Alexander Glass on a new novel by Michael Moorcock
Every author puts something of themselves into their characters. Michael Moorcock is Elric… and Erekosë, and Jerry Cornelius, and Oona Von Bek, and many others. In his latest novel, The Woods of Arcady (Gollancz, 2023), Michael Moorcock is… Michael Moorcock. Or at least, one version of him, in one corner of the multiverse.
This is the second volume of The Sanctuary of the White Friars, the sequence that began almost a decade ago with The Whispering Swarm (Gollancz, 2015). In that book the young Moorcock – writer, editor, musician – stumbles on Alsacia: a secret world somewhere between the Inns of Court and the river Thames, and yet not exactly there. (Anyone who has stumbled into the Inns of Court, the barristers’ cloisters, will know that they themselves seem to be part of a secret alternative London, as indeed they are.) In Alsacia, people from different times come together, and mingle with people from fiction. Dick Turpin to one side, the Musketeers to the other. And then there are others, perhaps peculiar to Alsacia: Friar Isidore, and the flame-haired adventuress Molly Midnight. The Sanctuary of the White Friars alternates between Moorcock’s London of the 1950s and 1960s and his adventures in Alsacia – both an entertaining fantasy and a meditation on the fate of Charles I, the English Revolution, and its echoes in the American Revolution.
To say The Woods of Arcady continues the story is wholly inadequate. Yes, its central character is still Michael Moorcock; and yes, part of it takes the form of a memoir and part follows Moorcock into other, vividly-drawn worlds. The memoir continues more or less from 1970, where the memoir of The Whispering Swarm ended, but ends – at least in our world – not long afterward. First, it winds back to the Blitz, where German bombers – misdirected by British Intelligence – fly over Mitcham, South-West London, instead of Whitehall.
My mother held me up to the window. Chuckling, I watched the dogfights. Ruins everywhere. My mother laughed and joked so I did too. Thanks, MI5.
Moorcock has described scenes like this in interviews. Speaking, he is always engaging. His prose in this sequence captures his real voice: genial, erudite, aware of the world as it is and as it was; a born raconteur, but eternally curious and generous; his opinions deeply held but softly spoken. It is easy to see why Moorcock’s publisher suggested that he write a memoir, and it is easy to see why he should have resisted setting it out in a more mundane format. Partly, of course, he resisted out of regard for the feelings of real people, people still living, who would appear in the memoir. Partly, one feels, he resisted because the whisper of the multiverse is impossible to ignore. His worlds beckoned.
He has published snippets of memoir before, incorporated into London Peculiar and elsewhere; he has fictionalised himself before (Josef Kiss and David Mummery in Mother London are both aspects, or searchlight shadows, of Moorcock); he has put himself in fiction before, in the acclaimed Colonel Pyat sequence, though only to peer in from the margins of the story.
In The Woods of Arcady, though the memoir returns to events that have been told before, it hardly matters: Moorcock is a good enough storyteller to be able to retell an event and hold his audience’s attention every time.
He confirms that memoir is always fiction, by its nature:
In his memoir, Ballard, to whom I think I was a loyal and honest friend, remembered incidents in which we both figured but where he almost always made himself the most dynamic protagonist of the story he was telling when often I remembered him as a retiring bystander.
Of course, if the memoirist is in any case writing fiction, why should that fiction not break out of one fictional reality and into another?
He also has fun with the notion that some of his readers will be waiting for the fantasy to arrive: ‘Don’t worry, dear, we’ll soon be bringing in the airships and the magic swords’.
The airships and the magic swords appear in Paris this time, rather than London, after only occasional hints and glimpses in the first hundred or so pages. He is kidnapped; and the journey from that point on is impossible to summarise. Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan reappear. Moorcock visits the island of Las Cascadas, and encounters Captain Quelch, both from the underrated Fabulous Harbours. Other familiar characters from Moorcock’s multiverse reappear. From there he journeys on to the Sahara, pursued by the malevolent Jacob Nixer (not, it must be said, one of Moorcock’s more formidable or interesting villains).
The mood is lighter than in The Whispering Swarm, the colours brighter. The Yeats poem from which the title is taken (‘The Song of the Happy Shepherd’: ‘The woods of Arcady are dead / And over is their antique joy’) is elegiac, mourning the passing of a romantic, and Romantic, vision of Ireland. Elegy is not Moorcock’s intention. He may indulge in reverie, introspection, even brooding; he is frank about his own flaws, particularly where they affected his marriage, though he is not unkind in his portrayal of his first wife; but in the end his seemingly inexhaustible energy does not really lend itself to the elegiac mode. There is always a battle of ideas to be fought, and he cannot stay away from it for long. Here, although the character of Jacob Nixer is the notional antagonist, one senses that Moorcock’s real enemy is within genre fiction itself: it is the lack of adventure (ironically) which stems from fantasy writers using only other fantasy writers as their source material.
Fans of Moorcock’s early fantasy books – often written in haste to make some money, including money to keep New Worlds afloat – may be disappointed not to meet any of those characters. Moorcock has a real affection for Elric – his last novel was 2022’s The Citadel of Forgotten Myths, a return to the anguished prince of Melniboné after a gap of seventeen years – but he has said that the stories of Dorian Hawkmoon and the rest are finished: there is nothing more to say. When The Woods of Arcady returns to our reality, Moorcock gives us a taste of his weariness of those characters. On learning that his wife is pregnant with their third child: ‘Of course, it also meant signing up for another fantasy sequence and probably another few after that. I had hoped to spend the time working on what I called my ‘holocaust novel’, the memoirs of Colonel Pyat. I would have to set aside the literary novels I was planning. Back to the old grindstone.’
(The resulting novels were the first of the Corum sequence – three of them, astonishingly, written that same year. And yet even those, and others churned out to pay the bills – sometimes written in a matter of days – often had more wild inventiveness than many a high fantasy doorstopper. But another ten years would go by before the breathtaking first Pyat novel, Byzantium Endures.)
The Woods of Arcady glides gracefully to a place of rest, a sunlit respite in Moorcock’s beloved Paris. A brief epilogue sets up the next volume, The Wounds of Albion, and hints that, like the various iterations of his Eternal Champion, this Michael Moorcock may not be the only one in the multiverse.
For now, on this world, we only have one. But we are lucky to have him. ∎
Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in Interzone, The Third Alternative, Black Static, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read his story ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ here on IZ Digital. and he has another, ‘Sfumato’, forthcoming in Interzone #296.
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