The Melnibonéan, the Multiverse and Native American myth are three themes Michael Moorcock explores to great effect and delight in his latest novel, The Skrayling Tree. This novel follows on the heels of The Dreamthief’s Daughter, continuing the intertwined saga of Elric his daughter Oona her husband and Elric’s son-in-law Ulric von Bek. In this, his latest thought-provoking novel, Moorcock brings his Eternal Champion mythos to early North America, as seen through the eyes of both the native tribes and the immigrant Vikings. The Vikings call the native peoples skraelings or skraylings-which gives the title of the novel, The Skrayling Tree. The Tree itself may well be the essence or objectification of Moorcock’s all encompassing Multiverse. The three plot strands follow Oona daughter of Elric and the dreamthief; her husband Ulric von Bek, himself bearing strong ties to the Eternal Champion; and the most recognized of all the Champions incarnations, Elric of Melniboné.
At the outset of the novel, we find Ulric von Bek and his wife, Oona, settling down at their North American cottage after the end of the Second World War. Early on, Ulric is abducted by members of the native tribe Kakatanawa for reasons to be explored later. Oona simply wants to find her husband, regardless of the impact her presence and actions may have. As Oona attempts to find and bring back her husband she proceeds through a portal that brings them to a past that might have been, as Native American Tribesmen and Vikings are encountering each other. This era is not often touched upon in fantasy literature, but Moorcock skillfully explores this rich era incorporating it into his Eternal Champion and Multiverse mythos.
The second part of the book brings Elric into the story, as a member of a party of Vikings and native Pukawatchi tribe. The Pukawatchi’s are in search of White Crow, the trickster who they claim has stolen some of their sacred treasures. As a part of the group, Elric hopes to find the source and creators of his soul-sword, Stormbringer. As with most of Elric’s adventures, the internal dialogue and thoughts of Elric prove to be some of the most intriguing parts of the novel. Through Elric, Moorcock explores further depths and powers behind the Multiverse and the nature of his relationship to the Multiverse.
Our last plot strand centers on Ulric von Bek as his captors bring him ever closer to the titular Skrayling Tree, a central life-force of the Multiverse. The demon Sepiriz and Ulric talk at great length of the nature of the Cosmic Balance between Chaos and Order. Though Moorcock has explored this in great detail in many of his previous works, the dialogue here is as thought provoking and stimulating as in any of the previous novels. As Ulric journeys with Lord Sepiriz to find his wife, echoes of Elric’s past experiences leak through, helping, grounding and dooming Ulric in his current situation.
Moocock’s handling of the relationship between Elric and Ulric was one of the strong points in the novel. As both men are branches of the Eternal Champion, their relationship is even further blurred and set at odds due to their connection to Oona. This triad of characters is quite possibly, more deeply connected than any husband-wife-father can possibly be. Their relationship to the line of Champions as well to the Multiverse itself may bear out to be one of the more defining aspects of the Multiverse. Following Moorcock’s exploration of these ties is proving to be one of the more provocative journeys in fantasy literature.
The structure of the novel itself was quite impressive. Superficially, the three separate portions of the novel are titled branches-Oona’s Branch, Elric’s Branch and Ulric’s Branch a clever play on the titular Tree. As the novel progresses, echoes of previous Eternal Champion tales resonate to great effect and the power of the number three is continually brought to the forefront. As the novel draws to its close, this triplicate aspect converges even more powerfully and effectively.
All told, Moorcock has once again brought his Eternal Champion mythos to the forefront of Fantastic Literature, engaging the reader to consider the nature of reality, our place in this supposed reality while telling an entertaining and satisfying story.
Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford
© 2003 Rob Bedford