Wednesday, 2 May 2001

Michael Moorcock: The Warhound and the World's Pain (1981)

Edition: Millennium, 1995
Review number: 812

The seventeenth century Thirty Years' War was a forerunner of devastating twentieth century conflicts. Disease and famine followed direct casualties and atrocities were carried out on a huge scale (the sack of Magdeburg an example) as bands of mercenaries rampaged out of control across the countryside. The religious background to the war was not reflected in Christian virtues during it.

Von Bek is a mercenary captain in the war. He has lost what faith he had, but has not descended to the depths of depravity of many soldiers. He flees his men when he detects signs of the onset of plague, and finds himself in a strange but peaceful wood. He stays at a deserted castle, and there meets a beautiful woman who conducts him into the presence of a being who claims to be fallen angel Lucifer. Von Bek doesn't believe him at first, but is taken on a tour of hell. He is eventually asked to undertake a quest for the Holy Grail, the Cure for the World's Pain (von Bek being the Warhound of the title). This, Lucifer says, will make it possible to be reconciled with God and escape from an existence he finds miserable.

The story of his quest is one of Moorcock's best fantasy novels, let down a bit by an unsatisfying ending. It is unusual in his work for its treatment of Christianity, which is rather different from the sort of adolescent desire to shock which seems to lie behind Behold the Man, or from the invented religion of his more fantastic works. It is cynical, with supernatural beings taking no interest in humanity, but has an interesting portrayal of Lucifer as world-weary and disillusioned.

The beginning of the novel is the best part, with the description of the encounter with Lucifer being especially fine; the depiction of hell clearly owes something to C.S. Lewis but has been made Moorcock's own. After the meeting with Queen Xiombarg - the name being an interesting connection with the Corum adventure The Queen of the Swords - the setting becomes more magical and the storytelling loses its focus; very unfortunate in what could easily have been one of Moorcock's best novels.

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