Friday, 1 June 2001

Michael Moorcock: The City in the Autumn Stars (1986)

Edition: Millennium, 1992 
Review number: 830

The second, much longer, von Bek novel has as its hero the young man of the family in the later eighteenth century, who has already been involved with the Russian court of Catherine the Great and in the American Civil War. When the novel opens, he is a deputy in the revolutionary French National Assembly, but is fleeing Paris, disgusted by the increasing atrocities of Robespierre's reign of terror.

The adventures Manfred von Bek faces in southern Germany and then in the magical countries of the Mittelmarch are, like those of his ancestor in The Warhound and the World's Pain, a quest for the Holy Grail, motivated not by desire for the object itself but by love of a beautiful woman. The adventures are quite similar in character, except that Manfred does not face attack from the Dukes of Hell. This is because the theological situation envisaged by Moorcock has now changed; in the earlier novel, Lucifer sought the Grail to help him to become reconciled to God against the wishes of his lieutenants; now, both have abandoned humankind while discussing this reconciliation.

Some might consider the ending of the novel, which involves a recreation of the crucifixion at a time of astrological significance to influence future events, blasphemous. Since many of Moorcock's novels are about religious ideas from the standpoint of a non-believer, this is a charge which has fairly frequently been levelled at his writing. In this case, such an accusation is not, I think, justified, because of the way in which the reconstruction is set up. The motivation of those involved is based on the idea that the crucifixion is an important event in spiritual history, so that (on alchemical principles) a recreation at an appropriate time would have similar power. What is depicted is clearly not intended by the participants, nor I feel by the author, as a mockery.

The City in the Autumn Stars is structured so that it begins mundanely, and magical elements gradually creep in. It is the early part which is the best, and it shows just how good a historical novelist Moorcock could have been. As a whole, the novel is overshadowed by its predecessor, which comes across as more individual.

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