The Swords Trilogy by Michael Moorcock

After the Gotrek & Felix omnibus, I read a collection of three of Moorcock’s “Corum” novels (apparently he wrote another trilogy later as a sequel).  This trilogy consists of The Knight of swords, The Queen of swords, and The King of swords.  I’ve had the paperback for a while, and though I enjoyed the first three Elric books, I hadn’t really sought out anything else by Moorcock because of my thing about series.  I decided to give the Corum books a chance though for a number of reasons, some of them good ones.  First, the summary on the back of the book made it sound like it might be a retelling of Celtic myths about Ireland — the elf-like Vadhagh, living in secluded castles, are caught unawares by an onslaught of barbaric Mabden (humans).  I was also somewhat intrigued by the illustration and description of the protagonist, Corum Jhaelen Irsei, that I saw in Wayne Barlowe’s Guide to Fantasy, a great if slightly less well-known companion to his Guide to Aliens.  Third, the crazy book covers by Patrick Woodruffe that I saw last month reminded me that I’d been meaning to read this.  Now that I spend 20 or 30 minutes most mornings doing the lazy man’s exercise (recumbent stationary bike), I have a lot of time to read, especially when I bring the same book to work to read at lunch. In fact I am still a few books behind in these reviews.  Coming soon: The novelization of Zardoz, The mountains of madness, and more!

Anyway, the Corum books are set in collection of planes that are much closer to, and possibly include, our own Earth — unlike the Elric saga, I think…which is set in a different collection of planes, or perhaps just a different period of time.  Corum and his people had the ability to travel among a few of these planes (a power which humans attributed to sorcery, but which the Vadhagh considered a science), but over the course of the book many more planes are revealed to exist and as you might have guessed, Corum’s universe is a part of Moorcock’s ‘mulitverse’ and (minor spoiler) Corum is another incarnation of the Eternal Champion.

Really, I thought the first several chapters of book one were great, and the gritty realism of Mabden invasion was compelling.  It is a tribute to Moorcock’s skill that I did not throw the book against a wall as additional layers of over-the-top fantasy were added, and Corum interacts with and even battles the gods themselves. Anyway I found Corum to be a fairly sympathetic character, perhaps more so than Elric, because he actually cares about justice and doing the right thing, and repeatedly risks his own life to help others.  There is a bit of a pattern of deus-ex-machina assistance whenever things get really grim for him though, and I’d have found that more tedious were it not for the final chapter in which a ‘hidden message’ — perhaps the theme of all Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books, or anyway it ought to be — is revealed, and the relationship between the gods and mortals comes to a surprising but satisfactory conclusion.

Anyway from a gaming standpoint, the Swords Trilogy presents a lot of interesting vistas and worlds that you might steal for use in a game.  The sighing desert, the whispering lake, the vanishing tower, the castle (literally made) of blood, a plain filled with a petrified (but living) army, and many other weird scenes could be lifted for use in planar adventure or as weird locations in your world.  The usual Moorcockian pantheon of gods of Chaos and Law are there, although he adds a few other gods or god-like beings, the most interesting being “the Wading God” — a huge giant who drags a fish net along the ocean floor, often catching creatures, men, and ships and dropping them off somewhere else at random, even in other planes.  I can imagine all sorts of plot hooks and tricks just using that one device.

Another thing that really struck me was just how deep in Moorcock’s debt the Warhammer concept of ‘Chaos’ really is.  The Swords Trilogy eventually shows us all manner of hideously mutated men and beasts corrupted by their service to the gods of Chaos.  The ‘beastmen’ of Warhammer are directly ripped off from here, I think.

Anyway, trilogy or not, the Swords Trilogy was quite worth reading.

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Published in: on March 27, 2012 at 12:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The First comic of Corum from the 90’s was also great, at least while Mike Mignola was drawing it.

  2. By chance I ran across your blog and posted a comment on another item first:

    https://mikemonaco.wordpress.com/2010/01/29/tolkien-and-dd/#comment-3774

    As I said in that post, Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons probably owes as much to Moorcock and his novels as it does to Tolkien’s books. Moorcock was at the height of his popularity shortly before the time that “Chainmail” and the other first TSR pressings. And most certainly Moorcock’s themes of good/evil and law/chaos played a big role in D&D’s concept of “alignment”, which is central to gameplay.

    As for the Corum books, the first trilogy (Knight/Queen/King) is well worth the read, and is far more engaging (to me, anyway) than the Elric series. Elric comes across as a “Conan the Barbarian” pastiche, despite the attempt to differentiate it with albinoism and anemia.

    However, the second Corum trilogy (Bull/Ram/Stallion) seem forced, more like product than literature. They’re worth reading once if borrowed from the library, but not to purchase. I actually preferred the Hawkmoon series most of all (as well as the first and eponymous “Eternal Champion” novel) because they were less dependent on “deus ex machina” magic items. The second Corum trilogy is very guilty of that.


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