*This article originally appeared in the Sword and Sorcery in Heavy Metal column of the now-defunct Echoes of Crom Records website, October 2011.
These exciting and epic lines came from the imagination of an aspiring 15 year-old writer who was destined to become one of the most influential sword and sorcery, heroic fantasy and sci-fi authors of all time.
When most people think of Michael Moorcock, an image of an albino emperor named Elric with a soul-stealing rune blade called Stormbringer is often the first thing that comes to mind... or perhaps one might think of Dorian Hawkmoon, the jewel-skulled Duke of Koln… or maybe Corum Jhaelen Irsei, the Prince in the Scarlet Robe… It is unlikely, however, that one would recall Sojan Shieldbearer, Moorcock’s first hero, who may actually be the first and original incarnation of the Eternal Champion.
The Sojan stories were written when Moorcock was a teenager and were originally published between 1956 and 1957 in the weekly British comic magazine, Tarzan Adventures. The young writer was editor of the periodical at the time, making weekly contributions with his work. The stories were later published in 1977 by Savoy Books in a collection titled Sojan, then once again, in the 1984 DAW publication of Elric at the End of Time, and now are more recently available from Planet Stories in the 2010 split-novella of Sojan the Swordsman and Joe R. Lansdale’s Under the Warrior Star.
The saga, entitled Sojan the Swordsman, is composed of 12 individual short stories:
1. Daughter of a Warrior King
2. Mission to Asno
3. Revolt in Hatnor
4. The Hordes Attack
5. The Purple Galley
6. The Sea Wolves!
7. Sojan at Sea
8. The Sea of Demons
9. Prisoners in Stone
10. The Plain of Mystery
11. The Sons of The Snake-God
12. The Devil Hunters of Norj
These tales are action-packed and extremely fast-paced—much in the early tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. Being a “Sword and Planet” series, naturally there is much fantastic, swashbuckling adventure, violent fighting scenes and many otherworldly villains to stimulate the reader.
Sojan is a mercenary swordsman on the strange planet of Zylor. It is a world with two suns, and continents that are separated by a great sea. The people of Zylor ride reptilian beasts called Myats and travel from land to land on air ships. They are divided between civilized and barbarian nations, and there are civil wars going on between many of the countries.
Residing in the country of Hatnor, Sojan is leader of the province’s war fleet, and second-in-command to the warlord Noros Kad, whom Sojan is called upon by to perform important and dangerous tasks that lead to most of his adventures. Much unlike many of Moorcock’s later creations, Sojan is somewhat of a barbaric and reckless character. He relies on his fast wit and superior fighting skills, as well as his sword and air pistol. Always quick to jump into a fight, often without thinking of the consequences, Sojan gets himself into all kinds of perilous situations while traveling through the exotic land performing tasks for the Hatnorian warlord. He is named Sojan Shieldbearer, as he carries a round, metal shield, which is an unknown and unique object on the planet of Zylor.
In addition to action-packed adventure, there are several supernatural elements contained in these stories as well. In “The Sea of Demons,” Sojan and his crew encounter a race of bloodthirsty sea zombies while sailing across the dreaded ocean. These creatures attack and murder several of the crewmen. Also in the same story, a strange, winged man named Banjar appears. In “Prisoners in Stone,” there are reptilian guards that Sojan battles in the sewers of the Great Temple of Rhan. “The Plain Of Mystery” contains a short scene where Sojan and his crew encounter a flying monster known as a Shifla Bird while cruising the barbarian lands of Shortani in their airship. For me, the supernatural elements in these stories make them even more interesting and enjoyable than if they were just standard adventure tales.
Besides the obvious similarities these stories have to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the like, I believe the series was possibly influenced by a few others as well.
For instance, in “Prisoners in Stone,” Sojan encounters a group of ancient, unknown beings called “The Old Ones”. They are imprisoned in the Great Temple of Rhan by the evil priests that reside there. This, of course, seems to be a direct H. P. Lovecraft reference, although the beings he describes certainly differ from the cosmic gods of the well-known Mythos.
When Sojan encounters one of these Old Ones in the temple, the ancient, weary prisoner tells him of how he and his kind were the old inhabitants of Zylor, before the shining ships of humanity came from the distant planets. Fearing them, humanity turned against the Old Ones and imprisoned them. Sojan eventually helps them escape and take vengeance on the members of the evil priesthood.
This reminds me much of Robert E. Howard’s story, “The Tower of the Elephant,” where Conan comes across the otherworldly, cosmic being, Yag-Kosh, imprisoned in a tower. Yag-Kosh relates to Conan how in pre-cataclysmic times, he and his alien people came to Earth. He also reveals how he taught the evil wizard Yara the art of magic, who then turned against him.
Another Howard similarity I see is when Sojan and his crew encounter the demonic Shifla Bird while cruising in their airship. The way Moorcock describes the flying creature reminds me much of the harpies found in Howard’s Solomon Kane story, “Wings in the Night.”
It is quite obvious that these stories suffer somewhat from the writer’s inexperience at the time they were written, as one might expect from one only in his mid-teens. The prose can seem sketchy at times and there are a lot of vague character descriptions, as well as moments of hasty transitions from one scene to the next. Also, Sojan seems to have an excess amount of luck and convenience—somehow always managing to get out of sticky situations quite easily.
Although the Sojan stories are often criticized and not taken too seriously because of this aspect, I don’t mind it very much at all. I feel that the somewhat juvenile writing approach somehow adds to the explosive, savage nature of the story. It’s like when I go back and listen to my band’s early demos and EPs, that were recorded when my bandmates and I were little more than teenagers. The albums are laden with imperfections and the musicianship is shaky, yet there is something about the raw energy and chaotic delivery of the music that gives the recordings a kind of spark or magic that I believe they would not otherwise have, had they been done professionally. It is the same kind of thing with Sojan. Although some of the writing may be shaky, the story lines are still great and for me, this has been a highly enjoyable series.
For those who aren’t familiar, Moorcock’s idea of The Eternal Champion is what links most of his individual main characters together, and connects them in some way. Each hero is chosen by fate to possess the same purpose; to fight for the Cosmic Balance in various layers of the Multiverse. The characters are linked together, as different incarnations of the same heroic spirit—The Eternal Champion.
I believe that my assumption (as the title of this article suggests) that Sojan is perhaps the “original” version of The Eternal Champion is not too far off. In Chapter Two of the 1973 novelette, Pheonix in Obsidian (later published as The Silver Warriors), the 2nd book in the Saga of Erkosë, it reads:
These lines clearly show that Moorcock still considered Sojan one of the many Eternal Champion incarnations, even though the swordsman was his juvenile creation and not held with as much regard as his later works.
Influence in Heavy Metal:
There have been several heavy metal bands who have used Moorcock's writings and themes as lyrical subject matter in their songs. Some of these bands that I know of are DOMINE, CIRITH UNGOL, CAULDRON BORN, STORMBRINGER, BLACKSWORD, BLIND GUARDIAN and BATTLEROAR, as well as ‘70s rock bands HAWKWIND and BLUE OYSTER CULT. Some of these groups have just touched on his writings and others more extensively.
Although these bands and others have used Moorcock's characters and stories as concepts in their music, all I’ve ever heard is the mention of Elric or another of the more famous Eternal Champions. I have done much research and never have I discovered any band that bases any of their lyrics on Sojan.
Because of this, I have written an epic piece that will be based on the old, shield-bearing champion. It will appear on the upcoming ETERNAL WINTER album, due out later this year. The record will also contain songs based on some of the more obscure S&S heroes, whom I feel have been far too left out in the metal world.
To me, Sojan the Swordsman is a great read and should not be overlooked by any fan of Michael Moorcock or Heroic Fantasy. It should certainly be of interest to readers who wish to experience the author’s writing in its rawest, purest form, and to see how the young writer progressed and developed into the fantasy grand master icon he is today.
It is truly a shame that Moorcock never chose to continue this series, as I would love to have read some Sojan tales written by him in his prime. The later writings of Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon, etc. are certainly regarded as his best, but let us not forget the savage adventures of Sojan Shieldbearer—the original Eternal Champion.
Matthew Knight is an author of sword and sorcery and dark fantasy, as well as the singer/guitarist/songwriter of the American true heavy metal band ETERNAL WINTER. He is currently hard at work in the studio recording the band’s forthcoming album, Archaic Lore Enshrined: Songs of Savage Swords and Dark Mysticism. Matthew is also the co-founder of the group HAUNTED ABBEY MYTHOS which has recently released their own unique productions of The Beast of Averoigne by Clark Ashton Smith and The Mountain of Souls by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer.