Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Our heroes, as interpreted by Mike Mignola

Our heroes, as interpreted by Mike Mignola.

So I’ve been reading, and have now almost finished the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series of books by Fritz Leiber. They’re basically a series of strung-together pulp fantasy stories that were written over an almost unbelievable period of time, the first in 1936, and the final one in 1988.

The series is commonly cited as incredibly influential; and it’s easy to see why. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are a pair of anti-heroes, one a barbarian and one a thief, who lurch from one adventure to another. Maybe the most most obviously imitated part of the stories is the pair’s home city of Lankhmar, a big sprawling fantasy city in the middle of the marshes, with temples to various gods, a thieves’ guild and so on.

Lankhmar is incredibly clearly the model for pretty much any city in a fantasy setting in books, television, movies, video games, or whatever, that has come since. Kings Landing in Game of Thrones is a dressed-up Lankhmar. And Ankh-Morpork from Discworld is an explicit pastiche of Lankhmar. (According to Wikipedia, Terry Pratchett claims this is not true, but obviously it is.)

But Nehwon, the pulp fantasy world that Fafhrd and Gray Mouser inhabit, with its various city-states and monsters is also clearly pretty foundational. It’s kind of Robert Howard-ish too, with a loosely disguised Europe and Asia and lots of vaguely racist groups of people out on the fringes — the wiry slant-eyed Mingols! — but it’s also a lot more creative and interesting- with crazy monster and gods and underground cities and were-rats and snow-snakes and women with pink skeletons and translucent flesh and so on. Basically if you had to pick a single author who most obviously created the whacked-out world that Dungeons and Dragons inhabits, it would probably be Lieber.

Another aside, the world of Newhon in the stories is described as on the inside of a sphere, or bubble floating in a watery universe. This is a cool idea, and also naturally reminds me of the title sequence in the HBO series of Game of Thrones, where we see a map of the story’s world inscribed on the inside of a sphere/orrery thing.

And beyond all this, the stories are very fun to read, with crazy purple prose and a lot of genuine humor, something that completely eludes Robert Howard. It’s all pretty trivial: our heroes save cities and occasionally the world from various nasty sorcerers and gods, all the while collecting treasure, drinking a lot, and bedding lots of freaky fantasy women to prove they’re not totally gay for each other.

Actually, the sex component of the stories — which apparently was occasionally so dirty that they couldn’t be published in the pulps — has a really unfortunate trajectory over the arc of the series.  It’s mostly just very silly, like when our heroes are kidnapped by invisible women who ride invisible arctic manta rays so that their heroic blood can reinvigorate their dying race. You know, standard. And they have extended sex-vacations with mer-women and some crazy half-rat lady who is implied to have eight breasts. Like you do.

But the later stories, written when Fritz Leiber was 180 years old or something, start dwelling more and more on how Fafhrd, the barbarian hero, likes his women really young, with newly-budded breasts and it all gets really creepy really fast. Enough so that it almost ruins the stories, and I might recommend reading just first two-thirds or so of the series.

Leaving that aside for the moment, that stories also feature a lot of the sort of world-and-mythology-hopping that I associate with L. Sprague de Camp. By which I mean – Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sometimes leave their fictional world of Newhon, and show up in our own real world, or mythological figures get lost and show up in their world. Odin and Loki show up at one point, having somehow migrated from Norse Mythology, for instance, and it’s implied that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are their world’s versions of those gods, or at least the archetype that they represent. And there’s one very odd sequence where a dimension-hopping adventurer from Germany appears to save the day while riding a two-headed sea dragon thing and shouting out “Ach du Lieber!” and things like that.

Basically, when I started reading these, I was expecting something kind of like the Conan stories but hopefully marginally less stupid. Where in fact they’re much MUCH more entertaining, and really trippy in a way that makes me actually wonder whether drugs were involved in their conception. They provide a great mind-vacation and are easy to read when I’m exhausted, which is pretty key for me right now. (Though again, with the caution that I now kind of wish I’d halted about 2/3 of the way through just to avoid Fritz Leiber being creepy.)

James Joyce Describes Sardines in “Ulysses” — and Condoms!

I am a big fan of sardines (as you can see for yourself in this entry I penned for a previous blog), so I was happy to find this description of a tin of them in “Ulysses.”  It’s from the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter where Joyce moves through the history of English literature in his language and style.  So he goes through Beowulf, the King James Bible, and so on.  He’s describing some pretty mundane things, though, hence the humor.

I think the language here is supposed to be like Malory (though I’m not sure, still not using notes!).

And there was a vat of silver that was moved by craft to open in the which lay strange fishes withouten heads though misbelieving men nie that this be possible thing without they see it natheless they are so. And these fishes lie in an oily water brought there from Portugal land because of the fatness that therein is like to the juices of the olive press.

UPDATE–

I have to add this other quote, which I think is a description of a condom in the style of Bunyan.

… for that foul plague Allpox and the monsters they cared not for them for Preservative had given them a stout shield of oxengut and, third, that they might take no hurt neither from Offspring that was that wicked devil by virtue of this same shield which was named Killchild.

I’m Reading “Ulysses,” What Are You Doing?

Yes I am.  This is my second attempt, but I’ve gotten much further in this time.  I’m currently nearly halfway through, in the middle of the part where “the citizen” gets in a fight with Bloom in a bar.  (On my first try, several years ago, I don’t think I got past the first bit with Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan in the tower.)

My new strategy, oddly, is NOT reading any notes.  It’s actually easier and much more pleasant to just power through.  I certainly don’t always know exactly what’s happening, but I’ve never yet completely lost the narrative thread; I actually think the impenetrability of the book is a bit oversold.  I generally do know what’s happening and to whom.  One helpful hint: whenever I don’t know what someone is talking about, I assume that he is talking about Parnell.

O hai I am Parnell.

But it’s very enjoyable.  Also makes me want to reread Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for more Stephen background.  I got extremely confused for a while before I realized that both Stephen’s father and his uncle are fairly major characters in the book (on every reference I thought they were the same person).

I’m also basically ignoring all the parallels to the Odyssey, or at least not worrying about them too much.  I recognize them if they’re obvious.

What I do find interesting is paying attention to the use of color, since I know that Joyce liked the Indian tradition of assigning a particular color, with corresponding meaning and emotional tone, to each subsection of his writing.

In any case, it’s still more a pleasure than a chore; hopefully it will remain so!

Arkngthand — There is a Game of Thrones Concept Album?!

Um… this is awesome.  In trying to find the Game of Thrones HBO show available to watch online, we have turned up what appears to be a Dutch metal band with an unpronounceable name — Arkngthand — that has released an entire concept album devoted to the Song of Ice and Fire series.  It’s available on iTunes.

Has anyone else ever heard of this?  It’s hilarious.  In this video they seem to just be saying “dire wolves” over and over again.  I wish it was an actual music video; not just an audio clip, but the pic is pretty great itself.  Second from the left is my fave, but the guy on the far left looks like a reject from House Frey, am I right?  Who’s coming with me?  Yeah, I made a joke about House Frey.

It Is Sad That Diana Wynne Jones Died

Witch Week

Diana Wynne Jones died last week.  I hadn’t read all that much by her, but “Witch Week” was my favorite book when I was about 11, and it’s a really amazing read.

The story is about an alternate UK where the Gunpowder Plot succeeded, and witches are not only real, but still burned at the stake — all taking place in a boarding school for “witch orphans.” When it starts becoming clear that one of the kids at the school IS a witch, teachers, other kids, and the government start hunting for who it is.

Apart from being well-written, “Witch Week” is EXTREMELY dark for what is essentially a young adult novel.  The whole idea is that there are people ready and willing to kill children for who and what they are.  The protagonist (or one of them)  burns his hand on a candle to the point of blistering and bleeding to remind himself what the stakes are.  And it was written in the early eighties, when it was rarer than now for any kind of kids lit to be that dark, I think.

This is neither here or there, but the book is also an interesting corollary to the (overrated, I think) comic and movie V for Vendetta, where Guy Fawkes is essentially reborn as an anarchic hero.  In “Witch Week,” the Gunpowder Plot is presented as an act so evil that it would have basically blown apart the universe and the timeline if it succeeded.

But it’s a great book, and everybody should read it.  I should also read the rest of the Chrestomanci series, which it is (sort of) a part of, and I’ve never gotten around to.

Abusing Literature with Marjorie Garber

MarjGarb

CJ and I had the pleasure of seeing Marjorie Garber speak at the Harvard Bookstore last week. This was our second reading in five days–my, aren’t we cultured?

Total disclosure here: Professor Garber is one of my nerd-girl heroes. Girlfriend can arch an eyebrow during a lecture and it can speak volumes. However, what I’ve always appreciated about MargGarb is the way she handles difficult questions and textual frustrations from students with a firm sort of practicality that would make Mary Poppins proud. She always manages to make the questioner feel empowered yet accountable.

This sense of patience and confidence translated well from the lecture hall to the bookstore. Rather than read directly from her new book on literary criticism and reappropriation, The Use and Abuse of Literature, she told us the story of when she first knew she was interested in literary criticism as a teen. Her description of  hearing TS Eliot speak wove nicely in and out with her reflections on academia, her favorite types of literature, and some specifics from her new work. She was immensely personable and smart during the Q&A as well, ably shouldering some pretty sigh-worthy questions about Deconstructionism from an over-zealous audience member (only in Cambridge are we overzealous about Deconstructionism, I guess).

This reading made me even more of a MargGarb fangirl. It was nice to experience a writer whose literary persona and whose physical presence nicely match up.