The Greater Conqueror

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A novella by Michael Moorcock

Publishing History

Synopsis

Upon Hano’s recommendation, Simon is permitted to become a herald-messenger for Alexander the Great, but immediately following his appointment, the mercenary incurs the conqueror’s wrath when he directly confronts Alexander about the king’s encouragement of the abuse of women and children by his soldiery. Simon is forced to flee from Alexander’s palace into the streets of Babylon.

Simon escapes from Alexander’s soldiers only because of the aid of Abaris and The Magi, who use magical and worldly means to spirit him off to a secret hideout. After discussion about the origins of Alexander, Abaris, et al., Abaris gives Simon a scroll to deliver to a clan of Magi in Pela. En route to Pela, Simon is harassed by visions of The Furies, but is unsure as to whether the creatures have appeared to him in corporeal form because he drank an herbal potion made by The Magi prior to his departure from Babylon.

At Pela, Simon meets Massiva, who provides him with background information concerning Queen Olympias. Departing Pela’s company he comes upon four of Olympias’ degenerate, semi-human retainers menacing a young girl, Camilla, in an alley; Simon kills them all. Camilla takes Simon to the house of her father, and Simon shortly thereafter becomes a captain of Merates’ bodyguard.

A week passes before Camilla is kidnapped by Olympias’ underlings. Massiva provides Simon with information as to the location of the secret Rites of Cottyttia, a services to the goddess Cotys that are held by Olympias. Disguised as a Cotys-worshipper, Simon infiltrates and disrupts the rites by invoking Ormuzd’s aid and confronting Olympias and Ahriman-Cotys. Protected by burnt herbs given to him by Massiva, Simon rescues Camilla (a second time) and cuts their way out of the Rites, now convinced of the reality of supernatural beings (“(n)ow he knew that reason had passed from the world and that the ancient gods had returned to rule once more.”) (p. 62 - Dying for Tomorrow, 1st DAW printing, 1978).

The couple flees toward Babylon, pursued by the Huntsmen of Olympus (dead villains from Hades who ride Pegasi), the Maenades (leopard-women who worshipped Bacchus/Dionysus/Ahriman), large dogs sired by Cerberus (with serpent tails and serpents sprouting from their shoulders), and “a screaming multitude of ghouls, demons and were-beasts” (p. 64 - Dying for Tomorrow, 1st DAW printing, 1978) for 2 weeks. The intensity and duration of the pursuit pushes Simon and Camilla to the brink of insanity. Striving to combat this, Simon begins praying to Ormuzd, in earnest, for protection.

Having mistakenly followed the Tigris River rather than the Euphrates, the couple arrives in the ruined city of Nineveh, rather than the living city of Babylon, at their journey’s end. Abaris and other Magi from across the world await them there. Plans are made to destroy Alexander, because the king is amassing a huge army to invade lands to the north and east of those already under his — and now Ahriman’s — control.

Simon, protected by the magical Cloak of the Magi, enters Babylon incognito and confronts Alexander at The Temple of Baal. In a discussion before The Throne of Baal prior to the one-on-one combat between the two men, Alexander recalls that Apis, the oracular Bull of Memphis, had predicted the identity of his assassin—Simon—seven years earlier. Alexander transforms into Ahriman so that he may bear the magical Wand of Ahriman for battle with Simon, but Simon in response draws a javelin and shield from under the Cloak, then hurls the javelin “at a certain spot in the intricate supernatural pattern” and with his shield repels a bolt of black lightning sent by Ahriman in a riposte to Simon’s missile. The javelin strike drives Ahriman out of Alexander temporarily, and the king immediately engages Simon in sword combat, with a suggestion that the engagement is a suicidal gesture. The men fight for hours until Simon’s iron sword pierces one of Alexander’s lungs.

Dying, Alexander’s full humanity returns to him. After the conqueror’s passing, Ahriman vanishes. Simon and the Magi agree to lie about the manner of death of the king by informing the Babylonian Chaldeans that it was a fever that had slain Alexander. With his practical and skeptical character returned to him following the disappearance of Ahriman, Simon then voices an opinion that mere “clean steel” had killed the king, but Abaris disagrees, nothing that Magi magic drove Ahriman out of Alexander and allowed Simon the ability to fight man-to-man. In the end, Simon and Abaris agree to that until the world of men is united men will “strive for balance alone” between the impulses to do good and to do evil (p. 77 - Dying for Tomorrow, 1st DAW printing, 1978). Simon and Camilla embrace one another in the pulp story’s closing paragraph.

Thematic note

Simon’s temporary status as the standard-bearing hero for Ormuzd presages temporary “possessions” by the Eternal Champion of the souls of otherwise mortal heroes in the later novel The Champion of Garathorm and the second series of Corum novels, among others. Simon’s temporary supernatural hero status is also an illustrative example of one of Mike’s many recurrent thematic leitmotifs: the impermanence (or instability) of the concepts of personal identity and individual autonomy.

Mike Says

In Death is no Obstacle you told Colin Greenland that you had written Printer's Devil (under the pseudonym Bill Barclay, for Compact Books in 1965) from the cover artwork for Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out, the one where the devil literally rides on a horse’s back. Was it common to wrap up stories and novels around any given imagery in those publishing houses? And did you get to choose the images or were they imposed upon you?


MM: I did. It was common in the pulp world. I wrote at least one story (The Greater Conqueror) for a cover Carnell had by Gerard Quinn. Ironically he used the cover for a different issue. The artwork was shown to me and I would write a scene to fit it and whatever title the publisher had chosen.[1]

References

  1. From an interview published in the July 8, 2010 edition of the website “Montag: By Their Covers” (http://pedromarquesdg.wordpress.com/2010/07/08/michael-moorcock-i-think-i-preferred-my-own-imagination-part-i-2/)