Unseen Influences: Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock's Elric


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.

12 responses to “Unseen Influences: Michael Moorcock

  • B. Smoove

    This is a very interesting link of which I was completely unaware. In fact, I am ashamed to admit that I only ever knew of Elric from a small comic series from about 20 years ago. Man, I would love to know where those comics are now.

  • aarongraham

    I’ve always heard of Moorcock, but haven’t read much of him. I think I would like to pick up some of his stuff. Thank you for the review.

    I look forward to more, and possibly you sheading some light on Dune that I didn’t already know.

  • James S

    Thanks for commenting guys.

    B. Smoove, there are new Elric comics at the moment (published by Dark Horse I think), I didn’t know they had them back in the 80s too! They would be cool to get hold of.

    Aarongraham, Moorock’s stuff is pretty varied and there is a lot of it. I don’t know what sort of fantasy you’re interested in, but the early Elric novels I’m talking about here are pretty decent sword and sorcery. The ones written in the 90s and beyond get a bit wacky. And by “wacky” I mean Elric (in a variety of incarnations) travels through space and time and fights nazis and stuff 😀

  • David Stillberg

    Moorcock does indeed write some completely bonkers things. The Elric saga gets pretty psychedelic as it progresses 🙂
    He also had a huge influence on the High Elves – in fact GW held a license to produce Elric miniatures, the bulk of which was assimilated into the early High Elf range when they lost the license.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series, it’s great to see other old-timers with cultural references older than the 1990’s 🙂

  • James S

    That’s true David, the High Elves share a lot with the Melniboneans, Elric’s dying sorcerous people. I was thinking of mentioning that but I didn’t want to write a whole essay so thanks for bringing it up!

    They both live on a magical island, are the greatest magic users in the world, are a fallen superpower and in ages past were famous for riding dragons into battle. Plus Melniboneans are described as wearing long coats of mail and tall shiny helmets. The main difference is the Warhammer High Elves are good and the Melniboneans . . . aren’t 😉

    I didn’t know that about the High Elf mini line, that’s really interesting. Did you know He-Man was originally meant to be a Conan action figure and when Mattel saw the movie they ripped off all their heads, replaced them with Prince Adam and He-Man was born? That’s why He-Man had a cheap blonde rubber head and an awesomely sculpted hard plastic body 😀

  • David Stillberg

    You’re just making the Conan bit up, aren’t you? Then again, who wouldn’t want to make an action figure out of Dolph Lundgren … 😉

    Check this for images of Citadel’s Melnibonean and Pan Tang-ian models:

  • James S

    Whoah, that just sparked the dimmest childhood memory of seeing the Eternal Champion boxed set in a Citadel catalogue when I was a kid. I’d cmpletely forgotten.

    As for the Conan thing, I didn’t make it up – my little brother told me!

    Seriously though, it seems the He-Man/Conan connection is a persistent myth.

    Check this out.

  • David Stillberg

    Now that blew my mind. That is more information about toys than any man should be subjected to. Ever!

  • Mike Howell

    (yes, another comment a year after the post…)

    I read much of Moorcock’s work a good 20 years after it was written but well before GW absorbed the concepts. I am a recent wargamer (old guy, new hobby) and it’s nice to see that some people understand what a wonderful aggregate of various fiction it is.

    I see the Dark Elves or Dark Eldar as more in line with the Melnibonean’s cruelty than the High Elves. It would be amusing to see a Dark Elf/Dark Eldar ship in a game named “Son of Pyaray” or “Terhali’s Particular Satisfaction.”

    • James S

      … and a reply a week after the comment…

      One of the things I love about blogging is that the conversation is never over. Threadomancy is not a crime!

      And yeah, the Dark Elves are a closer match to the Melniboneans for cruelty. Actually they’re more cartoonish, sort of a “we’re evil! We drink people’s blood and sacrifice them to our gods because we’re EVIL!”

      The Melniboneans are more subtle, they just summon demons for fun to keep themselves amused, and they treat humans like cattle. It’s as if GW swiped the Melnibonean surface features (names, look, etc) and pasted them onto good guys. Personally I find the Wood Elves the most interesting of the GW elves. Maybe my next Unseen Influences will be on them?

  • Sven

    I think the second edition of Warhammer started with a dedication to “Michael Moorcock, Phil Barker and Donald Featherstone, who’s fault this all is”.

    I stumbled on Michael Moorcock in a library in the Arctic, having heard him mentioned by Hawkwind. The influence on the Warhammer world is striking.

  • Mark beynon

    Great post. I got into Moorcock seeing it mentioned in either D&D or dragon warriors. I always thought the early eldar models were very much based on the citadel melnibonian miniatures, as well as the dying powerfull magical race bit from the fluff.

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