Swords Against Death Re-Read: Introduction

lankhmar 3In the coming weeks Bill Ward and I  are going to re-read a book from Fritz Leiber’s famous Lankhmar series, Swords Against Death. We hope you’ll pick up a copy and join us. This week, so that you’ll have a little time to get on board, we’re just providing an overview.

Howard: Mid-way through junior high I’d read a whole lot of science fiction but very few fantasy books and no sword-and-sorcery. I’d been playing a whole lot of Dungeons & Dragons, though, and one day I read the famed Appendix N and decided to explore its recommended fantasy reading.

Unfortunately, when I went to the library it proved woefully empty of nearly everything on the list. The used bookstore ended up being my salvation, although, owing to chance, all they had that first day was one Fritz Leiber book, which meant I didn’t actually read Robert E. Howard — sword-and-sorcery’s originator — until I was well into my twenties.

Bill: This closely parallels my own experience, and it was D&D that introduced me to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser long before I ever read any of their stories. Books were just hard to find, even if you knew what you were looking for. I didn’t get to Conan until I was thirty, and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sometime after that! My luck was to find Elric in my late teens and early twenties, probably because they were all being reprinted and the old Daws also seemed easy to find at the only used bookstore I knew about at the time.

lankhmar 1Howard: My used bookstore had a treasure trove of Moorcock, although again, because of their selection I ended up reading more obscure material first. I remain quite fond of the first Corum trilogy despite its repetition, probably because I first read it upon my initial exploration of fantasy books.

Bill: I loved both Corums. I think I read through nearly all the Moorcock S&S in my twenties and those were among my favorites, even more than Elric. As far as reading obscure material first, the first Howard I ever read were his historicals.

Howard: I love the Robert E. Howard historicals as much as his very best fantasy stories. My first purchase, though, was Swords Against Death, the most consistently excellent of all Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar books. Chronologically for the characters it’s not the first, but it does contain many of the stories Leiber wrote first. I discovered while reading through the series that I vastly preferred the stories he wrote earlier in his life, even over the Hugo award winning “Ill Met in Lankhmar” that appeared in Swords and Deviltry. I found “Ill Met” only mildly engaging, and the rest of that volume rather weak. I always try to warn newcomers to Lankhmar that they should start with Swords Against Death.

lakhmar 4Bill: Agree completely. When I settled down to read F&GM for the first time it was straight through in “career” order, though I’d read a few stories here and there in anthologies previously, and the first two introductory stories in Swords and Deviltry were not at all what I was expecting. The pace seemed much too languid. It wasn’t until the later books and earlier stories that I really got on board.

Leiber wrote a lot of different sorts of things and his style shifted to reflect that — I wonder how I’d react to those later F&GM pieces now that I’ve read more widely in Leiber’s backcatalog. I suspect they’d still compare a little unfavorably to classics like “The Bazaar of the Bizarre.”

Howard: Are there other collections you like as well? I like Swords Against Wizardry almost as well as Swords Against Death. I enjoy about half of the stories from Swords In the Mist, and all of the novel Swords of Lankhmar.

Swords Against Death, though, was the one I revisited the most. Once I got past the short, storyless opening (“The Circle Curse”) I was engrossed. Every short story was approximately the same length, and a few were tangentially connected. It was a little like episodic television.

Swords_Against_WizardryMore importantly, it was exciting, fast-paced, brimming with magic and sword-play and horror and mystery — and beautiful women, a subject that was becoming increasingly interesting to teenaged Howard. I loved Swords Against Death so much that I read it at least six times in the next few years (oh, to have so much spare time and energy).

Swords Against Death was not only one of the first fantasy books I read, it was my introduction to true sword-and-sorcery. These days the line between sword-and-sorcery is a lot more blurred than it was in the mid ’70s. Back then you pretty much had high fantasy, or sword-and-sorcery, and I definitely preferred the latter for the grit and the kind of protagonists, not to mention the pacing.

Bill: It’s great that SAD was such a significant book in your life. Here obviously is where our perspectives will differ, since the “stakes” of a reread are much higher for you, now. I read SAD maybe around eight years ago when I was reading the whole series and, for me, it’s sort of hard to separate out the individual books in the series from one another. Not only did I read them all at once, but I read the book club omnibus editions. I’m looking forward to getting a sense of SAD more as it’s own book with this reread.

lankhmar 9Howard: It’s been more than a quarter century since I last read the book, and I’m a little leery about what I’ll find. I know that the pacing will still be excellent and I have complete faith in Fritz Leiber as a prose stylist. But will I still find them some of the best adventure stories I’ve ever read? I mean, I’ve read a LOT of adventure stories after first being introduced to these. And what will I think of the way the women are handled? I was a young man in the ‘70s when I read these. Unconscious sexism was rampant then, and the majority of these tales were written even earlier, between the early ‘40s and the early ‘60s. I’m pretty sure that I’ll find a whole lot of women interacting with our protagonists as rewards rather than people. Not that I’d blame Leiber for that, if it’s what I find. Very few people can be socially ahead of their time.

Bill: As you say, very few people can be socially ahead of their time. Since I’m not one of them, I don’t foresee the sexual attitudes of my grandparent’s generation bothering me one bit — honestly it’s refreshing to read anything that hasn’t gone through the PC blandometer of the twenty-first century.

lankhmar 7Howard: That’s the right attitude to read this older fiction with. A lot of people wander into it without being prepared, though – they expect everything to read as though it were written in the present and aren’t willing to consider the time and circumstances under which a work was written. I always wonder how I can warn them that a work has to be considered under different  parameters without sounding like I’m apologizing. Now that my daughter’s a teenager I look at my bookshelves and feel like I have to explain the worth of a lot of the old fiction I grew up with. It feels a little like having to explain why a joke is funny, which always ruins the joke.

Bill: Well, that’s one thing I tend to forget. I get frustrated when people aren’t automatically like me in how they approach fiction, aware and accepting of the context. When I hear someone, to bring a particularly egregious example, lambasting an author for a character’s point of view, I tend to wonder how these readers ever made it past their Dick and Jane.

And here I think is a point where at last, despite what our Dunsany reviews might imply, we can show that you and I aren’t actually twins linked by telepathy. Because, while we have very similar tastes, the emotional context for us is different. I have no children, and just the notion you raise about explaining to your daughter what that wall of books represents to you gives me a bit of pause. I’ve never had to so much as consider that, and it does change things. It’s very easy as a self-contained entity to just say “leave my fiction the hell alone,” but the real, constructive, thing to do is to explain to someone with a completely different perspective just what’s so great about stories that may contain a few rough edges from their contemporary point of view.

lankhmar 6As far as Leiber goes, though, I certainly don’t think there’s anything in there as dated as, say, Nick and Nora Charles’s alcoholic banter in The Thin Man, which would be roughly contemporary with these stories. That may be one of the great advantages of fantasy fiction — the ‘no when’ of fantasy gives us a world that doesn’t date so badly and, even if there are some assumptions present that we no longer hold, well, don’t we assume going into it that a fantasy world is going to be different from our own?

Howard: A fair question and challenge. I think we could keep talking about perceptions for pages to come. We should probably leave some of that for the coming weeks.

Next week I hope you’ll join us for the first story in Swords Against Death, “The Circle Curse.” Don’t despair if it leaves you a little unsatisfied. If my memory’s correct, it’s the least interesting tale in the entire volume.

14 Comments on “Swords Against Death Re-Read: Introduction

  1. Count me in on this one. I’ve only read a little of the F&GM stories. The first was in an anthology when I was in 7th grade, and from what I recall, it had something to do with an Atlantis like island. Then it was “Ill Met” in one of the Hugo winners anthologies. I got my hands on the book club edition and started reading them in order a few years later. I think I made it all the way through Swords and Deviltry, but it’s been so many years, I don’t recall the exact stopping point.

    All that to say that if I had read them in the order they were written maybe I wouldn’t have stopped when I did. I’ve been intending to read the series for several years now, and this is the perfect motivation.

    • Hey Keith — great! I’ll look forward to hearing what you think.

  2. I think I can keep up with this one. Curious to learn if they hold up. I reread “Sadness of the Executioner” a few years back and found it repellent.

    • Fletcher, it’s been a long time since I read “Sadness of the Executioner.” I think that’s from SWORDS AND ICE MAGIC, which I recall being so disappointing that I only read it once. The next to last volume of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

      Sad to say, I didn’t actually finish the seventh volume.

  3. My experience with Leiber seems to be apace with Mr. Ward’s. I picked up Swords Against Deviltry when Dark Horse started releasing the stories in chronological order a few years back. I was pretty underwhelmed considering all I’d heard about the F&GM stories and didn’t get any of the subsequent volumes. Recently, though, I’ve been snatching up some of the White Wolf editions with Mike Mignola covers and a few interiors and have read a few of the older stories and enjoyed them a great deal more. I’ll try to keep up and drop in every now and then!

    • I think the notion that there had to be a “saga” and there had to be an order really did a disservice to the stories.

      And I was dismayed that one of these early, weak stories was recently chosen to represent Leiber’s work in a recent sword-and-sorcer anthology. Those stories are merely an afterglow, and “Ill Met In Lankhmar” didn’t really get an award for itself, but in recognition of what had come before. Or at least that was always my sense of it. “Ill Met” is at least good, compared to the rest of the tales in the opening volume.

      • I didn’t necessarily loathe those couple of stories in Deviltry, and rather enjoyed parts of Ill Met, they just didn’t meet the notion I had of Leiber’s work. Plus, the whole notion of the ‘origin’ story for any subject or genre wears me pretty thin. Its the major gripe I have with every attempt at an REH film I’ve ever seen, a whole other subject, but serves to illustrate the normal result in going back to show an origin yarn after the fact. Wholly unnecessary in my opinion. Don’t mean to rant, they just irk me.

        • I understand your ire. Conan and Solomon Kane don’t need origin stories, and film makers do a dis-service to the characters by making one. Just start the story in the midst of the action, the way REH always did.

          For all that, the one part of the most recent movie I most liked was the bit with young Conan and the challenge with the eggs… It was the only invented piece that really felt like something a young Conan might have done, although I won’t go into the portrayal of Conan’s people, etc.

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  5. I happen to be an aspiring author, and had an idea for a novel that pays homage to D&D and the sword-and-sorcery stories that inspired it. The problem was: I hadn’t actually read any classic sword-and-sorcery (not entirely true, it turns out – I had Elric on my shelves for years without realizing it fit into that genre). So I bought the first volume of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, which I am greatly enjoying, and SWORDS & DEVILTRY, which I enjoyed from start to finish despite the first two stories being fairly languid compared to “Ill Let In Lankhmar.”

    Anyway, the point is: While reading S&D I came across this blog. My copy of SWORDS AGAINST DEATH arrived in the mail yesterday. I am very excited to follow this blog while I make my way through the book.

    • Glad you found your way here! I hope you find our discussions useful.

  6. Howard and Bill, I’m too late to participate in the discussion, but I’m enjoying reading your comments.

    Like you, D&D was my introduction to Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser when I was a freshman in college. I found some of the stories in a used bookstore near campus, and when the Science Fiction Book Club released the omnibus versions (I-III and IV-VI) a few years later, they went on the shelf, too. Sadly, I lost them all over the years.

    As an aspiring author trying to practice my skills, I came across a fan fiction writing challenge a few months ago and decided to enter. My chosen subject for the contest was Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser so I purchased gently used copies of the books for “research purposes.” They actually arrived too late to be of use in finishing my contest entry but came in handy for a second, recently completed story written for fun.

    Now, I’m enjoying a great read again after all these years and am finding your discussion quite helpful. The best part is that I can read your comments as I read each story discussed and not have to wait for you to catch up!

    • Hey VST,

      We’re glad that you’re enjoying our comments! Drop us a line if you want to chat about the stories. One day maybe we’ll return to read some more.

      • Thanks, Howard! I’ll comment on the individual story if I have questions or anything at least semi-interesting to add.

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