Swords Against Death Re-Read: “The Sunken Land”

lankhmar 3Bill 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 sixth tale in the volume, “The Sunken Land.”

lankhmar 9Howard: This is a grand tale, told with economy. Heck, that sentence could practically stand as my review, but I’ll get more specific. Like “The Howling Tower,” this tales feels as if it were written to a definite word count limit, but this time there’s exactly enough room to say what needs to be said. As a matter of fact, it’s just about perfect. Last week we saw a tale that was mostly about the Mouser on his own — this week we read one that was mostly Fafhrd on his own. And what a story! Opening with that fantastic scene where Fafhrd shouts that he was born with luck as a twin, it blazes forward and never looks back.

Bill: That articulates what I was thinking, that it feels like a similar kind of story to last week’s, a weird tale. Even though the central character changes, notice both times it’s the Mouser who has to go get his big friend, that twin of luck, out of trouble again.

Howard: Good point. I’m trying to recall if that’s a regular aspect of their relation or not. The prose swept me along so easily that I had to force myself to stop and pay attention to the scaffolding. Studying this piece in detail is like taking an entire course on writing. How about the wonderful opening, and then the way description is worked in as the story moves along, as if Leiber’s a skilled cameraman? How many modern writers can do that? (For that matter, how many writers of Leiber’s time could do that?) Then there’s the “coincidence” of the ring and the northerner’s long ship that turns out not to be; the Mingol who provides just enough information and then gets killed when his purpose in the story has been served, his death serving to emphasize ANOTHER purpose. How about all the excellent mood setting descriptions? And how about the loyal steersman, ready to stand up for Fafhrd more than once because they fought the waves together? These are all nice little touches that add to the story’s success — although none of them would have carried the tale if the tale itself hadn’t been rock solid.

lankhmar 5Bill: Leiber really is something, isn’t he? I want to go back and read certain lines sometimes, but I’m usually swept up, as you say.

Howard: Let’s not forget the horror, a sometimes overlooked ingredient in sword-and-sorcery. As you mentioned last week, Leiber’s really skilled with horror and descriptions of the supernatural. I suppose in a lot of ways this short story is far more horror than a sword-and-sorcery romp. I mean, Fafhrd does wield his sword, but not against the THINGS. That would have been folly.

Do you remember how I worried how I’d feel about this book, coming back to it after twenty-five years? Well, I applaud my taste as a young man. This collection is chock full of great writing. It’s no wonder I fell in love with these stories and that they had such a lasting impact upon me.

Bill: Good taste indeed. There’s a reason people still love these stories after so many decades. The description of what horrors awaited the crew at the end were also drawn with the same economy and subtlety as the weird menaces from last week. The sea descriptions and the boat business — all of it, really — were written with a very confident and knowing hand. There is a paragraph at the end that covers Fafhrd’s flight that is a jewel of concise, fast-paced, colorful writing.

Also, on an unrelated note, it occurred to me while reading this story that it was the direct inspiration for a story I wrote years ago, but I had utterly forgotten that until reading it again this time around.

Howard: I’m not surprised! There are so many good ideas and approaches in here. I’ve tried to start tales with dialogue that launch as well as this, but I’ve yet to manage it.

On another note, I’ve always believed that the painted image of the ship used on my favorite version of the cover (by Jeff Jones, with the sea god on the right hand side) was an image from this particular story. The ship lacks a pontoon, but perhaps its just not noticeable because it’s under a wave. (On the other hand, supposedly Fafhrd rigged the ship with a triangular sail, and it’s not completely clear to me what the sail’s shape is.)

Anyway, next week we’re looking at “The Seven Black Priests.” Hope to see you here!

15 Comments on “Swords Against Death Re-Read: “The Sunken Land”

  1. This was the very first story by Leiber that I read, way back in 7th grade, in a Robert Silverberg edited anthology, if memory serves. If that’s accurate, it would have been Lost Worlds, Unknown Horizons. (Thank you, ISFDB).

    You guys absolutely hit the nail on the head about the opening first line. It sets the tone for everything that follows. Of course, the astute reader knows that anyone who makes such a boast is setting themselves up for hard times.

    I love the detail Leiber gives while the men are exploring the island. From the wet sand on the step to the octopus in the chair to the description of the chests falling apart when the sailors try to open them, I felt like I was there.

    The ring that’s also a key is a wonderful touch, lending a sense of eeriness to the proceedings. You’re also right about Leiber’s use of horror. That’s something that I think too often gets overlooked in the S&S of today. I’m not saying every S&S story needs to have some horrific element to it, but I really don’t see that much of it anymore. Maybe I’m reading the wrong stuff, I don’t know.

    • Hey Keith — you’re absolutely right. The details in this one really stand out. I had to go back and re-read that creepy octopus description even as I was swept up in the tale. Leiber was simply brilliant at little touches of horror. You and Robert have me thinking about my use of horror in my own fiction, and how I could stand to change it up a little.

  2. I’ve read this superb tale many times, but I’m only about halfway through my re-reading for this discussion.

    Leiber demonstrates that, if one is a skilled writer, one can “tell” as well as “show.” At the beginning, Mouser is watching Fafhrd hunt fish, and Leiber talks about their character differences. He does it cleverly through the Mouser’s viewpoint.

    I learned to smoothly shift between points of view mostly from Leiber, and this story has a great example. The story starts from the Mouser’s P.O.V and smoothly shifts to Fafhrd’s as his imagination is stirred by visions of Simorgya.

    Mystery with a big M (meaning the mystery of reality) was a major theme, if not THE major theme of Leiber’s fantasy and horror work. This story is an example of how Leiber creates an uncanny synchronicity of elements which cannot be reduced to contrived plotting. The resolution (or, at least, climax) of these type of Leiber stories form organically, dream-like, sometimes from seemingly disparate elements that come together in the end to create meaning (Scientifically, it could almost be likened to chaos theory. Psychologically, it is synchronicity as defined by Jung, of whom Leiber was well acquainted). Leiber’s horror story, The Button Molder, is another great example.

    In The Sunken Land, we have:
    1. The ring (caught by “chance”) and its suggestive symbolism, which triggers:
    2. Fafhrd’s ancestral memories and his prescient vision
    3. Mouser’s inexplicable feelings of foreboding
    4. The storm that temporarily raises Simorgya, over which the two just happen to be sailing

    Due to the combination of elements, and the way in which they are creatively and skillfully introduced, each one feels like part of a dream-puzzle, and the events seem much more like inevitable synchronicities instead of unbelievable coincidences.

    Leiber is not interested in materialistic, or even clear explanations of events. I believe the need to explain everything is the fault of much modern fantasy (even if the explanations are magical, it still comes off as reductionist). Leiber shows that something uncanny is going on, yet he will then have the characters say something like Fafhrd says right after telling Mouser the tale of Simorgya (setting up the possible explanation for at least some of what happens): “The legend-makers are great liars.”

    Leiber’s desire to maintain mystery in the story can be summed up by Fafhrd’s reaction at seeing the dragon ship:

    “It was so like the ship of his imaginings that he was struck dumb with wonder as to whether it was only another vision, or whether he had had a foreglimpse of it by second sight, or whether he had actually summoned it across the deeps by his thoughts.”

    The line between what is real, what is thought and what is dreamt is blurred. This partly creates the magical dream-like feel of his stories. Leiber’s intention is that we too be “struck dumb with wonder.” I was.

    • Great observations, Robert. I think that Leiber would definitely be one of the first authors I would model for same scene point of view switches. It’s a skill I haven’t had much practice with, given modern preferences. Alan Dean Foster is likewise masterful with it.

      I loved your discussion of synchronicity. I’m embarrassed to say that despite a grounding in Jung — my father even used to talk to me Jungian archetypes present in literature — I never clicked on the connection with Leiber.

  3. I agree about the wonderful horror element. It is clearly a gothic type of horror (ala Lovecraft or Poe or other gothic literature of the 1800’s – early 1900’s.

    I also agree with Keith. I would clarify that, usually if horror is an element now, it includes gore and brutality and despair, which are different from a creeping sense of horror, mystery and dread. Genres have been reduced to categories, and I feel this is an extension of that overall modern reductionist mindset that must categorize, explain and control everything (just as in most modern writing).

    Even Leiber had trouble selling his work at first, and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser didn’t make a dime for five years. His work was deemed too literary for most pulp magazines, too fantastic for the literary magazines, and the story elements too strange for some science fiction magazines. His writing was authentic and written from the heart with a sheer love of story and language. That’s the way to become a great writer, but not necessarily the best way (in the short term) to be published. For better or worse, as a writer, I’m trying to follow in his footsteps.

    • Another post that got me thinking. We DO subdivide different genres into categories a little too often anymore — although we moderns are also mixing and matching a little bit in the last few years, thank goodness.

  4. Howard, I think these icons are drawn from WordPress. I wasn’t registered on WordPress.com, so I think that’s it. I’m posting this as my new wordpress.com account, and we’ll see if my image comes up. I’m guessing yes.

  5. Great observations guys, I think the elements of the horrific and the fantastical (or mysterious) are definite hallmarks of Leiber. In comparison, modern fantasy, as Robert says, really can’t go out of its way more to make sure everything is explained. Or, worse, completely systematized to the point that it wouldn’t look of out place in an rpg sourcebook.

    • Great points! I want to love Erikson’s Malazan series but it really feels like I’m reading a game module. There’s little room for mystery or imagination in much contemporary fantasy.

      • I’m glad Robert raised the issue. He’s made me rethink some minor moments in the current work in progress.

  6. I am not really a fan of Leiber, but despite my problems with his books, I regularly get the urge to get another one. Or you might say, I am not a fan of Leibers stories, but I really enjoy and love his writing. Maybe similar to how I love Star Wars: Wonderful presentation of a pretty crude script.

    This is one of the stories that I really genuinely like. Probably my favorite. I think I have to read this book again with an eye for the writing as an aspiring Sword & Sorcery writer.

  7. Hrm… afraid I’ll have to be the odd man out here. All the seafaring descriptions kinda bored me, and while I can appreciate the overall “dreamlike” qualities, I think in some places it might’ve been too vague. Is Lavas Laerk genuinely mad? Did he and his crew even exist? For a moment I’d though the sunken land was some kind of sentient predator (like the tower from “The Jewels in the Forest”) sending out whole crews (of ghosts?) as lures for unwary travelers, but apparently that… wasn’t the case?

    Ah, well, whatever. On to “The Seven Black Priests”!

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