Monday, February 13, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: Stardock

In my experience, it's rare that an idea enters one's mind wholly unbidden. Usually there's some cause for it, some inspiration or influence, even if it's often unrecognized or at least unacknowledged. That's certainly the case of most of my own ideas, whose originality has always been suspect. Lately, in thinking about the megadungeon of Dwimmermount, I found myself pondering where I got the idea for a huge mountain filled with treasure and reputed to have once been the citadel of the Ancients, who fashioned the great works of the world. And while it's true that fantasy is replete with examples of such things, I had to wonder about the specific image that gave birth to Dwimmermount. In the end, I decided it was probably Fritz Leiber's Stardock, from the short story of the same name, which was first appeared in the November 1965 issue of Fantastic.

"Stardock" is a tale of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, focusing on Fafhrd's obsession with scaling a mountain peak from northern homeland. Fafhrd's father, we learn, was a renowned mountain climber. Known as the "Legend Breaker," he topped numerous peaks believed to be unclimbable, earning him great fame and, ultimately, a death on the slopes of White Fang. Fafhrd admits to being nowhere near the climber that his deceased father was, but nevertheless he strongly desires to test himself against Stardock, about which the following was written:
Who mourns white Stardock, the Moon Tree,
Past worm and gnome and unseen bars,
Will win the key to luxury:
The Heart of Light, a pouch of stars.
Fafhrd goes further, explaining to the Mouser what his people say about Stardock:
"They say the gods once dwelt and had their smithies on Stardock and from thencem amid jetting fire and showering sparks, launched all the stars; hence her name. They say diamonds, rubies, smaragds -- all great gems -- are the tiny pilot models the gods made of the stars ... and then threw carelessly away across the world when their great work was done."
It was this very passage that was the seed from which Dwimmermount sprang. Though the megadungeon eventually grew beyond this initial idea, it was Fafhrd's description above that first inspired in me the idea of an impenetrable mountain fortress filled with ancient treasures.

Naturally, the Mouser is intrigued with the idea of finding the great wealth rumored to be found atop Stardock. He suggests that the "Heart of Light" mentioned in the poem might refer to the largest diamond in all of Nehwon, a gem he'd love the opportunity to steal. And so the Twain set off to best Stardock, hoping, in the case of Fafhrd, to achieve something even his famous father could not, and, in the case of the Gray Mouser, to gain treasure beyond imagining. The story that follows is a long one and, I'll admit, often slow going. Leiber, as I understand it, was fond of mountain climbing himself and it shows in the lengths to which he goes to describe the details of his protagonists' ascent. However, this is also a sword-and-sorcery yarn; Fafhrd and Mouse encounter numerous challenges other than the high peak, some of which are quite memorable.

I can't say much about what is truly atop Stardock without spoiling the fun of this story. I will say, though, that I think "Stardock" is one of Leiber's better tales of the Twain -- charged with adventure, eroticism, and more than a little melancholy. Indeed, it's that last quality that I think elevates "Stardock" above many of its competitors in the canon of Nehwon. Though Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are, in many ways, the quintessential happy-go-lucky vagabonds for whom life is nothing but a grand adventure, they do grow and change over the course of that adventure. You get a clear sense of that growth and change in "Stardock" and I think it helps to make this story more than a plodding, even dull, recounting of a mountain climbing expedition. That said, it's also probably not to every reader's tastes, which is why, though I love it, I can easily imagine others might not. 


  1. Leiber wasn't a mountain climber, though some of his SF writer associates were (hence the dedication at the beginning of the tale).

  2. I've always liked this story too. I will have to see if I can locate my F&GM books and reread it. I have not really ever thought about this story as an inspiration for a D&D setting, although I certainly have considered other stories. The story taking place in Quarmall is one I have thought of using and the rat city story (I don't recall the name) one is another... and I keep thinking of more but I'll stop.

    I think it is interesting that Leiber really captures the feel of a game adventure in these stories (in my mind anyway) more than any other author. Many other authors' stories have elements that can be mined for inspiration but I think the F&GM tales seem to have something substantial they share with adventures as played around the table that other authors lack.

  3. I'm reading Leiber for the first time and I just finished "Stardock". While the story is indeed slow-going, I think that - amid all the climbing - Leiber really manages to built a strong mood with this tale. It sounds different than the others. My only complain (more of a nitpicking actually) is I was hoping for some science fantasy mash-up(because of the title and certain descriptions).