Swords in the Mist Re-Read: “When the Sea-King’s Away”

mist2Bill 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.”

fritz3Howard: 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.

mist3Howard: 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.”

Swords_in_the_MistHoward: 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…

7 Comments on “Swords in the Mist Re-Read: “When the Sea-King’s Away”

  1. Though it would be incredibly difficult for me to pick a favorite story, at a pinch, this one would be it. For all the reasons you guys have mentioned and more.

    I’ll just mention three other scenes:

    1. You touched on this. But, when Mouser tells Fafhrd “Don’t do that!”, referring to poking his torch in the fragile water ceiling, Fafhrd says something like, “What, you mean this?” and does it again. Hilarious.
    2. The crumbling of treasure into muck in their hands. The insubstantial nature of monetary dreams.
    3. The description at the end of the sea wall, and most importantly, Leiber again using mysterious synchronicity in his story: the tiny version of their ship the Mouser still has in his teeth at the end, which may have, through some strange sympathetic magic, saved them.

    • Your favorite from the bunch, or your favorite story, period?

      While I think quite highly of it I’m not sure it could be my favorite. Knowing what happens, I think, makes this one harder to enjoy the ride and sit back and appreciate all the description. At least, it made it harder for me to re-read, more challenging than, say, Thieves’ House or Bazaar of the Bizarre.

      The bit with the torch WAS hilarious!

  2. This story especially flies in the face of that contemporary literalism I complained about before. The entire story is like a strange dream. Wonderful, terrifying, and mysterious.

  3. Words Not Plot Give Form to a Short Story—Sherwood Anderson
    “There was a notion that ran through all story-telling in America, that stories must be built about a plot and that absurd Anglo-Saxon notion that they must point moral, uplift the people, make better citizens, etc. The magazines were filled with these plot stories and most of the plays on our stage were plot plays. “The Poison Plot,” I called it in conversation with my friends as the plot notion did seem to me to poison all story-telling. What was wanted I thought was form, not plot, an altogether more elusive and difficult thing to come at.”

    • Once again you’ve given me something to mull over. I strongly dislike things that don’t have a plot, or that were plotted carelessly. Yet you cite the other extreme — stories that are plotted so that they’re “good for you,” like vitamins. I assume in those the characters are all meant to represent something the reader should emulate rather than actual people?

      In any case, it’s interesting to see Anderson talking down about plot stories, and the difference between something well formed and well plotted.

  4. Sorry, didn’t respond to your earlier comment. Well, the story might be one of my favorite of all the stories. Actually, is. But I’ve said it before: so many are so great. It’s much easier for me to pick out stories I like less.

    You know what’s going to happen? You mean, you know the twain will survive? But, you always know that. You mean that they’ll escape through that door? To me, the magic is the description, the writing, of how they get out and the sea wall being destroyed, and, the ship between the Mouser’s teeth.

    I put that Anderson quote because I had just read it. I think it is less than clear what he means. But, he might be saying something rather deep, if he is saying that the writing is the essential thing, and the writing creates the story, not the plot. Plot is just one device used to help tell the story the writer wants to tell, or mood he wants to convey, the theme he wants to bring across, etc. Mood, style, theme, etc. are all elements that work in service of the writer to tell the story, or, they work through the writer. But separating these elements out is a rather reductionist perspective, as most of us don’t know exactly what we do when we write a good story, or how we do it. Unless, perhaps, one is a writer of a very formulaic genre, such as a cozy British murder mystery where one has an audience that expects certain things, and only certain things (but few, except the fans of that fiction, would consider those well-written stories). But most good writers, when they write well, are gripped by the inspiration of a situation, a scene, a vista, an object, a conversation, a person, etc. that holds great power and meaning to them, even if they aren’t sure at first what that meaning is. They simply know they have a burning desire to bring that thing forth in a recognizable way for others to read—a story. Great short stories have been written with very little or with simple “plots,” but I’ve never read a great story that was great just because it had a “good plot.” What IS a good plot, anyway? John Gardner once said that there are only two plots in all of literature: “you go on a journey”, or “a stranger comes to town.” The story is in the writing.

    Trapped Beneath the Sea of Stars is one of my favorite Leiber Lankhmar stories, but as plot goes, what is there? Their sailboat is stuck in a current, from which they are seeking to extricate themselves while being subtly haunted by two female ghostly entities.

    I haven’t clearly formulated my thoughts on all this, and probably don’t need to. 🙂 But John Gardner in The Art of Fiction has an interesting discussion about what fiction is. Meanwhile, as Fellini said: “Don’t tell me! I don’t want to know what I do.”

  5. NOTE: There are good stories in every genre (including cozy British murder mysteries). But I doubt the best ones were written with a formulaic, contrived approach.

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