Swords Against Death Re-Read: “The Circle Curse”
In the coming weeks Bill Ward and I are re-reading 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 we tackled the first tale in the volume. “The Circle Curse” is really more of a prologue than a proper story.
Howard: When I first read “The Circle Curse” I was 14 or 15 years old and it left me wanting. So wanting that I probably would have stopped reading the book if the story hadn’t been so short. I had opened Swords Against Death expecting to be transported into adventure, and what I got in “The Circle Curse” was more the summary of several adventures, a whole lot of wandering, and a little moping. I loved the rest of the book and re-read it multiple times, but I have never, ever revisited this first story until now.
If you’re not already familiar with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser this is a cold start. It doesn’t really tell a proper story, it just fills in the gaps between what happened between “Ill Met in Lankhmar” and the collection of tales here. And that’s perfectly fine, I suppose, if you’re reading them in sequence. Maybe readers need something to tell them what happened between adventures. I would have preferred a few more tales to tell me rather than this summary, but even creative geniuses don’t always give you what you want.
That said, I ended up liking the story better than I remembered. I certainly think it’s a more entertaining read if you’re already familiar with the characters.
Bill: The first time I read “The Circle Curse” it served its purpose as a bridging story between “Ill Met in Lankhmar” and the stories in Swords Against Death, and it didn’t really stick out one way or the other in my mind. However, that’s twice now that I can think of where the extra stories Leiber wrought for the “novelization” of the F&GM stories ran the risk of alienating potential readers. The two novella length origin story pieces from the previous book weren’t at all what I was looking for when I picked up the F&GM stories for the first time, and I’ve heard the same from at least one other online reviewer. If I hadn’t already read better, classic F&GM stories in other anthologies, I may have not realized what was around the corner.
I wonder what the genesis was of the need to assemble these pieces with connecting or prequel material was — if it was all Leiber, or if it was his editor?
That said, I really like “The Circle Curse” for what it is. I suspect if the condensed adventures mentioned in the story were part of a italicized block of text in a preface, maybe attributed to “The Nehwonian Chronicles,” it wouldn’t even bear much notice. As it is it and the two preface stories from the previous book stand out as different from the classic F&GM story, and it’s no wonder they give people pause.
One thing I think is interesting about the story is it actually assigns a consequence to F&GM’s previous adventure. The loss of their lovers isn’t something they just shrug off between adventures — they’re so distraught they vow never to return to Lankhmar! Some readers know, of course, that they have many more adventures set in this city, and of course it turns out that it is their curse to circle back to their starting point, but only after many foreign adventures have dulled some of their pain.
But it isn’t just their pain that is necessary for Leiber to convey, but their career itself. Most everything in the previous book is fresh back story. There aren’t many off-stage adventures implied with F&GM. But we know the guys in the classic F&GM canon have a long history together; they’re seasoned. “The Circle Curse” gives us that seasoning, taking the ill met pair and turning them into the two [who] sought adventure.
As for the story itself I really enjoyed some of the throwaway ideas for the duo’s adventures. They were pure Leiber, such as a realm grown so decadent and “far grown into the future” that all the men were bald! The various jobs the two hold while adventuring are as important to their character as the jobs they don’t, and the whole piece really works beautifully to bridge the earlier material with the classic ones. It even serves to introduce Sheelba and Ninguable.
Howard: Interestingly enough, Robin Wayne Bailey wrote a novel set during Fafrhd and the Gray Mouser’s wanderings, and there was at least one other story planned. Unlike so many other pastiche books, Leiber was actually involved in discussing the story and officially handed off the baton. I’ve yet to look into the book, though (Swords Against the Shadowland).
Bill: I’m curious about it too, but have not read it or even heard much about it.
Howard: Next week we start with the good stuff. “The Jewels in the Forest,” aka “Two Sought Adventure” was first published in 1939 My recollection is that it’s one of the simpler Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, which makes sense, seeing as how it appears to be one of the earliest. See you here!