Monday, December 20, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Lean Times in Lankhmar

First published in the November 1959 issue of Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, Fritz Leiber's "Lean Times in Lankhmar" relates how
Once upon a time in Lankhmar, City of the Black Toga, in the world of Nehwon, two years after the Year of the Feathered Death, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser parted their ways.
The precise cause of their parting is never explained with certainty, though it may have involved "the proper spelling of Fafhrd's name" (though Leiber also suggests that "Bored and insecure men will often loose arrows at dust motes.") Thus separated, Mouser
entered the service of one Pulg, a rising racketeer of small religions, a lord of Lankhmar's dark underworld who levied tribute from the priests of all godlets seeking to become gods -- on pain of unpleasant, disturbing, and revolting things happening at future services of the defaulting godlet. If a priest didn't pay Pulg, his miracles were sure to misfire, his congregation and collection fall off sharply, and it was quite possible that a bruised skin and broken bones would be his lot.
Meanwhile, Fafhrd
broke his longsword across his knee (cutting himself badly in the act), tore from his garments the few remaining ornaments (dull and worthless scraps of metal) and bits of ratty fur, forswore strong drink and all allied pleasures (he had been on small beer and womanless for some time), and became an acolyte of Bwadres, the sole priest of Issek of the Jug. Fafhrd let his beard grow until it was as long as his shoulder-brushing hair, he became lean and hollow-cheeked and cavern-eyed, and his voice changed from bass to tenor, though not as a result of the distressing mutilation which some whispered he had inflicted upon himself -- these last knew he had cut himself but lied wildly as to where.
The short story, having established that the northern barbarian had become a devotee of a petty god and that the wiry thief had become involved in a protection racket that preyed on such devotees, proceeds much as one might expect, with the former boon companions becoming adversaries in a battle to which neither of them is truly dedicated -- certainly not dedicated enough to bring rain permanent harm upon the head of the other, at any rate.

Therein lies the brilliance of "Lean Times in Lankhmar." Although the general outline of the plot is one almost any reader of the Twain's adventures could guess in advance, the twists and turns it takes are delightfully surprising and, as usual, offered up with great wit. The story ranks among the best tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and, indeed, one of Leiber's best, in my opinion. It's breezily written yet strangely substantial, providing insight into not only the world of Nehwon and its characters but also into human nature, or at least Leiber's own perspective on it. Stories like this make a great change of pace from the often grimness and gloominess of much swords-and-sorcery fiction and, as I get older, I find myself preferring Leiber's prose above that of just about every other writer of fantasy.

18 comments:

  1. Fritz Leiber definitely has a thing going on there. He's my favorite "swords & sorcery" author. Is it heretical to think he did a much better job of it than REH?

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  2. Somehow, I didn't start reading the Fafhrd & Grey Mouser books until two months ago. I *love* them, and they are totally how I'd love to see my games go.

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  3. I love this story so much. Mike Mignola did a fantastic job on this one for the marvel comics adaptation - the Mouser in Pulg's employ, with about 20 extra pounds, stubble, and dark glasses is probably the best visual joke in the whole comic series.

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  4. @ Pat

    No. It's not heretical to think such a thing. Leiber (in my opinion) is a lot easier to read than REH. He's also a lot easier to read than a lot of modern authors.

    The only Fafhrd & Gray mouser stories I don't like are those towards the end of their career. Somehow, I never pictured them retiring.

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  5. How do you think Lieber stands in relation to Terry Pratchett? When I first ran across Pratchett he just seemed like "Douglas Adams but fantasy" to me, but in its compression, its setups, its playing along with the reader, its possible applicability to satire this extract seems to me maybe a closer relation to Pratchett's later works.

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  6. One thing I like about this story is the clear implication that the "priests" are frauds, the "miracles" are scams, and the gods are not real. Just sayin'.

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  7. Hands down, my favorite F&GM story.

    I've enjoyed it even more upon re-readings. Seeing Leiber set everything up with clockwork precision and no small amount of wit is even more impressive when you know what the punchline is.

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  8. This is not only my favorite Leiber yarn, but one of my favorite short-stories of all time.

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  9. I haven't read this story in decades, but I remember it very well! I must move "re-reading Leiber" upwards on my to do list.

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  10. Pratchett vs. Leiber?

    Whew.

    Different goals, I think. Pratchett was initially parodying the genre Leiber and REH helped found; over the years he's changed into writing about a world in which parody and humorous parallel are forces of nature. F&GM are humorous, but, I think, not intended as parody.

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  11. As a DM, I shamelessly swiped story ideas from the F&GM tales. Some of the best adventures I ever ran.

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  12. This is my favorite Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tale.

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  13. My only complaints about Leiber are:

    1) an increasingly squicky predilection for sexualizing adolescent girls over the series of stories. Maybe realistic, and F&GM aren't that old, but still...

    2) Clunky "As you know, Fafhrd/Mouser,..." passages recapitulating events of earlier stories that Fafhrd/Mouser surely doesn't need to be reminded of.

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  14. This is one of my favorite stories as well, not just Leiber or Sword & Sorcery, but in any genre. It's really brilliant and I love how big Lankhmar feels in this.

    I might be misremembering but in one collection Leiber talks about how this story came out of his experiences dealing with the evangelical Christian component in AA. In the same book he also mentioned how "Bazaar of the Bizarre" (this might have been the collection's title) came out of his experiences trying to find screen-writing work in Hollywood.

    I like some of the later stories quite a bit (in particular "The Curse of the Smalls and Stars" when the Slayers' Brotherhood sends assassins after them), and there's something a bit audacious about letting his heroes retire and start families (sort of)

    Though I do agree with Jon Hendry about the squicky component.

    A final comment, Leiber would have been 100 years old this December 24th. It would be cool to read appreciations of the man across the RPG community.

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  15. I recall being in absolute tears upon first read of that little gem. Issek of the Jug should be elevated to Lord of All Petty Gods.

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  16. I recently acquired the audio book of SWORDS AND DEVILTY (in MP3 format) and am listening to those first three stories over again, having read them twice in the past.

    What I love about Leiber is he is so damn literate! Listening to them (as opposed to reading them) I am struck not only by his excellent manipulation of stock fantasy tropes, but also the cadence and nuance of his verbiage.

    It's no surprise that he was a Shakespearean and screen actor as well as a lay preacher. Clearly he takes a great pleasure "in the telling" that shines through.

    I highly recommend the audio book for those readers with commutes and busy schedules. I only wish that the others in the series were available.

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  17. I find it a little amusing that Issekianity passed into TSR's Forgotten Realms as the religion of "Ilmater". That it was taken at face value, rather than as a satire of Christianity, is sadly telling.

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  18. The first three book in the series are available as audio books on iTunes. Bit pricey or me about $33 Aus each..
    Great stories.

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