The History Of The Runestaff: Future Sci-Fi Fantasy From Michael Moorcock

Jan 10, 2021
PCG regular contributor Rob continues his series of love letters to pulp fiction and classic sci-fi with a look at Michael Moorcock's fantasy quartet, The History Of The Runestaff.

Book 1: The Jewel in the Skull (Bob Haberfield art)
Book 1: The Jewel In The Skull (Bob Haberfield art) 
During the sixties and seventies, Michael Moorcock was one of the most prominent voices of SF/Fantasy pulp fiction, publishing books at a rapid rate that spanned many genres, through decadent sword and sorcery, new wave SF, planetary romances, Steampunk (he arguably invented the modern genre with his Bastable books), and literary prize-winning novels. In addition to his writing, he edited New Worlds, the most important SF magazine of the sixties, wrote, recorded, and gigged with Hawkwind, Blue Oyster Cult, and his own band, the Deep Fix, and was a strident and respected voice for women’s rights, gender equality and left wing politics. He is the closest I can think of to Alan Moore in range and quality of work, and literary standing within his own field, and it is little wonder that Alan Moore grew up idolising Moorcock and that these days the two men are firm friends.

I’ve picked out the History Of The Runestaff series of books (The Jewel In The Skull, The Mad God’s Amulet, The Sword Of The Dawn, and The Runestaff) from Moorcock’s incredible volume of work, simply because this series is immediately accessible to the casual reader who has little to no familiarity with the other books, and because the BBC has apparently bought the rights in 2019 with the intention of turning it into a Game Of Thrones competing TV series.

The Runestaff quartet of books is a slim series of paperbacks written very quickly indeed during the sixties, when Moorcock was a popular figure within the psychedelic counter-culture of Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove. And by ‘quickly’, I mean at a pace that would astonish even the pulp writers of Weird Tales magazine in the 1930s.

As Moorcock himself reflected:

"My old method of writing fantasy novels was to go to bed for a few days, getting up only to take the kids to school and pick them up, while the book germinated, making a few notes, then I’d jump out of bed and start, writing around 15-20,000 words a day (I was a superfast typist) for three days, rarely for more than normal working hours—say 9 to 6—get my friend Jim Cawthorn to read the manuscript for any errors of typing or spelling etc. then send it straight to the editor unread by me. I have still to read more than a few pages of the Hawkmoon books. The odd thing is that I’ve actually read almost none of my own books but I seem to remember the events as if I’d lived them. Some scenes are better remembered than others, of course. Similarly, I’ve reread almost nothing of the Elric, Corum or Eternal Champion novels."

A young Michael Moorcock, typing 20,000 words, wherever he might be
A young Michael Moorcock, typing 20,000 words, wherever he might be
I came across the second book in the sequence (The Mad God’s Amulet) at a school book sale, when I was looking to broaden my reading beyond Robert E. Howard, and where it was priced up at the grand cost of three English pence, partly because it looked like someone had run over it in a monster truck, then gone back, stamped all over it with hobnail boots and probably used it as a Frisbee. ‘Near Fine’ condition, it wasn’t.

BUT it had an amazing cover (ALL UK edition Moorcock books at the time did, thanks in the main to artist Bob Haberfield, who created acid-crazed psychedelic offerings of art, perfectly in keeping with the colourful vistas of a Moorcock tale) and based on that alone I was prepared to risk three pence of my hard earned pocket money on it.

The books are set in and around Europe, thousands of years in the future, after the Tragic Millennium ended contemporary civilisation, and after the world has built itself back to some semblance of normality. Moorcock was keen to reverse what he saw as English jingoism in literature, and deliberately chose to make Britain the evil empire and Europe (now a collection of Renaissance like city states and feudal lands) the victims. He chose to make his hero (Dorian Hawkmoon) a German Duke from Koln, in direct contrast to the post war fiction he grew up with, where Germans mostly existed in Commando stories to shout “Schnell” and “Achtung! Spitfire!”, and die at the hands of plucky British commandos.

Book 2: The Mad God's Amulet (Bob Haberfield art)
Book 2: The Mad God's Amulet (Bob Haberfield art)
As Moorcock wrote:

"I left IPC [where he wrote comics] after rows involving racial stereotyping, which I refused to do, even in the WWI flying stories I wrote and you can see Hawkmoon in the light of that, too. I was determined to move my fantasy away from some kind of vague ‘time before time’ and, if you like, Europeanise it, make it relate at least to a degree to the contemporary world. My fantasy, though in all important ways essentially escapism, always has to have some relation to my own and my contemporaries’ experience of the real world or it doesn’t seem worth writing. Of course, I was primarily in those days addressing an anglophone audience, and wanted to say something like "Hey, we’re not always the good guys"."

In the Hawkmoon books, Britain is the brutal Dark Empire of Granbretan; a fascist chivalric, militaristic society, whose people have quietly gone insane. The wearing of intricately designed beast masks is commonplace throughout polite society in Londra, and the society has built up an enormous military presence of armoured wolf, boar, bear, hound, hawk (etc) masked soldiers in their hundreds of thousands, ready to march across an enormous bridge that links Dover to Calais, and invade Europe.

Which they do, quite successfully, in the first book, looting, pillaging and burning everything in their path.

But for the jaded Lords of Granbretan, the conquest has almost no meaning in itself.

"For this was the great power of the Lords of the Dark Empire, that they valued nothing on all the Earth, no human quality, nothing within or without themselves. The spreading of conquest and desolation, of terror and torment, was their staple entertainment, a means of employing their hours until their spans of life were ended. For them, warfare was merely the most satisfactory way of easing their ennui..."

Book 3: The Sword of the Dawn (Bob Haberfield art)
Book 3: The Sword Of The Dawn (Bob Haberfield art)
This post-apocalypse setting is decadent, lavish, and a bizarre mash-up of antique science and sorcery, the two of which seem to blend in seamlessly at times. While essentially a world of swords and shields, warriors ride scarlet flamingos into battle, there are flame lances (lasers), winged ornithopters (helicopters with, well, flapping metal wings), and ancient machines in the bowels of Londra that can create dark abominations. 

"The earth has grown old, her landscapes mellow, her people lost in a brooding dream. It is an age of antique cities, scientific sorcery, crystal machines, great flying engines with mechanical wings. And the armies of the Dark Empire are relentlessly taking over the once-peaceful city states, ravaging and destroying as they advance, mile by brutal mile..."

By the time the first book begins, large swathes of Europe resemble the landscape of the Thirty Years War. Towns and cities that do not surrender on their knees are butchered and subjected to terrible atrocities on a grand scale by the Dark Empire of Granbretan. When Dorian Hawkmoon decides to oppose the beast legions and defend Koln, rather than submit, his outnumbered army is swiftly crushed and he is taken back to Londra in golden chains. There he is offered a choice by Baron Meliadus, the central villain of the saga. He can be restored as a puppet ruler, and avoid months of torture, if he embarks on a mission to kidnap the daughter of a Count in southern France who has so far withstood the sweeping armies of Londra, thanks in part to its towers containing ancient devices and weapons of powerful, long forgotten, science.

Hawkmoon agrees, but to ensure his compliance, Meliadus implants an ancient black stone into his forehead. The stone contains a malevolent lifeforce that will eat into his brain if he seeks to betray Granbretan. And through the black jewel, Meliadus will be able to see anything Hawkmoon sees. At the first sign of planned treachery, the Baron will trigger the black jewel remotely, and let it devour Dorian’s mind. Dorian is Granbretan’s slave, or is he? 

Book 4: The Runestaff (Bob Haberfield art)
Book 4: The Runestaff (Bob Haberfield art)
In the four book sequence that follows this opening set of chapters, Moorcock races through set piece to set piece at breakneck speed, sending his heroes on colourful quests across war-torn Europe, introducing shape-shifting cities, berserker legions of leather clad warrior women serving the ‘Mad God’, pirate fleets, mutant savages in the remains of Wales, and much more besides. 

Like many books of the period, the volumes are slim, but Moorcock makes every word count.

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