Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Tenth

In which the author speaks of Michael Moorcock's Elric and his pact with the Lords of Chaos.

Elric brooding. From the 1st edition of the roleplaying game Stormbringer.
Elric brooding. From the 1st edition of the roleplaying game Stormbringer.

Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Tenth

“On Melniboné, Tanglebones, the emperor controls the demons, not the reverse.”
- Elric

Dear Reader,

What is real power? Is it the strength to overcome every threat, to be above even the thought of fear, to be able to work your will without the possibility of failure? That might be how a Melnibonéan would define power. Real power.

As we continue through Elric’s saga, his cousin Yyrkoon – who seized the opportunity to roll Elric’s limp body into the sea during the confusion of battle – wants real power.

And he wants it the traditional way, the way of the ancestors: Make pacts with demons. Gain the patronage of a God of Chaos. And, above all else, lay hold of the Black Swords (preferably both).

With Elric out of the way through a convenient drowning, our dear Yyrkoon is on the path to unlimited power. Of course, he didn't expect Elric to work sorcery and save his own life as he sunk helplessly beneath the waters.

But before we pick up the thread that leads us to Chaos, here is an important reminder: In our last letter, recall that Straasha, the Lord of the Water Elementals, who saved Elric from a watery death, warned him against turning to the gods for 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.

So what got Elric to ignore Straasha’s advice?

Confronting the Traitor

When Elric returns from his presumed death he finds his cousin Yyrkoon swiftly moving to install himself as Emperor. At first Yyrkoon can’t believe that Elric survived but then he calls down a curse upon him:

“May Arioch and all the Dukes of Hell torment you for eternity,” growled Yyrkoon. He flung back his head, his wild eyes rolling, his lips curling: “Arioch! Arioch! Curse this feeble albino! Arioch! Destroy him or see Melniboné fall!”

At least Yyrkoon is concerned for the future of his people. (And in a way, he's right...)

But our doomed hero responds with a laugh:

“Arioch does not hear you. Chaos is weak upon the earth now. It needs a greater sorcery than yours to bring the Chaos Lords back to aid you as they aided our ancestors."

So Chaos is weak now. That sounds like a good thing actually. The “Dukes of Hell” may not be ideal allies. Yet please note that summoning them still requires: “A greater sorcery than yours.” I wonder who might be capable of that kind of magic?

Still, facing his own impending doom, Yyrkoon wants to know how Elric survived. So Elric shares that he used sorcery. That answer provokes the traitor to ask the question dearest to his heart:

Yyrkoon stared narrowly at Elric, as if trying to divine a secret meaning behind Elric’s words. “You will bring back the Chaos Lords?”
“No sorcerer, however powerful, can summon the Chaos Lords or, for that matter, the Lords of Law, if they do not wish to be summoned. That you know. You must know it, Yyrkoon. Have you not, yourself, tried? And Arioch did not come, did he? Did he bring you the gift you sought — the gift of the two black swords?”

The Gods (the Chaos Lords and the Lords of Law) aren’t the Beast Lords or the Elemental Lords – they aren’t compelled to come when you call.

And we get a glimpse of something important here: two black swords…

Having overcome his cousin, Elric lets him live. This mercy towards Yyrkoon is a consistent failing in our hero. Yyrkoon on the other hand doesn’t wait around to see if he’s going to be spared. He acts and acts boldly.

Desperate Times Lead to Desperate Summonings

Yyrkoon works a sorcery and escapes. And in the process he carries away Elric’s love, Cymoril. Because bad guys don’t just want to save their own skin – they want to hurt you too.

After months of searching for his enemy and his love, Elric cannot find either. And so, in desperation – Yes, you guessed it! – he turns to the gods. Specifically he turns to Arioch, the god that Yyrkoon invoked to curse him.

And so we turn to some grimoires (Is there a more fantasy word than “grimoires?”) to work his dread sorcery:

These grimoires were written in the High Speech of Melniboné – the ancient language of sorcery with which Elric’s ancestors had been able to communicate with the supernatural beings they had summoned. And at last Elric was satisfied that he understood them fully, though what he read sometimes threatened to stop him in his present course of action.

When a tragic hero almost doesn’t do something, you know it’s a really bad something that he’s about to do. But at least it's written in an epic High Speech that is the ancient language of sorcery. Like Le Guin's Earthsea, the best magic requires understanding of a kind of speech you can't pick up at home (unless you happen to live with a wizard, I suppose).

Calling the Knight of the Swords

When he had mediated for more than five hours Elric took a brush and a jar of ink and began to paint both walls and floor with complicated symbols, some of which were so intricate that they seemed to disappear at an angle to the surface on which they had been laid. At last this was done and Elric spreadeagled himself in the very centre of his huge rune, face down, one hand upon his grimoire, the other (with Actorios upon it) stretched palm down. The moon was full. A shaft of its light fell directly upon Elric’s head, turning the hair to silver. And then the Summoning began.

This is a much more involved process than the incantations that we saw involving beast or elemental. Also note that the Actorios is mentioned (parenthetically), the stone in the Ring of Kings we mentioned in our last letter. And it’s a capital S summoning, for a little extra umph.

Elric sent his mind into twisting tunnels of logic, across endless plains of ideas, through mountains of symbolism and endless universes of alternate truths; he sent his mind out further and further and as it went he sent with it the words which issued from his writhing lips – words that few of his contemporaries would understand, though their very sound would chill the blood of any listener. And his body heaved as he forced it to remain in its original position and from time to time a groan would escape him. And through all this a few words came again and again.
One of those words was a name. “Arioch”.

I’m really not sure what we’re supposed to make of “twisting tunnels of logic, across endless plains of ideas, through mountains of symbolism and endless universes of alternate truths” other than his mind’s doing crazy weird stuff.

Alright we’ve come this far, let’s hear the rest of this rather drawn out sequence:

Arioch, the patron demon of Elrics ancestors; one of the most powerful of all the Dukes of Hell, who was called Knight of the Swords, Lord of the Seven Darks, Lord of the Higher Hell and many more names besides.
It was on Arioch whom Yyrkoon had called, asking the Lord of Chaos to curse Elric. It was Arioch whom Yyrkoon had sought to summon to aid him in his attempt upon the Ruby Throne. It was Arioch who was known as the Keeper of the Two Black Swords — the swords of unearthly manufacture and infinite power which had once been wielded by emperors of Melniboné.
“Arioch! I summon thee.”

The name over and over and over – bracketed with all manners of ominous and fearful statements about who we are trying to make contact with. Then Elric brings himself into the incantation with his name and promises of service:

Runes, both rhythmic and fragmented, howled now from Elrics throat. His brain had reached the plane on which Arioch dwelt. Now it sought Arioch himself.
“Arioch! It is Elric of Melniboné who summons thee.”
Elric glimpsed an eye staring down at him. The eye floated, joined another. The two eyes regarded him.
“Arioch! My Lord of Chaos! Aid me!”
The eyes blinked — and vanished.
“Oh, Arioch! Come to me! Come to me! Aid me and I will serve you.”
A silhouette that was not a human form, turned slowly until a black, faceless head looked down upon Elric. A halo of red light gleamed behind the head.
Then that, too, vanished.
Exhausted, Elric let the image fade. His mind raced back through plane upon plane. His lips no longer chanted the runes and the names. He lay exhausted upon the floor of his chamber, unable to move, in silence.
He was certain that he had failed.

But he hadn’t…

As we pause our conversation for now, I leave you with one critical note from that swirl of summoning:

Two Black Swords — the swords of unearthly manufacture and infinite power which had once been wielded by emperors of Melniboné.

That’s right: “infinite power.” That’s real power.

And infinite power is something even the gods don’t claim – remember that. Also remember this was power that the emperors once wielded. It turns out they laid it down. Elric's cruel, decadent, and insane people laid down infinite power once before...

One wonders why.

Ah, Dear Reader, there is so much more to tell and reflect upon concerning Elric and Arioch and the Two Black Swords. And Yyrkoon's usefulness must come to an end. And I didn't get to Elric's battlecry or the vengeful slaughter of the city of Quarzhasaat like I promised in the last letter, but there's more time for tragedy born of dark sorcery. Two further installments remains.

When next we meet we will witness an ancient pact renewed, which leads to one far worse.

Stormbringer, one of the Two Black Swords.
Stormbringer, one of the Two Black Swords. Let its power flow through you...

Until then: Don’t bargain with Chaos Gods.

Best regards,


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

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