The Stealer of Souls (story)

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The Stealer of Souls, a short story by Michael Moorcock, featuring Elric, the albino prince of Melniboné and his companion, Moonglum of Elwher. It introduces both Theleb K’aarna, sorcerer of Pan Tang and Yishana, Queen of Jharkor. First published in Science Fantasy #51 (February 1962), the periodical edited by John Carnell, who originally encouraged Moorcock to produce his early Elric stories.

Publishing History (UK

  • Science Fantasy #51, (Nova, February 1962) (periodical)
  • The Stealer of Souls, (Neville Spearman Ltd, 1963) (hardcover)
  • The Stealer of Souls, (Mayflower Books, 1968) (paperback)
  • The Bane of the Black Sword, (Grafton, 1984) (paperback)
  • The Tale of the Eternal Champion, Volume 8: Elric of Melniboné, (Orion Books, 1993) (hardcover & paperback)
  • Elric, (Gollancz, 2001) (paperback)[1]

Publishing History (US)

  • The Stealer of Souls, (Lancer Books, 1967) (paperback)
  • The Bane of the Black Sword, (DAW Books, 1976) (paperback)
  • The Bane of the Black Sword, (Berkley, 1983) (paperback)
  • The Elric Saga, Part II, Doubleday, 1984
  • The Bane of the Black Sword, (Ace, 1987) (paperback)
  • Elric: The Stealer of Souls, (White Wolf, 1995) (hardcover & paperback)
  • Elric: The Stealer of Souls, (Del Rey, 2008) (trade paperback)

Synopsis

* * The following section may contain spoilers * *


Accompanied by Moonglum, Elric is staying in Bakshaan, where he plans to fleece four rich merchants,[2] who have hired him to eliminate a powerful rival - Nikorn of Ilmar. When they tell him that Nikorn is protected by Elric's erstwhile enemy, the sorcerer Theleb K’aarna, he decides to settle old scores rather than pursue his original plan. K’aarna has become intimate with a former lover of Elric’s, Queen Yishana of Jharkor, and when the sorcerer learns that Elric is in the city he tells Yishana they should leave, the Queen refuses because her love for Elric is greater than her love for K'aarna, despite that fact he was indirectly responsible for her brother's death. K'aarna has managed to get rid of Yishana's subsequent lovers, but his passion for her means she is the dominant partner in their relationship.

Since the fall of Imrryr those Melnibonéans who survived have taken to leading a mercenary existence, and Elric learns that a company of such wanderers and freebooters, led by his childhood friend and former Lord of the Dragon Caves Dyvim Tvar, are camped in the woods outside Bakshaan. Although he is greeted with respect by his countrymen, they also regard him with suspicion and hatred. Tvar agrees to meet Elric, and questions why Elric chooses now to come when his countrymen are ready to forget him; Elric reveals his actions merely brought about the inevitable decline of the Bright Empire at a time when Melnibonéans were resilient enough to adapt to their change in status. Tvar agrees to let the army follow Elric one last time, not only in return for Nikon's riches, but also because they too have a score to settle with Theleb K’aarna. K’aarna, who sees himself as a man of peace driven to damn himself by his avaricious love for Yishana, summons the demon Quaolnargn to seek out and destroy Elric.

Elric battles Quaolnargn, who has assumed the form of a giant toad, and nearly has his soul sucked from his body before, in his weakened state, being transported to K’aarna's lair within the castle. After safely locking Stormbringer away K’aarna presents Elric to Yishana, who derides her former lover, before being taken before Nikorn. However, Nikorn decides that the enfeebled Elric is no threat to him and, upon receiving an undertaking that the albino will make no further attempt on his life, lets him go although Stormbringer will remain in K'aarna's custody. Outside, the Melnibonéans begin to mutter that Elric has betrayed them again, but Dyvim Tvar and Moonglum think otherwise, and at last, they see Elric being ejected from the palace. Tvar stops Moonglum from rushing to assist his friend so as not to give away the army's position. When Elric eventually stumbles to their hiding place, he tells his comrades that he still has a plan to attack the fortress.

The diminutive Moonglum is sent into the castle with a message for Queen Yishana - that Elric will renew their relationship if she returns Stormbringer to him. She successfully inveigles the key to the runesword from a wearied Theleb K'aarna, and when reunited with the black blade, Elric summons the Lasshaar to aid his assault; but remembering his promise to Nikon, Elric orders the army not to harm the merchant. However, Dyvim Tvar has a premonition of his own doom. Divining that Elric has called wind elementals, K'aarna summons fire elementals to counter-attack the Lasshaar. Before dawn, while the army attacks the castle, the elementals wage their own unseen, but still felt, battle overhead. Inside the castle, Elric is saved from a chance decapitation by Tvar who dies in the process. Urging the army to avenge the Dragon Master's death, Elric seeks out Theleb K’aarna, and enters his chamber only to find the sorcerer a mad, gibbering wreck raving that he was won. Elric pierces his skull with Stormbringer and invokes "any evil one who holds the soul of Dyvim Tvar release it now and take instead the soul of Theleb K’aarna". Overhead, there is silence as K'aarna's fire elementals are defeated by the Wind Lords.

In Bakshaan, Pilarmo’s plot to overthrow Nikorn has been discovered and fearful that Elric will attack the city after the castle, the merchant and his co-conspirators are coerced by their fellows into paying the Melnibonéan army off. Leaving the palace, Elric is attacked by Nikorn who accuses him of breaking their agreement, and although Elric is reluctant to fight him, Stormbringer sudden pulls itself free of his grip and strikes Nikorn fatally. Elric attempts to pull the runesword from the merchant’s chest but is unable to until Nikorn's soul has been consumed. Returning to the city to meet Yishana at the Tavern of the Purple Dove, Elric is bemused by the merchants sudden generosity but - after taking his pick of Pilarmo's spoils - instructs them to deliver the gold to the army. As Elric, Moonglum and Yishana ride out of Bakshaan, a dragon-shaped shadow moves across the face of the sun before vanishing.

Analysis

One of the most fascinating aspects of The Stealer of Souls is the characterisation of Theleb K’aarna. Despite being the first time we are introduced to the sorcerer from Pan Tang (a locale previously only mentioned in passing at the conclusion of The Dreaming City) he is clearly established as an arch-enemy of Elric. Once again, as with the earlier story, here we find Moorcock subverting the reader’s expectations; not only is this a climax to adventures as yet unseen, but the 'villain’s' motivations are more driven by an instinct for survival rather than malign intent against the protagonist. Moorcock makes it plain that Theleb K’aarna doesn’t see himself as an evil man[3], instead:

"[Theleb K’aarna] was, basically, a man of peace. It was not his fault that his avaricious love for Yishana had turned him mad. It was not his fault that, because of her, he had become initiated to the darker side of his chosen profession and now controlled several powerful and malevolent demons who, in return for the slaves and enemies he fed them, protected the palace of Nikorn the merchant. It was circumstance that had damned him."

Quite apart from the fact that these "several powerful and malevolent demons" don’t do anything to actually protect the castle from the Melnibonéan assault (are they sleeping on duty?) it’s interesting that Theleb K’aarna is a rather ineffectual foe. His entire motivation for attacking Elric is fear of what Elric will do to him. In other words, offence is the best defence. Indeed, his first instinct when he learns that Elric is in the same city as him is to leave, and it is only the refusal of Yishana to flee that stops him. The one time he gets lucky and has Elric at his mercy, the woman he loves steals the albino’s sword back for him, and the man he serves sets his enemy free. No wonder by the time Elric finally confronts him, Theleb K’aarna has gone completely insane. His final words to Elric: "Too late for vengeance, Lord Elric…I have won, you see – I have claimed your vengeance as my own" ring with a ghastly truth. There is no triumphalism for Elric in defeating his foe, for he is hardly worth defeating any more.

Yishana, on the other hand, is a different conundrum entirely. Moorcock describes her as: "...a handsome woman, with hair as black as her soul; though her youth was fading, she had a strange evil quality which both repelled and attracted men". Her motivations seem entirely dictated by Elric’s sexual prowess. She refuses to leave Bakshaan because she has found no man who is his equal in bed, yet when the impotent albino is flaunted before her by Theleb K’aarna she feels no empathy for his plight, such as one might expect from a lover. She is concerned solely with her own sexual gratification and only agrees to recover Stormbringer because Elric promises to recommence their liaison afterwards.

Oddly enough (or perhaps not, since Moorcock seems to delight in wrong-footing his readers’ expectations) we will not encounter Yishana again until the 1967 novella The Singing Citadel, which is in any case a prequel to The Stealer of Souls.

Connections

'The Stealer of Souls' take place five years after the events in 'The Dreaming City' and two years after Elric’s encounter with the Dead Gods' Book in 'While the Gods Laugh'. Yishana is the sister of Dharmit of Jharkor, whose ship was sunk by the catapults of Imrryr. It was Dyvim Tvar, Elric’s cousin, and his dragons who pursued the remnants of the Reavers’ fleet to their destruction after the sack of the Dreaming City. Pan Tang was the island that Elric’s ship ended up on having successfully fled the dragons.

Mike Says

  • "I planned to write three stories, but the series was incredibly popular. A sign of that is that I was featured on the cover with every story, as far as I recall. Far more successful than Carnell or I had guessed. So Carnell asked me to extend the series and then write what was essentially a serial. You can pretty much see where the original series ended, as I recall."[4]
  • "I have already modified the first movie to give it a strong female character based on Yishana (well it IS Yishana) without altering the rest of the story's dynamic. I don't think I would have agreed to this deal if I hadn't liked the pro-feminist attitudes of the Weitz brothers and their team."[5]

Notes

  1. Fantasy Masterworks vol 17
  2. Pilarmo, Tormiel, Kelos and Silent Deinstaf
  3. Ironically, 'evil' is an epithet that Elric uses to describe himself in While The Gods Laugh
  4. http://www.multiverse.org/fora/showpost.php?p=32708&postcount=2
  5. Moorcock’s Miscellany Q&A Archive Article #2629