This is the fourth part of my interview with Michael Moorcock, the next to last part. In his work, there are several themes that stand out. Foremost among them are the setting and importance of urban civilization; the use of three-part characters – three persons locked in a relationship, often of both blood and sexual love, two partners male, and one female; addiction; and anarchism as a political and personal philosophy.
For many readers of my age, our introduction to one of the serious questions of political philosophy – the relationship of the individual to the state – came through Mr. Moorcock’s writing. Certainly, I personally was introduced to the tragic history of Russian anarchism through his writings. I would have been very unlikely to have looked into it further if I had not read about Mr. Moorcock’s idealized portrait of Nestor Makhno.
I believe that reading much of his fantasy as a preadolescent laid the groundwork for my own receptivity to some of the ideas and ideals of punk rock. Punk’s adaptation of the rhetorical posture of anarchism arguably (and ironically) stemmed from the countercultural ideals of the London and Parisian hipster scenes of the late 1960’s.
Running thoughout his fiction are references to a city, Tanelorn, which in his mythos is a perfect place, a haven of rest and civilization that exists everywhere and nowhere, behind the real and physical cities we live in, and in the context of the stories, a sort a genuinely extant Platonic ideal of the city.
A similar concept underlies much of his fantasy writing, in parallel with Joseph Campbell’s well-known idea of the Hero with the Thousand Faces. Mr. Moorcock calls his hero the Eternal Champion, and posits that his fantasy characters are, in essence, different incarnations of the same being. Over the whole scope of his work, this idea – that the main characters he spins tales of are in some way the same being – grants a powerful sense of vastness to the books, a kind of operatic grandeur to the material.
Mr. Moorcock has a deep appreciation of turn-of-the-century British pulp fiction, which was created for mass audiences of both the young and the working class. This fiction frequently practiced a kind of imperial pedagogy and functioned as propaganda for the economic and political structure of the day. The writing of Rudyard Kipling is a kind of parent to this genre, which will be mostly unknown to American readers – in a way, Tintin is a descendant of this genre in Europe, and Tom Swift once was here in the United States.
Mr. Moorcock has repeatedly selected particular flavors of literature from the late Victorian and Edwardian era, and affectionately made use of the linguistic style and tropes employed therein to craft his own tales wihin the skins of the mostly-forgotten books.
Among these titles are his Warlord of the Air cycle (the White Wolf/Borealis collected edition is titled A Nomad of the Time Streams), in which an idealistic young British Army officer, Oswald Bastable, comes unstuck in the multiverse and experiences a very different first half of the twentieth century than ours (his has many more airships than our did, darn the luck). The Brothel in Rosenstrasse is a moody reflection on the genesis of World War One, written with great delicacy and feeling; Gloriana is a reflection on empire and its’ costs (on the page I have linked to, the brief description appears to be for another book – but there’s detailed reader review that merits attention, lower on the page).
Finally, and among my favorites, are his Dancers at the End of Time, which I have a difficult time describing (There’s a companion volume as well, Legends from the End of Time). It’s a love story between a human with the powers of a god and the innocence of a child and very, very proper Victorian, sadly, married to man she does not love. The Dancers series was clearly written in celebration of what love can mean, and is by turns wildly romantic, incredibly silly, and deeply moving. Every time I read it, life gets a little bit better for my wife.
In this segment of the interview, Mr. Moorcock refers to Linda, his American-born wife. They live in a suburb of Austin, Texas.
Urbanity (Tanelorn, London)
Is Tanelorn London?
No. But London might become Tanelorn. We have to do our best!
Why did you leave London?
Linda’s asthma meant we had to think about moving. Linda’s nieces live in Texas. The air was better outside Austin. But we’re now thinking of moving back to England eventually, maybe to a place in the country fairly close to London. I miss London.
Did you write Mother London and King of the City primarily in London or in Texas?
Did the location have an impact on the works? If so, what can you tell us about that impact?
Mother London was written entirely in London. King’s notes and some chapters were sketched in London but the book was written mostly in Texas. Locations are important, but not where I’m writing at the time, only what they mean in terms of narrative and so on.
Not only Elric, but other incarnations of your Eternal Champion as well, are depicted as dependent, medically or in addiction, on drugs (or souls, or whatnot).
I might just about be addicted to writing, but that’s all. I come from a totally unaddictable family, it seems (behaviour aside). My mother gave up smoking the day she found out it was bad for you. I’ve given up all sorts of things for the same reasons.
Have you ever been dependent, medically or in addiction, on drugs yourself?
What draws you to the theme?
I’m interested in human behaviour and the way people are addicted to ritual, ideas, ways of life. Often such habits are very destructive.
Would you characterize your relationship to writing per se as a dependency?
I don’t think so. If I’ve nothing to write about, which I suppose is rare, I simply stop. I can go for months just reading, watching movies and so on.
When did your interest in anarchism as a political philosophy begin?
Reading Kropotkin as a boy and finding that his kind of anarchism struck resonances with my own ideas of freedom and justice.
Would you describe yourself as an anarchist currently?
Yes. It’s the closest political philosophy to my own ideas. Not necessarily very practical, but it resonates, just like my feminism, with ideas of what is morally right – the freedom of the individual and so on.
Were you in the past?
Can you describe the core values of the anarchism that presents itself in your books?
Human dignity and its importance. That’s what makes me write political books like Warlord of the Air and little cameos like A Winter Admiral. Respect for human dignity…
In the Warlord of the Air cycle, your inversions of this literature are so through as to be programmatic. Did the anarchist content of these books emerge from the logic of inverting the models?
Not really, since my anarchism is what resonates with my inner self. All anarchism is for me is a formal way of dealing with the political world and so on.
In the Elric material, on the other hand, the anarchist values appear largely as reflections of Elric’s specific character. When you were writing the books, did the theme emerge of intent or from the character, as you wrote him?
Elric was always a version of myself, if a highly melodramatic one. So Elric’s moral struggles were mine in the early books. Somewhere in all my fantasies you’ll find a moral theme, even if it doesn’t dominate the story. And the rights of the individual to formulate their own morality is always important. I don’t necessarily APPROVE of the morality the individual formulates, of course, and I believe that morality in the end has to do with our consensus views of right and wrong.
In the works did the anarchist themes emerge organically, or did you set out with a pedagogical goal in mind?
No. As I said, my anarchism, like my feminism, comes out of my own instincts, not the other way around. Those ideas, of course, help me formulate certain ideas about action, but they don’t have much to do with ideas about stories.
The theme of the sister-lover disputed over by two brothers (or cousins, what have you) appears most clearly in the Cornelius books and the Elric books, but also in more realist form in Mother London and King of the City.
Where did this theme originate? Did you invent it, borrow it from folklore or literature, or does it reflect a personal experience in your own life?
Well, I was in love with my cousin when I was about five. Maybe that’s it. Certainly it remains a powerful emotion. She died of polio. But as an only child I suspect that I am simply fascinated by the idea of Potential relationships with siblings!
In your childhood, did you have a non-conventional relationship with others that made this theme resonate for you?
I had very conventional friendships. I am still in touch with my very best friend from my childhood.
Fate and Will
To what do you attribute the prominence of fate and will in your writing?
I suppose I’m interested in how we are driven and formed by context. In one context we become one sort of individual, in another, another. So that’s what it’s mainly about.
Do you believe, on a personal level, in destiny or in free will?
I believe in a little of both. I tend to drift into things. I drifted into writing fantasy, singing in rock bands, making records and so on. If asked, I’ll do it. If not, I probably won’t.
To what to you attribute the prominence of these themes in your work? Are there specific artists that influenced you to adopt these themes?
I can’t think any.
Do you, personally, feel that your life more reflects your exertion of will or the effects of fate?
No. Generally I don’t exert my will. When I do, however, I tend to get what I want, it’s true. But generally it’s other people seeing something in me and asking me to do something – write a fantasy series, make a record, whatever. Terrible, isn’t it!
[Next: a brief look at Mr. Moorcock’s health, and words on the work of Mervyn Peake, Alan Moore, and (batten down the hatches) J. R. R. Tolkien.]