© Michael Moorcock.
Last summer at the San Diego Con, artist J.H. Williams III and I agreed to swap some favorite fiction and authors. Jim’s recommendation for me was the von Beck novels of Michael Moorcock, and I’ve just finished the first one. I’ve read a handful of Moorcock novels over the years, but none in this series, which is only a small part of his much larger “Eternal Champion” oevre spanning many series and books. Of those, I’ve read some of the Elric books and not much else.
Ulrich von Beck is a nobleman and military officer in Europe during the Thirty Years War, and as the story opens in 1631, he’s in the Harz Mountains of Germany with his troops. Dispirited and tired of war, he slips away into the forest hoping to leave the battlefied behind. Soon he comes upon a wonderful but eerily silent and deserted castle where he makes himself at home. When a group of soldiers and a carriage appears on the approach to the castle, he goes out to oppose them, but before the battle can become deadly, the carriage door opens, and a beautiful woman orders her soldiers to stop. Von Beck has already realized something is amiss with the soldiers anyway—they’re living dead, in the manner of zombies.
Back in the castle, the Lady Sabrina claims it’s her own, but that she holds it for her master, Lucifer, lord of Hell. She also tells von Beck that only those whose souls are already damned can enter it, news which he’s not happy to hear, but privately agrees with, after the horrible things he’s done in battle.
As it turns out, Lucifer himself has arranged all this to meet with von Beck and send him on a quest. Lucifer is tired of ruling Hell, and wants to make amends with God. To that end, he would send von Beck on a quest to find the Holy Grail, which Lucifer says can end the world’s pain. Von Beck also learns that, if he’s successful, it will save his own soul, and that of Sabrina, who he’s already fallen in love with.
This story sounds very Mediaeval, and it is, but in Moorcock’s hands, and from von Beck’s narrative viewpoint, we get a more modern feel for the characters, their motivations and ways of thinking, and eventually some effective allegory. On his quest, von Beck picks up a sidekick: Sedenko, a Kazak soldier, and a deadly enemy: Klosterheim, a supposed priest who turns out to be another agent of Hell, and one opposed to the quest.
The journey takes them through both historically accurate Europe at war and mythical lands in Mittelmarch, outside our reality, where magic and sorcery are common. There they meet a philosopher, Philander Groot, who plays an important part in the later parts of the story.
I enjoyed the book a lot. For a while I thought it would be a typical quest story with lots of violent action and strange settings and characters, but after some of this, Moorcock gradually shifts the focus of von Beck’s narrative to issues of good versus evil and morality in a way that is more engaging and thoughtful than the usual quest story. The finale, a huge battle with the forces of Hell on the outskirts of Heaven, is thrilling and satisfying. I look forward to reading the rest of the von Beck books, in the omnibus edition Jim gave me (not the one pictured above).