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?)


Conan the Hero

I recently read L Sprague de Camp’s seminal anthology, Swords & Sorcery, published in 1963, which was perhaps the first mass-market book to define the genre. De Camp followed it with a number of similar volumes, but the first contains fiction by Poul Anderson, Robert E Howard, Lord Dunsany, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, H P Lovecraft, C L Moore and Clark Ashton Smith. I love Fritz Leiber’s tales of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, and I love Clark Ashton Smith‘s decadent-fatalistic fantasies too, but the story that struck me as the most purely sword & sorcerous, and which most made it clear why its sword-swinging protagonist deserved to be the hero of his own tale, was Robert E Howard’s “Shadows in the Moonlight”. Whereas Leiber’s tales are carried along as much by their playful wit and comic undermining of the heroism of their twin leads, and Smith’s by an archaic word-magic and a deep sense of the cosmic un-heroicism of all human beings, Howard’s writing leaves you in no doubt that Conan is meant to be read as a hero, not an ironic comment on one. And this, to me, seems very much what sword & sorcery, at its purest, should be about. It is hero-fiction.

Much has been made of Howard’s invention of Conan — though perhaps “discovery” is a better word, because in Howard’s own words:

“I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen — or rather off my typewriter — almost without effort…” [Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, Dec 1933]

As Anthony Storr points out, in his book The Dynamics of Creation, a period of apparent creative sterility can be the necessary precursor to a sudden burst of major creation, as a lot of work is being done unconsciously all the while, and although the actual details of Howard’s creation of Conan (his first Conan story was in fact a rewrite of a previously-rejected King Kull story, and many of the subsequent tales went through several drafts, rather than simply “flowing” into being) it certainly seems that the feeling, at least, that Howard is describing was true: in a way, Conan arrived like the solution to a creative problem Howard had been chewing over for some time, and the fact that his first tale was a rewrite of a story initially featuring a different character even seems to back this up. Where King Kull failed, Conan succeeded, and continued to do so. It is as though Conan simply encapsulated that much more of what Howard wanted to say.

So what was the creative problem Conan was designed to solve?

Every author has, in their imagination, an image of the world as it appears to them, and those that create heroic characters can be seen as doing so as a means of finding the perfect person to exist in that world, and to meet its various challenges. (Colin Wilson, in The Craft of the Novel, puts forward the idea that all novels can be seen as thought experiments in how to live, and shows how, for instance, George Bernard Shaw only truly found himself as a writer when he discovered a type of hero who embodied his worldview.) In a way, then, the hero and the world the writer creates can be seen as answering each other.

Take the first Conan story, “The Sword on the Phoenix”. Howard begins by providing us with a villain who is in many ways similar to his hero. Ascalante is plotting to remove Conan from the throne of Aquilonia, and though this may seem a villainous thing to do, we learn that Conan himself has only recently removed the previous king by violent means, so it can’t be mere intent that separates our hero from his opposite — Conan’s Hyperborea is a savage world, and getting to the top by murder is an entirely valid thing to do. Having learned of Ascalante’s plans, we shift to a scene with Conan, which parallels the scene with Ascalante in several ways. Ascalante, for instance, is introduced in the presence of the closest thing he has to a confidante (an enslaved sorcerer, the Numidian Thoth-amon); Conan, meanwhile, is introduced in the company of his closest friend, Prospero. Another minor parallel is how the talk, in both scenes, touches briefly on poets (one particular poet, Rinaldo, is involved in the plot to kill Conan). Ascalante is dismissive of the breed:

“Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next. They escape the present in dreams of the past and future.”

Conan has more respect for them:

“A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my sceptre; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo’s songs will live forever.”

There are other similarities. Both Conan and Ascalante have small cadres of bodyguards who abandon them at a key point, and both have to face the same final trial alone. But of course the main point is that both are vying (one to gain, the other to retain) the kingship of Aquilonia — and, in a sense, Howard’s entire story-world.

There is a key difference between the two, the thing that makes Conan the hero and Ascalante the villain. Conan is a king, but is coming to realise that it’s not really what he wants. He made an excellent liberator, and slayer-of-kings, but now he’s on the throne, he feels hemmed in by responsibility. He’s not interested in exercising power for the sake of it, but wants to follow his own path, be his own man. Being a king seemed a good way of doing that at the time, but now it limits him. Ascalante, on the other hand, longs for power, and we can be sure he’ll enjoy tyrannising his fellow men as much as he can once he gets it. Ascalante is endlessly duplicitous, plotting to betray even his closest cohorts, while Conan is simply as you find him. If Conan doesn’t like you, he may lop off your head, but he won’t plot against you. And the reason for this difference is that Ascalante is civilised — is sick with the decadence of living at a remove from the pure, savage violence of the world in which the barbarian Conan was raised. Conan is a creature of instinct, appetites and action; Ascalante is a man of plots and plans, vengeance and resentment, greed and need.

This is a theme that runs throughout Howard’s tales. Civilisation, which provides comfort and security, separates men from true contact with the reality of life, and so breeds decadence, corruption, treachery, sorcery and perversity. Conan is a barbarian but is not uncouth — he may be brutal, but he is honest. He is intelligent, and cultured enough to enjoy a good poet, and to want to make an accurate map of the world as he knows it (which is what he’s doing at the start of “The Phoenix on the Sword”), but he’s in direct contact with his instincts, and acts on them without doubt or reserve. His over-civilised enemies, on the other hand, brood and stew their instincts, twisting them into treacherous plots and plans, and perverse desires.

But creating two similar but crucially different characters isn’t enough. In heroic fiction, one character has to prove himself superior, not simply be more admirable. Howard doesn’t do the obvious thing (let them fight it out and have Conan prove himself the better man through sheer physical superiority) but instead has both Conan and Ascalante face a sort of ultimate test of their worth in his world. Hyperborea is a savage place, where often the sword is the decisive factor, but rather like the contemporaneous world of Hard-Boiled Detective fiction, it’s also a world beset by a bleak, Godless view of human life — a grim place of struggle and darkness, where at the ultimate its heroes may have to face the dread, cosmic void of utter meaninglessness. So, both Conan and Ascalante face a being from the “Outside” — a semi-Lovecraftian creature which represents the ultimate awful nature of inhuman reality. (In appearance it’s a giant, mummified baboon-demon, thus combining animal savagery and the supernatural spookiness of un-death.) Before it, the over-civilised Ascalante freezes in horror, but Conan connects with a “frenzied fury akin to madness”, a burst of inner vitality that saves him from his rival’s fate, and proves him to be the true hero of Robert E Howard’s world — a hero fit not just to face savage swords and evil sorcerers, but the bleak truths of the 20th century’s psychological ills, too.

Howard makes Conan credible through an intense belief in the truths represented by the character. Life to him is savage and brutal at heart, so a savage is the best sort to thrive in it, though the only philosophical stance one can take in the face of such a world is Conan’s grim fatalism. Conan is the hero because he and his world are perfectly matched. His knowledge of his world is gained partly through a hard-earned, wide-travelled experience, and partly through an innate understanding of its savagery — Conan regards himself and the wild beasts of Hyperborea as little different, so can think his way into defeating the dragon in “Red Nails”, for instance, by knowing how it will act, and using that knowledge against it. (For me, the most powerful image in all the Conan stories is the one that strikes the greatest contrast with Hyperborea’s savagery —  the ugly alien creature trapped in “The Tower of the Elephant”, a piteous thing longing, above all, for the release of death, because it is so alone. It is, oddly for something so alien, the essence of raw human feeling, totally unsuited to Howard’s violent world, but nevertheless an essential part of it.)

“The Phoenix on the Sword” was published in 1932, only two years after another writer addressed the clash between the individual (the hero) and the repressive nature of modern life — Sigmund Freud, in his Civilisation and Its Discontents. Freud concluded that, in the face of civilisation’s repressive forces, humankind could only lapse into neurosis (which could only be treated by psychoanalysis); Robert E Howard had a different solution — connection with the adventurous savage within, and redemption through sword & sorcery.



For me, one of the joys of watching Dragonslayer is rediscovering what a great fantasy film it is. I’m not quite sure why I manage to forget, each time, how much I like it. Perhaps it’s down to the lack of extras on the DVD — something which always makes me feel a favourite’s going underappreciated — or perhaps it’s because it got a mixed critical reaction on its release, or that, being released in 1981, it lost out to Raiders of the Lost Ark for both a visual effects Oscar and a Hugo. To my mind, though, it’s as good a film as Raiders, it’s just that the way it tempers the straight-ahead heroism of its George-and-the-Dragon storyline with less purely archetypal, more humanly-believable characters — the very thing I like it for — may have weakened it in the public’s eye, particular when compared to the very obvious heroism of Indiana Jones.

Set in an authentic-feeling Dark Ages kingdom called Urland, Dragonslayer begins with a group of villagers, led by the young Valerian, setting out to ask the ageing sorcerer Ulrich (played by Ralph Richardson) for help against the best-named dragon in movies, Vermithrax Pejorative. (Latin is the language of magic in Dragonslayer.) Ulrich dies before he can help, but his young apprentice, Galen Gradwarden, decides to earn a reputation as a great sorcerer by fulfilling his master’s task. And he makes a good go of it, too, using his magic not to face the dragon directly, but to bury its cave in a massive rockfall. Everyone goes home to the village to celebrate, and Valerian reveals himself to be Valeria, a girl raised as a boy by her blacksmith father so as to avoid the lottery by which King Casiodorus picks maidens to sacrifice to Vermithrax. Then greedy Casiodorus confiscates Galen’s magical amulet (wanting to see if he can use it to turn lead into gold), and Vermithrax bursts free, meaning another lottery has to be held, another sacrifice made. Meanwhile, we’ve learned that, despite his protestations of the lottery’s fairness, King Casiodorus’s daughter’s name has been conspicuously absent from the drawings.

One of the most striking surprises of Dragonslayer is that, despite having the Disney name attached (it was a joint Disney-Paramount production), it’s very far from the traditional Disney style of fairy tale/fantasy — a point underlined by the scene where Galen enters the dragon’s lair intent on saving the sacrificial princess, only to find her dead and being eaten by baby dragons. Galen underlines the un-Disneyishness of the scene by sticking the baby dragons with his spear.

Vermithrax itself is one of the best pre-CGI dragons in movies, at least in those scenes where we get to see the whole of it. When it (or parts of it) interacts with humans, it’s less convincing (obviously being played by a large, robotic head, for instance), but when it wing-hobbles, bat-like, through its cave — a scene produced by a variant on stop-motion called go-motion, where rather than being animated a frame at a time, the dragon model was designed to perform a small motion each exposure, thus leading to a more fluid motion — is excellent, as are the scenes where it soars through the sky.

Quite often, it’s the little details that make the film. One of the best comes near the end where, with Vermithrax lying not just dead but partly exploded on the ground, King Cariodorus turns up to stab it with a sword, and thus be proclaimed dragonslayer. This is a world, you can’t help feeling, where although the most obvious evil (the dragon itself) has been dealt with, the background of petty human evils will remain. Our heroes have to set off for another land in search of their happily-ever-after.

And it’s one of the film’s plus points that Valeria and Galen share the hero’s role. Galen may be the one who wields the spear “Dragonslayer”, but Valeria is just as heroic, venturing into the monster’s lair to gather scales to make a fireproof shield, and, most surprising of all, not ending up having to be saved by her male counterpart at any point.

In contrast to the film’s dragons and sorcery, there’s a more historically authentic-seeming Christianity creeping into this post-Roman world via wandering holy men. Dragons and sorcerers are dying out, and Christianity is taking the place of the villagers’ superstitions. This actually seems to put the film’s Christianity in a rather odd light. Just as Casiodorus is going to make sure he goes down in history (which is written not by the heroes, but those in power) as the slayer of Vermithrax, Christianity is, rather by default, going to assume the same role in the eyes of the peasantry. They seem happier to believe it was God who slew the dragon, despite the earlier scene where a holy man (played by Ian McDiarmid, looking surprisingly young considering he would soon be the aged Emperor in Return of the Jedi), taking Vermithrax for Satan, tries the usual “get thee behind me” lines, and ends up being roasted alive. But by the end, the magic has left this world — not with the feeling of poetic loss you get from the departure of Tolkien’s elves, but, rather, like the exhaustion of an old-world magic the new world has no room for.

It’s the departures from what you’d expect of a heroic fantasy film that make Dragonslayer what it is. But it could well be these very departures that mean it’s not as appreciated as it ought to be. People no doubt expect a film called Dragonslayer to be a heroic tale in which some guy slays dragons. It is that. But it’s also so much more.