Friday, February 20, 2015

The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock’s books have been a part of my home library since the early 70s when I first read the DAW paperback edition of Stormbringer. Here was something vibrant and new, alive with highly charged images, wild characters and strange worlds. Stormbringer still represents the best of the so-called New Wave of fantasy novels that helped revitalize the fantasy genre. I went on to read many other novels featuring Elric, and I enjoyed such other characters as Corum, Hawkmoon, Count Brass and more.
In 1978 I bought the Harper & Row American edition of The Eternal Champion and read it in one long day, and loved it. Moorcock dedicated the book to Douglas Fairbanks, “the greatest hero of them all.” His statement didn’t require any explanation for me. During the course of my own travels I have encountered several (and sadly, now departed) writers who cited such films as The Thief of Bagdad as an influence. Forest J. Ackerman and Philip Jose Farmer both specifically cite The Thief of Bagdad as a seminal influence, alongside Metropolis. Fairbanks had created something special with that film, and his other films added to his legend. Fairbanks caught lightning in a bottle and the visuals he created have never been equaled. That Moorcock was a fan of Fairbanks, too, and publicly acknowledged it went far in endearing him to me. Even better, Moorcock’s books have that same magical quality that we find in great films.
I saw The Whispering Swarm on the shelf at Barnes & Noble and bought it without having heard any advance publicity. I rarely spend money on hardcovers, but this was Michael Moorcock, for Chrissakes, so I spent the twenty-six dollars and tax. I’m glad I did because The Whispering Swarm is wonderful. This is a book that any avid reader will enjoy. The first of a trilogy called “The Sanctuary of the White Friars,” The Whispering Swarm blends autobiography with fantasy in a story that appears to be written from the heart, bringing into play all of those elements that have served Moorcock so well all these years.
Essentially, a tale of a young writer working on the now legendary Fleet Street after World War II, the early chapters are loaded with references to such writers as W. Howard “Bob” Baker, Mervyn Peake, T. H. White, John Wyndham and many others. I don’t know how much of this is fictionalized, and because I adamantly refuse to follow or participate in fan forums (for any celebrity) where such things are discussed ad nauseam, I’m guessing this is all fairly accurate autobiographical material. As a fan of not only Moorcock but many of the writers he befriended or encountered during this period, I was fascinated by all of this and couldn’t put the book down. In fact, I briefly forgot that I was reading a work of fiction.
The story takes a dramatic turn when young Michael enters a heretofore unknown sanctuary in London called Alsacia. This is a magical, timeless place and Michael begins a series of adventures and encounters as the years press on. Drawn to Alsacia, he begins to suffer from a condition he refers to as “the whispering swarm,” a mental affliction that only subsides when he’s safely inside Alsacia. Inside Alsacia he meets such legendary heroes as Dick Turpin, Buffalo Bill Cody, Kit Carson, Captain Jack Sheppard, and Dick Langley. Also present are the Musketeers from the Dumas novels, all favoring a tavern called The Swan With Two Necks. It is here that Michael begins his affair with the lovely Moll Midnight, a dashing damsel who inspires in him a series of popular fictions.
Alternating between two worlds – his life as a writer in London and his forays into the timeless sanctuary – I felt that Moorcock had created a metaphor about lost worlds; that of his highly-charged, creative youth and the imaginative world of pulp adventure stories. Of course I don’t really know if Alsacia is intended as a metaphor, but I do know that his story is compelling, brilliantly realized, and a pleasure to read. Michael begins to question the logic of his own actions, only to be told that his questions about Alsacia will be answered in due time. How and if this all ties into Moorcock’s “Multiverse” and “eternal champion” concept remains to be seen. The Whispering Swarm is a fascinating book, a roman √† clef and well on its way to becoming a magnum opus. There is much left unsaid in this first volume, and I’m eager to read the next installment.


  1. Thoroughly agree.
    IMO Alsacia does function as an extended metaphor or allegory.
    Allegory seems to be a forgotten word in these times.
    The allegory in Whispering Swarm does seem to be about all sorts of aspects of the sixties, but especially about the writer's life, and the big issue of escapism versus engagement, very relevant to Mr Moorcok, and fittingly dealt with in a fantastical fiction.
    The book is delightfully rich in dualities (reality vs fantasy, atheism vs faith, fidelity vs adultery, royalism vs republicanism). I don't want to be too reductionist. About it, but when I asked Mr Moorcock if it wasn't allegorical and if escapism vs engagement was at the core of it, he was kind enough to reply, "You've got it".

  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment! Yes, now that I’ve read your post I think “allegory” is a better phrase here. The dualities you mention add such a rich texture to the book. Escapism vs engagement is right on. As you can tell, this was book purchase that really touched me. Books like this are the reason I love reading! Many thanks


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