Appendix N Archaeology: Zenith the Albino
by Terry Olson
“To this day I advise people who want to write fantastic fiction for a living to stop reading generic fantasy and to go back to the roots of the genre as deeply as possible, the way anyone might who takes his craft seriously. One avoids becoming a Tolkien clone precisely by returning to the same roots that inspired The Lord of the Rings.”
– Michael Moorcock, introduction to The Stealer of Souls (Del Ray, 2008)
Many of us come to Gygax’s Appendix N to explore the works that inspired both the D&D of our youth and our favorite fantasy RPGs of today. We read these literary progenitors for both insight and inspiration, and we begin to recognize their themes, plot-twists, villains, and heroes being adapted and personalized by today’s authors. But the writers whom Gary Gygax read were not writing in a vacuum. Surely they were adapting and personalizing the themes, plot-twists, villains, and heroes that they were reading. Who inspired them? Answering this question by reading further back in D&D’s ancestral chain, by going “back to the roots of the genre as deeply as possible” (as Moorcock puts it), is what we call “Appendix N Archaeology.”
In this article, I’ll focus on the notorious Monsieur Mountebank Zenith, a primary source of inspiration for Michael Moorcock’s mythic character, Elric of Melniboné. If you haven’t heard of Zenith, it’s because your opportunities were limited. Despite the fact that he was popular pulp hero-villain in about 80 issues spanning the time between world wars, by 2001 the only Zenith-dedicated novel had only three copies of its 1936 printing known to exist. But Michael Moorcock changed all that.
But let’s wait a few paragraphs for that story. We start with Elric and his connections to our hobby, and transition to Zenith from there. First, let’s set the scene:
Laughing at his own failure and at his own futility … the albino turned and disappeared into the maze of mean streets which opened out before him. Such a one was the cynical, laughing Elric, a man of bitter brooding and gusty humor, proud prince of ruins, lord of a lost and humbled people.
If you think this a quotation from an Elric story, then you’re only half right. Read on…
Michael Moorcock’s albino anti-hero Elric and his soul-sucking blade Stormbringer have influenced fantasy role-playing games since the seventies and continue to affect design decisions in today’s games. In 1979, Gary Gygax cited the first two published Elric collections, The Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer, in the AD&D DMG’s Appendix N as inspirational. However, we see signs of influence before this, starting in 1974’s OD&D by Gygax and Arneson. In book 1, Men and Magic, there is an alignment system of Law, Neutrality, and Chaos, which follows both Moorcock’s factions of Law, Chaos, and “the Balance,” as well Poul Anderson’s Law vs. Chaos from Three Hearts and Three Lions. In book 2, Monsters and Treasure, magical swords have alignments, intelligence, and egoism which they exert on their wielders, just as Elric and Stormbringer attempt to dominate one another in Moorcock’s fiction. By 1978, the AD&D DMG had expanded these concepts and even included a “sword of life-stealing” which functions similarly to Elric’s Stormbringer. In 1976, the Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes OD&D supplement by Kuntz and Ward had a section “Elric and the Melnibone Story Line” in which Elric, Stormbringer, and many other supernaturals were statted for OD&D. In 1980, Ward and Kuntz revised this supplement for AD&D in Deities and Demigods, which had a “Melnibonéan Mythos” section featuring AD&D descriptions of Elric et al., although this section was deleted from later printings. Shortly before this, in 1979, AD&D’s notoriously deadly S2: White Plume Mountain by Lawrence Schick featured a blade similar to Elric’s Stormbringer. In the Foreward to Dungeons of Dread, 2013’s reprint of the S-series, Schick admits,
“I wrote it as a submission to persuade Gary that he ought to hire me as an RPG designer. Mission accomplished: Gary offered me a job, and also, to my surprise, offered to publish White Plume Mountain exactly as written. Gratifying, of course, but also a little embarrassing…. I was all too aware that the artifact/weapon Blackrazor, included to show I could adapt ideas from other media to AD&D, was a descendant of Elric’s Stormbringer.”
In fact the back cover of the module has a Bill Willingham illustration featuring a white-haired warrior wielding Blackrazor. Despite the warrior not being an albino, the nod to Elric is obvious. Besides TSR, other RPG companies such as Chaosium, Avalon Hill, and Mongoose have used Elric as source material for RPGs and board games from the early 80’s onward.
In today’s RPGs, we still find Elric. When designing Fifth Edition D&D, Mike Mearls had attributed the albino’s influence in both the concepts of the elemental planes and the warlock class. In June 2013, Mearls tweeted about 5E development, “working on the elemental planes. They’re going to be a bit different, more Moorcock in many ways.” In a 2017 D&D Beyond article about the recent supplement, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Mearls said the following about the Hexblade Warlock, “I always liked the idea of the warrior mage and then characters like Elric… You get to play a mysterious, creepy spellcastery guy, but you also get to mix it up in close combat… this idea that you have this pact you made with this weapon, like Elric and his sword.” Of course, Elric’s influences are also in the DNA of Goodman Games’ DCC RPG. Its patron concept has roots in Elric’s Arioch as well as the spirits of Leiber’s Ningauble and Sheelba. Even DCC’s elf seems more like Moorcock and Anderson than Tolkien; the class automatically begins play with the patron bond spell, reminiscent of Elric’s bonding to his patron Arioch. We note that Elric was tall, pale-skinned, and had “pointed lobeless ears,” by the way.
There is no doubt that Moorcock’s Elric inspired concepts in fantasy RPGs, but what inspired Moorcock to create Elric? Moorcock has cited absorbing many influences for his Elric stories, ranging from Robert E. Howard’s works – to Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions – to Zoroastrian, Norse, Hindu, and Celtic mythology – to the blitzing of London’s Holland House and its miraculously surviving botanical gardens – to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series – to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Besides these and others beyond naming, there is only one inspiration for Elric’s character about which Moorcock felt so strongly that he helped republish a source from only three remaining copies. One so compelling that Moorcock eventually adopted the character in his own writing as another of the multiverse’s manifestations of Elric: Anthony Skene’s villain, Zenith the Albino.
Moorcock has cited Zenith specifically as a fundamental part of Elric’s literary DNA. In 1963, following Stormbringer’s publication, Moorcock wrote:
“The idea of an albino hero had a more obscure source. As a boy I collected a pre-War magazine called Union Jack. This was Sexton Blake’s Own Paper—Blake was the British version of your Nick Carter, I should imagine, and Union Jack was the equivalent of your dime novels. One of Blake’s most memorable opponents was a character named M. Zenith—or Zenith the Albino, a Byronic hero-villain who aroused more sympathy in the reader than did the intrepid detective. Anyway, the Byronic h-v had always appealed; I liked the idea of an albino, which suited my purpose, and so Elric was born—an albino.”
Almost 40 years later, in 2001, Moorcock assisted Savoy Books in republishing Skene’s only Zenith-focused novel, Monsieur Zenith the Albino, which had faded into obscurity from its 1936 printing. Moorcock wrote in the Foreword, “I have frequently spoken of my enthusiasm for Zenith the Albino, whose rule as a Prince of Crime extended pretty much exactly between the Wars and whose exploits and reputation inspired my own fictional character.” In 2008, in the introduction to the first of Del Ray’s Chronicles of the Last Emporer of Melniboné series, Moorcock said:
I am proud, however, of my part in getting Skene republished and helping, in a small way, to make so many of his old magazine stories available online. From being a hero of my youth Monsieur Zenith appears to have become the friend of my seniority. As well as helping Savoy to reprint their extraordinarily lavish version of Monsieur Zenith, I have written a number of stories designed to return Elric to his roots. By linking Zenith (or Zodiac as he’s sometimes called) and Elric, I hope I show how they were almost certainly the same person! …These stories were recently published as The Metatemporal Detective (Pyr, 2007).
So, who is Zenith the Albino? What’s his story? Who is his creator? Let’s start with the latter. Anthony Skene (sometimes Skeen) was the nom de plume for George Norman Philips, a prolific writer from 1916 to 1948. During this time, he wrote almost fifty paperbacks (roughly 60k words each), over one hundred novellas (20k-30k words each), plus additional “short novels” and short stories. And this wasn’t his day job! Most of his writing was during business travel through the British Isles as a quantity surveyor for HM Office of Public Works. Moorcock said of him, “The freshness of imagination and liveliness of prose Skene brought to his particular millions of words is remarkable. Like many other good writers before him and since, he was not so much what is meant by a pulp writer as a writer who published in the pulps.”
The majority of Skene’s works were devoted to the saga of Sexton Blake. To give the character of Sexton Blake the treatment he deserves is far beyond the scope of this article. However, we can touch on a few essentials. Blake’s character was invented in 1893 by Harry Blyth, a Scottish newspaperman. Despite Blyth’s death only 5 years later, the Sexton Blake saga lasted from 1893-1978, with over 200 writers employing the character! Sexton Blake had some not-so-complimentary critics, referring to the character as “the office boy’s Sherlock Holmes,” “Holmes on the cheap,” and “the sleuth of the second-rate.” However, his series had a huge readership, and was a favorite among the “Home Front” and army during the 40s. It’s worth noting that a 19 year-old Michael Moorcock worked as an editor for the Sexton Blake Library in 1959.
Although Anthony Skene wrote a plethora of Blake stories, many consider his villain, Zenith the Albino, to be his most important contribution to the Blake saga. Skene described his inspiration for Zenith in a letter to a reader in 1924:
“In 1913 I encountered, in the West End, a true albino, a man of about fifty-five.
He was a slovenly fellow: fingers stained with tobacco, clothes soiled by dropped food. Yet he was dressed expensively and had about him a look of adequacy.
I should have forgotten him in a day or so; but when, an hour afterwards, and five miles away, I sat down to have my lunch, he walked in to the restaurant and sat himself within a few feet of me.
This coincidence made an impression upon my mind, and when I needed a central figure not quite so banal as Blake for the U.J. stories, I re-created this albino fellow “moulded nearer to the heart’s desire.”
Five years after this inspiration, Skeen introduced Zenith in the Sexton Blake story, A Duel to the Death, and continued with the popular villain for 83 more works over 28 years, finally seeming to kill him off in 1941’s The Affair of the Bronze Basilisk. (He disappears in the collapse of a bomb-shattered house sliding off the edge of a cliff; Blake recovers Zenith’s cloak and hat, but never finds his body.) Author, editor, and bibliographic scholar Jack Adrian wrote the introduction to the reprint of Monsieur Zenith the Albino, saying, “So strong, so well-defined was the character that virtually from the day Skene wrote about him… he became one of the most popular villains in the Blake saga.”
Zenith’s traits include albinism, frequent opium use, a virtuosic violinist, immaculate evening dress of top hat and suit, rarely sleeping, (possibly) exiled aristocrat, indifference to gratitude or reward, a master swordsman, a peculiar code of honor, amusement in danger, fisticuffs with white gloves, a swordstick, a Browning automatic, and a suicide cigarette (should he ever be caught). Despite this list, it’s best to use Skene’s own words to describe this anti-hero.
Consider the first half of the quotation from this article’s beginning:
Laughing at his own failure and at his own futility … the Albino turned and disappeared into the maze of mean streets which opened out before him.
Anyone who’s read Moorcock might assume that this refers to Elric – but it doesn’t. This is from the last line of Skene’s 1923 Blake thriller, The Case of the Grey Envelope. Above, I substituted an ellipsis for the word “Zenith.” The overlap between Zenith’s and Elric’s character traits can sometimes be significant. One could easily imagine following the above quotation with Moorcock’s words, “…Such a one was the cynical, laughing Elric, a man of bitter brooding and gusty humour, proud prince of ruins, lord of a lost and humbled people.” (In fact, in this article’s introduction I added this sentence to the Zenith quote above to create a hybrid fake “quotation.”) However, one shouldn’t consider Elric a Zenith knockoff. There are also significant differences between them: Zenith is physically formidable whereas Elric is not; Elric cares (somewhat) about mankind, but Zenith does not, etc.
Here are some of my favorite quotations from Skene’s Zenith. You might glimpse that other albino anti-hero lurking between some of the lines.
“I would treat you as you deserve, but the blood would get on my cuffs.”
As usual, whenever Monsieur Zenith entered a place where his fellow creatures were gathered together, his arrival created a sensation…the fact that he was an exquisite and a man of dominating personality being obvious to them all.
Ho Sen half bowed. “The river,” he said, “comes to the sea.’
“And the fever of living to a sheep,” supplemented Zenith, thus completing the proverb from Confucius which the Chinaman had begun.
“It’s a pity,” said the Oriental sententiously, “that one who knows how to live should die!”
“It would be a pity,” corrected Zenith, “if the one of whom you speak were to die. But what are dogs that they should pull the tiger down?”
The Chinaman turned away, and, with a sort of shame, gave a signal.
“If madam would tell me what it is she requires – “
The actress sprang to her feet and seized Monsieur Zenith’s hand. “If you do, it is salvation for me – no, not for me – for civilisation.”
A strange look came into the Albino’s face. Before that moment his expression had been bored but benevolent. Now it became frigid with contempt. “I,” he said, “serve civilisation! And why?”
Zenith, in his immaculate evening clothes, with his thin patent shoes upon the snow of the sill and his theatrical cloak draped around his shoulders, smiled as he listened. This was the kind of thrill which he lived for. He had begun this game of thrills a long time ago, being in himself both the setter and the solver of the problem. A means of excitement, it was, a means of forgetfulness, forced upon him by the abnormality of his albinism. For years in his role of taskmaster he had been in the habit of saying to himself, “Here is something that you cannot do,” and forthwith; slave of egotism; puppet of his own strange complexes, he had attempted and succeeded in doing that something. Ridiculous game, but at the same time, productive of the excitement whereby he truly lived.
Monsieur Zenith was so obviously a personality; an aristocrat, that even to laugh in his company was a minor distinction.
“Madam jests,” he murmured, shaking his head, slowly.
“Don’t call me madam,” said the girl, impulsively, “call me Sally.”
The Albino turned his stone-white face towards her, his red-irised eyes flashed angrily. This was presumption.
“I call you what I please to call you,” he said.
“For the guilt I care nothing, but for the clumsiness — well, that is different. I would not have it supposed the I, Zenith the Albino, have so far lost my cunning as to be capable of bungling such as his. He must be punished, Oyani.”
“Oh, thank you,” said Sally Mynor impulsively. “Thank you, thank you.”
“If I do this,” returned Zenith, coldly, “I do it because it is my whim, because it amuses me. Afterwards, if I get the thing, I may give it to you. I may keep it as a souvenir; that is my affair.”
“Have you no heart?”
“I have no heart.”
These are just the tip of the literary iceberg for this wonderful character. Although Skene abandoned Zenith, others have not. Certainly aspects of Zenith live on in Elric. And, in 1994, Michael Moorcock featured Zenith in “The Affair of the Seven Virgins” which is included in the aforementioned 2007 work, The Metatemporal Detective, along with other Zenith stories. M.Zenith also appeared in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. And, in 2012, Obverse Books published Zenith Lives!: Tales of M.Zenith, the Albino, a collection of Zenith tales by various authors.
Just as Elric influenced and continues to influence roleplaying games, so can Zenith. As judges, we can enrich our game by incorporating a multi-dimensional hero-villain as an adversary for our PCs. Like Zenith, give him a code of honor, let him treat the PCs with respect and courtesy, let him even seem redeemable, and then unleash his unique breathless violence. Rinse and repeat. A Zenith could also make a fantastic patron for a job, who hires the PCs because he cannot be troubled with their trivial task, but turns on the party if embarrassed by their performance. Or, following Moorcock’s insistence that Zenith and Elric are manifestations of the same hero, the PCs could meet their own manifestation(s) from elsewhere in the multiverse, and have to cooperate with them, for better or worse. There is even mileage to be had by dressing up an NPC in formal wear; perhaps there’s a hireling who adventures wearing only his finest clothes (don’t forget the white gloves!). At the very least, we can work in Zenith’s signature swordstick. You can never have too many swordsticks.
Zenith the Albino dares you to incorporate him into your games! In the spirit of Appendix N Archaeology, grab your shovel and dig up some of Anthony Skene’s wonderful Zenith prose! Many of these are not easily unearthed, but Zenith would insist that it’s worth the trouble: “The Albino smiled a little. He liked this. Difficulty was the spice of life to him.”
Sources for Zenith Reading:
Jess Nevins’ checklist of every Sexton Blake / Zenith story (also some great Zenith quotations).