Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series is interesting to discuss. Some stories have direct analogies to and inversions of Robert E. Howard’s work, like Elric. Others, like Hawkmoon, go in radically different directions. The first Von Bek novel probably falls more into the former camp – feeling like something of an inversion of Solomon Kaine, in multiple respects.
The Warhound and the World’s Pain is, unlike the Moorcock material I’ve covered to date, set in Earth’s past, instead of a possible future or different world, and follows Ulrich Von Bek. Bek is a mercenary and free thinker in the Thirty Years War, whose company has recently been wiped out in a previous battle. In his travels he ends up in a seemingly abandoned home, only to discover that it is the dwelling of Lucifer. As in the Lightbringer. Morningstar.
Ya’ know – Satan.
Old Scratch has a job for Ulrich – he needs him to find the Holy Grail. It seems that The Devil has, after all this time, come to the realization that maybe he was in the wrong, and he’d like to patch things up with Jehovah. Obtaining the Grail, and with it the Cure for the World’s Pain, would allow him to do that. However, he can’t do it himself, so he needs assistance from Von Bek.
Lucifer feels that as a learned free thinker, a courageous warrior, and a man of integrity, Von Bek has what it takes to do the job. And, as a hardened veteran of the Thirty Years’ War, with all that entails, Von Bek is absolutely damned to Hell, which gives Lucifer the leverage he needs to persuade Ulrich to take on the job – the ability to avoid Hell. And if he needs further incentive, Von Bek falls head over heels in love for a woman who is another damned soul, and the feeling is reciprocated – so if Von Bek succeeds, her soul is saved too.
This leads to our grand quest, which takes Ulrich Von Bek, along with a companion he picks up along the way, throughout Europe, both the real and supernatural forms, in order to retrieve the Grail. All in just one, actually pretty short, book.
That’s my actual complaint actually – something as big as, an actual Grail Quest should be feel bigger, more eventful. Certainly, things happen over the course of this story, but a lot more events are things we are told about but never shown. Maybe it’s because the idea sounded better then the actual execution was. Maybe Moorcock’s editor said he needed to prune this down a bit and didn’t feel it was worth fighting over. Maybe the deadline was coming up and he figured he’d revisit it in a later story, or collection of short stories, like he did with Elric. I don’t know.
In any case, it makes for a bunch of stories where, as a reader, I’m going “Hang on, you can’t just leave us with one or two sentences. You’d need to expand on that concept a little.”
The rest of the story is… okay. It’s not helped by Ulrich’s companion, a Kazakh swordsman, who starts out racist and anti-Semitic, and never really changes in that regard. It comes up less, but he’s still a character who basically excuses himself from a scene to rape a young girl who is staying with a hermit because the girl is a virgin. The rape is not on camera, but it absolutely happens, and outside from the statement that it happened it is generally not commented upon.
On the one hand, I get it, Von Bek has seen some shit over the course of his travels, and the Thirty Years War was utterly horrific, both in terms of the way the war was fought, and the toll it took on the population caught in the middle of it, in a lot of respects. However, say what you will about the scenes of sexual assault in Game of Thrones, or Berserk, and whether or not they actually need to be there or if they could be replaced with something else, they do serve a purpose. This, not so much.
It’s a shame, because otherwise the book is fine. The finale of the book is really interesting, and I think comments better on the relationship between God, the Devil, and human religion better than, say, Go Nagai’s Devilman does. It’s just the route the book takes to get there is kind of “eh”. And when you’re telling a story about a quest, especially a Grail Quest, that journey is pretty important.
If you do want to pick this up, it’s available from Amazon.com as part of Gollancz’ Von Bek collection. Buying anything through that link will help support the site.
If you prefer to support an independent bookstore you can find it from other bookstores on Alibris.