Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. Cover by Jeff Jones.

A little while ago, I almost posted a bit of a rant about a comment Philip Pullman made in a recent interview in which he makes clear, once again, that he doesn’t like, read, or write fantasy. I’ve heard him express this view before, and am at once annoyed (because I like fantasy) and embarrassed (because I really liked Pullman’s Northern Lights), not to say a little disappointed (a lack of generosity in a favourite author always disappoints me, because generosity — of understanding and imagination — is one of the things that makes an author a favourite, for me). In this case the actual quote was:

“I don’t read fantasy because I’ve very seldom found that the story in the book rewards my effort in getting to know the world of the story. You know, it’s all about the Sword of Gungleblath, and the Stom-Swallower of Zenbar or something… and it’s such an effort to do that…”

So, I thought, is it possible to come up with a book that would provide a counter-argument to that blanket dismissal of all imaginative fiction that strays that little bit too far beyond what is acceptable by serious (perhaps too serious) readers? I mean, for instance, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan and Gormenghast? Or Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood? Or Alan Garner’s Elidor? Or Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan? The trouble is, with many of these books, there’s always the possibility of special pleading. Peake’s Gormenghast contains no magic, so might be real, therefore we can pretend it’s not fantasy. Holdstock’s Mythago Wood takes a rationalising, scientific approach to the fantastic, so we can call it science fiction instead. And Garner and Le Guin — both accepted by the literary crowd — used fantasy when writing for children, and you’re allowed to do that.

So, is there a book that is both undeniably fantasy of the “Sword of Gungleblath” type — by which Pullman means, I suppose, heroic fantasy, or otherworld fantasy — but which I think would stand up to a serious reader (or at least one who wouldn’t giggle in flustered embarrassment at the mention of magic)? Two candidates come to mind. One is Gene Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight, but I’ve only read that once and would like to give it another go to make sure (and as it’s a long book, that may have to wait). The other is Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser series. And, to limit it to one book, I’d choose the first, Swords and Deviltry.

The Knight and Knave of Swords by Fritz Leiber. Cover by Peter Elson.

Leiber’s Fafhrd (“Faf-erd”) and the Gray Mouser stories are unashamedly of the “Sword of Gungleblath” type. They’re sword and sorcery, the most Gungleblathy type of fantasy there is. (Leiber coined the term “sword and sorcery”.) The pair, one a tall, brawny, Northern barbarian, the other a short, quick, wily southerner, are (to use Leiber’s own words) “the greatest swordsmen ever to be in this or any other universe of fact or fiction”. They do battle with sorcerers. They name their swords (not Gungleblath, but Scalpel and Graywand). They do derring, and engage in derring-do. But two things make these books truly magical (not in the fantasy sense, but in the wonderful-to-read sense). One is Leiber’s love of linguistic play. Leiber was the son of Shakespearean actors, and was brought up on the plays. He seems to have absorbed Shakespeare’s attitude that language isn’t a dictionaried thing (as it wasn’t, in Shakespeare’s time) but is to be played with, toyed with, tinkered with, enjoyed, owned. The other is that Leiber, as a writer, seemed to be driven by a need for a sort of human honesty, perhaps even self-confession, not usually found in writers of sword & sorcery. His pair of heroes may be “the greatest swordsmen ever to be”, but are far from perfect human beings. What’s more, pre-stealing a trick from Rowling a good thirty/forty years in advance, they mature as the series progresses. Their first-published tale (“Jewels in the Forest”, 1939) may well be a pretty much standard sword & sorcery yarn, but by the end of the series (The Knight and Knave of Swords, 1988), we’re dealing with two battle-scarred (Fafhrd has lost a hand) ex-bravos trying to put their wayward days behind them and live normal lives.

But it isn’t just at the end of their lives that the more serious themes appear. The first book in the series (which was not the first written) sets up the pair of adventurers for their first fall — a fall into disillusionment, loss of love, and loss of innocence.

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. Cover by Geoff Taylor.

It’s a book of three novellas. “The Snow Women” is about what forces Fafhrd to break with the oppressive battle of the sexes in his homeland, and go in search of the supposed wonders of civilisation. “The Unholy Grail” tracks the transformation from a rather hippie-ish hedge-wizard’s apprentice called Mouse to the darkly cynical, grey-magicking Mouser. And best of the three, the Nebula-winning “Ill Met In Llankhmar”, is about how the two heroes join forces for the first time, are egged on to a dangerous adventure by boastfulness, a little too much wine, and an attempt to impress the women they love, and in which, although it could be argued they succeed, they pay a price far higher than they expected.

No character in Leiber’s stories is a cliché, however much they may wear the costume of one. Fafhrd may be a brawny barbarian, but he is thoughtful, is trained as a singing skald, and is, therefore, a poet; and the Gray Mouser’s air of sophistication is always just being undermined by Leiber’s own constant sense of self-deflating irony.

I don’t think Pullman would ever read Swords and Deviltry. Perhaps, if he did, he’d get no further than the introductory chapter that introduces us to the ancient world of Nehwon (a rather clumsy name — yeah, it’s no-when backwards, but forwards it’s not among the great fantasy-world names) — that would sound, to him, I’m sure, uncomfortably like “Gungleblath”. But you, dear reader, gentle reader — oh, so perceptive and imaginative reader! — if you have any sympathy for fantasy, and can stand invented names, and heroes who name their swords, and perhaps can even bear to read a little about magic, surely you might enjoy Swords and Deviltry.

(If you haven’t read it already. In which case, wasn’t it good?)

What books do best

I love films. I love music. I love games, comics, paintings, the lot. But most of all I love books, stories told in words. I’m not going to argue that my chosen favourite form of art/entertainment (if only there was one word that meant both and didn’t sound either pretentious or disparaging) is better than the others, because it’s not. They’re all means of telling stories, or saying interesting things, and they all work in different ways. The ones that work best are the ones that use the strengths of their form to the best advantage. In Watchmen, for instance, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore deliberately used one of the advantages of comics to do something which can’t be translated into film — the fact that you can pack a lot of detail into each panel, and the reader can linger, and flip back and forth, to really absorb that detail. That’s why, when watching the recent film of Watchmen, I kept thinking, “But they’ve missed out… And what about… And where’s..?” All the way through.

But what do books do best? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

The weaknesses are obvious. Unlike all the other art-forms I listed above, they can only say one thing at a time — worse, they can only build up what they want to say one word at a time, which means you have to put a lot of work in just to get to the first thing they want to say. Music can be instantly impressive; the first shot of a film can just grab you; a splash page opening a comic takes you right into its story; but even “Call me Ishmael” has to be read one word at a time.

What are books’ strengths? I’ll take my answer not from a book, but a song:

Book after book
I get hooked
Every time the writer
Talks to me like a friend

— “Spaceball Ricochet“, Marc Bolan

Books talk to you, just like people do. Alright, you don’t see them waving their hands and pulling faces while they’re talking (books are more like telephone conversations, in that way), and they don’t allow you to talk back (or they don’t listen if you do), but although books are the least like our sensory experience of the world (mostly pictures and sounds), they are, I think, the most like our experience of people.

Some books (like some people) talk at you, and expect you to believe what they say because it’s they who say it. Such books are written by Authors, and their Authorship comes from them regarding themselves as Authorities — and that’s a little too close to regarding themselves as what Philip Pullman called The Authority in His Dark Materials, i.e., God. (Books written by Adults for children all too easily fall into this trap. Don’t they, my dearie wittle ones?)

The best books, though, are written by human beings, not Authors. They talk to you as an equal, as another human being, and don’t try to be clever or sophisticated or loud, or to put on airs:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson.

Idle reader: without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine. But I have not been able to contravene the natural order; in it, like begets like.

Don Quixote, Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

Ever since people started reading books silently (Saint Ambrose is recorded as the first to engage in this peculiar practice), when books speak, they do so inside your head. In this way, they can seem not so much to be speaking to you, as to be the result of your eavesdropping on someone else’s thoughts, their own interior monologue raised to the clarity of complete and artistically ordered sentences.

What goes on in other people’s heads is, of course, one of the great mysteries of life. We can be reasonably sure that if I see a red penguin and you see a red penguin then the sensory impression received by our eyes is roughly the same thing, but the thoughts that go through our separate heads (“A red penguin? Am I insane?!” and “Ah, the Red Penguin returns…”) can be as different as, well, two books on a shelf.

But it’s in books that we have the solution to this mystery. Books allow the most intimate contact with the inside of another person’s head, because the writer doesn’t have to talk to us like a friend, they can go one better, and talk to us as they would to themselves, either about themselves, or (if they’re pure narrator) about the story, situation or picture they see:

The Piano Teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother.

The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Joachim Neugroschel

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breath, where is grass colding on I’s feet and wetting they.

Voice of the Fire, Alan Moore.

A good book opens up a world and surrounds you in it. Because it starts inside your head, if read right, it replaces your senses and becomes your world, while you read it. One word at a time you go into all the strangeness, wonder, fear and peculiarity of being another human being. Which, you of course find, is just like being yourself. Only, with the furniture moved about a bit.

Dean Spanley

Who would have thought Lord Dunsany would get a film adaptation in 2010? Even in these post-Potter, post-Jackson-LOTR days when fantasy is enjoying a filmic boom, he’s hardly the author you’d expect to be the beneficiary of a decent film budget. And even then, would his short 1936 novel, My Talks with Dean Spanley, be the one to choose over something more flashy and Hollywood-friendly, like, say, The Sword of Welleran or The King of Elfland’s Daughter? As fantasy goes, Spanley is really quite mild, being about a dean who, under the influence of his favourite wine, Tokay (which has something of a fantasy pedigree, as it appears in the first chapter of Pullman’s Northern Lights, too), falls into reminiscences of his previous life as a dog. No car chases, no fights, no massive effects sequences — no effects sequences at all, as far as I could tell. No romance, either. The cast is all male, apart from one ageing housekeeper.

But what a charming film!

Partly this is down to the excellent cast. Peter O’Toole is the frankly frightening Horatio Fisk, an unforgiving, staunchly unemotional old man, teetering on the awkward edge between wilful rudeness and outright dementia. Jeremy Northam is his son, painfully trying to get his father to open up just a little bit about the deaths of Northam’s brother (during the war) and his mother (afterwards, from grief). Sam Neill is the rather unsociable Dean Spanley whose Tokay-induced reminiscences have to be coaxed out of him, but who, once going, provides a wonderful insight into the life and worldview of a dog, and his relationship to “the master”.

But also, the film’s particular charm comes down to that rare thing in films these days, particularly fantasy ones (he says, having recently reviewed the Clash of the Titans remake) — a story that’s not only good, but which is allowed time to breathe, to develop, to gather momentum, to bring out its subtle emotional undercurrents and let them build into full-size waves. At first, I must admit, the story was so slight I wasn’t sure there was even going to be one. Just how much, after all, can you get from the reminiscences of a closemouthed dean about a previous canine incarnation? But before I knew it, the gentle pace, mild manners and the sheer, quiet, confidence of the film won me over, and suddenly I found it was packing a real emotional punch. In one scene near the end, Peter O’Toole’s face, so impassive, not to say death-like at the beginning, suddenly — and so subtly — thaws, with just the tiniest of shifts in expression, and suddenly the whole tone of the film is changed.

Really a lovely film.

Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

At first, I was a bit puzzled by Philip Pullman’s latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ — puzzled, and a little bit annoyed. This was because I’d been led to expect a quite different book, not just by the title (if it was just the title, it wouldn’t matter, because good titles are often deceptive, or at least gain a new relevance on further reading), but by the summaries people have given of the book in reviews on TV and in the press. For instance, the Archbishop of Canterbury (who gives a favourable review in The Guardian), gives this explanation of the basic idea behind the book:

“Its premise is that Mary gave birth to twins: Jesus, an earthy, generous visionary, radical enough to create panic in conventional religious and political authority; and ‘Christ’ – a nickname for the weaker, self-righteous, fearful brother who shadows Jesus, trying to persuade him to accept a destiny he refuses.”

Yes, Mary gives birth to twins. But the two — Jesus and Christ — are not as Rowan Williams characterises them. To start off with, for instance, the Jesus character is rather withdrawn and distant, in the shadow of his brother, Christ. Later, he comes across as quite resentful, even spiteful, of his brother and his family, even while preaching the message of universal love. Meanwhile the Christ character, though he does at one point try to “persuade [Jesus] to accept a destiny he refuses”, is for most of the book quite passive, self-abnegating, humanly weak as opposed to “fearful”, and entirely accepting of the Jesus character’s view of things. In fact, there’s only one chapter — one short conversation between the two brothers — in which the above characterisation applies; after that, the brothers separate and, learning from the event, the Christ character, at least, changes.

Once I’d got over that slight confusion, I read the bulk of the book thinking Pullman’s title must be ironic — that it is in fact the Jesus character who is the scoundrel, and the Christ character who is the good man, and that worked for a while. But, although there’s an argument to be made, I don’t think that’s entirely true, either. Rather, the Jesus character is an idealist — and idealists can be good, because they offer us visions of good things to strive for, but on the other hand, every idealist is a tyrant in embryo — and the Christ character is a realist — and realists can be scoundrels, because they are always undermining the good we find in ideals, but on the other hand, realists can at least put a plan into action and get things done. In other words, neither character is wholly good nor bad. Things are confused by the roles they find themselves playing: Jesus as the preacher, teacher, and revolutionary proclaimer of the imminent Kingdom of Heaven on Earth (the most potentially damaging idea he or his brother presents in the book), Christ as his chronicler and, later, his betrayer. But the roles are predetermined by the story they are stuck in, and neither character is really responsible for their decision to be in that story. If there is a moral colouring to be applied to anyone in Pullman’s book, it is the the third, never-named character, the angel (or presumed angel), who guides Christ on the way to eventually playing the Judas role. This third character, who at one point explicitly denies that he is Satan, is, I suppose, the embodiment of the story itself, gently prompting characters to play their appointed roles. In fact, I came to think of him as the Philip Pullman character, a sort of shepherd for the potentially unruly three-dimensional characters in a myth, a form that does not comfortably support three-dimensions in its characters.

I finally overcame my ambivalence about the book when I did what I should have done from the start — forgot what other people have said about the book, and decided to understand it in my own terms, in my own way. I realised I wasn’t really interested in The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ as a book about religion, or even (as Rowan Williams says) a book about the church (though it is that, too). This is why I’ve been saying “the Jesus character” and “the Christ character”, because I don’t want anyone to happen on this blog and think I’m talking about the religious figure who goes by those names. I’m interested in the book as a story, and the characters as they relate to that story. (Pullman, after all, has “This is a story” emblazoned on the back, but I at first thought this was just him being provocative.)

For me, what The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was about was writing. Pullman’s innovation is to have two boys born to Mary, one called Jesus and one called Christ. When the Jesus character proves to have a vocation as a somewhat revolutionary wandering preacher (whose teaching — all paraphrased, in more modern diction, from, I assume, the Gospels — is often contradictory, with the Jesus character talking of loving your neighbour at one point, then refusing to help a woman because she is not of his race at another, and also being pointedly rude to his family), the Christ character decides to write his brother’s teachings down, seeking to preserve them as accurately as possible. (Because, far from being a scoundrel, he has a deep love of his brother, and a respect for what he is teaching, even though the Jesus character has no love for him.) For most of the book, then, the Christ character is a writer. He is, in effect, producing the version of “Jesus” that will be preserved after his brother’s death, and indeed after his own: the version that we find in the written books of the Gospels.

What makes this aspect of the story interesting is that the Christ character pretty soon becomes aware of the possibility of improving on what the Jesus character says and does. In fact, he is prompted to do this by that third, unnamed character who guides the story. I don’t know if Pullman is providing subtle characterisations in the ways that Christ’s writings differ from what the Jesus character actually says, but anyway I think that’s beside the point. The real point is that by differing from what the Jesus character says and does, an ideal version — a myth — is created.

In effect the book is asking: which is more important, the literal, historical truth, or the ideal, more meaningful version? In some cases — legal cases, for instance — obviously the literal, historical truth is the most important. But when we’re dealing with ideals, it is the myth that is more important. Because we know that reality never lives up to our ideals, and that human beings, though they strive, often fail, or are divided, or feel impure or less-than-holy feelings even when they succeed, or act on baser motives than we might like. But the ideal can exist nevertheless — and ought to be allowed to. Just because, in all history up to now, there has never been a wholly, truly, perfectly “good” man, does that mean we should give up striving to be good? Just because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we will never manage to be fully, truly good, does that mean we should give up trying? No, and no. And really, this is the point about myth. Myth is not, as some definitions would have it, a lie that debases historical truth; rather, it is a truth that has no need to have ever actually occurred in order for it to be true.

So, the Christ character makes the decision, as a writer, to betray the historical Jesus, and write what he feels ought to have been said or done at this or that moment. And this “betrayal” becomes enacted in the story itself, as the Christ character acts out the Judas role that leads to Jesus’s capture and eventual death.

What’s interesting is that the Christ character, who I described above as a realist, acts in order to preserve an ideal. He betrays not just his brother, but himself. This idea of the writer as, necessarily, a betrayer, a traitor, a “scoundrel”, seems somehow fitting, though I can’t quite work out why. Are all writers, necessarily, scoundrels of a sort, in that by creating something — their own version of the truth — they are in fact betraying the truth of the world around them?

(If I can add one reading recommendation, I’d say Ted Chiang’s novelette “Hell is the Absence of God” (collected in Stories of Our Life and Others, a real must-read of an SF collection) is the most powerful exploration of religious themes (also by an atheist, or agnostic, I’m not sure which Chiang is) that I’ve ever read. Pullman’s novella is thought-provoking, but not really on religious themes, though unfortunately this is how everyone’s going to see it, I suppose.)