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.)

Advertisements

Unicorns: A Critical Reassessment

So I’m going to try to write new blog entries based on the feedback I got on my last post in the order it was received.  I’m disallowing all suggestions for the Karl Rove thing due to the political sensitivity of the topic, but barring that, the first comment was this:

Roxie said

Everything except hot Karl Rove sounds boring. Write more about unicorns!

The sacred beauty of the unicorn.

The sacred beauty of the unicorn.

What a terrible idea.

(I don’t know where this is is going exactly, but I’m reasonably sure I’m not going to link to this post on Facebook.)

Well, let’s try to sketch out an assessment of the cultural importance of the unicorn.  First of all, unicorns are not cool.  I don’t know why this is exactly, they seem to be hopelessly linked with ridiculous things like Lisa Frank and — to a lesser extent — the movie Legend.  Most noticeably in our era, they are common subjects for internet snarkery, from the  unicorn meat gag to this stupid video from whenever.  Unicorns are somehow seen as inherently trivial or even –dare I say — unrealistic in a way that other mythological creatures are not.  Are they too ernest and optimistic?  Too symbolic of overly sunny expectations about the world?

When a man is killed by a unicorn in the excellent movie “The Cabin in the Woods,”  — and similarly in this comic — it’s automatically a gag without requiring an explanation.  We don’t expect unicorns to kill people, we expect them to gambol about merrily in the woods and chase rainbows, or something like that.

Basically, unicorns are not impressive, they are jokes.

And I’m going to tentatively argue that this isn’t quite fair.  I don’t think unicorns deserve this automatic trivialization.  I would push for a revised mythological oeuvre which offers more pride of place to the unicorn, in a way more similar to the way they were originally conceived.  In Medieval times, unicorns were a pretty clear analogy to the Christ figure, which offers its own complications, but at least we can take from that they were seen as important creatures.  Maybe in our revised conception, the unicorn can be divorced from its religious associations, but still defined as “the king of the forest,” a protector and lord of his domain.  The Forest Spirit in the film Princess Mononoke seems to fill a similar role; so does the  white stag in this years “Snow White and the Huntsman.”  Could these be unicorn stand-ins?

In the film and movie, “The Last Unicorn,” unicorns already fill something like this role, though the title unicorn does also have a chronic naiveté that at least approaches the jokey way the creature is defined currently.

Something that also should be examined: the weird sexual politics of the unicorn. In Medieval representations, unicorns all seem to be explicitly male, attracted to human female virgins and linked to Christ.  The maleness of the unicorn has to also stem from the obvious phallic symbol which is the unicorn’s defining characteristic.  Yet part of the “joke” of the current conception of the unicorn is placing it in the female sphere. Little girls like unicorns.  Or, fascinatingly, unicorns are “gay.”  What does this mean?  Are unicorns gay because they are feminine? Or are they gay because they have erect penises on their heads?

(I’m just throwing out ideas at this stage. More rigorous academic investigations will likely be precipitated by the impact of this blog, so I want to provide a lot of grist for the mill.)

How about the physical appearance of the unicorn? I think it’s interesting that our modern “jokey” conception of the unicorn usually is a reasonable facsimile of a horse with the single addition of the horn. Yet if you look at older representations, unicorns aren’t all that horsey at all.  They’re built like a deer, with a goat-like face and beard, plus cloven hooves and a long tail. Part of it must be the impact of film.  Unicorns are easy to portray in movies and television if you simply attach a horn to a horse.  Portraying the more unique form of unicorn from older illustrations would be tricky.  But does the visual simplification of the unicorn trivialize its role?  I think it might.  If the only difference between a unicorn and a horse is the horn, the very concept of what a unicorn is becomes a little silly.  The addition of a single feature rarely necessitates a whole new category of creature.

I don’t know how to end this, but if I’ve led a single reader to reassess their conception of unicorns for at least a minute or two, I’ll take that as a small victory.

BONUS LIST: UNICORNS IN LITERATURE

* “The Last Unicorn” — by Peter Beagle

* “The Unicorn in the Garden” — by James Thurber

* As a stand-in for Disraeli in “Through the Looking Glass,” at least via the Tenniel illustrations

I can’t think of any more at the moment, any suggestions?

Jane Eyre n’ Me

Mr. Rochester performed music so underground his band didn't even exist yet

The new Jane Eyre was good, though slightly anti-climactic for the swoony 11th grader in me. By way of explanation: Jane Eyre was one of those books that I devoured in high school. A plain and chubby but plucky girl myself, I immediately imagined myself as Jane  to a thrillingly Byronic imagined Mr. Rochester (at this time——circa 2000—most often manifested by a bearded Johnny Depp). The connection with the novel, re-read about five times since then, was so strong that no film adaptation could ever quite match up with my personal expectation. Previous movies were enjoyable, but left no significant impression, save for the version in which Sookie Stackhouse plays cheeky Young Jane.

Which brings me to the new film by Cary Fukunaga: Well-acted (check-nice supporting work by Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, and Sally Hawkins, to boot!), well-scripted (check plus-the script retells the story out of sequential order, breaking up the tedium of the earlier Jane adaptations) beautifully shot (check—Thornfield Hall is lovingly realized).  I can’t fault the acting of the major players, though Michael Fassbender is decidedly waaaay too conventionally gorgeous to be Mr. Rochester.  I’ve always considered Rochester to have a bit of a caveman about him which contributes to his allure in a bizarre way that was very appealing to seventeen-year old Me. Here,  he is more like a gentle, scruffily bearded flannel-bedecked frontman for an Allston band that would be called Dear Mother Owls  or something similar. Mia Wasikowska is lovely as Jane, though I’d love to see her retain a bit more of the ballsy confidence that animates Jane as a child. Upon reflection, my real disappointment with Jane Eyre is personal, nostalgic, and impossible to rectify: that after imagining myself so long as the character, it has become impossible to be pleased with a heroine other than myself.

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.