Friday, November 03, 2006

Fritz Lieber - the Shakespeare of fantasy fiction?

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One of the fantastic Jeff Jones covers.

I decided to go back and (oce again) re-read some of the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories to familiarize myself with the characters before setting off to illustrate them. The books are actually collections of short stories (except for Swords Against Lankhmar, which is a full length novel) that were originally written for pulp magazines.... some of the same ones that published stories by Robert E Howard and Lovecraft. In fact, though Lieber began his writing career pretty much at the time Lovecraft was ending his, they struck up a correspondence that lasted many years (begun by Lieber's wife who knew how much he like Lovecraf'ts stories and just wrote to him out of the blue). I learned this and much more over the last couple of days through extensive research (thanks Google!). I also just ordered a book of their correspondence and some of Lieber's Lovecraftian stories, which I'm looking forward to immensely. Following are a few more choice tidbits of Lieber lore:

The characters Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser were actually based on himself and his friend author Harry Otto Fischer, who wrote 10,000 words of The Lords of Quarmall (which was possibly the first written of the tales? Not sure). The rest was penned by Lieber. I haven't been able to determine which author inspired which character (I thought a peek at them would help me figure out what the Mouser should look like) and I haven't found a pic of Fischer yet, but I did find one tiny image of Lieber as a very old man (looking a bit like Tolkien). He seems even at that advanced age to be a pretty large fellow, so I'm thinking Fafhrd. In fact, I suspect it's true from the handling of them in the stories... Fafhrd is more sympathetically presented and more fully developed.

The first pair of stories chronologically (according to the fictional timeline, not when they were written) is a solo Fafhrd tale, about his life amid the frozen northern wilderness and the small community there, and the second is the Mouser's intro, and in the third story they meet and forge a lifelong bond. Fafhrd's intro is some of the most excellent fiction I've ever read (and I don't say that lightly). Lieber's prose is lyrical and almost poetic, if sometimes a bit flowery, but in a playful inventive way that I find amusing and powerfully imaginative at the same time. That's why I compare him to Shakespeare..... none of the other author's I've read (and that's quite a few) can weave a sentence as inventive, as delightful, and as descriptive as he can. In my web research I ran across countless similar sentiments posted by some of his admiring fans.

I remember some time ago when I was really into watching classic black and white films on TCM (not that I'm not still into that) I was dumbstruck by the beautiful imagery of Charles Laughton's Hunchback of Notre Dame, and also thunderstruck to see the name Fritz Lieber in the credits! Turns out it's his dad. The old coot was a silent film star and Shakespearian stage actor. That might explain a few things.

What really smacked me between the eyes this go-around is the sheer storytelling skill! I was aware when I read the stories in my younger days that there were things going on that I was unaware of, compelling powerful things that made me keep coming back for more and made it impossible to close the book, but I didn't know what it was. Now it's clear as day to me.... it's good old simple straightforward storytelling! I was in awe seeing how deftly he weaves things together - example:

Fafhrd's mother is the leader of the Snow Women, who are all rumored to have witchy control over elements of cold and to use it to keep their men in line. At certain key moments some of the men would suddenly become subject to an icy chill in the blood, or in the loins. The Show has just come to town, a sort of traveling burlesque act from the decadent southern cities featuring half naked (or in some instances stark naked) girls (characterized as "scrawny" by the Nordic women). All the men are going to the show, and all the women are up in arms about it, gathered in one big tent from which issue flickering candlelight, occasional flashes of strange colored light, odd smells, and a constant low murmering chanting sound. It's become unseasonably cold, and just keeps getting colder, as ice crystals of unnatural size begin to form over every surface, but especially the hide covering of the tent housing The Show, which creaks and bulges inward under the unaccustomed and ever-increasing weight. Each segment of the story alludes at some point to the ice crystals, always reminding the reader of that growing threat. And as the story progresses, the landscape itself seems to gradually transform, becoming an icy hell making the mere act of walking treacherous and dangerous. Each time Fafhrd tries to accomplish something he's thwarted (or almost thwarted) by huge heaps of snow falling from unseen branches high overhead, or by an avalanche at one point, and toward the end of the story monstrous ice appartitions, like titanic statues begin to take form, moaning and creaking in the wind, which makes them sway almost as if they're about to break free and step forward. Or simply fall forward, crushing him under their sheer weight. It's masterul writing.... each time he alludes to the growing threat of the ice, it reminds the reader of the women chanting away in their tent, maybe or maybe not actually controlling the weather. It creates a sense of the menace constantly growing throughout the story, and ties "magic" (which in his world might exist, or might be just superstitious dread strained to the breaking point by odd circumstances) in with real human motivations (jealousy etc). It gives a human element to stories that in other hands would be inhuman.

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