Swords in the Mist Re-Read: “Lean Times in Lankhmar”

mist5Bill Ward and I are continuing our read through of Fritz Leiber’s collection of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, Swords in the Mist. This week we’re looking at the second tale in the collection, “Lean Times in Lankhmar.”

mist3Howard: This is probably the funniest Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story in the entire canon, and likely the funniest sword-and-sorcery tale ever written that isn’t supposed to be a farce or a send-up. The only other tale by a famed sword-and-sorcery writer that comes close is Robert E. Howard’s “Gates of Empire,” which also is flat-out hilarious… but as it’s historical and free of supernatural elements I guess it’s not an apple to apple comparison.

Bill: You’re not kidding, I was snickering, snorting, and guffawing my way all the way through.

Howard: I can recall reading this multiple times and laughing out loud again and again each time I did so. Alas, even after nearly a quarter century away from the story I remember it too well to be completely delighted now, so I have to instead take pleasure in the careful build-up to the climax. Everything in the tale is setting us up for the grand finale — Fafhrd’s re-appearance in changed form, howling for the final jug of wine.

Fritz Leiber

Fritz Leiber

Bill: The climax slipped my mind until the moment the Mouser started getting Fafhrd drunk at the end, then it all came back to me.

Howard: Surely this is not just the funniest of the Fafhrd and Mouser stories, but one of the very strongest as well. A lot of the humor comes from being familiar with the characters and how they would normally act, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Leiber’s done such a fine job here that even someone unfamiliar with them would enjoy this outing.

Bill: I think so, too. Leiber is great at both the character-based humor, and also an overall narrative humor that’s part voice, part clever prose, and all about Leiber’s keen wit and outlook on the world.

Howard: It’s also interesting to see how they fare when away from each other. Not so well, as it turns out: like any great team, they’re stronger together than apart, with each becoming absorbed in matters that lead them to unhealthy habits — Mouser, grown soft with sensual pleasures, and Fafhrd with his head too high in religious clouds.

mist2Bill: It’s wonderful that they both take opposite paths to basically get to the same point. Again and again it’s these great character moments (to echo what you just said, we have a scene where Fafhrd labors over the creation of a devotional object while the Mouser sizes up a street waif), and Leiber’s characterization in general, that is so wonderful. Fafhrd was as sincere about his religious awakening as the Mouser was cynical. Even at the very end some of Fafhrd’s serious, poetical self comes through when, in referencing the hilarious climax of the story in which a drunk, shaved, and bound Fafhrd is taken by a horde of worshipers as their god returned to earth, he says to Mouser that he really was that god.

Howard: Great point. That was a fine ending, as well.

There are subtle satiric touches among the broad comic ones, such as comments on human nature and the allure of religion as well as prophets, and even, despite all the comedy, some action and adventure and some creepy supernatural elements with the mention, then “appearance” of the Gods OF Lankhmar.

Swords_in_the_MistBill: Indeed, and that’s one thing that is so amazing about these stories when they are at their best — they maintain a perfect balance between the serious and the humorous. After spending ten-thousand words on corrupt, imaginary, silly, bizarre, and contemptible religious cults we are treated to a blast of cold water in the form of the black bones of the true Lankhmarese gods. I don’t think anyone will be stealing their offering cask and replacing it with brandy anytime soon. Just as Leiber injects the serious with humor, he also does the reverse, and I think that’s a big part of why these tales have such a reality about them, and the characters are so vivid and so loved by fans.

Also, as a final aside, I loved that one of the possible falling out points between our heroes was the spelling of Fafhrd’s name — you and I both have stumbled over that “mouth-filling agglomeration of consonants” many times while discussing these stories!

Howard: …and likely will again. You’ve corrected my spelling of Fafhrd at least twice. Well, that’s it for this week. I hope, even if you haven’t been reading ALL of our selections, that you tried this one. Next time, “Their Mistress, the Sea.” I’ve little recollection of this one, but I’m afraid it may be one of the “filler” episodes Leiber added later. I hope I’m wrong. So far, this collection is two thumbs way up.


15 Comments on “Swords in the Mist Re-Read: “Lean Times in Lankhmar”

  1. You guys have pretty much covered everything. I’ll only emphasize something that I think is incredibly important, and it comes out starkly in Fafhrd saying that he WAS the god.

    Leiber had an understanding of myth. I don’t know if it was mainly from his own reading of myths, Jung and/or Joseph Campbell. What happens to Fafhrd is a mythic event. He is not the god, but he becomes the god for a moment, in a sense. He is a manifestation of universal, eternal forces that are also psychological ones in the human mind. By having Fafhrd claim honestly that he was the god, Leiber maintains mystery, which is the one constant truth that we experience of reality.

    I have previously bemoaned before the loss of mystery in fantasy fiction, but it is a problem not just in fiction but with our modern Western society. Notice how the term myth has been changed to mean “a lie.” But a myth is actually closer to the opposite. A myth is a metaphor that points to something other than itself, and that other thing is usually some primal truth about reality and the human condition in relationship to that reality. But fundamentalist scientific materialism says everything is either true or false, but what it means is that everything is either a FACT or a LIE. The terrible error in this thinking is that fact and truth can be two different things. This materialistic thinking is, ironically, also found in fundamentalist religion, the most anti-spiritual type of religion that exists. Fundamentalist religious people are so desperate to believe in only facts that they try to claim everything in the Bible isn’t just truth, but also a fact (and they claim this despite the contradictions and unbelievable improbabilities in the scriptures). When you remove mythology from religion, all you’re left with is a bunch of unlikely stories and bad science.

    In most modern fantasy stories (and art), everything is explained. Everything is a fact. Magic systems are explained. Monsters are explained and described in minutest detail. The lack of mystery goes even beyond the content of the stories to the writing itself, which often reads like a Hollywood action film, not literature. Almost no sense of true mystery exists, meaning mystery in the large sense. Another term that could be used is numinous, which is a term coined by Rudolph Otto.

    “it has three components. These are often designated with a Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As mysterium, the numinous is “wholly other”– entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious.” (http://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Religion/Fac/Adler/Reln101/Otto.htm)

    And, from Wikipedia:
    “According to Otto, the numinous experience has in addition to the tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling, a quality of fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel.
    The numinous experience also has a personal quality, in that the person feels to be in communion with a wholly Other. The numinous experience can lead in different cases to belief in deities, the supernatural, the sacred, the holy and/or the transcendent.”

    Joseph Campbell referred to this materializing of everything, in the religious sphere, as “concretization.” Symbols are now considered more important as historical facts (Noah really DID fit all the animals in an ark, etc.) and thus have lost their mythic symbolic power, which is where all the meaning lies, and which is what can transform individual lives.

    Campbell referred to it, in the artistic sphere, as naturalism.

    “Naturalism is the death of the art. And that’s one of the big problems in our American arts, I think, they don’t understand the metaphor. It’s all naturalism.”
    “This naturalism in our art world is…all flat-footed prose. And in flat-footed prose there are only two things that are interesting: violence and sex. That’s what it’s come down to. Everything leads up to it and out of it.”

    And, that’s what we mostly have in modern fantasy stories. I seldom read anything written after 1980 or so, because it’s all naturalism, all movie script violence, prop room costumes and action oriented plots. It’s a huge compliment from me to you, Howard, that I took the time to read Desert of Souls and enjoyed it. I think you were able to weave some sense of mystery into that book, some sense of the numinous, of the ancient and unknowable. And what first drew me to it was the original cover by Charles Keegan. That painting wasn’t some posed models or, worse, Photoshopped photos, and it didn’t look like some cheesy movie poster. A sense of mystery pervades the picture in every way: the composition, the colors, the setting, the painterly style. The numinous glowed forth in that painting. The cover, and the story inside, reflected the unknowable, the mysterious. They were, at least a bit, transparent to transcendence (a term coined by Karlfried Graf Durckheim), meaning that the myth, the divine life within you shines forth.

    That is what we should seek to do as human beings, and especially as artists. We should seek to create work that is transparent to transcendence. And Leiber’s work, at its best, was.

    • Hi Robert,

      Thank you, first for the wonderful commentary on myth and the lack of mystery in modern fantasy fiction, and second for the compliment for my own work.

      I had wondered about that line of Fafhrd, but I hadn’t explored it deeply enough, and I you’ve really gotten me thinking now.

      I’m not as widely read as I probably should be in modern fantasy, but I do think that Scott Lynch, Mark Lawrence, and Elizabeth Bear at least have things that remain mysterious. And I think that Michael J. Sullivan, Scott Oden, Saladin Ahmed, and Paul Kemp dance along that same edge. There are probably others that I’ll remember and slap my forehead about as soon as I hit this reply button.

      You’ve given me much to think upon, and I’m sure I’ll return to it again and again. Thanks for that.

    • Robert,

      This is much-belated (I read your comment over a year ago!) and I doubt you’ll see this in any case, but… this is the single best take on The Nature of Religion (and What It Has To Do With Fiction) I’ve ever seen, and I suspect it continues to strongly influence my approach to both religion and fiction to this day.

      Because the world – or, at least, our interpretation of it – is composed of more than just what we can empirically confirm or measure, there are times we all need to admit “I don’t know” – and beyond that, “I’ll probably never know” – and beyond that, “I don’t need to know” – and beyond that, “I don’t want to know.” In a way, every story – perhaps every faith as well – should be a contract between storyteller and story-hearer, the latter promising to not peek behind the curtain as long as the former promises to put on a good enough show in front of it.

      … man I’m getting pretentious tonight…

  2. Thanks, Howard. My criticism is based on a sampling of stories and a few books, which seem to show the general thrust of fiction now, which is what I’m addressing. I agree that there must be writers, many of whom are probably not even published yet, who are writing good fantasy fiction with a sense of the numinous.

    Part of the problem is the overall lack of myth and self-awareness in our society, but part of it also stems from authors reading current work for inspiration instead of digging deeper and further back to the sources of these eternal symbols and motifs. And I’m writer, so that’s why I can’t spend too much time reading modern stuff, even to prove my point!

    I would highly recommend authors read the ancient myths and also someone like Joseph Campbell, to get a feel for these forces that are driving our lives. One must ingest them, process them and organically create from an authentic place for them to manifest as good literature (one can’t just copy the idea of archetypes while plotting a book). Also, as Michael Moorcock suggests, it is best to not read too much in the genre in which you’re writing (another mistake made by authors). In that way, you will avoid falling into using the same tired tropes and cliches that usually happen as a result.

    Writing authentically, from a deep place, by spending time trying to understand reality, our culture, and oneself is a difficult path. But the rewards can be great, reaching far beyond just excellence in a chosen profession.

  3. By the way, the blogpost is only a slightly edited version of my post here, so no need to read it if you’ve read what’s above—though I would be happy if you of others here shared it or commented on my blog page. Thanks!

  4. BTW, I’m reading Scott Oden’s Lion of Cairo now. Another of the few concessions I’m making in reading current fantasy literature. 🙂

  5. Excellent stuff, Robert. Until you said it, I hadn’t quite figured out exactly what it was I hated about the modern trend in fantasy covers, but it absolutely is the literalism (or fundamentalism in the sense that you use it) implied by most of them, which ties right in with what I dislike about the books themselves. I don’t read many modern fantasy authors, either, there are very few that seem as if they have progressed beyond the third and fourth hand fantasy stuff for inspiration — they all know D&D tropes, but haven’t bothered with actual myth or history (or looked much even at the authors of a century ago).

    Sadly, I’m sure there’s probably stuff out there I’d like, but who can tell when it looks like everything else?

    • I know, Bill. Good writers/artists/musicians are out there. It’s a modern problem of information overload and easy access, which is the same thing the music industry suffers from. I’m a pretty successful songwriter/producer but I make all my money from licensing (my songs regularly appear on TV shows, film trailers, films, etc.). With people expecting (and able to get) free downloads and with all of the noise (countless “artists”), it’s very hard to make any sales. Now that anyone can produce and release a record, it’s very hard for the quality stuff to even get noticed. And the vetting process of major labels and publishers has shrunk to fewer and fewer companies and become all about money (they were always corrupt, but they used to be less so, and more artistically relevant).

      It’s a new world, and we just have to try to shine and do our best in it. Of course there are great things about those changes too. It’s a double-edged sword. Along with the writers Howard mentioned, I just wanted to mention another, Garth Nix. His stories of Sir Hereward and Mr. Fix are wonderful. http://www.amazon.com/Sir-Hereward-Mister-Fitz-Adventures-ebook/dp/B005IXSNY4

  6. Bill, are you an author? I did a search, but don’t think I was finding “the real you.” And you aren’t on Facebook.

  7. Hey Robert,

    I am an author (so far I’ve only published shorts), but I recently shut my website down and haven’t started a new one back up (had some unsolvable-without-money malware type issues so I just let it lapse, plus I’ve been seriously thinking of using a pseudonym rather than a name shared by five thousand other people!).

    Here’s my goodreads page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/477351.Bill_Ward

    Annoyingly, I’m the default Bill Ward on goodreads so every few weeks I have to purge the ‘not-me’s’ from my account — I’ve never done any Judge Dredd work or naughty cartoons.

    I’ve heard good things about Nix, I’ll have to check him out.

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