Wednesday, 28 August 2002
Michael Moorcock: The Eternal Champion (1970)
Review number: 1116
Begun in the fifties, published in the sixties as a novelette before finally being expanded to a full novel in 1970, The Eternal Champion contains the earliest version of the idea that is central to most of Moorcock's fantasy, together with the fruits of over a decade's development of the theme. The idea is basically that there is one person, immortal or reincarnated, whose aspects are the heroes of fantasy. It is perhaps influenced by the Hindu concept of the avatar, where important figures in legend are incarnations of the gods, particularly of Vishnu; it is also an ironic comment on the unimaginative sameness of much of the fantasy genre.
The story in The Eternal Champion is of Londoner John Daker, who responds to a summons he seems to hear in his dreams, from a barbarian king and his beautiful daughter. They are performing rituals in the tomb of long dead warrior Erekosëaut;, seeking to bring the return of the hero that has long been prophesied. When Daker responds, he becomes Erekosë;, champion of the human race in their desperate war against the alien Eldren. Like the other aspects of the Champion, Daker is tormented by dreams of his other selves, but in this case he is unhappy because, though the humans describe the Eldren as treacherous and wicked, this seems to better match their own actions.
It was a commonplace of science fiction (particularly American science fiction, the major part of the genre's output) in the first decades of the Cold War to mimic that conflict; the best known example is Star Trek, where the Federation represents the West, the Klingons and Romulans the Soviet Union and China. It is rarer to do this in fantasy, which (post-Tolkien) usually uses plots about an individual quest to overthrow tyrrany which makes it not such a good genre to explore political ideas. The Eternal Champion is the only example which comes to my mind. Generally, the rather simplistic and racist assumption is made that the forces of humanity represent the West, and the aliens the Communist Bloc. I don't think that there was generally a conscious desire to write propaganda, more that in the American magazines that defined the genre, writers tended to accept the view that they were the good guys. Young though he was when he wrote this story, Moorcock tries to do something more subtle. The humans keep on spouting rhetoric taken from extreme anti-Communists of the time, justifying treacherous acts on the grounds that that is the only way they can beat the innately treacherous Eldren. What they achieve is to completely discredit their side, showing themselves to be worse even than their portrayal of their enemies, let alone than the Eldren actually are. Even Jolinda, the woman with whom Daker falls in love, eventually reveals herself to be just vain and shallow, and as much prey to xenophobia as anyone else.
The background to the novel is lacking an element which later became an important part of Moorcock's concept of the Eternal Champion: the balance between Law and Chaos. It is a theme that would have probably got in the way of this particular story, which has a different point to make; it is about hypocrisy and hysteria rather than the nature of evil and morality.
The aim of the novel, to make readers think again about the orthodox (Western) view of the Cold War, is unusual in fantasy (though common enough in the more literary spy thrillers like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold). The background is rather dated now, as much of the fiction it is counterbalancing has vanished without trace. Even so, The Eternal Champion has something to say about mob hysteria, which continues to be relevant as the American leadership seeks to renew the war against Iraq.