Dec 3, 2019

The Golden Barge (1957-58)

(The Golden Barge, Savoy 1979,
Art: Gustave Moreau "The Apparition", 1876)
Origins, Pt. 2
By his late teens, Moorcock had already sold enough stories to Fleetway Publications (Amalgamated Press) that he considered himself a “veteran” of sorts. He had by then scripted all kinds of comic strips based on historical, fantasy, science fiction and detective characters (although he outright refused to script war comics due to the offensive racism inherent in those kinds of stories at the time). He had also already written many essays and features for fanzines (only a minority of which devoted to fantasy) and written a first novel. This novel (The Hungry Dreamers) was, according to Moorcock, “a piece of maudlin self-promotion about low life in Soho”, and ultimately destroyed by rodents in his basement. After beginning (and abandoning) a novel which would later appear as The Eternal Champion, he ultimately next completed the non-genre novel The Golden Barge. Finished in 1958 but not then submitted to publishers, it was only accidentally rediscovered in a laundry box in the late 1970s (although a few chapters had been published as a short story in New Worlds in 1965).

The Golden Barge
Art: James Cawthorn
The first book Moorcock purchased on his own was Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which demonstrated to him that it was possible for a story to have two narratives at the same time (one being the "on-screen action” and the other being an allegorical arc). The Golden Barge seems to have this in mind in that on the surface it is simply a story of a selfish, short-sighted little man named Jephraim Tallow who chases an elusive golden barge down a river and experiences various macabre adventures on the way, both of romance and action. As the story progresses, Tallow's running commentary of his inner turmoil describes an odyssey of both self-discovery and self-denial. He ultimately realizes that, although he has relentlessly pursued the supreme reward of the golden barge, many of his episodic adventures along the way have already offered him a chance to find some form of admirable contentment or conclusion. In fact, each stopping point along the river seems to be set up as a possible finale to Tallow’s arc, but Tallow then impulsively abandons each particular ending scenario and stubbornly launches himself out onto the river once again.

A detailed synopsis The Golden Barge can be found HERE.

Moorcock describes The Golden Barge's underlying symbolism as follows: “The river represented Time, the barge was what mankind is always seeking outside itself, when it can be found inside itself, etc., etc.”

In other words, the quest for the Golden Barge is essentially a pursuit of guaranteed bliss, or at least the ever-greener "grass on the other side". Time and again Tallow refuses to surrender to seeming contentment, and against his own better judgement pushes on to an ultimately fruitless conclusion. At the very end of the book, the golden barge goes beyond Tallow’s courage to follow. Forced to halt, Tallow convinces himself that he has “won” by having successfully extinguished his obsessive yearning to follow the barge. However, a small voice inside still surfaces to contest this declaration…

In the heroic fantasy novels following The Golden Barge, Moorcock’s allegorical objectives would be conveyed through even more straight-forward devices ("the best symbols were the symbols found in familiar objects. Like swords for instance."). However, when he later returned to more "literary" forms, simple allegorical fables would be replaced by more complex vehicles for irony.
"“The Golden Barge” is a simple allegory, as were most of my later romances. All my books have a level of allegory (often quite as simple) even if they appear to be more prosaic on the surface. The later ones increasingly substituted irony for allegory. Allegory appears to say one thing on the surface and another thing beneath. Irony allows for more than one interpretation on the part of the reader. There can be no ‘key’. In one sense the Cornelius books, Breakfast in the Ruins, Gloriana are all ironic fables. This book is their precursor, more than it is the precursor of the stories of high romance, witchcraft and chivalry on which my early career was almost wholly based."
 - The Golden Barge, Introduction, 1978
Moorcock's Multiverse
The Golden Barge: A Fable.
New English Library 1983,
art: Mick Van Houten
Like the Sojan stories, elements can be found in The Golden Barge which resurface in mature form in the Eternal Champion multiverse construct. At one point Tallow finds that he has wandered into another reality/continuum. There, he meets humanoids who fight for some kind of balance. Several chapters later he is rescued by the citizens of "Melibone", a city whose name is obviously very similar to that of Elric’s race.

If following the development of the Moorcock's body of work as a developing saga, the chivalrous character of Sojan is here twisted into Jephraim Tallow, whose antisocial, selfish nature reappears in some of the later Eternal Champions. To make matters more complex, Moorcock has said that Tallow was based on his friend Barrington J. Bayley. Since Bayley was also the model for Elric's friend Moonglum, Tallow could be conceivably considered to be an incarnation of the Companion to the Eternal Champion as well.

In any case, the next iteration of the Eternal Champion would incorporate and amplify elements of both Sojan and Jephraim Tallow.

Moorcock has cited the influence of Mervyn Peake, Bertolt Brecht and the Surrealists during this period. Appropriately, Moorcock's style here is similar to that found in literary fables and adult fairy tales, but countered with a fair amount of adult sexuality and violence (orgies, torture, lynching, war violence, etc). Additionally, the amount and depth of Tallow’s indulgent self-analysis places the prose beyond mere juvenile literature. It's an impressive accomplishment for such a young writer, even if not a polished one.

As a character, Tallow is a bit horrific, yet Moorcock is able to make him to some extent a sympathetic character (at least to me). When faced with a difficult moral choice, Tallow always chooses the easier, safer path (unless it interferes with his barge pursuit), and this is, of course, a choice faced by people of all ages.

Next Chapter: The Eternal Champion

(Previous Chapter: Sojan)