Mapping the Terrain of Used and Rare Books
Swords and Sorcery – a genre that, in one form or another, threads the entire history of literature; King Arthur, Beowulf, The Arabian Nights, even the Bible, to some extent. But for the purposes of this slip-shod article we are going to start with the resurgence of what may be called Modern Sword & Sorcery – a genre that experienced its Big Bang within the pages pages of pulp-magazines (Weird Tales, notably) in the 1920’s and 30’s.
Indeed there may be, and are, a number of sweeping generalizations being made here, but I am not writing a Graduate Thesis. I am writing about a few notable young writers who paved the first stretch of road that ended up leading to your Friday night Magic the Gathering games at the local comic-shop. I’m writing about, among others, Fritz Leiber and Harry Otto Fischer. I’m writing about the Grey Mouser, and also Fafhard – partners in heroics, crime, and everything in-between.
But before we venture into the clinging smog of Lankhmar proper, I would be remiss not to mention Robert E. Howard. His most popularly recognized character (thanks, for good or ill, to Arnold Schwarzenegger) Conan is perhaps the grandfather of Modern Sword & Sorcery literature. The Hyborian Age (where Howard’s “Conan” and “Red Sonja” mythos take place) is the proverbial primordial-soup from which a whole New Guard of blade-wielding anti-heroes crawled out from.
It has been said that Howard’s characters can tend to be one-dimensional, his plot-lines thin, and his writing style a bit heavy handed with redundant adjectives. This is apt criticism – but it misses the point. The point is that Howard, and more importantly the reader, wanted lines like: His steely eyes filled with fury as he entered the dread Black Swamps of Wampeter; for here lie the unspeakable black wraith that was the Shuddering Beast, a shade of a vile evil that was vanquished many long years ago but never died, never disappeared into the inky blackness, but instead haunted these dread moors with unspeakable hatred, feeding off the flesh of any traveler unlucky enough to enter the stinking quagmires of Wampeter…. *
Yes, there were many hewn heads, black ghouls, stinking moors, and unspeakable horrors in Howard’s work (he was in close correspondence and heavily influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, but I’ll expand on that in a later post) and even if they did start to get repetitive they were exciting. And that’s what this type of work was all about – excitement.
Howard’s contemporary, Fritz Leiber, understood this. While Howard was spinning yarns of Conan, Soloman Kane, King Kull, and Red Sonja, Leiber and his best friend Harry Otto Fischer were conjuring mythos of their own: The squalid, labyrinthine streets of Lankhmar – the largest city in the world that is known as Nehwon. I’ll let Leiber himself describe his vision of this world:
“Sundered from us by gulfs of time and stranger dimensions dreams the ancient world of Nehwon with its towers and skulls and jewels, its swords and sorceries. Nehwon’s known realms crowd about the Inner Sea: northward the green-forested fierce Land of the Eight Cities, eastward the steppe-dwelling Mingol horsemen and the desert where caravans creep from the rich Eastern Lands and the River Tilth. But southward, linked to the desert only by the Sinking Land and further warded by the Great Dike and the Mountains of Hunger, are the rich grain fields and
walled cities of Lankhmar, eldest and chiefest of Nehwon’s lands. Dominating the Land of Lankhmar and crouching at the silty mouth of the River Hlal in a secure corner between the grain fields, the Great Salt Marsh, and the Inner Sea is the massive-walled and mazy-alleyed metropolis of Lankhmar, thick with thieves and shaven priests, lean-framed magicians and fat-bellied merchants – Lankhmar the Imperishable, the City of the Black Toga.” —From “Induction” by Fritz Leiber
With this template in mind Leiber and Fischer began – as any reasonable person would do – to make a board game out of corks and bottlecaps. But first, through a series of correspondence that blended real-life and fictional fragments, they created a duo of
characters – based on themselves – to explore this fantastic terrain. Thus was born Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser: Leiber and Fischer respectively. (TSR published an official version of this game in 1976, long out of print, and quite scarce. To brag, I happen to have one.)
The pair continued to develop their respective characters, and Leiber began to write about them. Fischer’s influence in the creation of the “Lankhmar Mythos” was indispensable and now very much overlooked – he was the co-creator! But, while he wrote, he was not a professional writer – he was a vacuum-cleaner salesman or some such thing. Leiber was the one striving to forge a living for his family and himself with the written word. So, as it makes sense, he was the one who started to try and profit off of what, to anyone without a soul or sense of humor, would look like drunken, childish tomfoolery.
(Note: Fischer did write the beginning of the story “The Lords of Quarmall” which would be, much later, published in the book “Swords Against Wizardry.” A little more about that in a minute.)
After numerous rejections from Weird Tales the duo finally appeared, for the
first time in print, in 1939 within the pages of Unknown magazine. The story was titled – very appropriately, in my opinion – “Two Sought Adventure.” The same title was used, eighteen years later in 1957, when for the first time Fafhrd and the Mouser were collected between hardcovers. (“Two Sought Adventure” Gnome Press, 1957… If anyone has a decent copy let me know! I have things I’d be willing to trade!)
Leiber continued, between novels, periods of drunken writer’s-block, and numerous short-stories, to write Lankhmar tales until the end of his life. With the Gnome book as a prototype, Leiber slowly collected, organized, ordered (in Nehwon-time, not in publication order), and wrote transitions for all his Fafhrd and Mouser stories. This project became what is now known as the “Swords,” or “Lankhmar” series – all (except for “The Knight and Knave of Swords,” Morrow, 1988) published as PBO’s in the late 60’s by ACE, and then in 1977 released in hardcover by Gregg Press.
But really, for now, I just wanted to give a small bibliographic history of how two inspired screwballs could sit around, piss poor and piss drunk, making toys out the cellophane from their cigarette packages and inadvertently form a lasting creative legacy. As Firsts magazine says: “His superb fantasy writing became a cornerstone of the [then] thriving [pencil and paper] Role-Playing-Game-Industry.”
I also wanted to gear-up for my Rare Book Bragging Alert (Watch Out!): A copy of “Swords Against Wizardry” SIGNED by
Harry Otto Fischer – The Grey Mouser! It’s an amazing item and I cant find anything comparable. And it’s not just signed by Fischer, but also, technically, the author – This is the book in which he co-wrote the “Quarmall” story. Again: Amazing!
This book is dedicated to HARRY OTTO FISCHER, who first explored Quarmall and wrote ten-thousand of these words, here unchanged, about that subterranean kingdom. — From dedication page of “Swords Against Wizardry.”
Well, again, I tend to meander, but, again, this is not a National Security Report. It is a Blog Post. And as I get more relaxed with what It Is, I get more relaxed with what I write – and hopefully the writing will get better, more cohesive. I plan on continuing, from time to time, this “Modern S&S” theme. I’d like to focus on the anti-hero – a subject that has always fascinated me – and also how Leiber took the anti-hero to the flawed-hero, and eventually to just a Human Being (which is an inherently flawed, yet wonderful, creature.) More later! Enough is enough!
Keep watching our page, we are just getting into our stride.
* written by me, not Howard.
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