Monday, August 29, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Sunken Land

Originally published in the February 1942 issue of Unknown Worlds, "The Sunken Land" is an early adventure of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (the fourth in terms of publication). Consequently, it's somewhat shorter than many of his later and more famous tales of the Twain. I don't mind this in the least, as my patience with the ever-increasing length of fantasy and science fiction literature grows thinner with each passing year. The plot of "The Sunken Land" also seems somewhat derivative of other earlier works, such as Lovecraft's "Dagon" and Smith's "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis." Again, I don't mind this, as I think "originality" is over-valued when it comes to fiction. In addition, both of the aforementioned stories are fine evocations of supernatural horror, which I consider an important part of what makes a good sword-and-sorcery yarn (as opposed to mere "fantasy"). 

"The Sunken Land" begins with Fafhrd and the Mouser aboard a "cranky sloop," as it makes its way across the "huge, salty Outer Sea" en route to Lankhmar. While the Mouser is unhappy about their maritime journey – something about the "uniformly stormless weather and favorable winds disturbed him" – Fafhrd is having the time of his life. His people are renowned sailors and he enjoyed being once more aboard the deck of a ship. More than that, his bow-fishing had brought him an unexpected boon. The belly of one of the fish he's reeled in contains a prize.

The object did not seem very small even on Fafhrd's broad palm, and although slimed-over a little, was indubitably gold. It was both a ring and a key, the key part set at a right angle, so that it would lie along the finger when worn, There were carvings of some sort. Instinctively the Gray Mouser did not like the object. It somehow focused the vague unease he had felt for several days now.

Naturally, Fafhrd does not share his friend's pessimistic view. Indeed, he proclaims that he "was born with luck as a twin" and proudly displays the ring on his hand. Despite this, something about the ring roused "strange memories" in Fafhrd, perhaps due to the fact that the carving on the ring "represented a sea monster dragging down a ship."

"I think they called the land Simorgya. It sank under the sea ages ago. Yet even then my people had gone raiding against it, though it was a long sail out and a weary beat homeward. My memory is uncertain. I only heard scraps of talk about it when I was a little child. But I did see a few trinkets carved somewhat like the ring, just a very few. The legends, I think, told that the men of far Simorgya were mighty magicians, claiming power over wind and waves and the creatures below. Yet the sea gulped them down for all that."  

The Mouser takes an interest in these legends and suggests that perhaps they now sail over top the sunken land of Simorgya. If so, would it not be better if Fafhrd threw the ring overboard? Who knows what curse might be laid upon it? Later, as if to prove the Mouser right, a strange storm blows up and he once again urges his friend to get rid of the ring. Even stranger, Fafhrd sees something appear out of the storm – "the dragon-headed prow of a galley."

Needless to say, neither expected to see another ship come upon theirs in the middle of such a terrible storm, especially not a ship that resembled that of Fafhrd's own people. The sight of it so catches the big barbarian off-guard that, for once, he fails to pay attention to his surroundings aboard the deck and is knocked overboard. Adrift on the stormy sea at night, Fafhrd loses sight of the sloop on which he was traveling – and the Mouser. In time, he is rescued by the crew of the galley, who were "Northerners akin to himself. Big raw-boned fellows, so blond they seemed to lack eyebrows." 

The Northerners did not save him out of any kindness. They need an oarsman to replace one of their own who had been swept into the sea during the storm. Like Fafhrd's discovery of the ring in the fish's belly, he himself has become an unexpected gift to his rescuers. Put to work, Fafhrd learns from another oarsman that the leader of the Northerners, Lavas Laerk, had "sworn to raid far Simorgya," the exact same legendary land about which Fafhrd has spoken to the Mouser earlier. Quite a coincidence! Even more remarkable is the fact that, sometime thereafter, the ship's steersman cries out, "Land ho! Simorgya! Simorgya!" Somehow, against all odds – against all reason – the Northerners had found Simorgya, a magical land supposedly sunk beneath the waves ages ago …

"The Sunken Land" is a terrific bit of economical but nevertheless engaging storytelling. It's more of a ghost story than a typical sword-and-sorcery tale of rollicking adventure but that doesn't take away from my pleasure in reading it. Leiber is a master of mood and creeping horror and he puts that mastery to good use in "The Sunken Land." It's a great reminder that horror is a species of fantasy and it ought not be neglected, either in literature or fantasy roleplaying games. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm overdue for a re-reading of the F&GM stories, but I remember quite liking this one and I generally really like the older stories. In my ignorance, I started off with collections that arrange the series by story chronology rather than publication order and was somewhat unimpressed at first, but when I got to the original stories it really clicked with me. Not that stories like Snow Women are without value, but I wonder how much Leiber's series has been hindered by the fact that so many of the collected editions make that same mistake.