Swords in the Mist Re-Read: “When the Sea-King’s Away”
Bill 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 fourth tale in the collection, “When the Sea-King’s Away.”
Howard: It’s astonishing to me that a tale can evoke such wonder and delight and remain so simple. I mean “simple” as in plot structure, because “When the Sea-King’s Away” is ornamented with wonderful descriptions, moments of humor and character and even suspense — although I have to say that the battles are foregone conclusions and seem almost afterthoughts. (They’re nonetheless entertaining.)
Bill: It’s an extremely impressive and compelling tale, meticulously imagined. The detailed descriptions of the water funnel, for example, went beyond scene setting purposes or simple wonderment to create real tension. And the tension of course created suspense, but it also created some of the funniest scenes in the series. Everything Leiber does here serves multiple purposes in the story, and its those elements that really take over from the plot, simple as it is. I also think the fight scene was wisely stripped down to its essence (as well as being clever). I think anything more involved would have felt a little out of place.
Howard: And then it’s stuffed full with all kinds of great quotes. Like this one, when the Mouser has to decide whether to follow the recklessly cheerful Fafhrd: “The Mouser sighed. The moment had come, he knew, as it always did, when outward circumstances and inner urges commanded an act, when curiosity and fascination tipped the scale of caution, when the lure of a vision and an adventure became so great and deep-hooking that he must respond to it or have his inmost self-respect eaten away.”
Bill: That’s beautiful — in one stroke Leiber presents us with a plausible adventuring mentality. And I think that quote comes on the heels of one of my favorite bits, when the Gray One decides the impossible hole in the Ocean he’s looking at must be real, because Fafhrd is simply “much too huge a hulk of solid matter to be picturable as strolling arm-in-arm with illusions.”
Howard: As long as we’re quoting, I have to make mention of one of my very favorite Leiber observations, right after Fafhrd comments that there must be magic afoot: “The Mouser thought he had never in his life heard a less necessary remark.” Indeed. The entire 6-8 pages (depending upon your edition) of preceding text has been pretty much nothing BUT descriptions of this fantastic, impossible place, and then Fafhrd says that. The Mouser’s internal thought is laugh out loud funny.
Bill: And it manages to be laugh out loud funny in the midst of some nail biting description. The water wall is actually pretty terrifying as it is presented, and the Mouser’s reservations (and frustrations in dealing with an oblivious loon who douses a torch in the ceiling of their tiny pocket of air deep beneath the waves) are perfectly understandable.
Howard: At this point, Leiber’s prose is so sure-footed he brings this very simple idea — what if Fafhrd and the Mouser went courting some mer-women — into an entertaining and colorful adventure. Another high point in their saga, methinks.
Bill: I agree, I think this story is nothing short of brilliant, one of my new favorites.
Howard: Next week we’ll look at the brief linking story, “The Wrong Branch,” and then it’s on to “Adept’s Gambit.” If you’ve been following the comments section in our last post, you know that we’re a little leery about what we’ll find when we get to that final story…