I grew up sickly. Some of the most vivid memories I have of my childhood, and most of my younger years, are of being sick. Pneumonia and I were–and sometimes still are–regular acquaintances. Asthma is a thing I’ve dealt with my entire life, as are migraines. My immune system has never been the best and if I don’t get knocked on my ass by a cold or the flu at least a few times a year, it’s because they tend to just roll right from one into the other. And don’t get me started on the allergies. I don’t remember what age exactly I was, but I remember distinctly enduring the archaic and torturous “back scratch test” that they used to submit children to a million years ago to see what they were allergic to. My children only have to get a little blood drawn. Oh how far we’ve come.
Suffice to say, sickness, frailty and I go way back. Same for depression and anxiety, the ghosts that haunt my existence. My childhood wasn’t all terrible, not by a long shot, but the majority of my adventuring in those days was done in the pages of books while I was laid up with one malady or another. Comic books and paperbacks were my best friends. Middle-Earth and Prydain, Arrakis and Hyborea. Far away worlds and ancient lands. They were the places I dreamed of and wished to go to. The adventures of the heroes in those pages were my adventures, but, for all of that, I never related to them. They were not me and I could never be like them. They were all too larger-than-life, too fearless and powerful. I spent a lot of my youth feeling small, weak, and powerless. It was all absolute fantasy and escapism.
And then, some years later when I was a little older and a lot more cynical–probably around the wizened and world-weary age of thirteen–I encountered a different kind of hero. Maybe, not really, a hero at all. But they were someone like me, someone I could relate to. They were of a frail disposition, their flesh a treacherous cage; their mind a sharp and deadly instrument full of twisting, shadowed corridors. They required elixirs and medicines, compacts with demon lords and arcane weapons to supplement the failings of their body.
That hero was Elric, the White Wolf, doomed 428th Emperor of Melnibone, the Dreaming City.
I devoured those books. Elric, and to an extent much of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion stories, shaded and colored my burgeoning concept of fantasy as well as not just what a hero was, but what a hero could be. Not something so simply constructed of extremes, of blacks and whites, but subtle variations of light and dark. Elric was, Elric is, at all times capable of good and evil and holds most tightly to the maxim of “know thyself.” At all times, as an aspect of the Eternal Champion, Elric seeks balance; not only with the universe at large but with himself. With the warring parts of himself, his flesh and spirit and mind, which are always at odds with each other.
Those stories mean a lot to me, and I tried to revisit them and Elric’s strange, awful, wonderful world as often as I could. In the last couple years, though, they’ve taken on a new kind of significance to me. I’ve mentioned it before, elsewhere, I was not too long ago officially diagnosed with fibromyalgia. It’s not the most fun. I seem to be constantly revising my concept of normalcy, what I’m capable of, and what I can expect from my body. At all times it feels as if my flesh is plotting some new, painful treachery. It comes with a deeper understanding of depression, a thing which I’d thought the depths of which I’d already plumbed. I had not. It turns out, in fact, I know very little about the depths to which my mind and body can sink.
But also, I knew very little about how far out of balance I’d become with myself, and the world. I sunk pretty far down, for a pretty long while. I can admit I was in a bad place, and probably wasn’t the best person to be around. Thankfully my family is caring, kind, and most of all patient. They were, and are, always there. Thankfully, also, so are the stories. That’s the beauty of them; they’re always there, waiting for you. The heroes and the adventures.
Elric was still there, too. Red-eyed and brooding, pitting the strength of his will against the machinations of Chaos and Order. Enduring the failings and weaknesses of his flesh–more than enduring. Persevering despite them, or maybe in spite of them. I came back to him after too long away. I’m working my way even now through the stories. Seeing them through a new lens, from a new perspective. His stories are a visceral and often violent reminder of what a person with a will is capable of, what a person can overcome. The persistent power of stories. The power of finding a story you resonate with. I’ve found new strength in Elric’s stories, new perspective. I needed it, more than I probably realized.
I’ll be honest. I don’t have a real good, clean way to wrap this up. I will say, though, it’s never quite as dark or as awful as it seems. The way out is often through, and very rarely ever down. Perspective may not mean everything, but it means a lot, and sometimes all you need to get a new perspective is an old story with an old hero. Thank you, Michael Moorcock for giving the world Elric. Thank you, Elric. You’ve always managed to be there when I’ve needed you.