East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

What we learned in Lankhmar and Shadizar (and other places)


About two years back – if memory serves – when a lot of kids started manifesting and asking for better environmental policies and immediate action, someone observed that it wasn’t surprising if a generation that had grown up with fantasy novels in which kids confronted authoritarian governments now wanted to take direct action to right what they perceived as wrongs.

And indeed, I have always said, when talking about the positive effects of roleplaying games, that you can’t spend one afternoon every week, for years, playing a hero, without some of the principles rubbing off on you.
Yes, we’ve all played rogues and adventurers, but in the end we were the good guys and – if the master was worth their keep – we never went off the rails.

Killed goblins, like, in cartloads?
But only because they were trying to kill us.
Roleplaying a wary, finger-on-the-hilt-of-the-dagger negotiation with a green, toothy thing that would as easily eat you as sell you provisions, is a lot more fun than just rolling for damages.

And yet…

I’ve just stumbled on a gentleman that, based on his fantasy reading, claims to despise much of humanity, claiming that only

the strong, the spiritually pure and the wise

should have civil rights.
Needless to say, the gentleman considers himself endowed with all those virtues, and he’ll be the one deciding if you do, too, or not.

And now you say, Dave, you can’t worry for the lone sociopath.
But I do. Because it’s my tribe, my land, my culture.
Or it should be, and I do not recognize it anymore.
Is it really that, what some have taken away from reading Howard, or Leiber, or C.L. Moore, or Glen Cook or Michael Moorcock?

Because yes, Conan was strong and quick with a sword, and he had a very poor opinion of civilized men, and yet he was always fair. There was in Howard’s characters a nobility that allowed them to see the common traits even in those they despised. Think of Worms of the Earth, how Bran Mak Morn can show respect for his enemies in front of tragedy.
Fafhrd and the Mouser are ready to steal from anyone, but they too have a moral compass that does not cause them to look down on their fellow men – indeed, more than Conan, Leiber’s heroes are painfully aware of their own limits, and are therefore ready to give some leeway to other people too.

One thing that reading sword & sorcery taught us – or maybe, should have taught us – is that strength and aggression are two very different things. Because it’s not strength, or wisdom, kicking the man on the ground while shouting abuse, or denying “the weak” their right because we think we can get away with it.
Conan would have had a few harsh words (and possibly, some swiftly-dealt punishment) for people expounding such ideas. Fafhrd and the Mouser would have mocked the fool, and robbed him blind, to then spend his money on wine and wenches; and Elric would have shaken his pale head, and laughed at the boastful simpleton’s rough ideology.

What we have learned in Lankhmar, in Shadizar and in Melnibone, is that strength is nothing without morals and control, and compassion.
And yes, maybe someone would laugh at the idea of a compassionate Conan the Cimmerian – but they should probably read again some of Howard’s stories.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “What we learned in Lankhmar and Shadizar (and other places)

  1. In that regard, I’ve always found Conan’s furious rejection of the corrupt kings’ offer of freedom and gold if he’ll relinquish his kingdom to them, in “The Scarlet Citadel” a fine example of his fierce ethics and essential decency.
    “Ha! How did you come to your crown, you and that black-faced pig beside you? Your fathers did the fighting and the suffering, and handed their crowns to you on golden platters. What you inherited without lifting a finger—except to poison a few brothers—I fought for.
    “I found Aquilonia in the grip of a pig like you—one who traced his genealogy for a thousand years. The land was torn with the wars of the barons, and the people cried out under oppression and taxation. Today no Aquilonian noble dares maltreat the humblest of my subjects, and the taxes of the people are lighter than anywhere else in the world … Free my hands and I’ll varnish this floor with your brains!”
    “A fine ringing statement,” as John O’Grady wrote in ARE YOU IRISH OR NORMAL? “With no room in it for compromise or ambiguity.”


    • Ah, excellent quote.
      I’ll keep it close at hand, should I ever meet again such characters as I described.
      Ethics is indeed what we can find in these stories, not just muscles flexing.


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