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Review of Von Bek by Michael Moorcock

Von BekVon Bek was one of the half a dozen or so books I took with me to Korea last time. And this time, too. I held off reading it originally because for some mysterious reason I had an idea that it would rather dry and earnest and less than entertaining. I could have been less wrong, but not much.

This volume is the first of a 14 book series collecting tales of the Eternal Warrior – as far as I can gather, these various stories constitute the bulk of Moorcock’s body of work, but they possess thematic consonances. The Tale of the Eternal Champion, Volume 1 is made up of The Warhound and the World’s Pain, The City in the Autumn Stars and ‘The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius’. The first is a short novel from 1981, the second a rather longer novel from 1986, and the third a short story from 1965.

The Warhound and the World’s Pain is the story of Graf Ulrich von Bek and his quest to find the cure to the world’ pain in the 1630s. The City in the Autumn Stars concerns the Graf’s descendent, Ritter Manfred von Bek, and his convoluted journey across Europe away from his persecutors and towards an ambiguous destiny at the end of the 18th century. ‘The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius’, having been written much earlier is a very different piece of work – it’s a strange alternate reality story narrated by Minos von Bek, Metatemporal Investigator. This latter story doesn’t really sit well with the other two tales (as Moorcock’s introduction implies).

The two novels (about 98% of the whole book) are impressively well-written and very entertaining. Each is written as a first person narrative, the respective von Beks dictating or setting down later in life the strange adventures of their early manhood. The writing has just enough hints of an old-fashioned style to seem reasonably authentic, but without going overboard. Each von Bek is an experienced, world-weary, educated man with a somewhat sardonic view of the world. Each never quite takes seriously the supernatural, mystical nature of the events he witnesses. Each has done his fair share of killing, but each is fundamentally a good man.

In the first story, Ulrich von Bek finds himself in a mysterious castle and is there tasked by Lucifer to find the Holy Grail. The Devil portrayed here is not a monster – far from it. Lucifer is a fallen angel looking to rectify his past mistakes, to restore himself and all damned souls to Heaven (or so he says). Von Bek, reluctantly, knowing that Lucifer is the Father of Lies, takes on the Quest. What follows is a long journey weaving in and out of the real world and the Mittelmarch, a fantastical realm somewhere between Earth and Heaven or Hell. Von Bek is assailed by denizens of Hell who think that Satan is, frankly, losing it.

The first novel is straightforward in that we know from near the beginning what Ulrich von Bek’s purpose is. In the second, Manfred von Bek begins his tale fleeing from the bloodthirsty nouveau regime in post-Revolutionary France. He travels east towards Mirenburg (a fictional city somewhere beyond Prague) meeting a number of charismatic individuals – including the Duchess of Crete, with whom he falls completely in love. The narrative builds with a series of hints and revelations, twists and turns towards a mystical Concordance.

The slow build-up of the second novel mitigates against it a little, and much of the book is taken up with von Bek and his friend’s scheme to make money out of a flying ship they never intend to build. As you get towards the end, though, the story becomes layered with alchemical, religious and mythological imagery. There are plenty of magical goings-on, but the truth, within the story, of the supernatural ambitions of just about everybody except von Bek is skillfully made ambiguous.

The short story that concludes this volume was an anticlimax – it struck me as something of a piece of juvenilia. Minos von Bek is investigating a death. Specifically the death of a man called Djugashvili (Stalin) in the garden of Bismarck. The latter’s assistant, Hitler, seems to be involved with a singer (Eva Braun) who works in the bar of Kurt Weill (which is also patronised by Einstein). The story also features murderous plants and a giant four-legged, gun-toting robot, and is set in the ruins of Berlin. It’s not as good as the two novels.

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Categories: Literature, Reviews
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