No mortal nightmare could encompass such a terrible vision . . . Every so often, the ground heaved and erupted and any human beings unfortunate enough to be in the area were either engulfed and totally transformed or had their bodies warped in indescribable ways. The noise was dreadful, a blending of human voices and roaring Chaos sounds, devil’s wailing laughter, and quite often, the tortured scream of a human soul who had perhaps relented his choice of loyalty and now suffered madness. – Michael Moorcock, Stormbringer (1965)
The fictional universes created by Games Workshop are pretty amazing beasts. They have grown from the quaint open settings of the 1970s and 80s to the unique visions people all over the world enjoy today. It would be fair to say that the GW universes now have a strong influence on new fantasy and sci-fi, particularly the latter. It is quite common to hear the sentiment that the best thing about the GW games is their rich and unique backgrounds.
In this new series of articles I’m going to briefly shed some light on some of the lesser known early influences that have helped to make GW’s lore so rich and diverse. Of course, all creative work is informed by earlier stuff. No-one creates in a vacuum and anyone who claims to have told a story that has never been told before is either naive or a liar. I’m not accusing GW of being unoriginal, or suggesting that these works were the first of their kind and were somehow stolen – I just think it’s important to know where you’re coming from.
So, with the intro out of the way, let’s start with one of the most iconic of GW’s factions, the warriors of Chaos! In Today’s Unseen Influences we are going to look at the early work of the British fantasy author Michael Moorcock.
Michael Moorcock is regarded as one of the greatest living fantasy writers, and his books tend to cross genres today, but back in the 1970s and 1980s when the GW studio was young he was known mainly for one character: the cursed albino wanderer Elric, the Eternal Champion.
The universe of Elric is, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria, meant to be our earth in another age. In Moorcock’s cosmology there are two eternal forces at war in the universe: Law and Chaos. Between them is the Balance, and each of these forces is served by champions and heroes. The more Chaos in a world the more magic, and the more Law the more phenomena conform to observable laws. So our time is a Law heavy age, as we have working physics and no (or very little) magic. Elric starts out as a champion of Chaos, and on his earth magic and Chaos dominate. Elric was himself originally conceived by Moorcock as the anti-Conan. Instead of being a barbaric and virile warrior, Elric is a weak albino from a decadent culture of effete wizards.
The symbol of Chaos in Moorcock’s mythos is the eight pointed star, representing all possibilities and potentialities. Towards the end of Stormbringer, the final of the original Elric novels, a vast Chaos horde threatens to overthrow life on earth completely. Everywhere they go, mutation and corruption are rife. The Chaos army is a great tide of demons, mutants, sorcerers and armoured warriors, brimming with the power of Chaos. Their flagship is a huge magically floating galley with a massive eight pointed star on its sail. Sound familiar?
Stormbringer was written in 1965, and so definitely predates the GW Studio. Not only that, it is very likely that Rick Priestley and the others read Moorcock, as he was the best known pulp fantasy writer in the UK at that time. Today, the star of Chaos is an iconic Games Workshop image, and the idea of a Chaos champion is much more likely to bring to mind GW’s work than Moorcock’s for the average sci-fi or fantasy fan.
Next time I’ll talk a little bit about Frank Herbert’s Dune and its often overlooked influence on 40k lore.