Monday, 9 July 2018

A Victim of Short-Lived Ambition: A Review of "The Knight of the Swords: The First Book of Corum" by Michael Moorcock

I will not be judging The Knight of the Swords as an adventure story. ‘But why?’ you ask. ‘It’s a cheap fantasy paperback. What did you expect? Depth!?’ To which the answer is: Yes. I expected depth not just because of the fawning pull-quotes on my edition*, not just because Moorcock is called a genius of fantasy fiction and 20th Century literature. I expected depth because the novel’s first act starts to interrogate racism and the nature of mass murder. It starts to say something, and, before the first act ends, it shuts up.

Prince Corum’s elven race, the Vadhagh, have holed up in their castles to spend their centuries of life studying abstract scholarship and art. Bid by his worried father to check on their relatives, Corum is the first to leave his family’s castle in centuries. During those centuries, the race of Mabden (homo sapiens) have risen, a race that the Vadhagh thought were mere animals. Rushing from Vadhagh castle to Vadhagh castle, Corum finds that each has been sacked and massacred by the Mabden warlord Gladyth-a-Krae, who vows to slaughter every member of the Vadhagh race. After Corum has a hand amputated, and an eye gouged out, he vows vengeance on the whole Mabden race. And then Corum finds some nice Mabden, falls in love with a Mabden aristocratic at first sight, fights a battle, and then sets out to fight a demon lord. (I have abridged the last two-thirds of the novel.)

When I say the novel shows signs it will explore racism and genocide, those signs are not the Mabden genocide of the Vadhagh. If that was it, I would no more expect The Knight of the Swords to explore genocide than I would expect Star Wars to explore Eastern philosophy. The novel creates false hopes for the novel’s depth by depicting the Vadhagh themselves as having a racist worldview conducive to mass murder. This irony intrigues the reader. This intrigue disappoints the reader.

Moorcock knows how to use dark topics as mere set-dressing, making sure the reader does not expect profound investigations of these topics. In his post-apocalyptic Hawkmoon series, the hero resists the expansion of the evil empire of Granbretan (Read: Great Britain). The reader never expects Hawkmoon to comment on imperialism because the enemy in the book is literally called an ‘evil empire’. The lords of Granbretan are evil, and their capital is a decadent and depraved Pandemonium on Earth. They want a universal empire because that is what evil lords think they are owed. They spread it through massacres because that is what evil imperialists do. Hawkmoon does not begin to interrogate the real life motivations and rationalisations of imperialists, it does not begin to seriously examine life under colonial rule, and because it does not begin, I feel no irritation that it does not continue. The Knight of the Swords does begin.

Before you can kill a people, you must convince yourself that they are not really people. Hatred is not sufficient. When the leader of the Mabden marauders, Gladyth, is asked why he kills Vadhagh, he says: ‘We hate your sorcery. We loathe your superior airs.’ This hatred is a rationalisation. More importantly, however, there is dehumanisation. Earlier, an unallied Mabden villager explains that Gladyth’s clan believes the Vadhagh are ‘evil’, and they call Vadhagh by a word which means ‘fiend’. These Mabden dehumanise the Vadhagh by calling them as demons. The Vadhagh also dehumanise the Mabden. Supposedly a scientific and rational race, the Vadhagh view the Mabden as less than human, indeed, they think Mabden literally are animals. To the Vadhagh, the Mabden do not travel in armies, but ‘herds’. They do not invade: they ‘infest’. When rumours arrive that Mabden have captured and slaughtered a Vadhagh castle, it is described as if insects had swarmed through. Before their murders, the only Mabden Corum’s family has seen is a woman they had ‘placed in the menageries where it was cared for well, but it lived little more than fifty years and when it died was never replaced.’ This is the best line in the novel because it captures that hatred is not necessary to completely dehumanise others. They make this woman a zoo animal, which they ‘care for well’. Even if the Vadhagh would not resort to killing Mabden, you can see how their dehumanising view of them could rationalise ‘controlling’ the Mabden population.

When Corum sees his whole race massacred, he adjoins hatred to his dehumanising outlook. ‘Corum had learned, as an animal learns, that the Mabden were his enemies.’ This is not a vengeance that limits itself to a band of marauders, but by identifying a race with a band of marauders, Corum’s targets a whole race. Even when his life is saved by a Mabden, Corum says:
‘… but Mabden you are. There are so many of you. And now, I find, there are even varieties. I suspect you share common traits …’
He says ‘varieties’ as if he were discussing different breeds of rat. He suggests that he cannot be convinced that there exist good Mabden.

But he is convinced. He realises that you shouldn’t make hasty generalisations about a race based on the actions of a few members, no matter how abhorrent those actions are. This would be a potentially compelling character arc, if it had occurred over the course of the novel, rather than wrapping itself up before the first act is done, rather than resolving the character’s internal conflict a dozen or so pages after the conflict is introduced. (Corum does have a character arc over the rest of the novel, but it’s something about learning his place in the battle between the Lords of Chaos and the Lords of Law, or maybe it’s about fighting fate. It’s not very interesting.)

I do believe Moorcock intended that the Vadhagh have a racist worldview. If his essay “Starship Stormtroopers”, published only six years after this novel, is anything to go by, Moorcock could certainly spot signifiers of far-right ideology in s-and-f adventure novels. If he did not intend the Vadhagh to be racist, I believe he would have spotted how racist he accidently made them, and then would have edited those bits out. Why he started down this thematic path only to ignore it, I will only briefly speculate on. The first and second halves of this seem to be two different storylines. The first half is what I have elaborated; the second half is Corum being sent on a quest by an immortal science-wizard to steal the disembodied heart of a Lord of Chaos. That second half does seem a lot more like a conventional fantasy adventure story. I imagine he didn’t want to weigh down his escapism with philosophising.  

The lesson is: if you start, finish, and if you don’t finish, clear up all evidence that you ever started. I would be less harsh on this novel if I didn’t see that initial thematic ambition. I probably would have said very little about the novel, but I would have been less harsh. Corum is an escapist fantasy story that promised to be more.

*A pull-quote from Angus Wilson that sets a bar the novel never passes:
‘No one at the moment in England is doing more to break down the artificial divisions that have grown up in novel writing – realism, surrealism, science fiction, historical fiction, social satire, the poetic novel – than Michael Moorcock’
Only later did I notice that neither this nor any of my edition’s hagiographic pull-quotes mentions the book they’re appearing on.

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