Monday, January 2, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: Under the Thumbs of the Gods

I've regularly remarked on this blog that Dungeons & Dragons (and, by extension, most fantasy roleplaying games, with a few notable exceptions) doesn't take the matter of religion very seriously. By "seriously," I mean only that very little thought seems to have been given to the nature of the gods, their relationship to mortals, and the consequences that follow from that. To some extent, that's understandable, since comparatively few of the pulp fantasies that inspired D&D deal directly with the gods (though, of course, ancient mythologies do). Even so, it's long been disappointing to me, because I think there's a rich vein of ideas to be mined when it comes to faith, religion, and the gods.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fritz Leiber was already well ahead of me when he wrote "Under the Thumbs of the Gods." Appearing for the first time in the April 1975 issue of Fantastic, the story finds Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser "drinking strong drink one night at the Silver Eel," when they become "complacently, even luxuriously, nostalgic about their past loves and amorous exploits." This is, of course, very much in character for the Twain, whose adventures are filled with all manner of love affairs, including the tragic.

What Fafhrd and the Mouser don't know is that their boasts "about their most recent erotic solacings" have been overheard – but not by men.
In the Land of the Gods, in short in Godsland and near Nehwon's Life Pole there, which lies in the southron hemisphere at the antipodes from the Shadowland (the abode of Death), three gods sitting together cross-legged in a circle picked out Fafhrd and the Mouser's voices from the general mutter of their worshippers, both loyal and lapsed, which resounds eternally in any god's ear, as if he held a seashell to it.
The three gods in question are Issek, who "had the appearance of a delicate youth with wrists and ankles broken;" Kos, "a squat, brawny god bundled up in furs, with a grim, not to say surly, heavily bearded visage;" and Mog, "who resembled a four-limbed spider with a quite handsome, though not entirely human face." 

These three deities had taken an interest in these particular mortals because they had, at one time or another, been – or feigned to be – one of their devotees. Fafhrd had revered Kos during his youth in the Cold Waste and had become an acolyte of Issek during a low point in his life. while the Mouser "made a game for several weeks of firmly believing in Mog," because his lover, Ivrian, "had taken a fancy to a jet statuette of Mog." More than that,

the three gods singled out their voices ... because they were the most noteworthy worshippers these three gods had ever had and because they were boasting. For the gods have very sharp ears for boasts, or for declarations of happiness and self-satisfaction, or for assertions of a firm intention to do this or that, or for statements that this or that must surely happen, or any other words hinting that a man is in the slightest control of his destiny. And the gods are jealous, easily angered, perverse, and swift to thwart.

This is delightful stuff, in my opinion, full of both the wit and cynicism that are hallmarks of the tales of the Nehwon. In the span of just a couple of paragraphs, Leiber has painted a striking portrait of the gods of his fantasy setting. He goes on:

"It's them, alright – the haughty bastards!" Kos grunted, sweating under his furs – for Godsland is paradisal.

"They haven't called on me for years – the ingrates!" Issek with a toss of his delicate chin. "We'd be dead for all they care, except we've our other worshippers. But they don't know that – they're heartless."

"They have not even taken our names in vain," said Mog. "I believe, gentlemen, it is time they suffered divine displeasure. Agreed?"

Nehwon's gods, you can see, are petty and vain, not unlike the gods of ancient Greece or Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea. They bristle at being ignored – and are more than prepared to smite their wayward followers to assuage their feelings of abandonment. In this case, the three gods decide to make use of the Twain's plan to seek excitement in Lankhmar: "We will hunt girls – ourselves the bait!" in the words of the Mouser. 

Mog said, smiling lopsidedly because of his partially arachnid jaw structure, "They seem to have chosen their punishment."

"The torture of hope!" Issek smiled eagerly, catching on. "We grant them their wishes –"

"– and then leave the rest to the girls," Mog finished.

"You can't trust women," Kos asserted darkly.

"On the contrary, my dear fellow," Mog said, "when a god's in good form, he can safely trust worshippers, female and male alike, to do all the work."

"Under the Thumbs of the Gods" is a fast-moving yarn that might, on first reading, seem fun but fairly insubstantial. In fact, I think it one of Leiber's most fascinating later stories. Not only do we learn a lot more about the gods of Nehwon, but we also learn a thing or two about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser themselves, which is always worthwhile. 


  1. I have a similar affection for The curse of the smalls and the stars

  2. I'd argue that an idea in this story - that gods are dependent on human worship for their power and even their survival - was key to Gary's (and AD&D 1E's) conception of gods in the game.
    Other traits of Nehwon's gods (inability to hear thoughts, a dwelling place on the Prime Material Plane) not so much.

  3. I love every bit of the feel of the Lankhmar stories. that is how D&D should feel, to me.

  4. Gene Wolfe's *Latro in the Mist* is an outstanding pairing with this tale.