Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Ninth

In which the author discusses Elric’s pacts with the Elemental Powers.

Tempest Shipwreck of the Foreign Ship by Ivan Aivazovsky
Tempest Shipwreck of the Foreign Ship by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1855. Elric too has known the perils of the waters...

Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Ninth

Dear Reader,

Last week we introduced ourselves to Elric of Melniboné and spoke of his pacts with the Beast Lords of his world.

Today, we will discuss his pacts with the Elemental Powers: including the Elemental Lords and the lesser spirits that he calls upon in times of need. In this letter we will content ourselves with water and wind, but they should tell us what we need to know to better understand our tragic hero's sorcery.

But before we get into the summonings themselves, this seems an opportune time to make a brief aside and speak of the Ring of Kings. It is an artifact critical to Elric's pacts and incantations.

The Ring of Kings

And on the hand which absently caresses the crown there is a ring in which is set a single rare Actorios stone whose core sometimes shifts sluggishly and reshapes itself, as if it were sentient smoke and as restless in its jeweled prison as the young albino on his Ruby Throne.
-Elric of Melnibone, Michael Moorcock, 3

Later, we learn that the Ring of Kings with its Actorios stone is essential to Elric’s ability to work his greatest summoning magics:

“My own powers of sorcery are limited without the Ring of Kings upon my hand. Its supernatural qualities identify me as a true member of the royal line of Melniboné – the line which made so many bargains with the elementals.”

Now, the Ring is not consistently invoked throughout the stories. It is mentioned as a “traditional symbol of his ancient responsibilities.” At one point he swears by it to assure someone. And we are told that it is set with an “Actorios stone,” which is itself described as a “bloody jewel.” But its critical importance for summoning isn't really emphasized until after it is stolen from him, though he considers using it to summon demons while he is in Quarzhasaat:

Besides, he had no great desire to summon demons here. His own folly had brought him to Quarzhasaat; he owed her citizens no vengeance.

Now is not the time for vengeance.

That comes later.

That should suffice regarding the artifact in the Elric stories, and with the Ring thusly briefly addressed, let us turn to the Elementals who look to its bearer.

The Elemental Lords

There are at least five great Elemental Lords in the world of Elric (two of them are Air Lords):

  • Straasha, King of the Water Elementals
  • Grome, King of the Earth Elementals
  • Misha and Graoll, The Lords of the Wind
  • Kakatal, The Fire Lord

A gaming aside: Michael Moorcock’s Elric had a significant impact on Dungeons and Dragons. You’ll find reference to his work in Appendix N of the Original Dungeon Master’s Guide as well as statistics for his creations in Deities & Demigods (Elric’s in there). Though the creator of Forgotten Realms once wrote, prophetically:

Moorcock’s Elemental gods from [Deities & Demigods] (Grome, Kakatal, Misha, and Straasha) may later be replaced in my universe by “official” AD&D beings as these are published; hence, they are usually referred to by their nicknames. Although in play I have tried to keep their powers hazy, their characteristics are taken straight from DDG.
-Ed Greenwood, “Down-to-earth divinity: One DM’s design for a mixed & matched mythos,” Dragon, Issue 54, 54
(Yes, issue 54, page 54. No, it’s not a mistake. Yes, I’m sure.)

The Old Friend Answers

Alright, let’s get to our hero drowning after his cousin rolls his limp body overboard:

As the last of his breath left his body, he gave himself wholly to the sea; to Straasha, Lord of all the Water Elementals, once the comrade of the Melnibonéan folk. And as he did this he remembered the old spell which his ancestors had used to summon Straasha. The spell came unbidden into his dying brain.
- Elric: Song of the Black Sword, 39

As with the Beast Lords, we see a lack of intentionality in the way that magic comes to Elric. He’s not drowning and thinking, “Ah, I need the spell for this situation.” Indeed, at this point in his journey, he has never worked a Summoning before. But in this instance, the incantation works of itself, without him even opening his mouth. Without him even trying:

Even when the blackness overwhelmed him and his lungs filled with water, the words continued to whisper through the corridors of his brain. It was strange that he should be dead and still hear the incantation.

And Straasha comes. Of all Elric’s allies, the Lord of the Water Elementals is the kindest and most ready to aid:

It seemed a long while later that his eyes opened and revealed swirling water and, through it, huge, indistinct figures gliding towards him. Death, it appeared, took a long time to come and, while he died, he dreamed. The leading figure had a turquoise beard and hair, pale green skin that seemed made of the sea itself and, when he spoke, a voice that was like a rushing tide. He smiled at Elric.

At this point, Elric still believes he is drowning and dreaming. As he speaks with the Elemental though, he reveals that he would prefer death to life, that he is “happy to drown.”

But Straasha won’t be dissuaded in offering his help:

“That cannot be. If your mind summoned us it means you wish to live. We will aid you.” King Straasha’s beard streamed in the tide and his deep, green eyes were gentle, almost tender.

Out of the Depths

Elric finally decides to accept help. Once he is safe upon dry land he voices his doubts to Straasha. After all, he didn’t actually work any sorcery as far as he could tell.

Straasha answers:

“Perhaps the rituals take the place of urgent need of the kind which sent out your summons to us. Though you say you wished to die, it was evident that this was not your true desire or the Summoning would not have been so clear nor reached us so swiftly.”

This is really quite interesting. It appears that we are seeing something of what was shared from the perspective of Haaashaastaak in our last letter, who responded to the “manner and logic in which things should behave.”

The rituals, the words, the incantations themselves are merely aids to access deeper underlying relationships.

Perhaps we see something of these deeper relationships when Straasha says that Elric is a son of his old friends (the original Melnibonéans) and that their “destinies are truly intertwined.”

An Encouragement and a Warning

Having saved Elric, Straasha stays around for a brief conversation. Let’s read the final paragraph:

“We shall meet again before your life ends, Elric. I hope that I shall be able to aid you once more. And remember that our brothers of the air and of fire will try to aid you also. And remember the beasts – they, too, can be of service to you. There is no need to suspect their help. But beware of gods, Elric. Beware of the Lords of the Higher Worlds and remember that their aid and their gifts must always be paid for.”

First, did you catch that Straasha didn’t mention the Lord of the Earth? Yeah...Straasha’s not on good terms with Grome of Earth. (A lot of that has to do with a certain ship they once built together.) Still the brothers of air and fire, those fine fellows, can be relied upon to actively seek Elric’s good.

Likewise, the beasts will serve and can be trusted, but friendship is not in view here. These words seem to line up pretty well with what we learned from our last letter: Nnuuurrrr’c’c the Insect was willing to help but had to be reasoned with. Haaashaastaak the Lizard didn’t need to be bargained with to swallow a foe on Elric’s behalf.

The gods on the other hand – don’t trust them, Elric. That would be a bad idea. (Of course, now we know what Elric is going to do sometime soon!)

But we’ll get to the Lords of Chaos in the next letter. For now, we’ve still got Elemental Powers to investigate.

The Builders of Whirlwinds

I can think of two instances where Elric was on a ship and – finding himself needing wind – summons wind elementals.

They aren’t Elemental Lords but lesser air spirits. And Elric summons them in a very different way than his other pacts:

He turned his face skyward; he closed his eyes; he stretched out his arms and his body tensed as he began the incantation again, his voice growing louder and louder, higher and higher, so that it resembled the shrieking of a gale. He forgot where he was; he forgot his own identity; he forgot those who were with him as his whole mind concentrated upon the Summoning. He sent his call out beyond the confines of the world, into that strange plane where the elementals dwelled – where the powerful creatures of the air could still be found – the sylphs of the breeze, and sharnahs, who lived in the storms, and the most powerful of all, the h’Haarshanns, creatures of the whirlwind.

The mighty winds come but the summoning becomes quite taxing for Elric. In part because Elric is not even on his own world. He is on a demiplane that belongs to a powerful sorcerer.

“It is harder here,” he said. “It is so much harder here. It is as if I have to call across far greater gulfs than any I have known before.”

So, the pacts still hold on this other plane, but we learn that place plays an important role in the making of such magic.

The second time Elric summons the air elementals, we get more of the shrieking summoning, but this passage captures the crooning, song quality of summoning better:

Sitting blank-eyed in the stern, Elric still crooned his hideous song of sorcery as the spirits of the air plucked at the sail and sent the boat flying over the water faster than any mortal ship could speed. And all the while, the deafening, unholy shriek of the released elementals filled the air about the boat as the shore vanished and open sea was all that was visible.

It is a haunting and horrible magic, this invoking of “unspeakable pacts” that involves “unholy signs.” It is nothing like the magewind of Ursula K. Le Guin's Ged. But this is not the worst sorcery that Elric will risk in his questing…

There we will leave Elric for now, Dear Reader. When next we meet with the tragic hero, he will reach out to truly dark powers. And we will hear his terrible battlecry – the one that he shouted as he slaughtered an entire city.

Till next we meet,

Best regards,


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