In case anyone was wondering (see below), I like “adult fantasy fiction” too. And Gloriana or the Unfulfilled Queen by Michael Moorcock is certainly adult in nature. Murder, kidnapping, adultery, rape, and a wide range of other types of debauchery are included in this odd quasi-Elizabethan romance originally published in 1978 and now re-released by Time Warner Aspect. Despite the obvious skill and imagination involved in creating and composing this work, I found it silly and over-wrought at times .
The Gloriana of the title is a twist on the figure of the English Queen Elizabeth I and in some way Spencer’s The Faerie Queene. In essence Gloriana rules a vast empire, Albion, that reaches from North America to Asia. She is not a politician or a ruler, however, so much as a personification of the Empire. As a result she bears a heavy burden; always forced to be Albion she has a hard time finding herself. To add to this burden she is apparently incapable of achieving orgasm despite attempting it in more ways than one could imagine (she has her own seraglio which is a cool word no?).
Because she is the symbol of the Empire of Virtue and Justice that was created after the death of her tyrannical father, she must employ ruthless men to keep the ship of state afloat; the harsh but neccesary actions must be a step removed from the queen. Lord Montfallcon, an advisor left over from the ugly past, is the stern Machiavellian who helps her in matters of state and diplomacy. Various allied Princes seek Gloriana’s hand in marriage to unite the empire for their selfish reasons, but one of Montfallcon’s dark servants, a Captain Quire, in a state of pique decides to turn sides and thus throws Albion into chaos.
The novel, which starts off rather slowly, follows the paths of these two characters – Gloriana and Quire – as they slowly move towards collision and a conclusion. There are a number of secondary characters as well: Una of Scaith Gloriana’s sometime lesbian lover and closest confidant; the aforementioned Montfallcon; Master Wheldrake the court poet and his drunken love interest Lady Lyst; a variety of lords and ladies of the court; and envoys and diplomats from around the realm and the globe. Thanks to Quire each character is in some way caught up in the debauched and decadent court that the palace soon becomes. To add to the suspense the palace itself is unsafe, as it was built around the previous palace and thus contains unplumbed depths and secret passages which contain dark horrors. This gives the Elizabethan romance a dark gothic edge.
I won’t spoil the ending, but this new version contains two: the original politically incorrect version and a later feminist one. I found both distasteful for different reasons. The first is rather vulgar and harsh even if it is dramatic. The second seems ridiculously politicised and full of feminist blather (obviously your opinion may differ on this).
Not having read Spencer or Mervyn Peak (the author Moorcock dedicates the book to) I can’t say I “get” all of the possible histircal and literary references and ironic twists. In the Author’s note that follows the story Moorcock seems to see his work as a challenge to Spencer, saying that it “offers an argument against the noble Spenserian ideal” but claiming to accept the “need for a balance between high morality and low realism.” I must admit that I could see no clear theme one way or the other. At times it seems anti-imperialist at others it seems to be rooting for the queen to restor the empire.
What lessened the impact of the work for me, besides its rather childish and silly insistence on having every character sexually compromised and twisted, was the fact that none of the characters seemed worth rooting for or were sympathetic. Just when you might feel for the burden Gloriana has to bear she is off debauching herself in the most bizarre and sordid way. Perhaps someone with a truly libertine perspective might appreciate a queen who has sexual encounters with ape like jungle men or giant albino and ebony African twins when she isn’t sleeping with her female servants, but I found her to be a odd and distasteful character. Her relationship with Quire is inexplicable, it just happens with no explanation. Lord Montfallcon is at first an recognizable figure: a diplomat willing to use unscrupulous means to secure the state from dangerous enemies. But as he moves toward madness in the end, one loses all sense of his character. I suppose this might be the meaning: eventually dark means corrupt virtuous ends. But amongst all the decadence and violence no one seems to provide the contrast by being virtuous or noble.
I don’t want to give the impression I hated the book. It is an amazing work of imagination. I can’t really comprehend how one goes about creating the characters and setting for such an epic tale of fantasy. Sure one has history and literature to find inspiration in, but you still have to put the creation down on paper in such a way that it is wholly new; not simply derivative or a re-imagining of history. Moorcock is to be lauded for his imagination (and he was as Gloriana won multiple awards when first published) even if he is to be criticized for the work’s faults. I personally found its purple prose – the never ending descriptions of every character’s clothing in every scene was tiring and unnecessary for example – and constant sexual references over-the-top. The tale of empire turned decadent and weak, corrupted from the inside despite the good intentions of many, is an oft told tale and Moorcock didn’t bring any insights to its telling from my perspective. But those taken by Elizabethan pageantry, romance, and intrigue spiced up with gothic horror and sexual debauchery will likely enjoy Moorcock’s thick and detailed descriptions and unique characters. Gloriana is ambitious and surprising work despite its many flaws.