infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

The History of the Runestaff: Fantasy Masterworks 36

by Michael Moorcock

(Gollancz, £7.99, 645 pages, paperback, first published 1992, this edition published 10 April 2003.)

This is a collection of Moorcock's series of four mid-1960s novels, The Jewel in the Skull, The Mad God's Amulet, The Sword of the Dawn and The Runestaff, originally collected in 1992 as Hawkmoon and now repackaged as part of Gollancz' cover scanFantasy Masterworks series. It comes with a foreword to the 1992 edition by the author which aims to lower the reader's expectations: he modestly dismisses any idea that there is a "sophisticated political message in the book" and claims merely that "the books were written in the hope that they would help readers pass their time without feeling they were wasting it".

Well, it's a bit better than that. Our hero, Dorian Hawkmoon, Duke of Köln, is captured by the evil forces of Granbretan who implant a sinister jewel in his skull; he is liberated by the friendly rulers of Kamarg, and finds himself to be an incarnation of the Eternal Champion, charged with finding and implementing the will of the Runestaff, a magical item which preserves the Equilibrium (between what and what? Never mind). Along the way he has to collect two more magical items, the Red Amulet held by a mad god and the Sword of the Dawn, winning many battles in which he is (of course) hopelessly outnumbered, but helped by loyal companions, by mysterious allies who arrive in the nick of time, and by dissension in the ranks of his foes.

Moorcock chose a German hero and British villains, "consciously at odds with the jingoism of the day". The setting is basically our geographical Europe, Middle East and North America, augmented by a couple of long bridges to the Crimea and across the English Channel, but far in our future, centuries after the "death and malformation" brought by the "poisons" of the "Tragic Millennium". Swords and armour are popular; so are "baroque" flame-lances, ornithopters and magic. However electricity and feminism seem to be completely unknown.

Perhaps fantasy novels set in a recognisable version of our own familiar geography tend to be more successful than those which try inventing a completely new setting. Compare for instance the altered Spain of Guy Gavriel Kay's Al-Rassan, the converted France of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel trilogy or indeed the Mediterranean of the Aeneid, with the forgettable, if carefully mapped, landscapes of Shannara, the Belgariad or Robert Jordan. There are exceptions of course -- Tolkien being the most obvious, though for him the culture and geography of Middle Earth were a lifetime's work. And there is another alternative, best exemplified these days by Terry Pratchett, of not working too hard on the specifics of the map in the hope that other elements of the story will carry the reader along and someone else may come along to try and draw the map for you. I guess that not thinking too hard about the landscape can free up the creative mind to work on other aspects.

What makes the History of the Runestaff a little more than just another quest narrative is that, unlike Frodo and Aeneas, who accept their destiny without doubting the motivations of those who have sent them, Hawkmoon actively tries to run away from his mission in order to get back to the woman he loves, and makes it clear that he is acting largely out of self-interest when inevitably compelled to return. In return, the quest itself turns out to be less about the ultimate defeat of evil and the victory of good than the restoration of the Equilibrium. Hawkmoon, much to his annoyance, is frequently ordered around by the mysterious Warrior in Jet and Gold and his brother who have a habit of appearing out of nowhere to deliver commands on behalf of the Runestaff, and one comes to sympathise with his frustration.

One aspect of the Hawkmoon stories which has dated badly over the last four decades is the treatment of women. The evil Baron Meliadus is served by naked girl-slaves because "he allowed no men into his tower for fear of treachery" -- a rather odd rationale which presupposes that women are incapable of treachery, especially when nude. The beautiful yet innocent Yisselda of Kamarg is saved from Meliadus' attempt at rape, and is thenceforth the object of his plots; she falls at one point into the hands of the Mad God of Ukrania, whose greatest perversion appears to be that he turns women into warriors (using of course the Amulet). Yisselda does achieve a small triumph for her gender in the end by fighting in the final battle, but in the meantime we have encountered the temptress Flana Mikosevaar of Granbretan, who isn't much interested in the male realm of politics as long as she can continue to play female games of seduction. I can't imagine a mature fantasy novelist -- a category which undoubtedly includes Michael Moorcock -- writing such stuff today.

However, apart from that it's well worth the ride. The four books mesh efficiently into a single extended narrative. Mutant flamingos, lost temples, hidden desert citadels, sanguinary pirate cults, brutal warriors, treacherous courtiers, chivalry and poetry, all helped this reader at least to pass the time without feeling I was wasting it. I did wince at a gratuitous throwaway reference towards the end to Churchill, Harold Wilson and the Beatles (and perhaps also J.G. Ballard and Jim Sallis?) as ancient deities of Granbretan, but I suppose the author is allowed his little bit of fun. This is the 36th in the series of Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks and a worthy addition to the bookshelf.

Review by Nicholas Whyte.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)