The War Hound and the World’s Pain
New English Library 1983 (1981)
Nicknamed Kriegshund or ‘War Hound’ by his men, Ulrich von Bek is a mercenary captain during the Thirty Years War which devastated Germany at the start of the 17th century. Disgusted by the massacre that occurred after the siege of Magdeburg and appalled by the lawlessness and plague that he witnesses elsewhere, he heads south, alone, to the Thuringian Forest. And it is in this quiet wilderness that he discovers a mysterious castle, which then sets him off on a quest to find a Cure for Der Weltschmerz, the World’s Pain.
The personage who sets him off on this mission is no other than Lucifer. Yes, that Lucifer. It’s what swings The War Hound and the World’s Pain from apparent historical fiction to bona fide fantasy (and not science fiction as the UK paperback claims). But, this being a Moorcock novel, expectations are sure to be confounded.
First, this is a consideration of the relationship between Reason and Faith. Ulrich has thoughts on one of the instigators of the Reformation:
Luther […] had judged reason to be the chief enemy of Faith, of the purity of his beliefs. He had considered reason a harlot, willing to turn to anyone’s needs, but this merely displayed his own suspicion of logic. […] Most mad people see logic as a threat to the dream in which they would rather live…
Von Bek at one point says to his travelling companion, “Do not speculate, Sedenko, on things for which no evidence exists,” and yet we are as readers asked to swallow the existence of Lucifer, Hell, Heaven and sundry intermediate states. But Moorcock is merely playing with us: this is, after all, an unreliable text, supposedly dictated by von Bek in 1680 to Brother Oliver, then translated in 1980 by a Prinz Lobkowitz before the English is given a polish by the author. We may assume much may have been lost in translation during multiple transitions.
Second, the Cure for the World’s Pain (Lucifer suggests) is the Holy Grail, “a physical manifestation of God’s mercy on Earth” and a possible catalyst to reconcile Lucifer with God. It’s clear to me that Ulrich is the antithesis of Perceval in the original graal stories: a scholar, not an innocent fool; a civilised townie instead of a country bumpkin; a mercenary instead of an instinctive fighter; introduced to Lucifer by a witch as opposed to being brought to God by a hermit, meeting a grail-bearer who is the opposite of whom the grail-seeker usually meets. Yet there are similarities: the fairytale castle in the forest, the questing, an object of worth.
Everything is viewed, reported on and therefore interpreted by von Bek, and that applies equally to the people he meets. Lucifer is depicted as a Promethean figure who lives up to his name as ‘bringer of light’; some have even compared him to Milton’s protagonist in Paradise Lost (1667/1674) who, thus, appears chronologically before von Bek’s nominal 1680 narrative. Lady Sabrina is the ‘witch’ who enchants our narrator, though one can’t really say that her mastery of Natural Philosophy smacks of black magic. Grigory Petrovich Sedenko is the impulsive young Cossack who accompanies him for much of his quest, while Philander Groot from Alsace is like no hermit you’d expect.
Apart from the Wildgrave of Ammendorf, leader of the Wild Hunt, and the wise young Queen Xiombarg XXV, the only other figure who impresses is the arch-villain. Ulrich’s chief nemesis is a vicious magus called Klosterheim, who relentlessly pursues von Bek from their very first meeting (the same one in which the captain encounters Sedenko). I fancy Moorcock took the name from a Gothick romance by Thomas De Quincey entitled Klosterheim; or, The Masque (1832). This was Quincey’s follow-up to his satire On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827) and, like Moorcock’s novel, is set in 1633 during the Thirty Years War; this closet cross-referencing to other literary works is typical of the writer’s fiction.
It’s possible to trace some of von Bek’s wanderings after Magdeburg: the Thuringian Forest is where he finds Lucifer’s Castle, Schweinfurt is northeast of Würzburg, on the River Main. Nürnberg is easily identified but Ammendorf (a suburb of Halle, northeast of the Thuringer Wald) is out of geographical sequence, as is Teufenberg or Tüfenberg, which is actually in Switzerland, between Lake Constance and the Obersee.
Here is a part explanation for these dichotomies: Ulrich at times finds himself in the Mittelmarch. Unlike George Eliot’s Middlemarch, we gather from the captain’s maps that “Mittelmarch territories seemed to exist in gaps where, in my own world, no gaps were” (chapter ten). As a result the traveller frequently comes across Bunyanesque place-names such as the Valley of the Golden Cloud, the Burning Grounds, the City of the Plague and the Forest at the Edge of Heaven. In Hell the titles become less descriptive and more moralistic: the City of Humbled Princes, for example, and the Lake of the False Penitents.
In many ways Ulrich von Bek’s quest, as well as drawing on past narratives, looks forward to the magical realism of authors like Katsuo Ishiguro, especially his The Buried Giant. There are similar musings about the purpose of life and the nature of belief underlying both: here they are questions such as Is God senile? Is the conflict between Lucifer and God merely a squabble between princelings? and Is the only cure for pain the absolute oblivion of death? And both have fantastic beasts: here too is a dragon for a knight to fight, and there is even a pair of Tolkienesque eagles of gigantic stature (though these may owe something to the Hapsburg double-headed eagle device familiar throughout the Holy Roman Empire).
After a slow start The War Hound and the World’s Pain proved hugely enjoyable: part parody, part homage, mixed in with a bit of sword-and-sorcery plus genuine history, headed up by a far from blameless yet doughty hero. The whole is leavened by little flashes of humour, such as these bons mots from Lady Sabrina:
Men are afraid of two things in this world, it seems—women and knowledge. Both threaten their power, eh?
Some things clearly don’t change.
Another novel for the Wyrd and Wonder fantasy reading month: theoretically this was to be an example of grimdark, but it turned out to be less grim and dark than expected