Monday, November 22, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Swords of Lankhmar

If there's a fantasy writer whose books begin more engagingly than those of Fritz Leiber, I've never read them. His 1968 novel, The Swords of Lankhmar (an expansion of his 1961 novella "Scylla's Daughter), begins thusly:
"I see we're expected," the small man said, continuing to stroll toward the large open gate in the long, high, ancient wall. As if by chance, his hand brushed the hilt of his long, slim rapier.

"At over a bowshot distance how can you--" the big man began. "I get it. Bashabeck's orange headcloth. Stands out like a whore in church. And where Bashabeck is, his bullies are. You should have kept your dues to the Thieves Guild paid up."

"It's not so much the dues," the small man said. "It slopped my mind to split with them after the last job, when I lifted those eight diamonds from the Spider God's temple."

The big man sucked his tongue in disapproval. "I sometimes wonder why I associate with faithless rogues like you."

The small man shrugged. "I was in a hurry. The Spider God was after me."
The small man is, of course, the Gray Mouser and the big one Fafhrd, the two greatest adventurers in Lankhmar. Once again, the Twain find themselves being pursued by armed men, intent on doing them harm. This time, however, their pursuers are of a somewhat different sort, employed by "a venerable, clean-shaven, stern-visaged man in a black toga narrowly bordered with silver."
He raised his hand in a dignified salute. He said gravely, "I am chamberlain of Glipkerio Kistomerces, Overlord of Lankhmar, and here is my wand of authority." He produced a small silver wand tipped with a five-pointed bronze emblem in the form of a starfish.

The two men nodded slightly, as though to say, "We accept your statement for what it's worth."

The chamberlain faced the big man. He drew a scroll from his toga, unrolled it, scanned it briefly, then looked up. "Are you Fafhrd the northern barbarian and brawler?"

The big man considered that for a bit, then said, "And if I am?"

The chamberlain turned toward the small man. He once more consulted his parchment. "And are you--your pardon, but it's written here--that mongrel and long-suspected burglar, cutpurse, swindler, and assassin, the Gray Mouser?"

The small man fluffed his gray cape and said, "If it's any business of yours--well, he and I might be connected in some way."

As if those vaguest answers settled everything, the chamberlain rolled up his parchment with a snap and tucked it inside his toga. "Then my master wishes to see you. There is a service which you can render him, to your own considerable profit."
The service the Overlord of Lankhmar wishes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to undertake is a seemingly easy one: to escort a shipment of grain by ship as a show of gratitude to the Eight Cities for having fought off Mingol pirates and raiders that were harassing Lankhmar. In addition to the grain, the Overlord is also sending along "twelve large white rats distributed among four silver-barred cages" who, have been trained to "dance to music, to drink from cups, hold tiny spears and swords, even fence." Their trainer, a young woman named Hisvet, is also aboard ship and Fafhrd worries, somewhat uncharacteristically, that she too is part of the Overlord's gift to the leader of the Eight Cities.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that this mission for the Overlord is not as simple as it first appears. Before long, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser find themselves contending with unexpected obstacles, not least being the truth about the rats and their trainer, leading to one of the more unusual adventures they've ever undertaken, which is saying something!

As I mentioned some weeks ago in another context, I'd never read this novel in my younger years. I'm not even sure I was aware of its existence until comparatively recently, when I was warned by others that Leiber's later Lankhmar tales, starting with The Swords of Lankhmar were not as accomplished as his earlier ones. I think that warning was a fair one, if taken in context. This novel is a bit more ponderous than the short stories that won me over to Leiber as a teenager. Some of that is a function of its length: novels are almost always less fast-paced than are short stories. However, some of it is also a function of Leiber's having changed -- or "matured," if you prefer -- as a writer when he wrote this. Though still packed with all the excitement and derring-do one would expect of a swords-and-sorcery story by one of its acknowledged masters, it's also strangely introspective at time, a reflection not only of its writer's age but also of his characters', for, unlike many pulp fantasy writers, Leiber does not shy away from showing his protagonists growing older and being affected by that growth.

Regardless, The Swords of Lankhmar is a superb fantasy story well told. Reading through it, I found myself many times thinking, "This is what D&D is supposed to be like" -- lovable rogues, evil wizards, dimension-hopping zookeepers, dark and decadent cities, and rats. Forget Vance and Howard and Tolkien (well, not literally), because Leiber is where Dungeons & Dragons was born. Even if you've already read and enjoyed his stuff, it's worth picking up again. You won't regret it.

29 comments:

  1. They just doesn't writes 'em like Leiber did. We shall not see his like again. Or Vance, for that matter. Where's all the good stuff these days?

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  2. The AD&D supplements for playing a Nehwon based campaign were excellent stuff.
    They adressed very well the question of the priest in a "true" S&S setting: characters of any class could be priest of any given deity, but there was no Clerics. Instead, spellcasters were White Wizards (using the Cleric and Druid spell lists ) or Black Wizards (using the MU spell list).
    The city geomorphs were a very usuful prop, too.
    I was actually wondering if the Rat King in your Dwimmermount campain was inspired by the rats of Lankhmar?

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  3. @Tom - The writers are there, but the publishers don't think the audiences are. With Salvatore, Brooks, et al largely the "face" of modern fantasy, that's the presumption of what sells.

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  4. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser have all the DNA of what makes a great D&D setting. There's no better example.

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  5. The Swords of Lankhmar is one of my favorite books. I believe it was the second Fritz Leiber book I read, after the collection Swords and Deviltry. It's really where I fell in love with the characters and the city of Lankhmar itself.

    One of the things that I enjoy most about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is that they're dreamers and romantics, not merely the stars of dreams and romance. They live in a world of fantasy and adventure, but that doesn't stop them from having vivid imaginations of their own -- consider the Mouser's vision of dueling swordsrats and wooing a slim rat queen. This is charming, and often adds to the poignance of the sword tale.

    I'm playing/developing a game right now that's primarily inspired by the Twain, and most specifically by The Swords of Lankhmar. I'm greatly enjoying writing the tables.

    Also, the first D&D product I owned was James Ward's Dragonsword of Lankhmar set.

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  6. Leiber's Fafhrd and Mouser stories feel more D&D to me than any other fiction.

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  7. I had a hard time with Leiber. Perhaps it was because I started with Bazaar of the Bizarre, which I still don't enjoy nearly as much as the other F&GM tales.

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  8. @Tom O'Bedlam

    One writer that may qualify, at least as an example of a D&D Paladin is Elizabeth Moon's "The Deed of Paksenarrion".
    see:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Deed_of_Paksenarrion

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  10. I don't think Swords is lesser in any way.

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  11. No, Swords is not remotely lesser in any sense. Nor is Bazaar of the Bizarre, for that matter. I'm astounded that some people feel that the quality of the F & GM tales fell off as Leiber aged; if anything both author and work matured.

    Now if you want a lesser Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tale, try out "The Mouser Goes Below" for size, or one of the two-three page short shorts. Leiber's output could be uneven, but the best of his stories more than excuse the few failures, and there's no discernable correlation between point in his career and quality, inversely or directly, IMO.

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  12. Another quality about Leiber that I feel he has over most fantasy writers was his ability of great dialog. Leiber came from a theatrical background as well as lived in the shadier parts of cities such as of San Francisco's Tenderloin district and I think both helped develop his style which was very "adult" in nature. You could tell the first Gord noel Gary wrote was greatly influenced by Leibers style.

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  13. One of the best writers, ever, in terms of sword & sorcery stories. I include with Leiber some other greats, all recognized almost universally by old school writers (in the bibliographies that appeared in rulebooks and articles). The names range to Moorcock, Vance, Brackett, Burroughs. Tolkien and Herbert belong as well, but more in terms of building interesting and compelling worlds (not that their stories suffered from lack of plot, dialog or intrigue).

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  14. @crowking

    "Another quality about Leiber that I feel he has over most fantasy writers was his ability of great dialog."

    Definitely. One of the fun parts of the opening of The Swords of Lankhmar is that the scene is set almost entirely through conversation between the heroes. You get a strong sense of their view on and relationship with the world.

    There's also a loose lesson for gaming, there: setting up action entirely through in-character conversation.

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  15. Swords of Lankhmar is a good novel, but I think The Lords of Quarmall is Leiber's best work. If ever anyone wants inspiration for a megadungeon, The Lords of Quarmall is it!

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  16. @John

    "If ever anyone wants inspiration for a megadungeon, The Lords of Quarmall is it!"

    Something Fritz Leiber himself suggested in The Dragon #1. Around that time, Leiber seems to have been fairly accessible to his gaming fans, which is very cool.

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  17. Glad to see you finally got around to reading TSOL, and that you enjoyed it.

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  18. Swords was my favorite of the series, when I read them 25 years ago. I'm getting ready to re-read Leiber, so I'm looking forward to seeing if that holds true.

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  19. I was actually wondering if the Rat King in your Dwimmermount campain was inspired by the rats of Lankhmar?

    Not originally, but, since I was read this novel shortly before I ran my last session of Dwimmermount, where the Boss of the Rats played an important role, I won't deny that I borrowed a few ideas from Leiber.

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  20. One writer that may qualify, at least as an example of a D&D Paladin is Elizabeth Moon's "The Deed of Paksenarrion".

    It's my understanding that Moon's stories feel like D&D because they're heavily influenced by a RPG campaign in which she played. Is that correct?

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  21. Read all the Lankhmar stories the year before last. When it snowed I wanted to go out into the woods and read 'the snow women' again. Love (nearly) all of them to bits. The twain are after nothing more complicated than women, wine and loot - not setting the world right or defeating evil. Just good and strange lusty tales.

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  22. I'm astounded that some people feel that the quality of the F & GM tales fell off as Leiber aged; if anything both author and work matured.

    Tastes differ, so I'm not surprised by the claim that his later stories declined in quality. Not having read them, I can't say if I agree yet, but I am working to rectify this.

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  23. Something Fritz Leiber himself suggested in The Dragon #1.

    "A vasty underground world of many levels, a nation in the mines! There’s a Dungeon would send wargamers ape!"

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  24. I've read Conan for the first time in my life because of your posts, and I really enjoyed what I've read so far. Seems like I'm gonna have to Google this Leiber guy too :).

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  25. I don't believe she played in an RPG campaign at the time she wrote the books. She has a background in history, horses and is a former Marine.

    From the cited article:

    "However, Ryk E. Spoor has stated:[2] Paksenarrion was born (according to an email exchange I had with the author) from BAD roleplaying [Emphasis mine] : Elizabeth Moon, not gaming herself, heard some people playing "Paladins" (Holy warriors in the service of a god) and doing so very poorly. Her reaction was of course that "such a person wouldn't act like that"... and in thinking about what they would act like, Paksenarrion was born."

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  26. @ JM - I envy you reading Ice Magic for (presumably) the first time. I try to re-read the entire "Saga" every five years or so, but there's nothing like the first time. Say hi to Khakht for me :).

    I think you'll like Rime Isle and the other stories in Ice just fine, but when you get to Knight and Knave prepare yourself for some unevenness. "The Curse of Smalls and Stars" is wonderful, but the rest is a mixed bag, some with a level of bawdiness I'm afraid you'll balk at.

    How have you gotten this far without reading all of the F & GM stuff :)?

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  27. I don't believe she played in an RPG campaign at the time she wrote the books.

    That's hard to believe, given what I know of Moon's books, but I've never actually read them, so I really can't say if my knowledge is at all distorted.

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  28. How have you gotten this far without reading all of the F & GM stuff :)?

    When I first read Leiber's stuff, probably in the early 80s, the books to which I had access stopped just before The Swords of Lankhmar, so I simply assumed that's all the stories there were. And, as I said, I was later warned off reading the later stories, because they were supposedly "inferior" and I never bothered to see if that assessment was correct till now.

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  29. My favorite memory associated with Swords of Lankhmar is that, before reading the book, I figured the cover art was just another example of low editorial standards in fantasy paperbacks.

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