Mondadori, the major Italian publishing group, will hit the shelves this week with a massive 1300-pages volume featuring all the Lankhmar stories written by Fritz Leiber.
To celebrate this, I did a piece on MELANGE, the independent magazine of fantasy and culture – and because I was asked by some friends that do not read Italian, I’ve translated the piece, and I’m posting it here.
The release of the volume Sword & Sorcery, which collects all the stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser written by Fritz Leiber between the 1930s and his death in 1992, is reason enough to celebrate. A monster of a volume, about 1300 pages, hard bound and richly illustrated, as per the standard of the Draghi series by Mondadori.
The problem, at this point, will be how to sell this doorstop to an audience grown up with the work of George R.R. Martin and with Tolkien, perhaps with Lovecraft and Howard, and with the recent offers of “grimdark” and “fantasy of hard knocks”.
Certainly not an enviable position, that of the Italian publisher’s marketing guys.
What does Fritz Leiber have to offer these young readers?
And the answer is of course
“The Way, the Truth and the Light, because Fritz Leiber is God.”
And that should be enough, but since it is always fun to talk about Leiber, Fafhrd and the Mouser, and sword & sorcery, here are five good reasons to invest your time and money in this volume.
1 . Because without Leiber there would be no sword & sorcery
We owe the canonical definition of “sword & sorcery” to Fritz Leiber, who in 1961, in response to a question posed by a young Michael Moorcock to readers of the fanzine Amra, coined that expression to indicate “the kind of stories that Robert E. Howard wrote.”
But it’s not just a question of labels.
The sword & sorcery of which Leiber’s stories are (with Moorcock’s works) one of the founding texts, differs from the Howardian “heroic fantasy”, of which he certainly shares the bricoleur’s approach to worldbuilding (“if today is Thursday, this must be Stygia, which is just like Ancient Egypt ”) but not the gloom and obsession with darkness typical of Howard (and later taken up by K.E. Wagner).
Leiber’s stories are influenced by ten thousand influences, and if some of these link Leiber to Howard (the works of Rafael Sabatini, Talbot Mundy and Harold Lamb, for example, and Lord Dunsany, and the Thousand and One Nights), Leiber can also put on the plate the work of JB Cabell and E.R Eddison, Elizabethan theater and “true literature”, starting with Thomas Mann and Ibsen, but also cinema – from Douglas Fairbanks to Erroll Flynn, swashbuckling stories, pirate stories …
And while Lovecraft certainly had an influence on Leiber, the imprint that is most easily recognized in Lankhmar’s stories is certainly that of Weird Tales’ third musketeer, C.A. Smith.
The result is a genre of fiction in which the stakes are usually quite small (the skin is saved, not the world), the ideals of the protagonists are not exactly exemplary, the adversaries as perverse as they are dangerous, and the only law that animates men (and women) is that of adventure.
2 . Because this darkness is not grimdark
One of the genres with which the sword & sorcery shares at least a boundary of its geography is noir – not in the sense of detective for those who want to give a tone, but the real noir, that of Goodis and Woolrich, Chandler and Hammet.
With noir, the sword & sorcery presents us with a random and directionless world, in which good and evil are relative concepts, but in which darkness can be kept at bay with a detached cynicism and a certain irony, and in the which however personal choices count for something.
Lankhmar, the city where the protagonists of Leiber’s stories move, is presented as a sort of Baghdad of the Thousand and One Nights, but corrupt and decadent, over which dark and hostile divinities preside, and yet wonder always counterbalances despair, and along the mean streets of the Counter-Rome two heroes can go who, for all their (many) defects, have a shred of decency, and something that leads them to prevail over corruption while remaining involved in it.
Thieves, adventurers, rented swords, brawlers and rakehells, but with a spark of something more.
In this, Leiber’s sword & sorcery deviates drastically from modern grimdark – the heroes are flawed but still sane, the violence is always implicit (Fafhrd and the Mouser are very skilled swordsmen, but the bulk of the fighting always takes place offstage).
Fafhrd and the Gray Moouser aren’t exactly heroes, but they aren’t sociopaths that only a sociopath could sympathize with. Testosterone hardly boils when reading their exploits, but intelligence can be stimulated. Not a small thing, in the current times.
And yes, for George Martin lovers there is also a lot of sex, in the stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, which is however neither Howard’s long enough embarrassing teenage fantasy nor the light pornography we have become accustomed to. the HBO. It is a fantasy written by an author who really liked women, had known and frequented them, and felt a great respect for them. It follows a certain elegance, which once again is not a trivial matter.
3 . Because you play Dungeons & Dragons
Of course, like all good nerdz “who have won”, you can’t do without your weekly Dungeons & Dragons session, and here too you’ll find Fritz Leiber, sitting and waiting for you from the start – not just because manuals and entire settings have been dedicated to Newhon, but because two of the historical classes of the “most popular role-playing game in the world” (and all the others) come from here: Fafhrd is a barbarian (and a skald – so he could multiclass to bard), and the Gray Mouser is predominantly a thief (it’s the Mouser’s fault that in the old AD&D the thief had the skill “read magic” – and in general we could multiclass him to sorcerer). Even the choice of weapons normally supplied to characters in these classes reflects Leiber’s descriptions. Raise your hand if you have never equipped their thief with a main-gauche, or a sling …
The tales of the Lankhmar cycle formed a sort of template for the standard adventure in fantasy RPGs from the beginning – there is even a tale called Two Sought Adventure, which begins with a treasure map, and a building abandoned to explore, just outside the city …
And from Lankhmar comes the idea of a Thieves Guild organized on almost Dickensian models, and which constitutes one of the real powers in the politics of the city.
As well as the idea that heroes may have less-than-reliable mentors, ready to use adventurers for their own purposes without giving too many explanations comes from here – and Sheelba from the Eyeless Face and Ningauble from the Seven Eyed are once again at origin of countless non-player characters who got our heroes in trouble in those weekly sessions that were rumored.
4 . Because Mike Mignola made a comic for us
The stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have inspired many artists over the years (we present a selection in this article), and DC used the characters as supporting actors in Wonder Woman – because so it was in ancient times – but the true gold standard of the comic book fantasy adaptations remains the series produced by Epic Comics, with drawings by Mike Mignola (“the guy who does Hellboy“) on scripts by Howard Chaykin (the guy who did of American Flagg and American Century … but do I really need to explain who is Chaykin?)
And Mignola must be mentioned because the plates illustrating Mondadori’s volume are his, nor could there be a better artist for this work.
Except maybe Whelan. And Don Maitz.
But I’m digressing.
5 . To learn to write
As Harlan Ellison said in his time,
for lovers off great writing, Fritz Leiber walked on water
and Leiber is not only one of the authors most cited as inspiration by writers as diverse as Ellison himself and C.J. Cherryh, Tanith Lee and George R.R. Martin, Roger Zelazny and Terry Pratchett, Michael Moorcock and Mary Gentle – is also one of the most “studied” authors by those who write fictional fiction.
Leiber wrote very well, that as a friend told me a couple of years ago “it means nothing” – and then let’s get specific: Fritz Leiber has a control of his prose that is absolutely flawless, and uses every expedient known to man (or woman) to superimpose images, suggestions and metaphors, so that not a single empty space remains on the page; not a thrown away sentence, not a paragraph of filler, not a smudge, a dribble, a nonsense.
And yet the narrative is very light.
The dialogues are brilliant, and have a rhythm that reveals the author’s theatrical and cinematographic experiences.
The ideas are always bright – that Leiber offers us a simple adventure with no double bottom like Two Sought Adventure, a dreamlike (and fiercely satirical) arabesque like Bazaar of the Bizarre, a cruel Elizabethan tragedy of revenge and sundered hearts like Ill Met in Lankhmar, who scoffs at the machismo of heroic fantasy with The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar and Under the Thumbs of the Gods, or offers us a bitter but not desperate reflection on the destiny of heroes, and of all of us: to be born, to grow up, grow old and die, as in The Curse of Small Things and the Stars.
The wonder of Leiber’s writing comes from how deeply “thought out” prose is so natural and immediate – there is discipline, control, art, but as in the case of all the greats, Leiber manages to make what is instead very difficult seem easy .
This means “writing well” – and by reading (and rereading) Leiber we can hope to learn some of his tricks.
And there is an extraordinary elegance, in the pages written by Leiber – in the ideas, and in the way in which they are presented, embedded in each other, exposed and superimposed, to create a a work that is sword & sorcery, it is fantasy, it is fiction of the imagination, but it transcends labels (even those invented by Leiber) and reveals itself to our eyes simply as literature.
And someday someone might see this 1,300-page book on your shelf, look you in the eye and say, “Wow! You are a person of culture and good taste!”
This too could be a good reason for reading Fritz Leiber.