Fuehrer. Hess and by implication his colleagues in the Nazi hierarchy are portrayed as what Brian Stableford has termed "lifestyle fantasists", the attempted reification of their particular brand of insane and simplifying fantasies involving, of course, untold human suffering. Hence Elric's -- and one presumes Moorcock's -- detestation of Law and adherence to Chaos.
As mentioned, there are some doldrums in this book, but they are in a relatively early part of it and easily ploughed through. Overall, The Dreamthief's Daughter is mightily impressive not just as a demonstration of the fantasticating imagination in full flight but because of all the different aspects of meaning -- analogues, in a way, of the myriad diversely aspected worlds of the multiverse -- which it embodies. It is one of those rare fantasies that merits repeated reading with, each time, a different facet of its full meaning to be derived.
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© John Grant 28 April 2001