East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Gateway Drug: Michael Moorcock’s The War Hound and the World’s Pain


I like fantasy.
I like genre fiction in general – I read it, I write it, sometimes I play evangelist (which sounds better than “sometimes I bore my friends’ socks off talking about fantasy books”).
Like this morning, when a friend told me

I was never able to go beyond Tom Bombadil, and just like with Harry Potter, I think the films were better. I guess I don’t like fantasy so much.

If you felt like a cold Hyrkanian blade piecing your heart at the above lines, if you felt the burn of some obscure Melnibonean poison course through your veins, you know how I felt.

Fantasy literature is such a wide, boundless continent, that deciding it’s not for you because you’ve visited Tolkienville and Rowlingsport and did not find a decent vegan restaurant is a crime.
Indeed, one of the attractions of fantasy is that it can break the rules, and talk of other places, other people, other problems, leaving our world behind and building something else. And yet, the success of some authors has somehow come to deny this freedom: if you want to sell, you can leave this world behind, yes, but then must get into another, that’s as strictly codified and as unchangeable as our reality. All elves are hieratic and blond, wizardry is learned in schools of magic that look like something out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
Mind you, nothing wrong in liking the work of Tolkien and Rowling – is dissing the whole genre because you don’t like them that kills me.
Granted, some of the most scenic spots and best eats in the Fantasy Continent are off the beaten track and hard to find, but that’s why we travel, right?
We’re explorers, not bloody tourists!

So I did what I usually do when somebody tells me they don’t like fantasy: I suggested to my friend she tracks down a copy of The War Hound and the World’s Pain, by Michael Moorcock.
There is a number of books that I have handy for the “You don’t like fantasy? Try this!” moment, but Moorcock’s 1981 historical fantasy to me is the perfect “one size fits all”.

  • The War Hound is a short book (239 pages in the original edition), and therefore is one that does not overstay its welcome should the reader not like it.
  • It has a historical setting – at least in its opening chapters – that puts at ease the reader that’s not used to visiting faerie lands forlorn.
  • It’s a philosophical novel of sorts, examining themes such as free will and responsibility, and it is therefore far from the mindless “fantasy of hard knocks” beloved by adolescent knuckleheads of all ages.
  • It’s a fast, fun adventure yarn, full of strange wonders and monsters and mayhem, handled with class by one of the giants of the field.

It’s a great little read that easily shows that fantasy is not just elven poetry and dark lords, and chunks of psaeudo-Welsh gibberish. It opens the door to the idea that fantasy can be at the same time fun, smart and engaging.
If you come out of it and decide you don’t like fantasy then, well, at least you’ve seen another side of fantasy, and are now expressing a more solid opinion.

It’s also a book that came out in that “fantasy interregnum” I ramble about frequently, that time between the birth of the first Shannara novel and Terry Brook’s work turning not only into a trilogy, but in the template for the successful fantasy cycle for the following 20 years. The War Hound comes from a time in which it was all right to experiment, to go against type, and yes, break the few rules that were there.
And Michael Moorcock was at the forefront of the rule-breaking fantasy genre.

Now my friend got herself a copy of the book.
I’m curious to see what she will find in it.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Gateway Drug: Michael Moorcock’s The War Hound and the World’s Pain

  1. Stop reading right there. Do not go on to read The City in the Autumn Stars. You won’t like what you find.


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