Black Blades – Moorcock’s Influence on Fantasy
Michael Moorcock is a big name in fantasy. He tends to fall off the radar a little in the face of Tolkein’s masterful mythologues, Pratchett’s wondrous mirror, and Martin’s political complexity, but Moorcock’s legacy runs as deep as any others.
Most famous for the Eternal Champion, a title given to a series of figures who undergo a repetitive cycle of events which, though cast in different circumstances, mark them as an agent of balance destined to restore order in times of chaos, or chaos in times of oppressive law. Eternal Champions exist as a universal constant, appearing in worlds, times, and dimensions beyond counting, they are destined to suffer greatly under their burden, with certain common factors appearing from champion to champion, and only once becoming aware of the cycle.
Among the most famous is the strange white-haired warrior, Elric of Melniboné, the White Wolf, whose details would mark him heavily as progenitor to fantasy staples like Drizzt Do’urden and Geralt of Rivia. I highly recommend delving into the legacy of Elric alone, but he’s not the major focus of this article. I want to talk about the sword Stormbringer, a sentient, black blade that steals the souls of those it kills (also paired with Mournblade). Sound familiar? It should. Because in addition to being a repeated element in the life of the Eternal Champion, it is an artifact that recurs throughout fantasy as a nod to Moorcock and his incredible creations.
Blackrazor, D&D – One of the oldest artifacts in the game is one of its most brazen nods to the Eternal Champion saga, popping up in Baldur’s Gate 2 and in the White Plume Mountain adventure, the weapon is sentient, malevolent, and devours souls of the slain. It has a personal relationship with a pair of other artifacts (Whelm and Wave) that makes it distinct to Stormbringer/Mournblade, but ultimately it’s a straightforward nod to the fantasy heritage upon which the game stands.
Dragnipur, Malazan Book of the Fallen – These books are a tough read but very worthwhile, because the fantastical concepts behind them, pushing them are truly magnificent. I’m a particular fan of the method by which magic works, where dimensions or planes called Warrens can be studied and opened into a mortal to create magical effects at great personal risk. The sword Dragnipur has its own Warren, into which souls are taken. Within the blade those souls are chained together, dragging a vast, mysterious wagon behind them, including a dragon held by the neck, all working together.
The Legacy of Kain – This one’s not a great stretch of the imagination, forces of law and chaos war over the actions of one, highly powerful vampire, who betrays his closest ally, who – in turn – turns on him, stealing a spectral fragment of a blade and learning to subsist on souls instead of blood, before returning to fight by his side against a far greater foe, becoming the soul of the sword as the fight together to restore balance. Said vampire looks astonishingly like sundried Elric of Melniboné!
Soulstone, Diablo Series – Embedded into the body of the Dark Wanderer, protagonist of Diablo 1 who attempted to contain Diablo himself but sadly failed. It’s not a sword, admittedly, what it represents (intentionally or otherwise) is the Black Crystal of Dorian Hawkmoon, which is used to manipulate Hawkmoon into obedience of a dark force. It’s another manifestation of the blade in the Champion’s continuity.
Soul Edge, Soul Calibur – Short example because I don’t know the series that well but it popped up in my research, another sentient soul-eating sword, but it’s not black… it’s black in places, sure, but it’s mostly metal… and sticky. It’s got a saga of its own going on, passing from owner to owner, changing shape to suit their needs but generally being the villain of the piece, considered at times to be the greater antagonist compared to whoever’s holding it.
Tyrfing – An old norse myth, possibly one of the earliest examples of Stormbringer – because hell no it’s not the first of its kind – is a sword that strikes true with every swing and cleaves stone and metal as easily as flesh, but is cursed to take a life whenever it is drawn, to cause three great evils, and to ultimately kill the wielder. Ok we’re talking a millennia of narrative changes, but it’s got definite thematic elements.
Black blades, soul devouring blades, sentient blades, all of these aspects pop up in a vast array of combinations with unique quirks and places within their own mythology, but they’re all part of a much greater and more fascinating saga. I’m not here to claim that they all start with Moorcock, Stormbringer, and Elric, but that the varying arcs of the Eternal Champion are something of a narrative loadstone, a lynch pin that has brought the concepts into much harsher relief.
In the same way we’d never credit Moorcock with creating the anti-hero – Shakespeare may still hold that credit but it’s still questionable – still he sets a mould that proves hard to break because of the way it has entered the culture, in the same way we can’t help retelling Shakespeare’s greats even when we may not intend to. The Eternal Champion also establishes the notion of law and chaos as independent of good and evil, a hotly debated element of character design in fantasy role-play. People and deeds can fall anywhere along either scale, where law and order may previously have been intimately tied to notions of good and vice-versa, Moorcock breaks those bonds.
Play “spot the Stormbringer” as you delve into the vast array of novels, games, films, and anime series, you’d be surprised how many you see.