Terminal Café

The Golden Barge: A Fable

© 1997 Max Wilcox

This was the first novel I completed. It was in 1958 when I was very much under the spell of Mervyn Peake and (though to a far less noticeable extent) Bertolt Brecht, who were my great contemporary heroes... Although I was familiar with the SF and fantasy world... I had begun to take an interest in subtler literary forms and I have wondered, while editing this, what might have happened to my work if E.J.Carnell (editor of SCIENCE FANTASY and NEW WORLDS) had not commissioned my first Elric stories and thus started me on a long career of adventure story writing... The Golden Barge is a simple allegory, as were most of my latter romances. All of 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. London: New English Library, 1985.

This tale, concerning Jephraim Tallow's attempts to follow the mysterious Golden Barge, has appeared in two forms, this novel, and the short story. In this novel particularly, it is possible to see a fairly basic allegoric structure - that being the river standing for time, and the barge standing for ambition, meaning, etc. Moorcock himself discusses this book and it the structure of the allegory:-

Some years ago, when I was about eighteen, I wrote a novel called The Golden Barge. This was an allegorical fantasy about a little man completely without self-knowledge and with little of any other kind, going down a seemingly endless river, following a great Golden Barge which he felt, if he caught it, it would contain all truth, all secrets, all solutions to his problems. On the journey he met several groups of people, had a love affair and so on. Yet every action he took in order to reach the Golden Barge seemed to keep him further away from it. The river represented Time, the barge was what mankind is always seeking outside itself (when it can be found inside itself), etc., etc. The novel had a sad ending, as such novels do. Also, as was clear when I finished it, my handling of many scenes was clumsy and immature. So I scrapped it and decided that future my allegories would be intrinsic within a conventional narrative - the best symbols were the symbols found in familiar objects. Like swords for instance.

Sojan. Manchester: Savoy, 1977.

The indications so far, regarding the above comments, seem to say that it is a rather poorly executed one. In some ways, particularly with regards to the structure, this is so, but there are several important things that are to be gained from an examination of this book. The most important is the fact that books is, in some ways a kind of template for the books Moorcock was later to write.

Some of the most obvious similarities are perhaps the characters and places that are seen within the book. Jephraim Tallow, a city known as Melniboné, amongst other things. This aspect is discussed by M John Harrison in his introduction to the book, and he claims that this kind of scholarly work is not very productive. The only thing that he claims that an examination of it proves is the fact that "when he wrote the Golden Barge, Moorcock was Moorcock!".

To be continued!