Monday, August 9, 2010

Swords and Deviltry

After thoroughly enjoying the Swords and Dark Magic anthology, I felt the need to go back and enjoy one of the masters that the book extols, Fritz Leiber. Fortunately, I have the full run of Ace paperbacks comprised of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories up to the 1970s. I still remember how much the award-wining short story "Ill Met in Lankhmar," the story of the teaming of the two great adventurers, affected me when I first read it as a teenager, so I pulled the book with that story out for rereading.

Returning to the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories feels very much like returning to an old friend, although my perspective and thought processes have changed in the intervening years, offering new and perhaps more nuanced ways of looking at works seminal to me and to the history of speculative fiction. The first thing I noticed was how effortless Leiber's prose is, the literary equivalent of a favorite blanket. Even though close scrutiny reveals more ornate sentences than I imagined, the overall effect is one of a story repeated around a campfire, artfully hiding the framework of good writing. There are a few moments when the bones show through; in particular, the last sentence in "Ill Met in Lankhmar" is explicitly artificial, but there are reasons for it, such that repeating the sentence or explaining the rationale would spoil the story for anyone who has not yet read it. But readers interested in the craft of writing should look at that sentence over and over, examine the tone it starts with and ends with, and how it moves there. While Leiber is generally subtle, using precise construction and exacting word choice to convey his meaning, the emotional impact of the events before that paragraph and how it moves the characters forces the shape of the final passage. It's very powerful stuff.

The primary attraction to Leiber's sword and sorcery is, of course, the two main characters: Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. The one a "barbarian" from the northern wastes come to the big city of Lankhmar for revenge and fortune and the other a novice "wizardling" on the run from powers that threaten to overwhelm him, together they have become the archetypal team that this genre of fantasy looks back to. What is especially entertaining about Swords and Deviltry is that the book contains two stories featuring each of our heroes in their own adventure, prior to when they meet in the city of Lankhmar. For someone not familiar with the characters, these two stories are the perfect opportunity to learn about them in their native environments, as it were. In "The Snow Women," Fafhrd is a youth of the northern tribes, smitten with the idea of civilization and increasingly desperate to leave his native land and, especially, his mother. In this story, we see the beginnings of a Fafhrd that we eventually get to know quite well: thoughtful, contemplative, but capable of violent bouts of anger. In "The Unholy Grail," we see Mouse (as he is originally called) as a callow youth, quicker than most around him and smart enough to get into trouble, and always on the knife's edge of emotion, easily moving from one state to another.

In these stories, we also learn a little about how magic works on Nehwon, and it is in its discussion and description that Leiber most clearly harkens back to his roots, the weird fantasy of the 20s and 30s. Magic cannot really be explained, not by the narrator nor by Fafhrd and Mouser. Nonetheless we see it being performed, darkly, easily fitting the facile descriptor "sorcery." We also see its horrific effects, and Leiber appears to have a great relish for describing the indescribable, the things only seen on the periphery of vision. After such passages as the preternatural cold descending on Fafhrd as he attempts to leave his cold homeland, the reader is left with the strong feeling that Leiber would have been rather successful at writing horror as well (and indeed he was). But something protects Fafhrd and Mouser from most of the predations of sorcery; they seem to escape it naturally, if not easily. And being young, they haven't much thought concerning their actions on those around them. It is in the sublime "Ill Met in Lankhmar" that these threads come together—their ability to escape may not extend to the people they love.

The result is a set of stories that sucks the reader in and nearly refuses to let go. It is important to note that the stories in Swords and Deviltry, while chronologically first in the tales of our heroes' lives, were among the last written; the first Lankhmar story was written in 1939, and these were published as late as 1970. Thus the reader also has the benefit of Leiber's three decades of writing and knowing these characters, perfecting his vision of them and his craft. As a result, Swords and Deviltry is nearly a primer for the power and artistry that the swords and sorcery genre can offer. Powerful characters fighting personal battles against deadly forces arrayed against them, in the words and style of an artisan, an eventual winner of the Science Fiction Grand Master recognition. It can easily be argued that Leiber's writing transcends its pulp roots to act as a signpost for any kind of good writing, and the stories yield up their rewards to anyone who takes t he time to read them. Be warned, though; like popcorn, you may find that the first book in the series isn't enough. But return visits are well worth the cost, as this series has become a touchstone of the genre and will likely become a personal touchstone to attentive readers.

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