Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Eighth

In which the author begins a discussion of the magical pacts of Elric of Melniboné.

Elric of Melniboné
Elric from the cover of the 1st edition boxed set of Stormbringer, a game by Chaosium.

Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Eighth

Dear Reader,

If I had been in a glib mood, I could have subtitled this letter “The Accidental Magician.” Michael Moorcock’s Elric rarely plans on using magic. It usually comes to him in a moment of desperation or when he needs to accomplish some deed that is impossible under the current circumstances.

You see Elric doesn’t cast spells like your typical fantasy wizard – he invokes ancient pacts and the right of kingship. And usually those incantations come to him out of the dark recesses of his memory.

Yet, perhaps you have not heard of Elric? He is the 428th Emperor of a cruel and decadent people, an ancient race that does not know that its time is coming to an end. The Young Kingdoms stir, testing their new strength, and some – the eager and the bold – wonder if the Dragonlords of Imryrr are truly still unassailable upon their island fastness.

Elric would save his “insane” people (his word, not mine), but he must face them, as well as outsiders, monsters, and the machinations of the Lords of the Higher Worlds – the Lords of Chaos and Law.

And he fails. At least the prologue says as much:

And now opens the tragedy which will close many years from now and precipitate the destruction of this world.

So, what powers does Elric summon by magic as he struggles across his own world (and other realms that he forgets along the way)?

We will divide our discussion into three broad categories: the Beast Lords, the Elemental Lords, and the Lords of Chaos. We begin with the least of these in this letter.

The Beast Lords

There are a number of instances over the course of Elric’s journeys that he calls upon Beast Lords to come to his aid. Here we will look at Elric’s summoning of both Nnuuurrrr’c’c Lord of Insects and Haaashaastaak Lord of Lizards (if you are bewildered about how you might approach pronouncing those names, then I believe that Moorcock has succeeded in his purpose).

Let’s start with Nnuuurrrr’c’c.

Elric takes ship with one Duke Avan of the nation of Vilmir to seek out the lost city of R’lin K’ren A’a, where Elric’s people are said to have first arisen, back in the far flung ages of the past.

As they are sailing up a river, seeking for the city, the expedition is set upon by reptile-men who quickly prove to be of a supernatural nature. The situation grows desperate and Elric seeks a magic solution, fighting to clear his head:

And then the incantation came to him. He was not sure if it was appropriate, but it was the only one he could recall. His ancestors had made pacts thousands of years before, with all the elementals who controlled the animal world. In the past he had summoned help from various of these spirits but never from the one he now sought to call. From his mouth began to issue the ancient, beautiful, and convoluted words of Melniboné’s High Speech.
“King with Wings! Lord of all that work and are not seen, upon whose labours all else depends! Nnuuurrrr’c’c of the Insect Folk, I summon thee!”

So, from this section we learn that the incantations to summon aid are not front of mind for Elric. Indeed, he has never before invoked this specific pact with the Insect Lord, and he doesn’t even know if it is “appropriate” at the moment. Yet, he has no other option: he can’t recall any other incantations at the moment.

The Insect Lord Answers

Save for the motion of the ship, Elric ceased to be aware of all else happening around him. The sounds of the fight dimmed and were heard no more as he sent his voice out beyond his plane of the Earth into another – the plane dominated by King Nnuuurrrr’c’c of the Insects, paramount lord of his people.

The incantation draws Elric to the plane of the Insects so that he can draw the Insect Lord to his own plane. From here, we move into the bargaining stage of the magic:

In his ears now Elric heard a buzzing and gradually the buzzing formed itself in words.
“Who are thou, mortal? What right hast thee to summon me?”
“I am Elric, ruler of Melniboné. My ancestors aided thee, Nnuuurrrr’c’c.”
“Aye – but long ago.”
“And it is long ago that they last called on thee for thine aid!”
“True. What aid dost thou now require, Elric of Melniboné?”

Yes, there’s that elevated faux Medieval speech at work here, letting us know that Elric and the Insect Lord are speaking in an elevated register. Nnuuurrrr’c’c doesn’t know who Elric is, but it doesn’t take much persuading to get to the offer of aid.

First the request:

“Look upon my plane. Thou wilt see that I am in danger. Canst thou abolish this danger, friend of the Insects?”

Nnuuurrrr’c’c looks in and then he wonders: Don’t you have someone else you could call upon? Some other patron of “thine own species” or some “Lord of Chaos”? Elric makes it known that he’s out of options.

So the Insect Lord decides that he will help:

“Then I must send allies, mortal. But call upon me no more when this is done.”

So, this is going to be a one time deal.

The Swarm

And it’s going to be a scary one:

“What’s that?” Elric bent his head, listening intently.
“I hear nothing.”
It was a whine which deepened in tone until it became a drone. Now Smiorgan heard it also and looked about him, seeking the source of the sound. And suddenly he gasped, pointing upward. “Is that the aid you sought?”
There was a vast cloud of them, black against the blue of the sky. Every so often the sun would flash on a dazzling colour – a rich blue, green, or red. They came spiraling down towards the ship and now both sides fell silent, starting skyward.
The flying things were like huge dragonflies and the brightness and richness of their colouring was breathtaking. It was their wings which made the droning sound which now began to increase in loudness and heighten in pitch as the huge insects sped nearer.

The Insect Lord has answered by sending a swarm of monstrous dragonfly like servants. They make quick work of Elric’s enemies:

Realizing that they were the object of the attack the reptile men stumbled backwards on their long legs, trying to reach the shore before the gigantic insects were upon them.
But it was too late for flight.
The dragonflies settled on the savages. Soon nothing could be seen of the bodies. The hissing increased and sounded almost pitiful as the insects bore their victims down to the surface and then inflicted on them whatever terrible death it was. Perhaps they stung with their tails – it was not possible for the watchers to see.
Sometimes a storklike leg would emerge from the water and thrash in the air for a moment. But soon, just as the reptiles were covered by the insect bodies, so were their cries drowned by the strange and blood-chilling humming that arose on all sides.

Some of the lizard things survive, fleeing off into the jungle. They do not muster the courage to test the expedition again for some time.

This is a common theme in the Elric stories: summon a Lord of Beasts and something dramatic happens. We never receive any minor magic when a pact is invoked. Yet, there are some variations. For example, later in The Singing Citadel, we’ll actually see the summoning taking hold of Haaashaastaak Lord of Lizards from its perspective. One difference is clear right away, the Lizard Lord doesn't think and speak in the same manner as Nnuuurrrr’c’c.

The Lord of Lizards

In the half worlds, where dwelt the master-types of all creatures other than man, an entity stirred, hearing its name. The entity was called Haaashaastaak; and it was scaly and cold, with no true intellect, such as men and gods possessed, but an awareness which served it as well if not better. It was brother, on this plane, to such entities as Meerclar, Lord of Cats, Roofdrak, Lord of Dogs, Nura-ah, Lord of Cattle, and many, many others. This was Haaashaastaak, Lord of the Lizards. It did not really hear words in the exact sense, but it heard rhythms which meant much to it, even though it did not know why. The rhythms were being repeated over and over again, but seemed too faint to be worth much attention. It stirred and yawned, but did nothing…

In this instance, the incantation doesn’t work immediately and we find out why: it sounds faint to the entity being summoned. But Elric (and Yishna, one of his companions) don’t give up. Here's what they are saying:

"Haaashaastaak, Lord of Lizards,
Your children were fathers of men,
Haaashaastaak, Prince of Reptiles,
Come aid a grandchild now!
Haaashaastaak, Father of Scales,
Cold-blooded bringer of life..."

The incantation claims kinship between the summoners and the master-type Reptile, names and describes him, and calls for aid. Eventually it works:

Haaashaastaak quivered and became more curious. The rhythms were no stronger, yet they seemed more insistent. He would travel, he decided, to that place where those he watched over dwelt. He knew that if he answered the rhythms, he would have to obey whatever source they had. He was not, of course, aware that such decisions had been implanted in him in a far distant age – the time before the creation of Earth, when the Lords of Law and Chaos, then inhabitants of a single realm and known by another name, had watched over the forming of things and laid down the manner and logic in which things should behave, following their great edict from the voice of the Cosmic Balance – the voice which had never spoken since.

This passage gets down into the why of what happens when an incantation of summoning is performed. It’s not quite True Names, as we find in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea, but Elric is tapping into an underlying “manner and logic” of the world that’s been there since the “voice of the Cosmic Balance” spoke (an echo of the great word in Earthsea) and it does indeed involve the master-type’s name, spoken in an ancient High Speech.

This is doubly interesting because we’ve been led to believe that the Beast Lords are keeping ancient pacts made with Elric’s ancestors when they answer a summons. And they are. But the pacts themselves are rooted in an even deeper magic that is woven into the very fabric of the creation.

(In case you were wondering, Haaashaastaak appears and swallows the monster menacing our hero and his friends. One big tasty gulp.)

There we will let the matter rest for a time, Dear Reader. When we return to Elric, we will speak of his pacts with the Elemental Lords, beginning with my personal favorite Straasha the Lord of Water Elementals.

Until we speak again.

Best regards,


Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

Want to throw me some coin to support me financially? I have a Busker's Hat to help buy coffee and used books.

Was this email forwarded to you? Come and visit my outpost to choose a path through Perilous Realms.

Perilous Realms

Well met, Traveller into Perilous Realms. I am your guide Bryan Rye, Game Master and Author. Stay awhile and let us speak of many things.

Read more from Perilous Realms
Time Life's Third Reich series

In which the author speaks of childhood beasts of war. A pack of books, bristling with arms... Let Us Speak of Playing with Wolves We begin with two words: “Wolf Packs” It was one of those phrases that captured my imagination as a child. Yes, I drew wolves and worgs growing up – they joined falcons, snakes, and sharks as the animals that fascinated me most. And my older sister even painted a little picture of a wolf howling at the moon that I still have (somewhere). But I’m not talking about...

Fortresses we shall raise.

In which the author speaks of childhood castles. Fortresses we shall raise... Let Us Speak of Building Blocks I built castles when I was younger. And so I dreamt of becoming an architect – for that was the profession that was allowed to “play with blocks” when you grow up. At first, I largely raised the same castle – over and over again – as I did not have a great variety of blocks to work with. And endless repetition to children is not the terrible burden that adults feel. Later on, when I...

The quick brown fox jumping.

In which the author addresses a particular jumping fox. "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," by Lauren Alane Design. Let us Speak of the Quick Brown Fox “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” There are four things that interest me about the preceding sentence. First, I like foxes jumping over dogs, and so am pleased by the substance of the sentence. Second, the sentence is a pangram, meaning it contains all the letters of the English alphabet. I am interested in that...