While the Gods Laugh (story)

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While the Gods Laugh, a short story by Michael Moorcock, featuring Elric, the albino prince of Melniboné. Its original publication was in Science Fantasy #49, (October 1961), the periodical edited by John Carnell who first encouraged Moorcock to produce his early Elric stories.

Publishing History (UK)

  • Science Fantasy #49, (Nova, October 1961), edited by E.J. Carnell (periodical)
  • The Stealer of Souls, (Neville Spearman Ltd, 1963) (hardcover)
  • The Stealer of Souls, (Mayflower Books, 1968) (paperback)
  • The Weird of the White Wolf (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)

Synopsis

* * The following section may contain spoilers * *

A year after the sack of Imrryr, Elric is still brooding over the death of his cousin, Cymoril. In a Filkharian tavern he is approached by Shaarilla of the Dancing Mists, a wingless woman of Myyrrhn, to seeks Elric’s assistance to find the legendary Dead Gods’ Book. Initially disdainful, Elric eventually agrees to accompany her, and in time, as they journey through Shazaar towards the Silent Land, Elric and Shaarilla begin a sexual relationship. Elric tells Shaarilla that wishes to know whether there is an ultimate God, greater than the forces of Law and Chaos at whose whim the lives of men are spent.

During their journey Elric realises that some force is working against them, trying to thwart them. A map that Shaarilla had disappeared before she met Elric, crossing the Marshes of the Mist, they are attacked by Mist Giant, whom Elric destroys by speaking ‘the ultimate name’ although afterwards he cannot recall what it was. Later they meet Moonglum of Elwher who is pursued by a pack of devil-dogs of the Dharzi; together Elric and Moonglum defeat the dogs, and the Outlander attaches himself to their quest, despite Shaarilla’s objections, who now attempts to dissuade Elric from continuing. A second pack of devil-dogs – this time with their master, the undead Lords of the Dhazri – attacks the party, and Elric casts a spell that causes the earth to swallow up their attackers.

The trio at least arrive at a cave, over the mouth of which hangs the Sign of Chaos, within which Shaarilla says lies the Dead Gods’ Book . Elric tells Moonglum the the Chaos sign is "the symbol of everlasting disruption and anarchy", and that the realm they are in is "presided over by the Lords of Entropy or one of their minions". Elric explains that the forces of Law and Chaos which govern the universe are values set above man-made one like 'good' and 'evil', but as a sorcerer he believes a balance between them is required, although he doesn’t know whether an ultimate force exists that rules over the opposing factions. Entering the cave, they discover a tunnel leading away into darkness.

After an interminable period, which passes like a dream, they emerge before an underground sea, along the crystalline beach of which they find a a sea-worthy vessel they can use to cross it. During the crossing the boat is attacked by flying ape-like creatures called Clakars. Elric draws Stormbringer to defend them but finds the blade lifeless, and his own vitality begins to weaken as he realises the forces of Entropy must be stronger in this realm, thus negating his Chaos blade. Upon reaching the far shore, Stormbringer’s vitality returns and Elric revives from his enfeebled state.

The party arrives at a castle of black but Moonglum has a premonition that Elric will find "nothing but bitterness, possibly death, inside those castle walls". Again, Shaarilla entreats Elric to forget the Book, but he tells her it is “better to die than never to have tried to secure the wisdom in the Book when it lies so near”. Entering the castle they discover Orunlu the Keeper, who says he is unable to harm them directly, although his oblique efforts to thwart them have failed. Orunlu muses that the Book may swing the balance in Law’s favour but might also result in the destruction of the entire universe – something the Lords of Chaos do not want, saying "we exist only to fight – not to win, but to preserve the eternal struggle".

When Elric attempts to open the massive jewel-encrusted book it disintegrates at his touch:

“Time had destroyed the Book – untouched, possibly forgotten, for three hundred centuries. Even the wise and powerful Gods who had created it had perished – and now its knowledge followed them into oblivion, or whatever had awaited them beyond the physical universe.”

Returning to the surface, Elric mourns his fate to live not knowing whether some ultimate force drives his actions. Shaarilla attempts to comfort the albino but he spurns her advances. Moonglum decides to continue travelling with Elric, revealing he’d taken some of the gems - "each one worth a fortune" – from the debris of the Dead Gods’ Book’s. Shaarilla, however, remains behind.

Analysis

Having effectively cleared the decks in The Dreaming City by destroying Imrryr, Moorcock opened a new chapter in the life of Elric with the introduction of Moonglum of Elwher as the albino’s future comrade in arms. Here too we also got our first taste of Moorcock’s concept of the forces of Law and Chaos, although he was yet to introduce the multiverse as an element in these stories at the time of writing.[2]

What begins as a seemingly standard adventure quest eventually comes to resemble more a dream or psychodrama when the companions reach the cave mouth that will lead them to the Dead Gods’ Book. Moorcock very effectively conjures the sense of the deep unreality that envelopes Elric as he passes along the tunnel to the underground sea – itself an evocative image:

"They lost all sense of time and Elric began to feel as if he were living through a dream. Events seemed to have become so unpredictable and beyond his control that he could no longer cope with thinking about them in ordinary terms…He began to feel that possibly he was not moving – that the floor, after all, was moving and he was remaining stationary. His companions clung to him but he was not aware of them. He was lost and his brain was numb...
...All the while he made his legs perform walking motions even though he was not sure whether he was actually moving forward. And time meant nothing – became a meaningless concept with relation to nothing."

Shaarilla’s motivations in persuading Elric to accompany her are perhaps not satisfactorily explained within the narrative (though this may be deliberate). Is she really seeking the Dead Gods’ Book to restore her wings as she claims or is she an agent provocateur, her entreaties to Elric to abandon the quest actually having the intent of pushing him onwards to his doom? Her fate at the end of the story seems to involve a return to the underground realm but for precisely what purpose is unclear.

Whatever Shaarilla’s intentions as the instigator of the quest, certainly Elric is no better off at the end than at the beginning except that he does inherit a new sidekick – Moonglum the Outsider. From the outset of their relationship, Moonglum is presented as the Ying to Elric’s Yang – where Elric is knowledgeable, Moonglum is stranger to the Young Kingdoms, where the albino is a brooding pessimist, the Outlander is a pragmatic realist, as evidenced by his pocketing of the spilled gems from the Dead God’s Book.

Connections

While The Gods Laugh takes place one year after the events of The Dreaming City.

The basic plot was reinterpreted as the third Jerry Cornelius short story, Phase Three (New Worlds #156, March 1966), with the Dead Gods' Book being substituted with the lost diary of Major Newman. It was incorporated into the first Cornelius novel, The Final Programme.

While The Gods Laugh shares themes in common with an earlier Moorcock novel: The Golden Barge, written in 1958 but not published until 1979. In the novel, Jephraim Tallow follows a fabled golden barge down an interminable river, always pursuing it, but unable to attain it. In the end, the barge sails off across the open sea, and Tallow, now an old man - a rotten husk - who has committed terrible crimes in the pursuit of his desire, is finally unable to follow it. (The Golden Barge also features city called Melibone, a possible progenitor for Elric’s Melniboné?)

Mike Says

  • On October 03, 2000 Ian Johnson wrote: "It's suddenly occured to me to ask a question I've been meaning to ask for a lobe time, ever since "While the Gods Laugh" - why "Moonglum"? Did Peake influence the choice of name any? If so, why "glum" when he's the big optimist? Or was it just one of those flashes of fancy?"
On October 03, 2000 Michael Moorcock replied: "Flash of fancy. But definitely Peake influenced, I'd say."[3]
  • On July 26, 2003 Mark Wallace wrote: "Is Moonglum based on Barry Bayley? Are you at liberty to tell the world?"
On July 27, 2003 Michael Moorcock replied: "Yes, Barry's Moonglum. He's also Tallow! Are you getting the impression I only have one friend...?"[4]
  • "There was a real person upon whom Moonglum was based. He's one of my closest friends. He's also the person on whom a couple of other characters were based.[5]
  • "Moonglum is Elric's eternal companion, yes, but there are others, of course, who sometimes emerge from different universes, just as from time to time there is more than one manifestation of the Champion in the same universe. Not too often, of course, or there would be some confusing congestion!"[6]
  • "I don't lose my interest in Elric ever. He remains with me and whenever a new idea comes along, I'm glad to run with it. These new books came out of thinking over certain elements in the stories which have triggered various psychopathic responses in readers, who have committed bad crimes and claimed either that they were Elric or that Elric gave them the idea. I am the kind of author who feels a need to take responsibility for his work as much as that's possible, so I am always conscious of the latent content, as it were. The Elric stories were consciously created at the time, with a fair amount of what people now call sub-texts. As a result they continue to provide me with a kind of feedback. I also feel obliged to readers. I am not going to offer them the same sort of book over and over again if i can possibly help it and where there are natural repetitions I wanted to make those repetitions function as narrative rather than simply ignore them. Different considerations and different ideas converge -- you get the notion of the eternally repeating story -- with people struggling either to change it or keep it the same -- the balance between Law and Chaos. The books become harder and harder to write because I make them harder to write. Without the those tensions, they would not still be Elric stories for me, even when Elric himself features only partially in this new series, where his co-avatar, as it were, von Bek also has a role. I probably won't write any more after the book which follows The Skrayling Tree. There are plenty of other stories still to be told, but they are not, strictly, Elric's stories. You'll pick up a fair bit of background and some more stuff about relationships in the new one."[7]
  • "... [While The Gods Laugh] was meant to be exemplary when I wrote it in 1961 (I think) -- to do with the worthlessness of knowledge not gained from experience ... the Elric stories have almost always had a sub-text, as it were, and I try to keep that sub-text as consistent as I can when doing my own Elric stories. If they have a 'moral' I suppose it's to do with Faustian bargains and there being no free lunches!"

Notes

  1. Fantasy Masterworks vol 17
  2. Moorcock later revised this story to retroactively introduce the multiverse as a concept.
  3. Moorcock's Miscellany Q&A Archive Article #185
  4. Moorcock's Miscellany Q&A Archive Article #3169
  5. Moorcock's Miscellany Q&A Archive Article #3145
  6. Moorcock's Miscellany Q&A Archive Article #2391
  7. Moorcock's Miscellany Q&A Archive Article #1387