Wednesday, 30 June 1999

Michael Moorcock: The Runestaff (1969)

Edition: Granada
Review number: 279

It is appropriate for the final volume of Moorcock's series to share its title with the series as a whole, and with the mysterious object that lies at the heart of the story, the Runestaff. For it is here that the influence of the Runestaff becomes apparent and here we also get to see the object itself for the first time.

Though this is clear, there are many questions about the Runestaff that are left almost completely unexplained. We are told its purpose, which is not to ensure that the forces of good triumph, but to ensure a balance between good and evil, chaos and order. Balance being more important than virtue is one of the themes running though most of Moorcock's work. His heroes generally represent order in a chaotic world or chaos in an ordered world. I can't think of anyone who used this idea in a fantasy novel before Moorcock; few writers have felt the need to go beyond the simplistic good vs. evil formulation and use morally ambivalent characters. Since Moorcock, others have used it, and it is particularly well developed in the Recluce novels of L.R. Modesitt Jr. and the Deverry novels of Katherine Kerr.

We know that the Runestaff acts to bring balance, and that it has great power. However, the form taken by that power is never clearly seen; all that is clear is that Hawkmoon begins to win victories over the Dark Empire once the Runestaff places itself within his hands. (It has been influencing events to bring Hawkmoon to its side since the beginning of the series.) It contains a consciousness of some sort, and is able to physically manifest itself as a child, in some mysterious way the son of one of its servants.

Moorcock clearly prefers to present a fantastic world with deliberate gaps like the precise mechanism by which the Runestaff influences events. The gaps are larger in this early series than they tend to be in later works - it is probably most effectively used in the stories set at the end of time - and it forms the key method by which his worlds take hold of the imagination.

One sign of his stylistic immaturity is the occasional use of the sort of ideas fashionable in the late sixties and early seventies which tend to jar a little on a reader in the nineties. An example of this is the identification of the "most terrible" of the gods of pagan Granbretan by names clearly derived from those of the Beatles. In the absence of any general satiric intent - at least of any obvious one - it has nothing much to say, even if intended as a little joke.

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