28 May 2014

The Hawkmoon Tetralogy

Over the past few years I’ve reread (or, in some cases, read for the first time) some of Michael Moorcock’s classic fantasy series.  I started with the two Corum trilogies, which I remembered as my favourites from decades ago.  I then reread the Elric stories.  Some of these (namely, those published after the late 1980s) I read for the for first time.  I found the Elric tales to be wide ranging in terms of quality, but at their best, they are wonderful and evocative, definitely ‘must reads’ for any fan of fantasy literature.  I also read The War Hound and the World’s Pain, which I thought was excellent.  Unfortunately, the subsequent novel, The City in the Autumn Stars, was a tedious slog, though the third one, The Dragon in the Sword, was somewhat better.  (The Dragon in the Sword actually is written from the perspective of Erekosë, and thus is also a sequel to The Silver Warriors.)   

Last year I reread the original Hawkmoon tetralogy, The History of the Runestaff.  (I still have my paperbacks from the late 1980s, when I read them whilst vacationing at my parents’ cottage on Lake Huron.)

I quite enjoyed them, although not as much as either Moorcock’s Corum or Elric sagas.  The main reason is that I found the main character, Dorian Hawkmoon, to be somewhat insipid.  While quite interesting things happen to Hawkmoon, he himself is a rather flavourless, stereotypical ‘noble hero.’  Both Corum and Elric are far more interesting characters.  (And I found Hawkmoon’s love interest, Yisselda, the daughter of Count Brass, to be a bland, traditional ‘damsel-in-distress.’)  

Fortunately, some of Hawkmoon’s companions are interesting.  There is the world-weary Count Brass, a grizzled veteran of many wars, now Lord Guardian of the Kamarg.  Also of note is Oladhan, an honourable dwarf and skilled archer, the hirsute son of a human and mountain giant.  Finally, there is the Frenchman Huillam d'Averc, who first encounters Hawkmoon whilst serving as a mercenary in the army of evil Granbretan, but later allies himself with the Kamarg.  D’Averc is far more witty, clever, and all-around interesting than Hawkmoon (he sort plays the ‘Han Solo’ to Hawkmoon’s ‘Luke Skywalker’).  The story improves markedly whenever he is featured.

But the characters who truly shine in the tetralogy are the villains, especially the various leaders of the malevolent Empire of Granbretan.  There is the hideous immortal King-Emperor Huon, preserved for countless centuries in an orb of life-preserving fluid, whose withered body resembles a wrinkled fetus, and who speaks with vocal chords torn from a melodic youth.  There is Baron Meliadus , a charismatic psychopath, who lusts after Yisselda (for reasons I can’t fathom), and seeks to crush the Kamarg at any cost.  He’s the kind of villain that one loves to hate.   There is Taragorm of the Palace of Time, whose mask is a working clock...

Ah yes, the masks.  One thing that makes the Granbretans so interesting as a people is the fact that they are compelled to wear masks whenever out in public.  Indeed, their whole society manifests a kind of mental illness.  All Granbretans belong to different ‘orders,’ each of which has its own official mask (the leaders wear ones shaped from fine metals, with gems, etc.), most of which are modeled on animals (wolves, rats, mantises, and so forth), though there are some exceptions (such as Taragorm’s clock).  The society overall is rigidly ordered and hierarchical, with baroque architecture and items that are mixes of technology and magic.  And it is, well, evil: Granbretans see their destiny to be that of dominating the world, and perhaps the multiverse, under the despotic rule of the undying Huon.  I would be hard pressed to think of a more colourful and frankly ‘fun’ evil empire in fantasy literature.

So I recommend reading the Hawkmoon tetralogy, but for the secondary characters, villains, and the distinctive setting -- not the protagonist! 


  1. I had read many of the Elric books back in High School (mid 80s) and Corum, Hawkmoon and Count Brass in college (late 80s). I have always wanted to go back a reread them again.

    With the popularity of fantasy movies I wonder why these have not made the jump to the big screen.

  2. I have all of the Hawkmoon books at home, but need to finally get around to reading them!

  3. I hated the later Hawkmoon books when Moorcock seems to be doing a lot of acid and they go from fun romps to 'wow, check out all the SYMBOLISM, Mannnn". I still don't get what happened at the end of the series, with the gem actually being the sword and all of the conflict in the series being a metaphore....

    1. I was warned against the subsequent Hawkmoon novels (the "Count Brass" trilogy) by Lawrence Whitaker, who is a huge Hawkmoon fan. So I've stayed away. (I did read them decades ago, as a teenager, but I can't remember them at all now.)

  4. Great piece. I'm reading them again now and I concur with your statement about interesting personalities and villains. Hawkmoon is quite bland as a character.


Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).