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Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber

Swords_Against_DeathSwords Against Death is the second of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar books, featuring the archetypal characters of Fafhrd  the barbarian and The Grey Mouser the rogue. The book includes stories spanning from 1940 to 1970… which I imagine, if you’re reading the book attentively and know this, would leave you watching for signs of change and development in the author’s writing style. As for me, it wasn’t really apparent to me, as I read the stories, that they were written across such a long span of years. That isn’t to say there weren’t shifts in tone and style, or that there wasn’t apparent development in style, but that development shifts in ways that feel as if they are nonce adjustments to the theme and mood of each story, which is interesting, and could–depending on your reception of the book–either be a damning observation, or high praise.

I can’t pretend I didn’t stumble on a few moments of apparent sexism or racism in the stories–the illusion-persona of one interdimensional character in “Bazaar of the Bizarre” veers straight into the kind of territory explored by Edward Said in Orientalism, for example, though of course that’s an outlandish illusion, which might explain the caricature somewhat…  I still found it uncomfortable, though. And there is a degree of sexism that is hard to deny, even if it comes in occasional spurts. (But, you know, a line like “Girls were for dessert,” said by one of the heroes… well, yeah. That should make us uncomfortable, I think. A few pages later, he protests that he’s paid for a girl, too. Er… okay. Things not to emulate. And it’s not like it’s been purged fully from our genre, either.)

At the same time, I’ve also begun to try consciously not to not ask perfection of books. Every book has its virtues, and its flaws–okay, almost every book , er, most books do? maybe “many” books do?–and with Leiber, it’s hard to mistake those pleasures and virtues, along with the flaws; there’s a reason he’s been so imitated. I think it’s possible to see the virtues of a book and to dislike its flaws at the same time. I’ve more than a couple of novels or short stories that have apparent identity-politics much congenial to my own views, but which clearly lack some of the other virtues that Leiber puts on display in these stories. He makes me laugh, he gets me into the stories in a way a lot of “adventure” writing doesn’t, and he really does celebrate male friendship–maybe even geeky male friendship is what is being celebrated–in a way I must confess I haven’t really seen before in fiction; that’s something worth celebrating, too, after all–not more worth celebrating than female friendship, or friendship across the lines of sex or gender or whatever, of course, but still worth celebrating anyhow, and as someone who had to relearn the importance of guy friends as an adult–not with gravitas, so much as with a kind of relaxed bluntness and shared respect–I think it’s actually important to celebrate healthy forms of male camaraderie… which sometimes includes not taking everything so seriously, or shrugging off the medieval (no, really, Medieval, and rooted in law and custom of primogeniture) notion that to really be a successful, fully adult man, you need to marry, settle down, have kids and property, and so on; if you didn’t, you were a mere juvene; a kid, basically–and juvenes were a social problem in Northern France, since whole classes of men had to endure the status in order to keep land and money in the family. The whole juvenes issue, really, makes an interesting comparison to the boy-men in so much of our media (and many real-life young men today); in both cases, a crisis of masculinity and the problematizing of male friendship has as much to do with the upsurge in sexism as any literary celebration of male friendship.

In other words, I think celebrating male friendship can be an important part of a thoughtful feminist-positive agenda… in part (but not only) because declaring such celebrations as inherently sexist doesn’t invite much except anti-feminist backlash. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where that’s the only relationship that gets celebrated, but likewise, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where it’s never celebrated. Thankfully, neither is the case in our world… not anymore, anyway.

What this all drives home for me, is the same thing driven home by reading, say, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (which I’m doing these days): “postmodernist” literature isn’t new, and neither is the so-called “bromance.” (I despise these portmanteau words that are all the rage today, but what’s one to do? The language is uglifying, but one cannot halt change, though I do refuse to do this to people’s names, or couples; some lines, I refuse to cross.)

Anyway, back to Lankhmar: that’s the thing about these books that strikes me most forcefully (beyond the influence of these books on D&D, and that influence is incredibly profound). It’s that these stories are unavoidably and fundamentally about positive relationships between young male peers, something I actually find pretty rare in fiction–less so in movies, but in the fiction I’ve read, it’s much less common than antagonistic relationships between men, or familial relationships like those between father and son–those, too, often fraught with antagonism. All of which makes me wish I’d read these stories when I was much younger. Sure, movies and books are focused on men, but they’re usually focused on lone men (or, less often, women) who fight the system. These books, as much as they’re about adventure, and magic, and quests, are much more about buddies. And not the earnest, I’d follow you into Mordor business of Sam and Frodo, but the two guys goofing off and enjoying one another’s company in regular times. It’s one thing to be pals when you have to save the world: it’s another to move in together in a stolen garden house you had to pilfer because you’re flat broke and have no place to live. (Yes, they actually cart off rich guy’s garden house in the middle of the night.)

Beyond all that, Nehwon is a great big weird old world: it’s crammed with magic (unlike Middle Earth, say), and like many other classic swords & sorcery worlds, it lacks the “class system” that it inspired in earlier generations of D&D: rogues can perform magic, barbarians can read and be scholarly… and Fafhrd and Grey Mouser both are somewhat self-contradictory in exactly this way: Grey Mouser is small, sophisticated and urbane, but also sometimes a country bumpkin, or easily suckered (as in “Bazaar of the Bizarre”); Fafhrd is a hulking wildman of the frozen north, but also literate and witty, trained in singing and somewhat vain at times. Their world also has a kind of tapestry quality, one that, like a great game world, incorporates all kinds of fantastical tropes, ranging from horror to adventure, from plot-coupon quests to the outright Weird, and as many have noted, this allows Leiber to weave in riffs and nods to other pulp authors, from the darkest of Lovecraft to the most exuberantly adventurous of Howard.

(Nehwon is, at least implicitly, also at least a little racially diverse: people of color actually do get passing references,in the manner of the kinds of references found in, say, the work of Hans Christian Andersen, even if they’re not major characters, and even if the references are in terms that are cringe-worthy today, like one passing reference to a comparison of the hooded, shadowed face of a mysterious wizard to the face of  “Negro of Klesh” in a story from 1970. There’s a problematic gender and a geographic/racial politics here that’s familiar in high fantasy, yes. But at least there’s a sense that there are at least multiple races in the world, and that people move around beyond the boundaries of their, er, “ethnic homelands,” let’s call it. I’ll have to see what Leiber does with this, if anything, in the rest of the stories as I work my way through the books.)

But the texture of Nehwon is also largely shaped by a literary effect: that is, the ironic juxtapositions that seem a speciality of Leiber’s. That stolen garden house? That’s from a story where the heroes are sent off to confront–and steal from–death, where they attempt to rescue their long-lost loves in the land of the dead (and are dismissed rather sternly by both, and realize those long-lost loves weren’t as perfect as they’d remembered, after all…). There’s also an absence of that all-too-serious Save the World trope of which I’ve gotten a bit weary: Fafhrd and Grey Mouser might occasionally save the world–they do in the final story of this book, supposedly–but more often, they get hammered, steal a big treasure, then lose it, and realizing they’re broke again, get drunk once more. Someone online aptly observed that there’s humor when you expect grim tragedy, and horror where you expect goofy hijinks. That’s part of Leiber’s bag of tricks, and it’s a fascinating bag to rifle through, though I’m not sure how well I can pilfer from it. It seems that many an author has tried, but the stamp on the coins seems indelible, even if you get the sense that some of those coins were melted down and recast from older currencies still.

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